In this article I examine the practices of electrical engineering experts, with special reference to their role in the implementation of innovations in late Victorian electrical networks. I focus on the consulting work of two leading figures in the scientific and engineering world of the period, Alexander Kennedy and William Preece. Both were Fellows of the Royal Society and both developed large-scale consulting activities in the emerging electrical industry of light and power. At the core of the study I place the issues of trust and authority, and the bearing of these on the engineering expertise of consultants in late Victorian Britain. I argue that the ascription of expertise to these engineers and the trust placed in their advice were products of power relations on the local scale. The study seeks to unravel both the technical and the social reasons for authoritative patterns of consulting expertise.
Recent historical and sociological work has shown that the notion of ‘expertise’ was, as it still is, far more elusive than it was once thought to be. Graeme Gooday has historicized the meaning of expertise, showing that in the late Victorian period the distinction between ‘lay’ and ‘expert’ was not clear because the ‘lay expert’ contributed significantly to the design of electrical networks and technologies. Furthermore, ‘lay expertise’ had a crucial role in defining the authority of electrical ‘experts’.1 In their cultural history of technology, Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith have shown that Victorian engineering expertise was defined by the contemporary regimes of training and changes in the social status of engineers, as well as by the agendas and strategies pursued by individual engineers. Engineering expertise emerges from these studies as a dynamic cultural system that was based on trust and credibility and that informed the trustworthiness of the technological projects concerned. The public acceptability of new technologies went hand in hand with the recognition of engineers as credible public figures and experts.2 Sociologists of science and technology analysing contemporary cases of technological change have followed a constructivist approach and stressed the malleability of technological expertise and the negotiable character of experts' knowledge, experience and roles.3
In this article I examine the role and practices of electrical engineering experts, in particular their place in the implementation of innovations in late-Victorian electrical networks. I focus on the consulting work of two leading figures in the scientific and engineering world of the period, Alexander Kennedy and William Preece, both Fellows of the Royal Society, who established vast consulting businesses in the emerging electrical light and power industry. Kennedy was elected a Fellow in 1887 for his research on the elasticity of materials, and Preece was elected in 1881 for his work in telegraphy. Despite their authority in electrical science and engineering, my research shows that their expertise and the perceived trustworthiness of their advice were the outcome of power relations in the localities where they worked. My discussion therefore has both a comparative aspect and wider aspirations: by contextualizing the practices of two important consultants, it places the processes of system-building and the shaping of expertise in a generalized framework. Fundamental to my analysis are the issues of trust and authority, and their relations to the engineering expertise of Victorian British consultants. My aim is to unravel both the technical and the social foundations for the authority of the advice resulting from the consulting process.
A mechanical engineer in the electrical engineering industry4
Expertise, authority and trust
Before embarking on a consulting career and setting up a consulting company, Alexander Blackie William Kennedy (figure 1) had worked for many years in the marine engineering industry.5 He was also Professor of Engineering in University College in London from 1874 until his resignation in 1889.6 His mechanical engineering background influenced his approach to technological problems, which rested, in the final analysis, on his belief that the technological problems of electrical and power-station engineering could be reduced to problems of mechanical engineering. He made the point clearly in his presidential address to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1894:
And further—although I know that in this I lay myself easily open to an accusation of mere conservatism—I believe that even now the only really safe road to success in electrical work lies through the old routine of mechanical training, modified of course by the excellent means for studying the scientific side of the work which now exist in so many directions.7
His roots in mechanical engineering not only coloured his general approach to electrical problems; they also marked his routine engineering activities as a consulting engineer and contributed in turn to the fashioning of the professional role of the expert consultant. As a professor of engineering and the founder of the first engineering laboratory in Britain, Kennedy succeeded in implanting a technological culture in University College that emphasized measurement and accuracy.8 Through his achievements in the academic world, and also his parallel professional contacts with manufacturers, he became an authority in what John Pickstone has described as ‘analytical engineering’: an ensemble of testing activities and measurements, allied to the complete analytical description of machines and the categorization and classification of machines and their parts.9 These practices were inseparable from his role as a consulting engineer in the electrical industry. In addition to his work in the design of electrical installations, Kennedy had to assess the machinery that contractors delivered, judge whether the machines he examined matched up to his own specifications, and test the efficiency of the plant. Manufacturers also called on him as an independent judge on their machines, and contractors even engaged him to testify to their clients (both municipal corporations and individuals) that the machinery was manufactured in accordance with the specifications laid down by the installation's engineer. In these varied activities he acted as mediator between the manufacturer and the client, drawing on the expertise and authority that he had acquired during his career in the mechanical profession and the university.
In everything Kennedy did, the fact that he was not associated with any particular manufacturing company, either as a patentee or as a designer of machinery for a manufacturing or contracting firm, was deemed to guarantee his independence and the trustworthiness of his expertise. He promoted a pattern of innovation without patents and without the constraints that intellectual property rights imposed on consultants in their role as designers of networks and appraisers of machinery. He was an engineer who contributed to the establishment of technologically sustainable electrical installations equipped with elaborately tested machinery, and who preferred to introduce innovations that would improve the performance or security of the system. He was not an engineer who played the role of the inventor, and he took out no patents. It was characteristic of his style that in 1892, while he was designing the electrical network for Belfast, he introduced an automatic system for the control of the voltage. His innovation was acclaimed by the contemporary technical press as an ‘ingenious’ response to a practical problem that would improve the resilience of electrical networks.10 Kennedy worked closely with Bernard Maxwell Jenkin (1867–1951),11 his assistant and later his partner, in developing the new control mechanisms. Despite the mechanisms' practicality and their potential patentability, neither Kennedy nor anyone from his team applied for a patent. He believed that professional consultants should not propose machinery for which they had been granted patents, because such cases could lead to conflicts of interest. As he argued in 1903, consultants should not be ‘the financial owners, or the beneficial owners, of such patents’.12 His aim in saying this was to secure the impartiality of the professional consultant, and certainly not the abolition of the patent system.13 His was a common enough position in the emerging, contradictory technological culture of the 1890. On the one hand, patenting was established practice; on the other, patentless consulting practice guaranteed the disinterestedness and unbiased character of the advisers.14
A ‘reliable’, ‘safe’ and ‘inexpensive’ system in the British metropolis
Kennedy's first involvement in the electrical lighting industry was through the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation, for which he served as consultant and chief engineer from 1889 to 1926. The company's power stations and network were important in forging his technological style.15 Because he had no educational or professional background in electrical engineering, hands-on experience of electrical matters was essential to his activity, especially in the early stages of his career. In the 1890s, the Supply Corporation's network was characterized by the dominance of low-voltage direct current (d.c.), a consequent multiplication of power stations, the use of batteries for regulating voltage and for supplying the network in periods of low demand, and the use of small units in the engine room of the power station. The result was a technological style determined by a mixture of the urban characteristics of the district, the policies of the local authority and Kennedy's engineering practices. His relationship with the company was organic. In the process, his practices were forged, tested and stabilized in the context of his work for the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation, with recognizable consequences for the engineering style he fashioned from the 1890s.
