Designers, Makers and Technology
In 1951, glass ribbon machines were developed that produced up to 1.5 million bulbs daily. The cartels that had such a stranglehold on the electricity industry were broken by the late 1950s, finally allowing for competition and free trade with no price-fixing. The stage was set for globalisation of the light bulb market. Today, for example, Philips light bulbs are made in China, India, and South East Asia.
Electricity’s advent resulted in industrial productivity on scales never before seen, creating entire industries dedicated to generating electricity for commercial, public and private use, or to transmit data through electrical signals. The mindset behind post-war new building construction, whether for commercial or domestic usage, reflected the experimental, reformist establishment of the Welfare State in Britain and the world of electricity.
Post-war industry and commerce focussed strongly on creating electricity-dependent domestic products and stimulating the lifestyle-desire for them.
Transport changed from the 1950s onward to reflect the onward march of electricity. After World War II and the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, British Railways expanded electrification via overhead cabling and third rail technology. From the mid 50s onward standardisation and conversion to these methods prevailed. The puffing sound and black smoke of coal and steam, now romanticised in memory with its resulting smuts forgotten, gradually disappeared from the transport landscape.
By the late 40s and early 50s it was clear the existing electricity grid would not be able to meet predicted demand, and so in 1949 talks took place with France about constructing a cross-Channel power link. New and large projects were planned, resulting in major power stations like London’s Battersea being built for the national grid. In 1957 the Electricity Act created the Central Electricity Generating Board, and in the late 50s the grid was consolidated into large, more efficient regional operations (from 12 to 5).
Growing demand meant fuel sources for power evolved and diversified over these decades. In the 1950s and 1960s virtually all the energy and electricity produced in the UK was coal-based. There was a small amount of primary electricity, via hydro schemes but all other fuels such as oil were imported or made from coal such as ‘town gas’ and electricity. 1962 saw nuclear reactors in Essex and Gloucestershire first providing electrical power, and in 1976 Hinkley Point B nuclear power station became active. The power source situation changed dramatically during the late 1960s and 1970s as the UK itself started to produce oil and natural gas (North Sea). By 1980 coal represented only 39 per cent of production, crude oil 41 per cent, gas 16 per cent and primary electricity (nuclear and hydro) 4 per cent.
Commercially and industrially it became clear that electricity use and unfettered access to it was imperative for economic development. Lack of or disruption to reliability and infrastructure were seen as constraints to growth and violating public expectations. Power supply difficulties in the 1970s due to industrial unrest and political choices, and government imposition of the 3 day week strongly made this point, leading to political changes in the later 1970s and into the 1980s.
The progressive nature of the new Welfare State in the UK meant that domestic building of houses and flats swept aside Victorian-era slums and bombed-out buildings. Modern building trends meant the cleanliness and comfort of electricity. Although gas sometimes remained for fireplaces and cooking, often the new radically tall blocks of flats were electric only. Broadcasting, gas and electricity were three ‘utilities’ considered to provide a more comfortable and easy form of domestic life.
Advertising heavily featured electrical, labour-saving devices – washing machines, wringers, refrigerators, dishwashers, cookers and electric tools. Affording and obtaining these often remained aspirational: a washing machine was around a month’s average wages in the earlier part of this period. Yet where these new or improved devices could be attained, they reduced (or changed the focus of) women’s long hours of housework. In the 1950s and 60s living standards began to rise, with post-war frugality giving way to a new era of consumption. Full employment and the prevalence of ‘hire purchase’ in the 1950s resulted in increased ability to obtain the array of new electric household devices.
The kitchen changed culturally from a place simply to prepare food to a more central home activity room. Diets changed too with the removal of rationing (meat, the last, ended in 1954). More frozen vegetables, frozen or processed meats and instant coffee were made possible by electricity via refrigerated mass transport and processing technology. Trade magazines from the makers of electrical appliances often included guides for use, and magazines such as Good Housekeeping combined the enthusiasm for electric cookers with the joy of unrationed food, providing exciting recipes such as veal fricassee or pineapple creams.
Home could be improved and updated through one’s own efforts, not only through purchases. The steam-driven printing presses of previous century had enormously increased the output of newspapers and magazines. A new development in mass media printing was the electrical phototypesetting machine (invented 1949), which unleashed the creative abilities of smaller publishers enabled smaller print runs (compared to the daily national newspapers). Heavily image-driven specialist magazines, easy to lay out and with many fonts became possible, attractive, and economically viable. Practical Householder magazine, on sale from 1955, evidenced the DIY boom by covering amateur wiring and electrical installation projects and promoting electric tools.
In this home-centred period, health and safety legislation and safety products for the domestic environment arose: for example guards for electric or gas fireplaces were required as part of manufacture in the mid 1950s, when the statistics were publicised around burns and deaths involving these, exacerbated by the increase in highly flammable popular nylon fabrics.
