It’s a gas… or not

A small note on the possible significance of the gas-lighting in the Richmond house of the Time Traveller in The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It’s come to my attention via an R.D. Mullen review that Leon Stover claimed that the Time Traveller’s house at Richmond was lit by gas. Paul Kincaid, in an otherwise scathing review of Stover in “Reprint: (Mis)Representing Wells”, cedes that…

Stover makes a revealing point about the gas light in the Time Traveller’s home and the presence of the provincial mayor at his dinner party: the mayor would have been responsible for the political decisions that prevented the spread of electric lighting to the town of Richmond, an example of local politics getting in the way of scientific advance.

I don’t yet have a copy of Stover’s edition of The Time Machine but Google Books obliges me with part of the relevant snippet…

“It is precisely this kind of muddle, created by the primacy of local patriotisms over the translocal imperatives of large-scale modernity, that kept electricity out of Richmond in favor of gas. Indeed, one of the Time Traveller’s guests is the very man responsible for that. He is the Provincial Mayor. Reactionary politicians like him provided a market for “incandescent” gas lighting in competition with Edison bulbs … Elsewhere the new technology [of electricity] redefined the old political territories by its translocal reach, whereas the Electric Lighting Act confined it within existing bounds.”

But a few minutes of research suggest this is incorrect, in terms of what was going on at Richmond at the time when The Time Machine was being written.

‘The Richmond (Surrey) Electric Lighting Order, 1883’ was confirmed in 1892, an agreement having been made with the Corporation on 8th December, 1891. The local Corporation (i.e.: the local council, aka the local authority, the town having incorporated in 1890) and a contractor formed a joint venture, the Richmond (Surrey) Electric Light and Power Company, which was announced in The Times newspaper on Friday 22nd July 1892, launching a limited company capitalised at £50,000. This company set about installing electric lighting across Richmond, for at least three years, most likely beginning in earnest in the spring of 1893 when allotment letters were issued. A short biography of one Percy Northey states he was “Chief Engineer constructing and running Richmond (Surrey) Electric Light and Power Co., for 3 years until 1896”, which suggests a three-year roll-out. Possibly there was a long transition period of dual supply, and not everyone living locally would have immediately swapped to electricity. Perhaps there was not immediate supply into every nook and cranny of the district. But there seems no indication in the historical record of “local patriotisms” or “local politics getting in the way of scientific advance”. The Provincial Mayor of The Time Machine, if the Mayor of Richmond, was not in 1893-94 holding back the local roll-out of electricity.

Interestingly, the elected mayor of Richmond in 1893-94 was Sir James Weeks Szlumper, the “civil engineer concerned with the construction of the London Underground” and as such hardly a provincial stick-in-the-mud (though Richmond was then under the county of Surrey, rather than London, hence the “Provincial” stands). One wonders if Wells, given his novel’s concern for the far-future development of underground spaces, was aware that Weeks Szlumper might be identified by his Richmond readers as “The Provincial Mayor”. Specifically in 1893-94 Weeks was the chief engineer and planner of the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway (the modern Picaddilly Line), a modern all-electric underground train line, then a major planning proposal and which eventually went ahead after Parliamentary approval in 1897. It connected central London with Wells’s beloved South Kensington.

Actually it’s by no means certain that the Time Traveller’s house was lit by gas. So far as I can tell gas is not mentioned in the 1895 text, only the opening “the incandescent lights” from which Stover infers gas-lighting. Yet a 1886 report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science talks of “the type of dynamo for the incandescent lights”, meaning electric lights. The Electrical Engineer magazine of 1893 talks of “the additional decorative effect of the electric light circles of numerous incandescent lamps” and in 1894 of a church where “The lighting effects are obtained by means of four arc “calcium” lights — two in the orchestra and two in the wings. … Incandescent lamps form the stamens of the lilies”. The Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1889) lauds the “value of the incandescent light, as introduced into private houses” specifically “its healthfulness” because it “does not to some extent poison the atmosphere [like gas]”. Clearly “incandescent” meant electric in 1894.

The Time Traveller’s electric lamps — albeit augmented by flattering after-dinner candles and a portable oil lamp at which cigars can be lit — are thus rather evidence of his advanced and cultured nature. Being not just electric light but light in the arts & crafts form of Tiffany-style flowers, a form which foreshadows the use of flowers at the end of the novel. The melding of electricity with flower forms appears to have been quite common at the time. For instance, a Popular Science News report of an exhibition at Frankfurt in 1891 lauded the ways that electric light was being shaped into flower forms…

It seems as though proof enough lay before us to convince us that the electric light is, of all others, the most capable of artistic handling. No longer need we be bound to ugly, upright globes to shade our lights; here are lily bells, roses, trumpet flowers, their petals glowing from stamens of electric light.


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