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The first use of electricity in Glasgow was for electric lighting, the newly opened (1879) St Enoch's Station was lit by six arc lamps. A similar installation was put in Queen St Station the next year. In each case, the supply was generated specifically for the stations. The first electric street light was a fizzy arc lamp outside the Glasgow Herald building.

Cooper and Co in Sauchiehall street, was the first shop to install electric lights on the premises. The owner, Thomas G. Bishop, had a love of new ideas - as well as lighting his stores, he also installed a field telegraph to allow direct communication between his three Glasgow stores in Howard Street, Sauchiehall Street and the Great Western Road, and was the first to use motor cars for shop deliveries.

In 1893, electric street lighting was established in Glasgow. A central power station had been built in 1892 in Waterloo Street and earlier stations were now closed down, by the end of February 1893 around 112 arc lamps lit Sauchiehall Street, Renfield Street, Union Street, Jamaica Street, Argyle Street and Trongate. Buchanan Street and George Square were also lit by electricity. By 1895 there were 20,000 public lamps in operation.

Domestic lighting, however, was very slow in coming. in 1896 there were 855 consumers, and in 1901 there were only 3000 domestic consumers of electricity for lighting.

In the years, which followed, new power stations were rapidly built. After around 1912, a new regulation supply standard of 240V was adopted.

By the 1930s there were some 145,000 domestic electricity consumers in Glasgow, and by 1948, when the British Electricity Authority took over the electricity supply, this had increased to over 240,000.

The Merits of AC and DC Electricity: a war of currents

The development of the electric generator, in which current is induced in a coil of wire by a changing magnetic field, made large scale production of electrical power possible.

Electric generators can be designed to produce direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC). DC involves current flowing continually in one direction, whereas AC involves current reversing direction with a regular frequency.

One of the first commercial uses for electricity was to light up homes and offices. When it comes to lighting up a light bulb, it doesn’t matter whether you use AC or DC; the lamp simply doesn’t care which way the current flows, it’ll light up just the same. 

The inventor who perfected the light bulb was Thomas Alva Edison. He wanted to sell a lot of his lamps, so he had to generate the electricity needed to power them. Edison eventually lit up lower Manhattan after installing the world’s first commercial power station in 1882. Crucially, he chose to use the DC system.

As the use of electricity spread, the DC system proved to be inefficient for transmitting power to lamps that were a long distance away from the power station. Because of their electrical resistance, the long cables converted so much of the electricity they were transmitting into heat that by the time it got to the lamps they only glowed very dimly!

The only way that the DC system could get over the problem of all the lost power in the cables would be by installing thicker cables or building more power stations closer together, both of which would be very expensive to do.

There was another alternative however, the inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse realised that using an AC system instead would greatly reduce the loss of electrical power in the cables, making transmitting electricity over long distances much more efficient.

Westinghouse made AC generation possible in 1885 after buying the rights to Nikola Tesla’s system of AC generators and transformers. The transformers are at the heart of the solution to the power loss problem. They only work on AC, but they have the ability to ‘step-up’ the voltage on the transmission cables. Stepping-up the voltage simultaneously steps-down the current in the cables, by conservation of energy, which reduces the resistance in the cables, therefore the amount of electricity which gets lost as heat also reduces.

However, Edison had invested a lot of money in his DC system and wasn’t happy with the rival Tesla-Westinghouse AC system. He stood against a change to the new system and a titanic struggle ensued for which system would become the norm.

Edison immediately set out to discredit AC power by claiming it was a danger to human life. To support his argument he introduced his rival Westinghouse’s standard AC generator as the official means of executing death sentences in the state of New York. Electrodes were attached to the head and leg of a convicted murderer, William Kemmler, which allowed AC to flow through his body.  It took two applications of the AC to kill Kemmler; the first knocked him unconscious, the second was so severe that blood vessels under his skin ruptured and bled and his body caught fire. It took over 8 minutes to kill Kemmler using AC, Westinghouse later made comment on this saying “they would have done better using an axe”. After this first usage in 1890, the electric chair went on to be used to execute criminals in 24 states across America.

To reinforce the alleged danger of AC, Edison arranged the execution of a rogue circus elephant, named Topsy that had killed its keepers. After giving the poor creature a hefty dose of cyanide, Edison fitted it with copper ‘shoes’ which he attached to a Westinghouse AC generator. It took many applications of the AC before the elephant died, but how much the cyanide accounted towards its death was never told.

Not to stop at elephants, Edison allegedly paid children 25 cents for each dog or cat they could bring him, and he would then electrocute the animals in front of crowds of people to demonstrate the ‘danger’ of AC electricity and to gather opposition against Westinghouse’s AC system.

In spite of Edison’s attempts to discredit him, Westinghouse was commissioned to light the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. This led to him winning the contract to install the first electrical power machinery at Niagara Falls, which bore Tesla’s name and patent numbers. The project was supplying power to the City of Buffalo by 1896.

Since then AC has become the standard method of transmitting electricity all over the world.

Postscript regarding Nikola Tesla:

•Tesla was the first to visualise the principle of the rotating magnetic field, the basis of AC machinery

•To try and calm fears about the danger of AC, Tesla gave exhibitions in his lab in which he lit lamps without wires by allowing AC to flow through his body.

•In 1899, Tesla discovered that, by inducing electrical standing waves in the Earth, he could transmit electrical power without wires! He lit 200 lamps at a distance of 25 miles from the AC power source by this method.

•Tesla was also an eccentric. He claimed to have received electrical signals from another planet, that he could split the Earth in two like an apple, and that he had invented a Death Ray capable of destroying 10,000 aeroplanes at a distance of 250 miles.


Location: Glasgow

Erected: 1879

See also:

Lighting in Glasgow

Post Office

Queen Street Station

Edison’s video of the execution:

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