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Colonel Crompton: the king of electricity

by Mark Fray

It is the night of February 12, 1895, and a distinguished gentleman with a traditional Victorian handlebar moustache sits working in his laboratory in west London. The night is frosty and clear of the smog that three years previously had suffocated thousands. The moon is close to full. Suddenly, a servant rushes in bearing news of a serious fire in a local power station and the room's electric lights soon dim to a dull red.

For those Londoners lucky enough to have swapped their dirty gas lamps and their noxious fumes for the cleanliness of their innovative electrical cousins, power cuts were just a temporary inconvenience in this magical new illuminated world.

Yet for this man, the fire was not something he could ignore. Colonel Crompton, the pioneering genius behind one of the world's first public lighting schemes, jumped to his feet and ran around the corner to his own generating station, in the hope that he could avert disaster.

Arriving at the scene, he met a colleague and surveyed the inferno. The upper floors were practically destroyed and there was a real danger that fire would spread to the back of the boiler house and a vast tank of oil housed there. If this caught alight, the whole building, and many of the residences in the area, would be destroyed.

He soon realised that the only way to access the oil tank was to take the fire hoses through the front door of his own house and out through the back window. By now all the dynamos had stopped working and the lighting was only kept going by a bank of accumulator cells. When the torrents of water from the hoses reached these, these too failed.

As Crompton and his colleague worked to put out the fire, they constantly received electric shocks as they disconnected the station from the network while the water from the fire hoses formed icicles on their hands. Acid water overflowing from the accumulator cells burned their wrists. Slowly the blaze was brought under control and they managed to keep the oil tank from exploding. For those working at the forefront of electrical engineering at the industry's birth, risks such as these were all in a day's work.

Fascination with mechanical things
Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton was born at Sion Hill, near Thirsk in Yorkshire , England on 31 May 1845 , one of five children. His passion for engineering began early. In his autobiography, Reminiscences, Crompton tells of a trip to London 's Great Exhibition of 1851. "For me, the unforgettable part and focus of the whole exhibition was the Machinery Hall...neither Koh-I-Noor diamond, nor Osler's crystal fountain...had any attractions for me to compare with those of the locomotives, with their brilliantly polished piston roads and brasses burnished like gold."

His schooling started at Sharow, near Ripon in Yorkshire, along with 19 other boys, aged between 7 and 15. One of his fellow pupils there was Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

But Crompton's education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 and he was keen to see action, despite his young age. He was taken on by the Royal Navy as a cadet on HMS Dragon, commanded by his mother's cousin Captain Houston Stewart and headed for the Crimea. While there he witnessed the horrors of trench warfare but developed a taste for life in the military.

Back in England, he resumed his studies, entering Harrow in 1858. While there, he dropped Greek in favour of extra mathematics. "I also made a static electrical machine having a large glass disc with which we had great fun charging Leyden jars and giving shocks to the boys," reminisced Crompton later.

His practical experiments were not confined to term-time. During the summer holidays, his pet project was Blue Bell, a steam-driven road locomotive he built from scratch.

On leaving school, Crompton returned to the military, joining the Rifle Brigade in India . While there, he continued to be fascinated by steam-driven transportation. He had his beloved Blue Bell sent over to him and soon his "road locomotives" were replacing the more traditional bullock-drawn carts.

He took time out from his posting to India to marry the daughter of George Clarke but went back to India for a further four years before returning to Britain – with a dose of malaria picked up in Peshawur.

Success in business
Then began Crompton's commercial career in engineering. He moved to Ipswich , going into partnership with the Chelmsford firm of T.H.P. Dennis & Co, manufacturers of horticultural buildings and related heating plant. Here, he embarked on a project that first brought him into contact with the lighting systems that later defined his life.

Crompton's relatives owned a Derbyshire ironworks, for which he designed a mechanised foundry. To be economic, the plant had to run both day and night. As a solution, he imported generators and arc lamps that were being used to great effect by the Belgian engineer Zenobe Gramme in Paris.

Crompton soon began to make his own lamps that improved on Gramme's designs and those of Serrin and worked with the Swiss firm of Bürgin to develop a new type of dynamo, which soon proved popular.

By 1878, Crompton was able to take over T.H.P. Dennis & Co's Chelmsford premises to form Crompton and Co, which soon became the country's leading distributor and manufacturer of electricity generating and lighting systems.

Crompton's reputation was such that, in 1880, the chemist Joseph Swan sought his opinion when he first developed incandescent lamps for indoor use. Crompton immediately saw the potential and, within a couple of years, his firm was selling Swan's lamps and the generating equipment to go with them. His rapidly developing profile in the industry meant that he was soon asked to join the fledgling British Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), an organisation he was later to head as president.

With Swan's lamps and further developments of generators, Crompton and Co became involved in public lighting schemes, particularly railway stations, goods yards and the Alexandra Palace entertainment complex in north London. Here, he carried out a number of experiments on the effect of arc lighting on vegetation and flowers. Crompton afterwards reported that a young engineering student was often there, observing him at work. Crompton later discovered this student was Sebastian Ferranti and that his visits had been the beginnings of his interest in electricity.

