This lunchtime, I wandered over to the opulent splendor of the Royal Society for one of their free lunchtime lectures. They are usually presented by someone who is coincidentally just about to release a new book – and today was no exception, although the book wont be out until the end of the year, so we were spared too much of a sales pitch.

The subject was Domesticating Electricity – and was given by Prof. Graeme Gooday of the University of Leeds.

The subject was an interesting one as it was less to do with the history and politics of the emergence of electricity in the home – but more how it was “tamed” and became acceptable for use. The politics of how the gas companies fought hard to block the spread of the electric light bulb is a fascinating one in its own right – but this was not today’s topic.

The main concern, once you got over the fear of using something as little understood as the electric lamp – was that early lighting was just not very decorative. People were used to a soft yellow light from the gas lamps, and when electric lights were introduced – they were just too harsh and bright, and the ladies of the house tended to dislike them intensely.

As electricity was still quite expensive, it was only the richest homes which could have them – and to show off their extravagance, many houses would have loads of lights – which flooded the seating areas with a harsh and unforgiving glare. Any lady of a certain age would be most unwilling to sit in such a glare lest it illuminate how the passing of the years had diminished her beauty. To make matters worse, due to the cost, the man of the house was rarely willing to allow the use of lamp shades as it dimmed the costly lighting.

The speaker, Prof Gooday had a lot of amusing anecdotes to share on this topic – and I wont repeat them all here as there will be a podcast made available on the Royal Society website shortly, which I really would recommend listening to (and that is a rare recommendation from me!), as it is only about 40 minutes long and you don’t really need to see the slides as he hardly showed anything he did not verbally describe.

I took a few notes of some of the snippets which interested me for future research.

One thing which was interesting in the Q&A session is how the worries a century ago about the unpleasant quality of the lighting are coming back again as society moves towards low-energy lighting. The light quality given off by low energy bulbs is deemed by quite a few people in the room to be unpleasant, and indeed one lady there said she was stockpiling incandescent light bulbs in case she is no longer able to buy any.

I am in two minds on this – as I do agree that low-energy bulbs are undeniably different from incandescents, but I am saving a fortune in electricity and replacement costs by using them (the old bulbs never lasted more than 9 months in my flat) – but I then use strategic quality lighting elsewhere. That seems to me to be the best of both worlds.

There is a list of forthcoming lectures on the Royal Society website.

It surprises me how many free lunchtime events like this go on around town – and you can probably find something of interest almost every few weeks somewhere in central London, once you build up a big enough log of mailing lists. I shall try to set up some sort of calendar as I am now on a fair number of mailing lists and getting to see just how much is out there – and most of it completely free of charge.

I doubt many employers are going to squeal too loudly about someone wanting a long lunch break every few weeks – after all most of us work late at night at times when the need arises.


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One comment
  1. Graeme Gooday says:

    Thanks for the kind words – very good to know the message came across so clearly! I could tell you that the book is now out at last, but I wouldn’t want to press the point. best wishes Graeme

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