The origins of hydroelectricity

| 6th September 2007
In my pursuit to better understand energy systems, my journey has taken me to Cragside in Northumberland

The bizarre and remarkable home designed by Norman Shaw for the victorian industrialist, scientist, engineer and technical innovator, William George Armstrong (1810-1990). Perched on a crag amidst it's own micro-climate created by seven million trees of Armstrong's planting, it is the first house in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity.

It was while observing a waterwheel in action supplying power to a marble quarry, it struck Armstrong that much of the available power was being wasted. And so, very much in the manner of the Victorians of that time, off he headed to invent, amongst other things, the hydraulic crane - a quayside crane powered by water pressure. So successful was this invention that he resigned from his legal practise, raised the necessary financial backing, built a factory to manufacture cranes and other hydraulic equipment which he went onto sell in enormous quantities throughout the world.

And so there the might story end, but no...
In the spirit of a true entrepreneur, Armstrong diversified, with yet more success, into guns and warships...but I was visiting Cragside to learn more about his interests in renewable energy systems. 150 years ago Armstrong foresaw the energy predicament that we face today. Coal, he opined, 'was used wastefully and extravagantly in all it's applications.' In 1863, he predicted that 'England will cease to be a coal producing country...within 200 years.'

Armstrong believed the future lay in the harnessing the forces of water, wind and sun, but recognised that the uptake of the generation of electricity by renewable power was dependent on the end of the use of fossil fuels. He calculated that "the solar heat operating on one acre [4047m2] in the tropics would ...exert the amazing power of 4000 horses acting for nearly nine hours every day' speculating that the 'direct heating action of the sun's rays' might be used 'in complete substitution for a steam engine.' A man ahead of his time, if alive today he doubtlessly would have been a vocal proponent of CSP.

In a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1870 (of which he was then president), Armstrong predicted the widespread use of hydroelectricity, stating that 'whenever the time comes for harnessing the power of great waterfalls the transmission of power by electricity will become a system of great importance'.

That same year Armstrong created Debdon Lake to use the water running through his estate to supply the world's first hydroelectric power station. This powered various labour-saving devices in his house including a roasting spit, a dishwasher and (a wonderful innovation) a servants lift. Turkish baths were installed as part of the innovative provision of central heating for the house, electricity facilitated the installation of an arc lamp in 1878 and the first of his friend Joseph Swan's incandescent light bulbs were installed in time for christmas 1880.

Armstrong became Britain's largest industrialist and one of the richest men in Europe. He was the first engineer bestowed a Peerage in 1887, finally dying in 1900 at the age of 90. But just as he brought so much light into his life and for others (he was exceptionally happily married to Margaret, herself an accomplished gardener, and a popular and well loved man locally), so it was with his death that the lights began to dim. From such riches, sadly, over the decades, Cragside fell into decline and likewise hydroelectricity fell out of favour.

Once more those lamps are filling Cragside with light. Now gifted to the National Trust, thanks to an extensive renovation programme the house has been completely rewired and reopened earlier this year. The aim is to reconnect the water supply from Nelly Moss Lakes to Armstrong's original Power House and to use a modern generator to provide hydroelectric heating and lighting to the building. Cragside would then be returned full circle to it's original state: a highly efficient self-contained decentralised electric infrastructure, independent and without reliance on our existing centralised electricity system with all it's attendant shortcomings of our current energy crisis.


So too must we look to ways to keep the lights on. Armstrong with his characteristic prescience stated 'As in the vegetable kingdom fit conditions of soil and climate quickly cause the appearance of plants, so in the intellectual world fitness of time and circumstance promptly call forth appropriate devices. The seeds of invention exist, as it were, in the air, ready to germinate whenever suitable conditions arise, and no legislative interference is needed to ensure their growth in proper season.' Let us hope that our current legislation does not prove to be an insurmountable block to the promotion of such renewable energy and decentralised systems.

This article first appeared in Polly Higgins blog The Lazy Environmentalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007

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