In the Westminster installation Kennedy established a ‘double two-wire’ system, as he called it—a variation of the three-wire system in which the batteries were used for the regulation of the network as well as for securing the smooth and profitable functioning of the system in periods of high and low demand. His contribution was far from radical, because it was embedded in contemporary practices elsewhere. More specifically, it was influenced by R. E. B. Crompton, a prominent electrician and manufacturer (and future FRS). In fact, Kennedy imitated Crompton, who had introduced a similar alteration to the system of the Kensington and Knightsbridge Company.16 The use of batteries in electricity supply systems became a characteristic of Kennedy's work in the 1890s and on into the early twentieth century, in accordance with his idea that when engineers chose a method of electricity supply they should consider, in decreasing order of importance, the issues of security and regularity of supply, efficiency, and economy of operation.17
Kennedy's scheme responded well to the needs of the company and the goals of its directors and shareholders, for whom (along with their engineers) competition with the London Electricity Supply Corporation was a major concern.18 The celebrated failure of the latter company at Deptford enlarged the business of the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation19 by boosting the number of its customers.20 Kennedy's role in Westminster was considered crucial because his scheme supplied electricity safely and regularly. Lord Suffield, one of the directors, highlighted this: ‘the untiring zeal and large experience of their engineer-in-chief (Prof. Kennedy) had proved invaluable and he had by his forethought and great care succeeded in supplying continuous current with the utmost regularity, and as to which no cause of complaint had arisen.’21 Similarly supportive statements were common. In 1895 J. H. Powell, a member of the board of directors, stated:
when their company was started, the chief aim of the directors was to give the public a constant, safe, and bright light, without danger to anyone. They had the advantage of eminent engineering and architectural advice, and so successful had they been, that in the short space of five years they had reached a gross revenue of £52,644.22
The directors often used such terms as ‘reliable’, ‘safe’ and ‘inexpensive’ to describe the system. Kennedy's engineering expertise in electrical matters and the system's reliability merged in the corporate context. The technological success of the network was viewed as inseparable from its commercial success, and at the same time the latter was assessed in technological terms too.
The achievements in the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation were important for Kennedy's practice. In the 1890s, the installations he designed for the municipalities of Belfast, Glasgow, Sunderland and Edinburgh shared technical characteristics with his practice in London. Kennedy developed an organic relationship with the local authorities of Edinburgh and had a crucial role in fashioning the character of the electricity system in the 1890s and the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Although Kennedy generally favoured d.c. supply systems, in Edinburgh and at almost the same time in Sunderland he changed his problem-solving strategy. Recommending a ‘double’ or ‘mixed’ system, he proposed the three-wire d.c. system for the central and north districts, which were both residential and commercial urban areas. However, for the southern and eastern areas, with their many detached houses, he recommended a single-phase alternating-current (a.c.) system, incorporating transformers in the premises of the consumers.23 The proposal raised immediate criticism from the technical press. An unsigned contribution to Electrical Review24 criticized the ‘double system’ or ‘mixed system’ as a short-sighted technical solution that would increase the cost of the municipal installation because of the need for different machinery for each system.25 It argued that, if Kennedy's advice were followed, the municipality would pay more for an installation that would lack flexibility and be trapped by the limitations of the d.c. distribution system. The criticism was published next to an editorial that accused Robert Hammond, another leading electrical consultant, of malpractice and partiality in his work in the electrification of Coventry.26 Both texts advised the municipal authorities to view any expert advice with caution. Their appearance in the same issue was an unfortunate coincidence for Kennedy. News circulated fast, and the content of such articles soon spreads, both to the engineering community and to lay audiences, and also among the interested local communities.
Despite this criticism from a leading technical journal, Kennedy's proposal had the support of the town council, and the project proceeded accordingly, with the power station being built on Dewar Place and Torphichen Street. The low-voltage system was almost identical to the three-wire systems that Kennedy had installed in Glasgow,27 Belfast and Sunderland,28 whereas the a.c. system was restricted mainly to arc lighting; only gradually and on a very small scale was it used for private lighting.29 In the later years of the nineteenth century, Kennedy was responsible for the design and installation of a second power station at the eastern end of the city on MacDonald Road.30 The system he had already put in place was reliable and extremely economical, with a cost of production per unit sold that was the lowest in Britain.31 Kennedy, already a supporter of the d.c. system on the grounds of reliability and economy, considered replicating the d.c. power stations as a solution to the restrictions posed by low-voltage d.c. Under his guidance, in fact, d.c. acquired momentum in the early years of the twentieth century. Indeed, it was only in 1913 that he proposed the introduction of the three-phase a.c. system,32 and the scheme only became a reality after World War I, when electricity was supplied (in 1923) to the city of Edinburgh and the counties of East Lothian and Midlothian.33
Kennedy's preferences were clear. His priority was to make incremental innovations or innovatory practices with regard to the mechanical side of the installation, with the goal of improving economy and performance, rather than adopting cutting-edge electrical technologies. In Edinburgh he initially promoted the introduction of superheating machinery, and later the use of condensing plants34 and low-pressure turbines with surface condensers in both stations.35 However, whenever possible he preferred to work with d.c. and considered the use of a.c. only when the d.c. system had reached its maximum capacity and when its use was uneconomical.36
In the 1890s Kennedy designed the installation and also participated in the formulation of the corporation's policy, producing an Edinburgh system that was technologically and commercially successful. The ‘phenomenal’ success (in Kennedy's words) was the outcome of carefully organized marketing policies for the new technology, close managerial control and appropriate engineering solutions. The authorities, guided by councillor Mackenzie,37 organized a widely advertised inaugural event, with speeches, designed to strengthen links with groups that had opposed the scheme. Kennedy, as the engineer, was a prominent public figure; his expert advice circulated among councillors and citizens and was even used in public speeches to ‘mobilize’ and ‘bind’ social groups in support of the new lighting technology.
