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Let there be light: Early electricity and the birth of modern luxury living

It was an age when technology pioneers were making their mark on all aspects of life. These were not the innovators who stood on the shoulders of giants (to paraphrase Newton) – these were giants themselves.

The home of one such giant is Cragside, just on the edge of the Northumberland National Park. Here, William Armstrong built a house – unsurprisingly on the edge of a crag – described in 1880 as the 'palace of the modern magician'.

There were many reasons why he and his house earned this accolade, but one enduring reason was that it was the first house to be lit by hydroelectricity. In 1880, making light from water was a truly remarkable feat, not least because lighting in those days came from gas or oil lamps, candles or electric arc lights, which were rarely used indoors as they were noisy, smelly and dangerous.

The incandescent bulb had been demonstrated only a year before by Joseph Swan, who received his UK patent in 1879; several months before Edison's on the other side of the Atlantic. Legal teams subsequently resolved that both men had invented the incandescent light bulb independently and concurrently and, while most people's instinct might be that Edison invented the light bulb – and he certainly was the one who made most money out of it – those in the North East remain committed to their man's claims. Swan, dubbed 'the quiet man of science' also developed what became modern photographic processes.

Armstrong installed Swan's light bulbs at Cragside – the first time they had been used in any building other than Swan's own house – at more or less at the same time as Edison filed his US patent. What made the installation at Cragside more remarkable was that the electricity supply came from the world's first hydroelectric power station, which Armstrong had built to supply arc lights in his house.

Birth of hydroelectricity
Armstrong's passion was water. Despite being shoehorned into a career as a solicitor – a respectable profession in those days – his real calling was the less respectable profession of engineering.
During a Yorkshire holiday in 1835, Armstrong was reported to be trout fishing in a quarry, watching a water wheel that he estimated was only achieving 5% of its potential power. He returned to his job but spent his evenings in a Newcastle factory developing an efficient, enclosed water wheel, which he patented in 1838 as the rotary hydraulic engine.

Shortly afterwards, Armstrong was called to a colliery to investigate miners getting electric shocks from a steam jet and later used that phenomenon, which came to be known as the Armstrong Effect, in his hydroelectric machine. As a consequence, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846.

Although fascinated by electricity, Armstrong put it and his legal career aside to set up a factory in Newcastle to manufacture hydraulic cranes and accumulators. These were shipped around the world and made Armstrong his first fortune. His second fortune followed with his armament factory that included the Armstrong rifled breech loading guns that played a significant role in the Empire building days of Victorian Britain. Other interests included bridge building, starting with the Tyne swing bridge, and later the hydraulic lifting equipment in Tower Bridge.

In the meantime, Armstrong built a relatively modest lodge at Cragside in 1864. Five years later, when the railway network extended to the nearby village of Rothbury, he extended it to a 100 room house that was to be his home and from which he could conveniently travel to his factories in Newcastle.

Although still the creative force behind his Newcastle businesses, Armstrong's interests were leaning again towards the possibilities of hydroelectricity, influenced presumably by friends from such bodies as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Society. These friends included William Siemens, William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin), Michael Faraday and Joseph Swan, and there was much debate among them about alternative sources of energy like solar, hydro, wind and tidal power.

By 1878, Armstrong had used a 6hp turbine and a Siemens dynamo at a waterfall in the Debdon Burn to create hydroelectric power. This was transmitted along a 1320m Birmingham No1 gauge copper wire to Cragside, where it was used to power a series of arc lights in the picture gallery. Andrew Sawyer, curator at Cragside (now in the hands of the National Trust), commented: "There are debates about this, but there is no evidence that anyone else, on any scale, generated hydroelectricity before this anywhere in the world."

The dynamo, from Siemens, was a series wound bipolar horizontal dynamo with drum armature and a single magnetic circuit. Electricity generated from it was transmitted via a joiner's shop so that it could be used to power a sawing machine during the day when lighting in the house was not required.

In 1880, Armstrong introduced Swan's light bulbs, with 45 of them replacing the arc lamps in the gallery. In a letter to The Engineer in 1881, describing his hydroelectric system and use of incandescent light bulbs, Armstrong said 6hp was sufficient to light 37 lamps (the maximum he needed at any one time), despite the 2.6km circuit. He claimed the gallery illumination allowed the pictures to be 'seen as distinctly as in daylight.' In comparison to the arc lights, he noted: "The light produced by incandescence is free from all the disagreeable attributes of the arc light. It is perfectly steady and noiseless. It is free from harsh glare and dark shadows. It casts no ghastly hue on the countenance and shows everything in true colours. Nothing can be better than this light for domestic use."

