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Home » Magic of Light: 1921-1938

Magic of Light: 1921-1938

Designers, Makers and Technology

After 1921, production in Germany and Holland rose rapidly with their bulbs being cheaper and manufactured to better quality than many international competitors. Mechanisation methods continued to improve, as did the fixing of prices with a European Cartel emerging (of which the British cartel – now known as E.L.M.A. – was a member). E.L.M.A. also encouraged town councils to build all electric houses such as a semi-detached showroom house at Burnage, Manchester, which was open for public inspection. All home equipment was electrically powered, including cooking, heating, washing, as well as lighting.

In 1926 a pearl light (frosted inside) was marketed in the classic pear shape we know today (called G.L.S.). This reduced the glare of filaments without losing the brightness of light, and was a significant innovation for domestic use. By 1937 the E.L.M.A. cartel were advertising a vast range of light bulb types for domestic, office, retail and external use; as well as decorative lights for Christmas, an array of lighting for cars, buses and other vehicles, and specialist lights such as vacuum miners’ lamps. The photoflash had been invented by the Osram Company of Berlin in 1933 and Tungsten Lighthouse Lamps had replaced the massive arc lamps used by Trinity House to warn ships of rocky shores.

Electric light shone on almost every aspect of society and to keep up with demand factories continued to improve the efficiency of manufacturing processes. The Corning Ribbon Machine was developed in 1927 and quickly evolved into a beast in the US into which glass bulbs, tubes, rods, filament wire, support wire, bases, and packaging materials were fed. Out of the other end came finished lamps, marked, tested, wrapped, and packed ready for despatch. By 1931, G.E.C. Osram at Wembley had fitted bulb machines into their factory which made 1,000 per minute.

Such a mammoth undertaking required a transformation in the way electric current was generated and distributed to everywhere it was needed. In the UK a project to establish a National Grid was initiated (mirrored across Europe) with electricity generated by fossil fuel power stations and conducted across a network of towers, or pylons. On 5th September 1933 the last of 26,265 towers were erected on completion of the Bournemouth to Southampton section.


Which historical period best deserves the title ‘the age of modernity’ is debatable, but the 20th century interwar period has a strong claim to the title. The ‘second industrial revolution’ featuring electrical and chemical advances was strongly commercialised and productised, created for individual mass consumption and promoted through mass advertising. This was made possible by important innovations in methods, services and merchandise such as commercial airlines (Imperial Airways, a precursor to British Airways, began in 1924), assembly line and time-and-motion studies efficiency (cars, radios), distribution networks for raw materials and final products, mass communication through radio, cinema art and entertainment, international food transport (refrigerated shipping), and more.

In the earlier 20s towns and cities in Germany, France and the USA had far more, and less expensive, electrical illumination and power supply than Britain. This was due to greater centralised state intervention and effort to electrify in Europe. In the USA the high volume of new building – rather than retrofitting a much older built environment – combined serendipitously with the open space and easy power sources for electrical power plants. In the Britain electrical provision was essentially left to the free market, which in this case proved far less efficient and effective. The rise of suburban building and new urban estates of flats meant longer transmission lines, changes in manufacturing and increased employment opportunities, and more entertainment, which all needed consistent, widespread, cheaper electrical power. Something had to change, despite the Stanley Baldwin-era government’s ideological distaste for statism and nationalisation.

Thus, following the passage of the Electricity (Supply) Act 1926, the Central Electricity Board was set up to link the most efficient power stations with consumers via a ‘national gridiron’. It was the largest single peacetime construction programme Britain had ever seen. In 1935 Britain’s National Grid was born, a combined commercial operation of the national electrical power transmission. It was fully operational in 1938 (trialled in 1937) as the first integrated national grid in the world. New power stations and substations were built as well as pylons, transforming the countryside in appearance and activity as well as urban and suburban areas. The National Grid also ensured ongoing careful analysis of supply and demand, given the inability to store but only create electricity for immediate use.

The coming of electricity to manufacturing was publicised as the move from the age of smoke and steam to modern times, clean and well-lit. The assembly line system with its time-and-motion studies underpinnings was designed to increase output and lessen ‘industrial fatigue’, a phenomenon noted in First World War munitions factories. One of the key elements was the rise of industrial standardisation – from human workplace actions to identical parts to uniform power supply. The latter was a significant influence on the demand that led to the National Grid. The appearance of ‘futuristic factories’, their brightness and essential modularity, and many of the products they made (toasters, refrigerators etc.), would have been impossible without electricity.