In addition, Kennedy managed to maintain managerial control by playing an important role in the appointment of E. W. Monkhouse,38 and later Frank Newington,39 to the post of municipal electrician. Both of these engineers had worked under Kennedy's supervision in the installation of the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation.40 As engineers who were accustomed to his engineering practices, they facilitated his consulting activities and contributed to the maintenance of his control. Local engineers dealt with the routine engineering tasks while Kennedy, as the consulting engineer, supervised the project. In his reports he kept the council informed about the progress of the work,41 selected the appropriate contractors42 and directed council policy.
Kennedy and the municipal corporation of Edinburgh had developed close contacts, based on trust and respect. When councillor Mackenzie was asked by a technical journal to explain the ‘success’ of the electric lighting installation, he attributed it to the good relations between the municipality and the engineers who were working on the project. He explained the main reason:
[they] didn't set up as amateur engineers themselves. They got an eminent electrician as consulting engineer and a clever practical man as resident engineer, and left those two to work, and did not meddle with it themselves. They had trusted their engineers and given them practically a free hand to do the work they were skilled in.43
Kennedy's authority had gone unquestioned in the local context.44 His dealings with the local council were based on trust, a circumstance that influenced the trustworthiness of Kennedy's design approach, technical solutions and engineering advice.
Mediating the ‘light of the future’
William Preece (1834–1913) (figure 2) was a leading figure in the electrical profession who dominated the field of telegraphy.45 In 1870 he joined the British Post Office and was appointed Chief Engineer in 1892, a post he retained until his retirement in 1899. While at the Post Office he conducted a vast amount of consulting work in the emerging electric light and power industry in the 1880s and 1890s, and after his retirement he continued his consulting career by setting up a consulting company in partnership with Philip Cardew.46 Throughout his career Preece emphasized experimentation and accurate measurement, and stressed the importance of practical experience acquired through hands-on experience. In contrast, he downplayed the importance of a thorough mathematical and theoretical treatment of engineering problems. Playing the role of the ‘practical man’, he participated actively in the conflict known as the ‘Practice vs. Theory’ dispute or the ‘British Electrical Debate’ between the mid-1880s and early 1890s,47 a debate that resulted in scientifically oriented electricians assuming an influential place within the electrical profession.48
Despite the defeat of the practical camp, Preece's position in the engineering world remained untouched, and he retained his influence in engineering circles. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s he made substantial contributions to both small and rather temporary electrical installations and to larger systems in electric lighting and power supply. He possessed great experience in experimental and measuring practices, as well as managerial skills and an expertise in the parliamentary procedures relevant to electrical networks. His bureaucratic position in the Post Office, his network of contacts in the engineering and parliamentary world and, more generally, his social status placed him in a position of authority and attracted the municipal authorities or private companies that called on him for his consulting services.49
In the early 1880s Preece was involved in a series of on-site experiments in small-scale public lighting installations. In one such scheme he was acting as consultant to the Commissioners of Sewers of the City of London,50 and also to the borough authority of Wimbledon. In a report dated 26 July 1883 to the City of London authorities he set out the relative advantages of arc and incandescent electric lighting and of gas lighting.51 His preference was for incandescent lamps rather than arc lamps for the lighting of streets and alleys.52 The complexity of the problem, and the infancy of the electrical industry, forced him to recommend to both the City and Wimbledon the adoption of experimental installations to allow the necessary tests and relevant measurements to be conducted.53 In mid-1884 he started his experiments in Wimbledon, which lasted from 21 March to 21 June 1884, with the aim of investigating ‘1. The measurement of light; 2. The distribution of light; 3. The measurement of electricity; 4. The distribution of electricity; 5. The cost of production.’54
Preece supported the use of incandescent lamps for street illumination.55 His experiments had acquired publicity, and comments in the technical journals emphasized the innovatory character of his practices. According to Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review the experiments were ‘important’ and ‘interesting’, ‘of a more valuable and practical nature than anything which has hitherto been undertaken.’56 His practices appeared in the public sphere as an important contribution by an independent expert, with no bonds to any particular system of electric light. As was reported in the technical press, ‘The experiments are not under the control of anyone connected with any electric system, but are being carried out in a perfectly independent manner.’57 The ‘independent manner’ was an advantage to anyone offering an experimental assessment of the appropriate system of lighting. Wimbledon was functioning as Preece's showroom, and he invited other local authorities, such as those of Bristol and the London Commissioners of Sewers, to visit the installation with the aim of promoting electrical lighting before the municipal deputations.