In 1961, the Parker Morris Report Homes for Today and Tomorrow laid out recommendations for the specifications of the modern home. It was a landmark in the design of public housing. The Report recommended that there should be 15– 20 electrical sockets per house to accommodate the increasing numbers of domestic electrical products, rather than the average of 6 in new houses at the time. Electrical technology and the comfort it could provide were now prerequisites of the modern home. Television, powered by electricity and a provider of leisure within the home, became an example and symbol of modern domesticity.
The television set was a desirable electric commodity in itself. Watching it became the gateway to further commodities, through the influence of advertising with the arrival of commercial television (ITV, 1955). Television had a powerful domestic impact. Listening to the radio still enabled other simultaneous tasks – puzzles, sewing, etc. Television required more attention due to the visual element. As with radio, its set programming influenced household routines such as mealtimes. Television developed from a luxurious and expensive consumer good into a widely-owned household object from the late 40s to mid 60s: then came the added fillip of transitioning from a black and white to a colour set, from 1969’s first UK colour broadcast and into the 70s.
The television set itself became a design influence on other electric devices. 1951’s Festival of Britain had a model entertainment room, demonstrating various ways of lighting television viewing. As home design trends progressed in the 50s and 60s, magazine articles discussed angles and correct lighting to avoid glare. Placing a subdued electric lamp on the television itself became part of domestic design, joining the previously marketed special-feature reading and sewing lights. As television sets’ design changed so did the lights associated with them, e.g. greater use of plastics and minimalist or pop-art designs.
By the 1970s, the average number of electronic appliances per household was 16 (around 27 now, for comparison). Unsurprisingly electricity consumption had risen as well. In 1973-74, industrial unrest and striking workers in the power industry prompted Edward Heath’s government to put into place the three day week, limiting domestic use of electricity and putting curfews on television broadcasting. This sudden lifestyle revision demonstrated the unquestionable and complete reliance on electricity that is a feature of modern life and the critical nature of its continual provision.
The decades following the Second World War brought social and technological changes to leisure. The increase in modern house and flat building to solve the housing shortage took both electrical and gas provision as the base line. Advertising for electric domestic products and appliances strongly emphasised their labour-saving aspect, especially for women, and their potential to increase time available for leisure activities.
This was also the period of another electrically-enabled, socially-influencing, leisure technology – the great mass medium of television found its way into millions of homes. Magazines directed at leisure time for men often featured DIY home improvement projects – including amateur home electrical wiring – often demonstrating and advertising electrical power tools. Women’s magazines featured open plan living with the latest domestic appliances, showing how women could watch television whilst doing domestic chores in the kitchen – meaning that despite electric appliances’ labour-saving design, domestic ‘leisure’ for women still involved housework. There was greater delineation for men, dividing their time between the office or factory, and what took place in the home and beyond.
Leisure and advertising continued to be linked beyond the world of home. The use of neon for 1950s and 60s signs to advertise places of leisure or products continued, even if as time went on it denoted the glamour of a by-gone age. These electric signs became so embedded in local culture that in later periods when buildings were changed in purpose or demolished an outcry demanded the neon signs’ retention. Some were placed in museums, such as the iconic Lucozade sign seen by millions on the way to London Heathrow. Some remained rather incongruously in situ: London’s Walthamstow Stadium for dog racing was closed and converted to residential properties, yet retained its iconic 1950s neon sign.
Television had a severe effect on cinema’s popularity in the 50s, continuing on into the 60s and 70s. The previous decades’ enormous picture palaces, once the latest in luxurious electricity, were now worn, outmoded and hard to fill. The film industry tried with increasing desperation to use technology to revitalise audiences, such as super-wide screens and technicolour extravaganzas as a contrast to the small black and white screen at home. From its UK 1948 peak of 1,650 million visits, by 1957 this number had fallen to 910 million. The late 50s and 60s however marked yet another period of transition in British cinema. Northern, working-class anti-heroes filled the big screen. James Bond became a British cinema staple. With the rise of ‘Swinging London’ in the 1960s, many films were centred around this exciting and expressive youth culture. Still, in the 70s, many large cinemas had been converted for other leisure activities such as bingo – still well lit, relatively comfortable, and oriented toward the group experience.
Electrification also became part of popular music, live or in playback. Radio was still very important for music’s dissemination, but the boom was in the home phonograph playing one’s personal collection of LPs and singles, purchased with the growing buying power of the post-war baby boom generation. Driven by electricity’s innovative power and the need to be heard by ever-larger audiences in halls and stadia, live music in the 60s and 70s continually featured electric guitars, amplification, better microphones, electric keyboards and synthesisers. These too could be used in the home by aspiring musicians. By the end of the 70s, electricity had completely transformed leisure and living, and life without it essentially inconceivable.
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.