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  • CHREM:2013.5 : steam engineCEM_0037.jpg

    Local power

    Bellis and Morcom's steam engine is a great example of how electricity was made in a small local power station in 1913. It is a steam engine linked to a dynamo. Its power source was coal, burnt in steam boilers. This tried and trusted technology based on pistons was known as a reciprocating steam engine. By the time this engine was built its technical principles had been continuously worked on and improved for nearly 100 years. However, they turned out not to be ideal for making electricity. Piston engines were not very suitable for running for long periods at the high speeds which electricity generation needed. They preferred to run slowly. Fast piston engines needed a lot of attention and constant oiling of the moving parts. By the 1930s, engines like this were being replaced by more efficient steam turbines in ever-larger central power stations. Generating sets like this sometimes survived for standby duty in emergencies for a few years longer.

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    Don't get fried!

    Repairs sometimes have to be done on vital parts of the electricity grid at times when it cannot be switched off. To do this, electrical engineers can work suspended in the air using live cables for support. They can safely touch live conductors because they are not earthed. The electricity has no way to make a circuit which would otherwise kill them instantly. The engineers take great care. They wear protective equipment because they are in the presence of strong electromagnetic fields. This specialist suit, made around 1970, uses fireproof fabric interwoven with metal threads. It creates a Faraday cage around the user. This enables him or her to work on live systems with greater safety, protecting the user from electromagnetic fields (EMF). It ensures that any stray currents pass through the suit and not through his body.

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    Our own goddess

    Our statue of Phoebe from the original Bankside Power station symbolises brightness and intellect. The goddess of the moon, this statue was made in 1880 for the station. The site is now the Tate Modern.

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    Drive electric

    Electric cars have been around for a long time. This Enfield electric car was made in 1976, as part of a trial to promote the idea. It was perhaps ahead of its time, because electric cars are making a comeback today as oil gets more expensive and pollution problems are even more serious.

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    Swinging Sixties

    Britain finally fell in love with modernism in the Sixties. Unlike many of its predecessors, this electric fire doesn't pretend to be a coal fire. Instead, its geometric modern design proclaimed that the future had arrived - in your living room.

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    Space Age cleaning

    Launched in 1956, the Hoover Constellation was one of the most unusual and stylish vacuums ever made. Floating on a cushion of air like a hovercraft, its style references the space and atomic age.

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    Art Deco style

    In the 1930s, streamlined and geometric Art Deco reached the UK from France and the USA. This Belling fire would have been the height of fashion. Available on easy terms from your local electricity showroom.

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    Up your street

    As electricity networks were built in Britain's crowded cities, by around 1910 the problem of where to put transformer boxes began to make itself felt. One solution was to use attractive cast-iron transformer boxes like such as this fine example. However these were expensive and quickly became too small, so only a few survive.

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    Cosy toes to bomb disposal

    Electric bed warmers were popular during the 1930s. When war broke out, production stopped - but then this Belling model was cleverly reinvented by using the outer case pressings as part of an incendiary bomb disposal tool.

    CHREM:2013.280 : teasmadeCEM_2944.jpg

    Tea made by Goblins?

    In the cold houses of 1950s Britain, the prospect of a machine that could make tea automatically whilst its owner stayed warm in bed was greeted with enthusiasm. Adding features such as an alarm clock and bedside light only added to its appeal. This Goblin teasmade with its distinctive styling was a popular model.

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    Making ironing easier

    Once a 1930s home got electricity, after lighting, what most people wanted next was an electric iron. Compared to the drudgery of heating flat irons on a coal fire, the electric iron must have seemed almost effortless. This Hoover model of about 1950 was especially luxurious.

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    Social climbing

    The hostess trolley became a symbol of aspirational middle-class life in the 1970s. This early model, probably from the 1960s, offered hot cupboard features to make suburban dinner parties go with a swing.

    CHREM:2013.407 : electric cableCEM_3301.jpg

    Early DIY

    Before the invention of PVC plastic insulated cable in the 1960s, most home wiring was protected by steel conduit. This was tricky, slow and expensive to fit: so householders who wanted to make small alterations to their sockets or lights could buy lead covered cable to do the job. Lead was the best choice for a strong, flexible and durable material before soft plastics became widespread.

    CHREM:2013.429 : call boardCEM_5217.jpg

    Call the servants

    For many people, their first encounter of electricity was the electric bell which began to replace elaborate mechanical systems for calling servants by about 1900. Powered by batteries, they were convenient and effective. They can still be seen in some large houses.

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    Creature comforts

    SSE's predecessor Southern Electric contributed to the memorable 'Creature Comforts' TV advertisement campaign in 1990. The series was made by Wallace and Gromit studio, Aardman Animations. It won many awards.

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    Measuring and testing

    The electricity industry uses many kinds of meters to ensure that installations are safe and reliable, keeping people safe from harm. One of the most popular multi-meters of the 20th century was the standard AVO. Almost everyone who worked on the network as an engineer from the 1940s to the 1970s would have a meter like this.

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    Make do and mend

    New electrical appliances were almost impossible to buy during the Second World War. So a father on the south coast made this fire for his family's air raid shelter. He used scrap aluminium from an aircraft repair job combined with a spare element to built this home-made piece of ingenuity.