Experts, authorities and technologies
From the early 1880s, Preece's public statements attributed a moral character to electricity, identified with the moral ideals that Victorian society was seeking to promote. Electric light would result in a reduction in criminality and would enhance public safety, both important concerns for Victorians in general and municipal authorities in particular.58 Despite his supportive statements and active involvement in early experimental schemes in the 1880s, Preece remained ambivalent about the financial feasibility of centralized supply. Both Peter Lamb, the historian of electricity in Bristol, and E. C. Baker, Preece's biographer, have pointed out his rather cautious approach to the electrification of the city.59
Preece was involved in the electrification of the city from the start. Late in 1883 the local authority chose him from a list of engineer-consultants that also included such names as Frederick Bramwell, Messrs Siemens Co., E. A. Copper, R. E. B. Crompton, W. Crookes, Sylvanus Thompson, Sir Charles Bright, John Muirhead and James Shoolbred.60 Municipalities in these early days of the electrical industry had not yet established their electrical departments, and they consequently sought external advice.61 Manufacturers, state engineers (such as Preece), contractors and professors all met this requirement, by supplying advice and acting as consultants. For the selection of the appropriate adviser, local authorities had several strategies at their disposal: they might seek information from other municipalities,62 they could sometimes interview candidates,63 and they could solicit leading engineers as advisers for their views on the electrification of their city. On the basis of these preliminary reports, they could then select the engineer who would advise and oversee the whole project.64 In other cases, individual councillors' familiarity with representatives of the engineering world had an impact on decisions. Information on ‘who's who’ in the engineering world circulated through official channels, as well as through personal contacts. In some instances, regional chauvinism swayed the choice of the consultant. Hopkinson, for example, was a Manchester man and predictably was chosen to design the local electrical scheme. In Bristol, Preece was selected mainly because he was a leading electrician and a state office-holder, with connections in the bureaucratic world of Victorian England.65
Preece supported the municipal character of installations and recommended that the Bristol corporation not abolish its right to establish an electrical utility. Any abandonment of the rights that the Electric Lighting Act of 1882 provided to municipalities with regard to the establishment and ownership of electrical installations would destroy confidence in a municipal authority as the provider of the ‘light of the future’.66 Such a stance would result in a private monopoly, leading to high prices and a low quality of service and so harm citizens' interests. In addition, a municipal electrical installation would give the corporation concerned the flexibility to incorporate technological changes.67 Six years later, in 1889, Preece reiterated his views about the municipal character of the electrical undertaking in a new report for the municipality of the city of Bristol. He wrote:
The reasons in favour of the Corporation doing it themselves are (1) they can borrow money under more favourable circumstances than any private company can secure it, and the light could be supplied at a price which would be less to the consumer and equally profitable to the Corporation. (2) If the business, which would accrue, would be profitable, this profit might be applied to the reduction of the rates. (3) It has even been urged that the Corporation have sold their birthright by giving up the monopoly in gas and water to companies, and the time has now arrived when they should avoid repeating the same mistake with electric lighting companies. (4) The profits derived from Private lighting would pay the cost for Public lighting. (5) The last and great reason in favour of self-manufacture is that the Corporation retains for itself the control of the whole system.68
A municipal undertaking was financially feasible and had the advantage of keeping the utility under the control of the local authority. The latter argument was popular among politicians and policy makers in Victorian Britain. Preece was part of that culture, and his engagement with the Post Office influenced his consulting practices. At the same time his advice can be viewed as one of the reasons for the emphasis on municipal trading and the municipalization of the electric light industry by the politicians and policy makers of the late Victorian period. As advisers, consultants shaped the technological policies of the corporations.
Preece was no exception in giving this kind of advice to a municipal authority. Others who did so included John Hopkinson and Professor Henry Robinson, who suggested to the authorities of St Pancras Vestry in London that they should proceed with a municipal electrical enterprise.69 Professor George Forbes did the same in the Vestry of Paddington.70 In Manchester, too, James Shoolbred backed the municipal control of the electric lighting system over the entire city.71 The reports of contemporary consultants shared similar characteristics. However, this emphasis on the municipal character of undertakings did not have the support of the entire community of electrical engineers. The leading journals, The Electrician,72 The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review (later The Electrical Review)73 and The Electrical Engineer,74 argued that municipalities lacked the appropriate expertise and that their reliance on the advice of the consulting engineers was not the safest way to proceed. It was maintained that the profession of the consulting engineer lacked well-qualified, unbiased people and that the management would be more efficient in a profit-driven corporate environment than under municipal control.
For Bristol, Preece designed an a.c. system with transformer substations. His report was cast in the typical literary style that can be seen in contemporary consultants' reports, characterized by the attempt to give an ‘objective’ account of the technical data and the various engineering solutions, and to describe those solutions as neutrally as possible. In a sober presentation, he outlined the pros and cons of the existing systems of electricity distribution. But his attempt to ‘push’ a.c. technology concluded by undermining any objections that could be raised against the a.c. system.75 In a period dominated by the ‘battle of the systems’, he joined forces with Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, Gisbert Kapp and Professor George Forbes in clear support of a.c.76 In 189177 he denied that a.c. was dangerous for the safety of the public,78 while stressing the advantages of large-scale systems that incorporated a.c. technology.79 He repeatedly praised Ferranti's project at Deptford as harmless to the existing networks of telegraphy and telephony80 and as both reliable and safe for the engineers and the technicians working there, as well as for the customers.81 Preece's support came during a very difficult period for Ferranti and his scheme at Deptford. Fires and breakdowns had shaken the confidence of the public, the engineering world and the directors of the London Electric Supply Corporation.82 Preece's message to British electrical engineers, managers, directors of private companies, municipal councillors and state officials was that the a.c. system guaranteed an uninterrupted supply of electrical energy. It was a feasible and efficient electrical network that could cope easily and economically with expanding demand and future extensions.83
In 1890 and 1891 Preece was in regular contact with the local authorities of Bristol regarding the erection of the central station.84 The establishment of the network and the power station turned out to be a complex matter. During the building of the station, Preece's views on the appropriate machinery, especially on the boilers, changed. Under the influence of Gisbert Kapp, his assistant at the time, Preece recommended locomotive boilers. Despite the insistence of the consultants, the proposal was not implemented because of the opposition of members of the committee. The councillors' reaction was fierce, especially that of councillor Arthur Baker, who favoured the use of Lancashire boilers.85 Baker, an industrialist in the corn milling industry and a member of the city's industrial and entrepreneurial elite, was particularly adept at creating barriers for the consultants' problem-solving strategies. Drawing on expertise accumulated in his own corn mill, as well as the experience of other Bristol manufacturers, he insisted on the importance of using locally sourced coal to fuel the power station.