Advertising became an extremely powerful force, with billboards and adverts painted on buildings everywhere. Then, electric signage with words picked out in lightbulbs flourished. The 1920s saw the arrival of early neon lighting, a fragile glowing tube that could be curved to form words and shapes. Piccadilly Circus had its first neon sign in 1923, following Paris in 1919. After the neon patent expired in 1929 neon signage proliferated. The popularity of neon began to gather momentum as creative influences across the world designed spectacular static and animated images, signage, and neon decorative features.


Interwar house and flat construction was spurred by the ‘Homes For Heroes’ better housing movement following the First World War (1914-1918). It was typified by the spread to the suburbs, often semi-detached houses with spacious front and rear gardens. In cities, the new local authority housing or charitable organisations built large estates emphasising hygiene and light, in opposition to the darkness and disease associated with Victorian and Georgian housing. Whether Mock Tudor, Arts and Crafts, or Art Deco, the new ‘all mod cons’ meant increased demand or desire electricity. In 1919/20, only 6% of British homes had electricity. Electricity itself and light bulb prices were high – keeping five bulbs going cost an average week’s wages. This meant electricity’s initial implementation took place primarily in upper and upper middle homes.

The creation and delivery of the National Grid in 1937/8 offered a transformed domestic world. By the end of the 1930s, around 66% of British homes had electricity. Meters measured consumption, but prepaid meters did not arrive until after the National Grid: so it was at this time the poorer homes began to be connected. As more and more electric appliances were created, their earlier power method of attaching to a light socket became impractical. The first wall-plugs were two pin, with three pin plugs designed for greater safety with appliances coming on the market in 1923 (although not standardised until 1937).

Information pamphlets and films about how to use electricity in the home covered not only the technicalities but also health and aesthetics. People were warned not use naked lamps as harsh on the eyes, disturbing of the artistic colour design of the home, and wasteful of light. Just as fashion and the insouciant use of make-up was influenced by electric lighting, so was home design, from light fittings to fabric textures and colours. An entire world of glorious decorative lampshades, fittings and switches resulted. Fabric lamp shades and glass coverings were deemed essential both for eyes and for attractive personal appearance (particularly female). The deleterious effects of bright electric light to one’s beauty was a persistent marketing subject. The first frosted lightbulb was patented in 1925 in the USA, but ‘bare’ bulbs were unpopular. As gas use fell in the interwar period, lighter shades in textiles and paint dominated domestic décor as gas’s disfiguring grime and room discolouration lessened. Most lighting schemes were still fairly minimal, with perhaps one central light and a pair of wall lights, or a few lamps.

Domestic life was to experience another seismic change. Radio heard through speakers (rather than early-days single user headsets) had a significant domestic impact. Reading aloud by the fireside or playing piano of an evening was supplanted by the family gathering around the radio to hear favourite programmes, exactly as and when did their neighbours. For women, whose domestic tasks were continual, radio was a friendly voice and the opportunity to listen and think on new subjects whilst still performing domestic duties. Radios were rechargeable battery powered until the late 1920s, and thereafter electrical socket radios were sold, although table top battery radios continued to be produced and used for areas not yet connected to electricity.

The interwar period saw both refinements of previous appliance inventions and the arrival of new ones. The defining characteristics of this explosion of electrically-driven domestic inventions were efficiency and hygiene. The reduction in servants, the cleanliness of electricity compared to gas, the excitement of the new, and increased understanding of hygiene and health, meant major changes had come to the domestic scene. Endless advertisements frequently pushed their products as the solution to the lack of servants and the back-breaking nature of domestic housework.

Appliances continued to develop. The electric iron arrived in 1901, but its critical thermostat did not until 1938. The thermostat also greatly improved the electric cooker in 1938. The vacuum cleaner’s evolution exemplifies the search for improvement: 1901 meant motorised and oil powered; 1905 92 pounds and too heavy for domestic practicality; 1920 33 pounds: 1931 lighter still and with disposable bags. Entirely new inventions also sprang into being, from the electric shaver to television. Possibly the most innately British invention ever was patented in 1933, an electric machine for making tea automatically at the bedside, complete with integrated clock and light – the Teasmade.