Armstrong realised that lamp life time would be affected by the power applied, but rather than trying to regulate the supply to match the number of bulbs being used, he introduced resistance coils that effectively matched the load of a lamp. He admitted this technique was wasteful of power, but noted: "I can afford to waste that which costs nothing and is always sufficient in quantity. If steam or gas engines were employed, the case would be different."

Each bulb had the lighting capability of one 'duplex kerosene lamp well turned up', which he estimated to be about the same as 25 candles, so with a load of 37 lamps the system produced light equivalent to 925 candles.

Soon, the system was extended to 92 lamps and demand for electricity was exceeding the capacity of the Debdon Burn power house. Consequently, the Burnfoot Power House was built and first supplied electricity to the house in 1886.

This was quite an engineering project. A burn out on the moors was dammed and a clay pipe bought water from there to Cragside. Water was fed from the pipe to a wooden flume, which fed two lakes, made by building two U-shaped dams out of the side of the hill. Lake water was fed into a cast iron pipe and taken 103m downhill to the power house.

Now equipped with a Gilkes turbine and Crompton generator, the power plant could supply 24hp (17.9kW). The dynamo was rated at 90A and 110V. Given that this was direct current and that transmission losses were significant, Burnfoot had been built much closer to the house. The power house was permanently manned by 'the caretaker of the electric light' and there was a separate warm and dry control room, which housed the switchboards and solenoids.

The control room was in contact with the Butler's pantry at Cragside via telephone. An early adopter, Armstrong had a telephone system from 1880 which ran throughout the estate – he could phone from his hunting lodge let the staff know when to bring him his picnic. Sawyer added: "He also used it extensively in Newcastle – he had the most private lines of anybody in Newcastle at the time. He saw it as a great way of communicating with all of his managers, direct to their houses, and to his friends."

The 1890s were dry years and Armstrong's free and limitless power source did require rainfall. So, in 1895, he added a gas turbine to the power house, as well as a bank of batteries to store unused energy and smooth supply. Site engineer Robin White commented: "Batteries were 2V cells, so they probably had 56 in a bank to make 110V. They were lead acid batteries, so it would have been a pretty noxious atmosphere. Batteries were in their infancy at the time, although they had been around for a year or two by the time of their installation at Cragside."

There was, of course, no guidance about how to use electricity at this stage, so Armstrong had to teach himself through trial and error. Sawyer said: "At the end of the day, this was his playhouse – if it didn't work. he would try something else. He was just playing and some things worked, some didn't." There was, for example, no such thing as a standard electric switch, so Armstrong used a method of lowering electrodes into a mercury bath to connect and disconnect the lamps.

While lighting was clearly the 'killer app' for electricity at Cragside, Armstrong did find other uses, including electric dinner gongs and fire alarms, while the servants' bells became buzzers.
Beyond 'light from water', Armstrong had used his skills with water to introduce other luxuries at Cragside. There was hot water and under floor central heating, a Turkish bath and hot shower, a hydraulically power lift, a rotating spit in front of the kitchen fire; it is easy to see why Cragside earned its tag as the 'palace of the modern magician'.

Excerpt from The Graphic, April 1881
"Mr Swan's lamp is exceedingly simple. It consists merely of a bulb of glass about three inches in diameter. Containing a thin carbon conductor supported by two platinum wires, which, where they pass out of the bulb, are hermetically sealed into its wall by fusion of the glass around the wires. The air contained in the bulb is thoroughly exhausted. The chief peculiarity of this lamp is the wonderfully thin and elastic filament of carbon, as thin as a hair, and almost as hard and springy as a steel wire."

The spirit of Armstrong
"Every property in the National Trust has its own spirit and we try and conserve that spirit," said Andrew Sawyer. "Our spirit was invention and innovation, through Lord Armstrong and his friends, and we want to carry on with that story."

He was speaking at the unveiling of the new Cragside hydroelectric system. Based on Archimedean screw hydropower, the rotational energy of the 17m long 1.6m diameter screw drives an electrical generator. Electricity goes straight to the house to power the lights. The house is fitted entirely with around 350 LEDs, each of which consumes 5W, so it only takes 2kW to light the house.

Sawyer added: "We have a phrase here; we like to give visitors an 'Armstrong moment' – to have the same moment as he had; to stand in the library and see those cloisonné lamps being lit by water power just as he did. How we do that is different, how we interpret that is different, but it is essentially the same story told in a different way. It is an interpretation, rather than a restoration."

Tim Fryer

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