In contrast, the consultants' view was, as Preece expressed it, that any change in the plans, and especially any change in the choice of boiler, would limit the station's capacity, ultimately necessitating the erection of a second generating plant. Preece wrote: ‘If it is imperative that the local coal be used then we must adopt the Lancashire type of boiler, but I apprehend that good Welsh coal is equally applicable and it is that which I should certainly prefer to use.’86 Finally, the local steam users, a group of practical experts, made an influential contribution to the decision-making process. In the micro-social context of the Bristol council, Baker's authority, prestige and status had much to do with the reservations and with the rejection of the consultants' proposals by the city. In the same period there was an ongoing concern for the area's coal industry and its competitiveness. This made councillors sensitive to the testimony of local experts, whose solution ensured a large and essential consumer for coal mined in the region.87 The erection of Bristol's central station, according to the consultants' proposals, should first respond to the contingencies arising from local conditions. In this and in the design of the installation, the consultants were influenced by the Bristol industrial elite and the authority of the practical men of the flour industry, both concerned about the economy of the installation. Finally, an a.c. system was established in Bristol once the ‘suggestions’ of the local experts had been incorporated.88
By the end of the century, the Bristol system had expanded and the demand for lighting and power had increased. The power station at Temple Banks gradually reached its limits, with the result that, in September 1899 and following the advice of their local engineer, the city council decided to build a new power station to supplement the existing one. The station and the new extensions were designed by the city engineer along the lines of the old scheme and without any substantial change.89 Preece was called in as consulting engineer, with his role restricted to the assessment of the scheme designed by Proctor Faraday, the then municipal electrical engineer.90 Although publicly he had acknowledged the advantages of large-scale regional supply systems characterized by the concentration of the generation plant,91 in June 1899 he agreed with the establishment of a supplementary station and its connection to Temple Banks.92 In this he not only endorsed the multiplication of the power stations—a practice that he had publicly condemned—but also proposed a more moderate scheme than that of the city engineer, arguing that any future demand would need to be covered by the establishment of a third power station of the same size as the second one.93 The inconsistency of Preece's advice shows the ad hoc, patchwork nature of consulting. Preece had to adapt his ideas in the local context, take into consideration past investments, and define his role with respect to that of the municipal electrician.
The implementation of electrical innovations was a complicated business, a heterogeneous activity that involved the management of skills, experience, authority, technologies and human beings. It necessitated strategies for retaining the control of the installation and innovation processes, and also for marketing activities that would boost confidence in the new system. The trustworthiness of electro-technology and electrical expertise together contributed to the success of electrical engineering projects and the implementation of the specific innovations. The issue at stake for consultants such as Kennedy and Preece was the establishment of trust. To that end, authority and credibility acquired from previous professional engagements were transferred into the new domain of consulting and integrated into the advisers' activities. The transfer was not a straightforward or automatic process because in practice the consultants had to prove themselves, legitimize their technological choices and expert advice, and follow strategies of communicating engineering expertise and electrical technologies. British electricians were part and parcel of what Marsden and Smith have described as ‘cultures of technological expertise’ in the nineteenth century, in which trust and credibility were established through the improvement of the public face of the technologies and the demonstration of engineering authority, as well as the fashioning and promotion of specific personal qualities, self-images and professional codes of conduct.94
Electrical experts had to build schemes that were not merely viable but also adjusted to the interests of their clients. In the British metropolis, Kennedy had at once to build a d.c. electricity system and create one that would participate effectively in the techno-political battle of the Westminster Company against the grandiose Ferranti scheme of the London Electric Supply Company. Despite his experience of experimental installations and his international trips and inspections, Preece was challenged by the realities of municipal undertakings, in which it was imperative that risks should be low. So although in his public statements he sounded confident, his practice in the early phase of the Bristol scheme was cautious and his stance rather ambivalent. The importance of the users of the electrical systems in the design and innovation process contributed to the ad hoc character of engineering advice and also to the development of the tensions in the practice of consulting engineers. The aims, scope and approach varied according to the local context and the clients' needs, and frequently collided with the broader aspirations or preferences of the advisers.
Victorian Britain was a status-conscious society in which social, economic and cultural capital informed public discourses and public policies, as well as the agendas and activities of a professional world that had begun to form a distinct social class in the second half of the nineteenth century.95 The professional practices of consultants had yet to crystallize in the early period of electrification. In that context, British electrical consultants considered status and scientific authority to be important qualifications for a successful consulting career. At the same time they realized that they had to adjust and struggle to legitimize their technical solutions, and thereby to assert the value of their expertise. Despite his established authority and the social prestige he drew from his academic career, Kennedy had to ‘support’ his innovatory practices and his projects with public statements and acts that would add to the trustworthiness of the technologies he proposed. In the same way, despite the fact that Preece was respected as a consultant both for his position within the world of public administration and for his authority in telegraphy, his engineering expertise was vulnerable in particular local contexts. An extensive network in the parliamentary and legal worlds lent authority to the consultant, but often local experts proved to be more influential in the design of the schemes by challenging the consultant's choices and imposing solutions based on their own experiences and priorities.96
The innovation process therefore required skills of negotiation, the efficient management of engineering and scientific authority, and trustworthy professional behaviour. Preece's experimental installations were praised for their non-partisan character and for the unbiased approach he displayed in his assessment of existing distribution systems. Kennedy refrained from patenting innovations and urged practising consultants to do likewise so as not to obscure the impartiality that should characterize their professional activity. The period was one of enculturation for British engineers in gentlemanly society and also in the professional ethos of the middle classes.97 This enculturation of electrical engineering consultants was influential in the formation of their identity and engineering practices in the last two decades of the Victorian era and during the Edwardian period.98
An earlier version of the paper was presented at the Annual Conference of STEP (Science and Technology in the European Periphery) in Corfu, Greece, June 2012. I thank the conference participants for their comments, particularly José Ramón Bertomeu-Sánchez. In addition I am grateful to Graeme Gooday for his comments and support and to two anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions.
↵1 G. Gooday, ‘Illuminating the expert–consumer relationship in domestic electricity’, in Science in the marketplace: nineteenth-century sites and experiences (ed. A. Fyfe and B. Lightman), pp. 231–268 (Chigaco University Press, 2007).
↵2 B. Marsden and C. Smith, Engineering empires (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2006).
