‘It is often said that we do not know what electricity is and there is a considerable amount of truth in the statement. It is not so true, however, as it was twenty years ago.’ So said Oliver Lodge FRS in his ‘Modern views of electricity’ (1892), a year after the Royal Society Soirées about which I plan to enlighten you in this post.

Herbert Rix, Assistant Secretary, observed in a letter to Messrs Drake & Gorham, electrical contractors to the Royal Society (NLB/5/270), that the 1891 Soirées seemed to have an unusually large number of electrical exhibits – a fact which caused some concern and fevered back-and-forth to confirm that they had the necessary supply to allow all exhibits to function successfully.

The approach of the Royal Society, its Fellows and Soirée exhibitors to developments in electricity and related advancements provides a fascinating insight into how the subject was viewed during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Rix’s statement to Silvanus P Thompson five years later that ‘No one on the premises knows anything of electrical science’ (NLB/12/312) casts light on the worries of those not actively engaged in electrical experimentation.

It is worth mentioning the peculiarities (to the modern mind) of the electrical setup at the Society’s home in Burlington House around 1891. As was the norm in the early days of electrical power, a dynamo was the means by which electricity was generated for use in the building. Financial savings were made by sharing an engine-powered dynamo with the neighbouring Society of Antiquaries, and the New Letter Books are peppered with enquiries about the dynamo’s upkeep, the difficulties of ensuring that the engine was only operated at appropriate times of day, claims of excessive use of electricity by the Antiquaries, and, in one instance, despair over the fact that the worker employed to operate the engine was found to be sleeping on the job! (NLB/2/437)

Although we don’t know details of the particular model of dynamo used, Thompson, in his illustrated ‘Dynamo-electric machinery’ (1888), provides us with a visual and descriptive run through the huge variety of different dynamos which had been developed, including this image of Edison’s giant ‘steam dynamo’:


Edison’s ‘steam dynamo’, from Silvanus P Thompson’s ‘Dynamo-electric machinery’ (3rd ed., 1888)


But now to proceed to the electrical highlights of the principal 1891 Soirée, held in May, which included an influence electrical machine by James Wimshurst. Speaking about the machine in 1888, Wimshurst had enthusiastically described the process of moving the handle slowly ‘so that you may see when the excitement commences … the discs of the electroscope violently separate … the beautiful appearances of the discharge, then the length of sparks …’ Indeed, it was via the construction of a particularly large Wimshurst machine – ten times the size of others available on the market – that Lord Blythswood became aware of what would be later known as X-rays. In 1896, a few months after their official discovery by Wilhelm Röntgen, he made the remarkable claim that his machine had produced X-ray photographs without passing electricity through a partial vacuum.


A Wimshurst machine, 1888 (from Royal Society Tracts X385/2)


Returning to the varied electrical exhibits, as described in the 1891 Soirée programme, you will find that these also included Messrs J E H Gordon & Company with their Tomlinson Regulator for Electric Light Mains; Richard Freres and his self-recording instruments, including an electricity meter and self-recording ammeters and voltmeters; Killingworth Hedges demonstrating an electrical safety valve and ‘exhausted bulbs, used to ascertain the space traversed by high tension alternating currents’; Shelford Bidwell exploring the potential of Selenium Cells, known for their greater electrical conductivity in the light, with his proposals that they might be used to provide an alarm upon the accidental extinction of a ship’s light or railway signal lamp; and finally William Crookes, with his ‘Electricity and High Vacua’ exhibit.


A later Ladies’ Soiree at Burlington House, 1901


The Ladies’ Soirée in June, planned (as was typical) with a more light entertainment bias due to the presumed lack of interest of female guests in serious science, did not have to do without electricity in 1891, as it included a repeat showing of the Wimshurst machine – understandable perhaps given its creator’s belief in the beautiful appearance of its output. Further use of electricity was made in quite a different manner: it was used to illuminate a trough of living fish from the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, exhibited by Professor Raphael Weldon. A sketch of the proposed arrangement in the correspondence (NLB/5/256) shows a box containing very cold water, through which run wires for the lamps which illuminate the glass vessels fitting into holes in the lid of the box; the electric lamps are immersed in the cold water. This arrangement sounds to me to be quite a precarious one, though happily I found no reports of fatalities amongst the Society’s aquatic guests!

These electrical exhibits can also be viewed alongside the burgeoning interest in other recent developments. For instance, another exhibit at the 1891 Ladies’ Soirée was the Edison Loud-Speaking Telephone and Bell’s Receivers, which were displayed by the National Telephone Company and used to play performances of ‘The Gondoliers’ at the Savoy Theatre London and the Prince’s Theatre Birmingham – an early forerunner of the National Theatre’s live cinematic broadcasts perhaps! More prosaically, 1891 was also the fateful year that the Royal Society, after much debate about the correct make and model to choose, purchased a brand new Remington typewriter for their office (NLB/5/1038). The decision to embrace such developments could not be taken lightly …


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