Electricity increasingly meant style and excitement. Neon lighting gathered momentum as creative influences in various parts of the world embarked on the design of spectacular static and animated images, signage and the building of decorative features. The influence of film and theatrical stars, whether on screen, still photographs or stage, were clearly glamorised by dramatic electric lighting effects. Electricity was therefore marketed to women in two ways – as a clear domestic benefit in reducing labour and increasing cleanliness (no dirty gas, new time saving appliances), and as a benefit and aid to leisure whether at home or going out more into the world. Restaurants and cafes, drawing men and women both, had been growing since the late 19th century and were part of the greater liberty taken by women outside the home. The nightclub lured with its demonstrable disregard of old-fashioned respectability. Neon attracted from outside, and within they were electrically and artistically lit, as nightclubs became the excitingly louche place to see and be seen.

Clothing and fabrics were increasingly designed to look their best under night-time electric light, such as eye-catchingly slinky silver lamé. Makeup emphasised facial features with drama and impact, distinctively countering lingering Victorian-era mores of ‘natural’ beauty (itself a reaction to Georgian artifice). Considerable space in women’s magazines was given to the importance of getting one’s makeup correct, particularly rouge and lipstick, in terms of colour shading, subtlety or drama, for different lighting environments and times of day. Hairstyles were also influenced by electricity: the improved electric permanent wave machine was patented in 1928 (first in 1906). The shorter hairstyles of the 20s brought about an enormous demand for Marcel-waved bobbed hair, and the permanent wave gave the right curls that lasted day in and day out – film star looks on a budget, and outlasting the fleeting effects of a damaging hot iron.

With the first UK radio broadcast in 1920 and the BBC’s 1922 formation, radio began to leave its infancy behind, although for a few years still the province of enthusiasts using battery-powered crystal sets with antennae and personal headsets. By the late 1930s there was a mass-produced, often wall-socket powered radio (previously needing a light socket adapter or battery) in nearly all homes, broadcasting news, sports, music, educational programmes and variety shows. Families gathered around the radio just as they had previously gathered around the fireplace reading aloud or silently, or playing an instrument. Now, however, with this new leisure entertainment people operated to a time-driven, predetermined-subject programme not shaped by themselves. Leisure was still leisure, but mass broadcasting meant people heard, acted and were influenced by the same thing at the same time within their own homes. The boundary between the public and private spheres was being reshaped.

The 20s and 30s saw the rise of ‘picture palace’ cinema architecture, fully confident in itself and less influenced by theatres. The Art Deco style dominated, and luxury and comfort were the bywords. Cinema production technology developed further as well. Early cinema (late 1890s/early 1900s) had meant shooting live outdoor commonplace movement occurrences (people dancing, trains arriving). This changed by the ‘10s and beyond to incorporating increasingly sophisticated story lines and artistic lighting effects into their works, making great artistic strides in the 1920s. Research and development concentrated on developing lighting for indoor filming, with innovation accelerating in the 20s. This aided the development of the early talkies (late 20s/early 30s), where early microphones had to be used in sound-controlled, indoor environments. Fresh and changing newsreels about world events became a cinema staple in the 20s. Information – and propaganda – now had a simultaneously-heard and reacted-to audience outside as well as inside the home.

Further Reading and References:

Bud, Robert: Nizoil, Simon: Boon, Timothy: Nahum, Andrew. Inventing the Modern World. 2000

Dillon, Maureen. Artificial Sunshine. 2002

Hammond, Robert. Electric Light in Our Homes. 1884.

Hannah, Leslie. Electricity before Nationalisation. 1979.

Nevett, T.R. Advertising in Britain. 1982.

Otten, John. Death of a Lightbulb. 2012.

Parsons, R.H. The Early Days of the Power Station Industry. 1940 (reprint 2015).

Tye, Ray. Rays of Light: A Comprehensive History of the Incandescent Light Bulb. 2014.

Usai, Paolo Cherchi. Silent Cinema. 2019.

Westinghouse. Everything Electrical for Cinemas, Theatres and Public Buildings Generally. 1914.