The success of his British projects, led to a number of commissions in mainland Europe between 1885 and 1889. One such project was the Viennese Opera House, the first large theatre to be lit electrically anywhere. The public were astounded by the novel lighting effects that electricity was able to produce. Crompton spent so much time making "red hot" chains around the arms of the lead actor in the opera Merlin that he was asked to understudy one of the other characters.

Crompton's best remembered public scheme opened in London in 1887. Kensington Court , a new housing estate of a hundred residences was connected to a subterranean direct current generating network powered by seven steam engines. It was one of the earliest public power supply schemes and became a model for much of what was to follow.

However, the young student who had watched his experiments at Alexandra Palace - Ferranti - was at this time making huge strides in the development of the rival alternating current system. The opening of Ferranti's vast power station at Deptford in south-east London , which used high tension alternating current (AC), sounded the death knell for the use of direct current (DC) in public power supply.

From home appliances to military applications
Yet Crompton was a shrewd businessman and went on to manufacture AC power generators as well. He also helped extend the use of electricity into other areas, and Crompton and Co. invented the first electric toaster and some of the first electric ovens.

Transportation held appeal for Crompton throughout his life and he was a keen cyclist. Naturally enough, he tinkered with the mechanisms of his own bicycle, increasing the wheel diameter, lengthening the pedal cranks and altering the gear ratios. With these modifications, he boasted of being able to "do as much as two hundred miles in the day without being overtired".

The onset of the Boer War saw Crompton return to military service, as a colonel in the Royal Engineers. His own arc lamps started to be used as military searchlights. This was not his only contribution to military technology. During the First World War, he was asked to submit designs for "landships" that could cross trenches. These became the blueprint for the modern military tank.

Enter standardization
After the Boer War ended, Crompton became involved in standardization. He had long been concerned about the lack of a common terminology to describe the electrical phenomena he was seeing and the huge number of different schemes in operation. Virtually each different electricity generating network ran at a different voltage and interoperability of equipment was a huge problem.

In August 1904, he was asked by J K Gray, then president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, to accompany him to represent Britain at the Great International Exposition in St Louis , America . At the Exposition, Crompton presented a paper on standardization which was so well received that he was officially requested to look into the formation of a permanent International Electro-technical Commission, to deal with electrical standardization from an international standpoint. Crompton admitted afterwards that he foresaw "great difficulties" in the proposed scheme but these were eventually overcome and the IEC began to take shape.

In 1906, Crompton and Charles le Maistre, whom Crompton had asked to act as permanent secretary, drew up a constitution for the fledgling organisation. The IEC's first plenary meeting was held that same year in London and was attended by representatives of 14 countries.

The First World War interrupted the work of the IEC and when it met again, Crompton reported that: "The meeting eventually took place at Geneva, and was attended by unofficial German representatives," says Crompton in his autobiography. "It was a matter of great satisfaction to me that our peacemaking efforts were successful. No unpleasant incidents occurred at the public meetings, and at one of the dinners which followed, the French delegates consented at my personal request to shake hands with the German representatives."

But his interests in standardization were not restricted to electrical matters. A love of squash, picked up from Harrow , saw him involved in the "measuring and devising means of comparing the bounce of the various balls in circulation", according to the Tennis and Rackets Association.

In 1926, Crompton's role in the development of the electrical industry was recognised when he was awarded the IEE's Faraday Medal. The pace of change in the industry is highlighted by the fact that just two years later, work started on an electrical National Grid for Britain as a whole.

Partnership and retirement
The electrical industry had certainly moved on and a year later, Crompton and Co was bought out by rival Frank Parkinson in a move that surprised the electrical industry when they formed Crompton-Parkinson. The Crompton name disappeared for a while from British industry when Hawker Siddeley took over in 1967, but continued to live on in companies in Australia and India. Today, Crompton Controls Ltd. in the UK, of which Colonel Crompton was the founder, is back in private hands and is alive, well and prospering in the design and manufacture of electrical control equipment.

Colonel Crompton left his London home for the last time in 1939 to take up residence in Yorkshire . Before leaving, he was visited by John Somerville Highfield, a member of the Dynamicables lunch club for electrical engineers of which Crompton was a founding member, whether he needed anything there for his comfort. His nurse said there was no electric light and they were afraid of fire from paraffin lamps. "I hear you want an electric light at home," said Highfield. "I will see this is provided NOT off the Grid."

Highfield asked Frank Parkinson, Crompton's former rival, to help and he obliged in a few days with the provision of a small private plant, much to Crompton's pleasure.

Crompton died at his home, less than a year later, aged 95 with his place in the history of the practical development of electricity secure.

An incident from Crompton's time in Vienna is worth relating. One Sunday afternoon, he was walking in the city's Prater fairgrounds and came across a booth labelled Elektricitätskönigin and was "very curious to know what the Queen of Electricity could do".

Visitors to the booth were asked to kiss the hand of a woman. "The moment you touched her hands with your lips, you got a shock," said Crompton afterwards. "Then she asked us to join hands and make a circuit...some of us, notably myself, felt the shock very slightly, others far more so; seeing that I could stand more than the others, and probably more than the woman herself, I firmly grasped her hand and challenged her to exert her utmost power. She switched on extra current, and I held on. I could just bear it, but she could not. Large drops off sweat appeared on her forehead, and she subsided, saying, 'It is the King of Electricity, I am only the Queen."

He was indeed the King of Electricity.

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