↵3 H. Collins and T. Pinch, The golem at large (Cambridge University Press, 1998); H. M. Collins and R. Evans, ‘The third wave of science studies: studies of expertise and experience’, in The philosophy of expertise (ed. E. Selinger and R. P. Crease), pp. 39–110 (Columbia University Press, New York, 2006); S. Fuller, ‘The constitutively social character of expertise’, ibid., pp. 342–357; I. Varcoe, M. McNeil, S. Yearley, Deciphering science and technology: the social relations of expertise (Macmillan, London, 1990). In their latest contribution to the philosophy and sociology of expertise, Collins and Evans stress that the acquisition of various types of expertise is a process of ‘socialization’—of participation in the culture of a specialist or non-specialist social group; see H. Collins and R. Evans, Rethinking expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 1–44, esp. pp. 3, 15–18 and 23–35.
↵4 For a study of Kennedy's technological style in the electric light and power industry, see S. Arapostathis, ‘Innovation without invention: the technological style of A. B. W. Kennedy and the British electrical industry’ [in Greek], Neusis 18, 33–48 (2009).
↵5 In 1899, Kennedy began a working relationship with Bernard Maxwell Jenkin (1867–1951), who was his assistant from 1891. For Jenkin, see ‘Obituary—B. M. Jenkin’, Engineer 192, 803 (1951); The electrician's electrical trades directory (1904), p. LIX; ibid. (1905). In 1914, after Jenkin's retirement as a result of health problems, the company became Kennedy and Donkin. Kennedy, his son MacFarlane, and Sidney Donkin, the son of Brian Donkin Jr, were the principal partners. For a linear account of the company's early years, see G. Kennedy, The history of Kennedy and Donkin, 1889–1989 (G. F. Kennedy, Liphook, 1988), pp. 1–21. For biographies of the partners, see ‘Obituary—Sydney Bryan Donkin (1871–1952)’, Proc. Instn Civ. Engrs General Part I, 2, 97–98 (1953); ‘Obituary—Sydney Bryan Donkin (1871–1952)’, Engineer 194, 691 (1953); ‘Obituary—John MacFarlane Kennedy (1879–1954)’, Proc. Instn Civ. Engrs General Part I, 4, 111 (1955).
↵6 For biographies of Kennedy, see A. Gibb, ‘Sir Alexander Blackie William Kennedy’, Obit. Not. Fell. R. Soc. 2, 213–223 (1938); Kennedy, op. cit. (note 5), pp. 1–2; E. I. Carlyle, ‘Kennedy, Sir Alexander Blackie William (1847–1928)’, rev. G. J. N. Gooday, Oxford dictionary of national biography; R. E. D. Bishop, ‘Alexander Kennedy: the elegant innovator’, Trans. Newcomen Soc. 47, 1–8 (1974–76).
↵7 A. B. W. Kennedy, ‘Presidential address’, Proc. Instn Mech. Engrs 46, 175 (1894).
↵8 A. B. W. Kennedy, ‘The use and equipment of engineering laboratories’, Minutes Proc. Instn Civ. Engrs 88 (2), 1–80 (1886–87); R. A. Buchanan, ‘The rise of scientific engineering in Britain’, Br. J. Hist. Sci. 18, 218–233 (1985), at pp. 219 and 227; G. J. N. Gooday, ‘Precision measurement and the genesis of physics teaching laboratories in Victorian Britain’, Br. J. Hist. Sci. 23, 47–48 (1990); R. Fox and A. Guagnini, Laboratories, workshops and sites (Office for History of Science and Technology, University of California, Berkeley, 1999), pp. 101–102 and 107.
↵9 J. Pickstone, Ways of knowing (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 92–102.
↵10 Electrician 35, 414 (1895).
↵11 R. J. H. Burstall, ‘The electric lighting of Edinburgh’, Proc. Instn Mech. Engrs 49, 562 (1895); V. A. H. McCowen, ‘Electric lighting in Belfast’, Proc. Instn Mech. Engrs 51, 304–328 (1896), esp. p. 310; Electrician 35, 413 (1895); Elec. Rev. 36, 503 (1895).
↵12 A. B. W. Kennedy, ‘Consulting engineers and their work’, Inaugural address of the 1902–03 session of the City and Guilds Central Technical College. The lecture was published in Engineering 75, 430 (1903).
↵13 For the debate over the patent system in the nineteenth century, see F. Machlup and E. Penrose, ‘The patent controversy in the nineteenth century’, J. Econ. Hist. 10 (1), 1–29 (1950); C. MacLeod, ‘Concepts of invention and the patent controversy in Victorian Britain’, in Technological change: methods and themes in the history of technology (ed. R. Fox), pp. 137–154 (Harwood Academic, Amsterdam, 1996).
↵14 S. Arapostathis, ‘Morality, locality and “standardization” in the work of British electrical consulting engineers, 1880–1914’, Hist. Technol. 28, 53–74 (2008).
↵15 The concept of technological style has a multiplicity of uses in the field of history of technology. Here I follow the work of Thomas Hughes and Eda Kranakis. Hughes, influenced by the history of art, has introduced stylistic analysis in the history of technology as a way to probe the engineering practices of inventors and technologists and to identify the characteristics of power systems. He has documented the style of the inventive activity and problem-solving strategies of major engineers such as Tesla, Edison and Elmer Sperry (T. P. Hughes, American genesis: a century of invention and technological enthusiasm, 1870–1970 (Chicago University Press, 2004), pp. 53–95, esp. pp. 64–71; T. P. Hughes, Networks of power: electrification in Western society, 1880–1930 (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1993), pp. 18–46; T. P. Hughes, Elmer Sperry: inventor and engineer (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1971), pp. 63–102, esp. pp. 63–89. In addition, I have found Eda Kranakis's micro-historical study of the innovative work of Finley and Navier in the construction of bridges in nineteenth-century America to be particularly interesting, important and helpful for my work here. Kranakis explains her approach by stating: ‘I examine the backgrounds, careers, and working environments of Finley and Navier and explain how these shaped their respective approaches to the study and design of suspension bridges’ (E. Kranakis, Constructing a bridge: an exploration of engineering culture, design and research in nineteenth-century France and America, p. 3 (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997)). Adopting a similar approach, I have been able to unearth the complex network of technological innovations, engineering attitudes and social roles among contemporary technologists. I am looking for continuities in their consulting advice but also points of disagreement.
