This week in 1899

In March 1899, The Engineer reported on the progress of the ‘generating station of the City of London Electric Lighting Company at Bankside’, where the Tate Modern art gallery now resides. Completed in 1891, it was at the time ‘said to be the largest establishment of its kind in the world’.

The report said: ‘There are now the equivalent of no less than 366,000 eight-candle power lamps connected to the mains and requests to connect 10,000 more have been received. As the station only supplies to substations, the switchboards are comparatively few in number for such a tremendous power ― a power which on the top of highest load reaches very nearly 16,000 horse power.’

“Many said there was no chance of such a scheme being successful”

The article contains some uniquely candid opinions on the business case for generating infrastructure and perhaps some valuable lessons in long-term thinking when it comes to building future low-carbon energy capacity.

‘Before the starting of the original company, there were many who said that there was no chance of such a scheme turning out successfully, and the prospects of a reasonable return on capital did not justify a large expenditure. They were wrong. The very same people would now own that they had been wrong, having regard to the growth of this undertaking, and to the fact that the shares in it stand at some 100 per cent premium.’

It added: ‘A day load is, and always has been, a desideratum to which every electric lighting engineer turns with longing. The heavy cost entailed by having a large plant comparatively idle during, at all events, 20 hours out of the 24, prevents the plant earning anything like what it might. The idea of selling current for power purposes during the hours of daylight is by no means new… but some manufacturers have fought shy of electricity, and moreover the alternating current motor.’