Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Electric Santayana II: Douce Gigawatt

So let's talk about a time when a government facing a "business slump" launched a  major infrastructural project, and it turned out well.

Our idea of the Nineteenth Century is the Gaslit Age, so it is amazing in retrospect that the gaslight was only fully tamed for indoor use with the development of mantles in the 1880s. By the time that Welsbach's first white light mantle was in production, Thomas Swan had been installing his lightbulbs around the U.K. for more than a decade.
By 1890, electrical lighting was making specialised inroads against gas. And by specialised, Hannah Leslie, the great historian of the industry means "indoor lighting." The typical British electrical power station had 8 machines of about 0.1 MW (134hp), all reciprocating steam engines running local DC supply grids. That's a whole lot of obsolete technology all wrapped up together, but these little plants burning slack coal on the canal side were still enough to light as many as 26,000 Swan lamps (ie. "lightbulbs") each. Let's put our expectations in the ol' time machine and send them back to 1890. That's what a big deal in electricity looks like in 1890. For those of our expectations with some engineering background, I'll note that this was at 10lbs/coal per kWh. 

with AC distribution, turbines instead of pistons, and better cables, there was almost unlimited room for expansion. Overall sales rose from 40 Gwh in 1895 to 1400 in 1910, the year that industrial power demand overtook illumination. In the course of WWI, the existing generating plant was put to new uses, run at overload and without maintenance, and been a boon to war production generally. What didn't happen was significant investment in new generating plant, something that greatly concerned the business-background technocrats that Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George brought into government to wage the war. Which is why Eric Geddes proposed a technocratic, top-down solution to the problems of the electrical supply industry problems in 1919, which got run out of Parliament.

Why? Because "socialism" versus "free enterprise." And also because David Lloyd George was a bit of a dick. (Geddes, by all accounts, was a lot of a dick, but not in a bad way when you need to get things done, whereas Lloyd George's dickishness tended to get in the way of his schemes in the long run.) Anyway, this set up the new Labour Government to take a new look at the problem in 1925. "Socialism? We're all over that!" Interestingly enough, the young Labour MP most involved actually had abackground in the electrical supply business --one Clement Atlee. More big names: as already noted, the guy they put in charge of thew new look investigation was another of Lloyd George's "men of push and go," but of an even higher calibre than Geddes, William Weir. 

And here the story out to end, you'd think, because the first Labour Ministry was shortlived, and Weir reported to a huge new Conservative majority in March of 1926. Weir himself was an industrialist. The MP that pushed himself forward as the Conservative spokesmen on matters electrical-supply related, George Balfour, was building his own private grid in the north of Scotland to power an aluminum plant, and was convinced that socialistic central planning would just hobble the industry. It's not as though the ultimate outcome of the Weir scheme, a national supply grid, was visualised at the outset. The Weir idea was, in fact, just to link up 140 main "flagship" generating plants with a system of high-voltage main lines to allow interregional, coordinated, electricity markets for a standardised product (50Hz AC). The fact that all the regions of the UK (except northern Scotland) were to be integrated meant, in effect, that this would be the infrastructure of a national grid, but a lot of engineering problems would have to be solved first.  A government that wouldn't even let the Royal Airship Factory build a zeppelin without commissioning a private-sector rival was not going to go for something so Bolshevik ...was it?

And then Clement Atlee received a visit from a similarly junior MP opposite. And not just any MP, because while the future Baron Brabazon was a man of the technocratic future, no-one could call him wet, as his favoured political party of the 1930s would suggest. And yet here he was going behind Balfour's back to push the Weir scheme through Parliament.

The substantive consequences are clear enough. The scheme was completed, on time and on budget, by the end of 1930. A perhaps over-optimistic estimate was that building the grid created 120,000 jobs directly and indirectly, more than all the other government make-work schemes of the 1920s put together. The National Grid came into operation late in 1938. Meanwhile, on the generation side, the development of those 140 flagship generating plants galvanised a great deal of the 750 million pound investment into the British electrical engineering industry in the interwar decades that made it the leading sector of Britain's leading industry [Hannah, 148]. There was the development of the larger part of Scotland's hydroelectric potential. 

And the failure to develop adequate new generating capacity to cope with runaway demand during rearmament and World War II underlined the timeliness of it all. Why not build these things when aggregate demand is slack? In retrospect, the biggest mistake was the failure to invest in several new generating schemes, including coal-burning plants in Ebbw Vale, a tidal project in the Severn estuary, and more dams in Scotland. More generating plant, built when private sector investment was at a low ebb, would have paid off in spades during World War II. (So would have the new port on the Severn that was part of the tidal power scheme.) The timing was not completely perfect. In retrospect, building ought to have peaked during the 1931 crisis instead of the year before, but that would have taken a neat bit of prophesy back in the spring of 1926.

And speaking of prophesy, I have not answered the reason "why." What was the meaning of this amazing outbreak of bipartisanship, with Conservatives implementing electrical supply "socialism?" The instrumental answer is that by the summer of 1926, the Weir scheme was hugely popular. The Daily Mail, the 1920s' version of Fox News, supported it! What's going on here? It would seem that the key motivator was --fears of British decline. The year was replete with warnings, complete with bogus statistics, that various countries ranging from America to Germany to Shanghai and Belgium were all more electrified than Britain, which was clearly declining in all directions everywhere. "On dune and headland sink the pyres," and all that. 

I'm not usually much of a friend to declinism. I find it a frightening example of the way that metaphor becomes argument. But this time it seems to have been a powerful motivator for a valuable public initiative in infrastructural development. Or maybe we can put it all down to Tutmania. It turns that electrical pylons are named after Egyptian temple architectural elements, because that was the cool thing that the kids were down with in the late '20s. (Hannah, 118.)

I did not know that.

Edit: who's got time to edit blog posts? Thing is, though, I kind of buried the lede here.


  1. Nice one Erik: I've always wanted to know more about the politics and impact of electrification in the UK. I like the blog and the only reason I've not commented on it before is that, like the kid in the joke, "Up to now, everything's been alright."

  2. Thanks, Chris. I originally meant to produce a meatier posting with something out of Engineering and The Engineer, but my enthusiasm flagged, and anyway there was more than enough to say out of just a summary of Leslie.