↵16 For the influential role of Crompton in Kennedy's practices in Westminster, see the autobiographical reflections of Kennedy in A. B. W. Kennedy, ‘Proceedings at commemoration meetings, 1922’, J. Instn Elec. Engrs 60, 395–397 (1921–22), esp. p. 395.
↵17 A. B. W. Kennedy, ‘Presidential address’, Proc. Instn Mech. Engrs 46, 188 (1894).
↵18 Telegr. J. Elec. Rev. 27, 564 (1890).
↵19 For the scheme at Deptford see Hughes, Networks of power, op. cit. (note 15), pp. 237–247.
↵20 Elec. Rev. 30, 359 (1892).
↵21 Ibid., pp. 219–220.
↵22 Ibid., p. 238.
↵23 Edinburgh Public Library (ref. no. qYTK1193, B18978), Reports on electric lighting (1893), A. B. W. Kennedy, ‘Report on electric lighting’ (23 August 1893), pp. 1–4, esp. p. 2.
↵24 Elec. Rev. 33, 631–632 (1893).
↵25 Ibid., p. 631.
↵27 Ibid. 34, 515–517 (1894).
↵28 Ibid. 37, 203–205 (1895).
↵29 H. R. J. Burstall, ‘The electric lighting of Edinburgh’, Proc. Instn Mech. Engrs 49, 552–573 (1895).
↵30 Edinburgh City Archives, Minutes of Electric Lighting Committee, 1896–1897, 21 September and 19 October 1897; Edinburgh Public Library, Edinburgh Council Record (1897–98), Minutes of Meeting, pp. 546–547 (Tuesday 27 July 1897).
↵31 In 1896 in Edinburgh, the cost of production per unit sold was 1.13d. The second most economical system was the Manchester installation, for which the cost was 1.45d. See R. Hammond, ‘The cost of generation and distribution of electrical energy’, J. Instn Elec. Engrs 27, 246–378 (1898), Tables I and IX, on pp. 257 and 300.
↵32 Edinburgh Public Library, Edinburgh Council Record (1913–14), Report by the Chief Engineer on the Extension of the Electric Lighting Undertaking [Appendix], pp. 1–2 (20 November 1913).
↵33 For the new power station at Portobello, see The Edinburgh Corporation electricity generating station, Portobello: a commemorative brochure containing an account of the undertaking and a description of the new station, deposited in Edinburgh Public Library (ref. no. qYTK1193); Centenary of electricity in Edinburgh 1895–1995, Scottish Power (Edinburgh, 1995) (ref. no. YTK1193).
↵34 Practical experience showed that condensers improved both the engine's performance and the economy of the installation. R. J. Kaula and I. V. Robinson, Condensing plant (Sir I. Pitman & Sons, London, 1926), pp. 1–10; C. H. Wordingham, Central electric stations (Charles Griffin & Co., London, 1903), pp. 156–162; J. F. C. Snell, Power house design (Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1911), pp. 200–224.
↵35 By 1913, three 1,200 KW turbines with d.c. generators were installed with condensing plants. Edinburgh Public Library, Edinburgh Council Record (1912–13), Minutes of Meeting, p. 632 (Tuesday 15 July 1913).
↵36 Arapostathis, op. cit. (note 4).
↵37 A. Donald Mackenzie was chairman of the Electric Lighting Committee for 11 years, enthusiastically promoting the electrification of the city. He was managing director of Mackenzie & Moncur, an engineering contracting firm in Edinburgh, and so was part of the Victorian engineering culture. A. Eddington, Edinburgh and the Lothians at the opening of the twentieth century: contemporary biographies (W. T. Pike, Edinburgh, 1904), p. 300.
↵38 Elec. Rev. 34, 314 (1894). Kennedy short-listed the applicants; see Edinburgh City Archives, Minutes of Electric Lighting Committee, 1895–1896 (17 March 1896).
↵39 Newington worked under Kennedy in Millbank Station. London Metropolitan Archives, LMA/4278/01/561, Westminster Electric Supply Corporation Board Minute Book (1895–98), p. 159.
↵40 London Metropolitan Archives, LMA/4278/01/561, Westminster Electric Supply Corporation Board Minute Book (1891–95), p. 37.
↵41 Edinburgh City Archives, 265B Box, Papers Relating to Electric Lighting 1882–1894.
↵42 See in particular Edinburgh City Archives, Electric Lighting Committee, 1895–1896 (December 1895–April 1896).
↵43 The interview was published in Gas World and quoted in The Electrical Review 38, 324 (1896).
↵44 Edinburgh Public Library, Edinburgh Council Record (1895–96), Minutes of Meeting, pp. 236–237 (17 May 1896).
↵45 For biographical information on Preece, see E. C. Baker, Sir William Preece (Hutchinson, London, 1976); D. G. Tucker, ‘Sir William Preece (1834–1913)’, Trans. Newcomen Soc. 53, 119–136 (1981–82); P. J. Nahin, Oliver Heaviside (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2002), pp. 59–63.
↵46 Preece's sons, Lewellyn and Arthur, worked in the consultancy. In 1910, after Cardew's death, J. F. C. Snell (1869–1938) was brought in and the company became the Preece, Cardew and Snell consultancy. For a linear history of the company's activities, see E. C. Baker, Preece and those who followed (Reprographic Centre, Brighton, 1983), pp. 1–83. For partners' biographies, see R. H. Vetch, ‘Cardew, Philip (1851–1910)’, rev. J. Lunt, Oxford dictionary of national biography; ‘Sir John Francis Cleverton Snell—Obituary’, J. Instn Elec. Engrs 83, 898–899 (1938); ‘Sir A. Preece—Obituary’, Engineer 191, 194 (1951).
↵47 For the engineering conflicts in the period from the mid-1880s to the early 1890s, see I. Yavetz, ‘Oliver Heaviside and the significance of the British electrical debate’, Ann. Sci. 50, 135–173 (1993); B. J. Hunt, ‘Practice vs. theory’, Isis 74, 341–355 (1983); D. W. Jordan, ‘D. E. Hughes, self-induction and the skin effect’, Centaurus 26, 123–153 (1982); idem, ‘The adoption of self-induction by telephony, 1886–1889’, Ann. Sci. 39, 433–461 (1982); Nahin, op. cit. (note 45), pp. 139–185; Baker, op. cit. (note 45), pp. 204–216 and 293–308.
↵48 Hunt, op. cit. (note 47), pp. 352–355; Yavetz, op. cit. (note 47), pp. 161–162.
↵49 For a list of Preece's consultancies, see the appendix in Tucker, op. cit. (note 45), pp. 132–133.
↵50 For a historical account of the development of public lighting in the City of London during the 1880s and the 1890s, see R. Bourne, ‘The beginnings of street lighting in the City of London’, Engng Sci. Educ. J. 5, 81–88 (1996).
↵51 Abstract from the report in Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 16, 356–357, 372–376 and 396–398 (1885).
↵52 Ibid., p. 356.
↵53 Ibid., 14, 246 (1884).
↵54 Ibid., 16, 356 (1885).
↵55 Ibid., p. 396.
↵56 Ibid., 14, 246 and 290 (1884).
↵58 W. H. Preece, ‘Electric lighting in America’, J. Soc. Arts 33 (I), 72–73 (1884).
↵59 P. G. Lamb, Electricity in Bristol 1863–1948 (Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, Bristol, 1981), p. 4; Baker, op. cit. (note 45), pp. 228–229.
↵60 Bristol Record Office, 17843 (1), Electric Lighting Committee, Minute Book, 3–4.
↵62 Ibid., pp. 5 and 7–9.
↵63 Such was the case in Hackney. See Hackney Archive Department (J/L/1), Electric Lighting Committee, Minute Book, 1896–1899 (13 September 1898).
↵64 See the case in Manchester: Telegr. J. Elec. Rev. 28, 578 (1891).
↵65 Bristol Record Office, 17843 (1), Electric Lighting Committee, Minute Book, p. 10.
↵66 Bristol Record Office, 17845 (1), Reports to the Electrical Committee (1884–93), vol. 1, p. 2.
↵68 Ibid., p. 45; D. G. Tucker, ‘The beginnings of electricity supply in Bristol 1889–1902’, Bristol Ind. Archaeol. Soc. J. 5, 12 (1973).
↵69 H. Robinson, ‘Electric light by municipal authorities’, Proc. Inc. Assoc. Munic. County Engrs 17, 238 (1891).
↵70 G. Forbes, ‘Report to the Vestry of Paddington on the electric lighting of the parish’, Electrician 22, 658–660 (1889).
↵71 Letter from James Shoolbred to Manchester authorities, Manchester City Archives, Proceedings of Gas Committee, vol. 23, pp. 204–205 (5 May 1890).
↵72 Electrician 21, 468–469 (1888); ibid., 23, 144–145 (1889).
↵73 Telegr. J. Elec. Rev. 26, 222 (1890). The two leading journals, The Electrician and Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, had criticized the establishment of monopolist regimes, brought about either through the enforcement of master patents or through relevant corporate or state strategies and policies in the electrical industry: P. Strange, ‘Two electrical periodicals, The Electrician and the Electrical Review 1880–1890’, Proc. Instn Elec. Engrs 132A, 574–581 (1985), esp. pp. 575–578.
↵74 Elec. Engr 26, 406 (1891).
↵75 Bristol Record Office, 17845 (1), Reports to the Electrical Committee (1884–93), vol. 1, p. 82.
↵76 W. H. Preece, ‘On some points connected with mains for electric lighting’, J. Instn Elec. Engrs 20, 408–425 (1891).
↵77 R. E. B. Crompton, ‘The cost of the generation and distribution of electrical energy’, Minutes Proc. Instn Civ. Engrs 106 (4), 2–123 (1890–91). For Preece's views, see the discussion at pp. 35–39, esp. pp. 37–39.
↵78 Ibid., p. 38.
↵80 Op. cit. (note 65), p. 422.
↵81 Ibid., pp. 421–424.
↵82 Kennedy, op. cit. (note 16), 244–245.
↵83 Op. cit. (note 65), pp. 412, 416–417 and 422–423.
↵84 Elec. Engr 5, 461 (1890); Bristol Record Office, 17843 (1), Electric Lighting Committee, Minute Book, pp. 92 and 103–104.
↵85 Arthur Baker was a manufacturer-entrepreneur and a leading figure in Bristol's industrial, commercial, social and political elite. See Bristol Contemporary Biographies: 1898–1899 (Bristol, 1899), vol. 1, p. 61. Lancashire boilers differed from locomotive boilers in that they comprised two tubular fire compartments as opposed to the one firebox in the latter.
↵86 Bristol Record Office, 17845 (1), Reports to the Electrical Committee (1884–93), vol. 1, p. 120.
↵87 Keith Ramsey has shown that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Bristol's coal-mining industry suffered from imports of Welsh coal. See K. Ramsey, Bristol coal industry (Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, Bristol, 2003), pp. 13–15.
↵88 Electrician 36, 615 (1896).
↵89 Lamb, op. cit. (note 59), p. 16.
↵90 The practice of assessing plans for power stations submitted either by other consultants or local electrical engineers was well established in the profession of consulting engineers of the period. For that facet of Preece's career see D. G. Tucker, How towns got electric light and tramways (Science Museum, London, 1978), pp. 8–9.
↵91 ‘Discussion on the relative advantages of alternating and continuous-current for a general supply of electricity, especially with regard to interference with other interests’, J. Instn Elec. Engrs 30, 7 (1900–01).
↵92 Bristol Record Office, 17845 (3), Reports to Electrical Committee (1899–1903), vol. 3, p. 48.
↵94 Marsden and Smith, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 7–8, 226–245 and 254–258.
↵95 H. J. Perkin, The rise of professional society: England since 1880 (Routledge, London, 2002).
↵96 For similar points see Arapostathis, op. cit. (note 14), pp. 53–74.
↵97 Marsden and Smith, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 254–258; R. A. Buchanan, The engineers: a history of the engineering profession in Britain, 1750–1914 (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, 1989), pp. 12–15, 88–142 and 233–235; R. A. Buchanan, ‘Gentleman engineers: the making of a profession’, Victorian Stud. 26, 407–429 (1983); Perkin, op. cit. (note 95).
↵98 Arapostathis, op. cit. (note 14), pp. 53–74. pp. 53–74.
- © 2012 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.