Lunchtime seminar – 10th November: Paul Coleman (University of Leeds)

Paul Coleman

World War One and the Development of Electrical Supply in Britain

The argument that warfare drives innovation is not new, however it is often applied to obviously military technologies such as the submarine or tank. However, developments in predominantly civilian technologies are less obviously explained that way, at least for the early twentieth century. This paper extends Edgerton’s warfare state thesis back into the First World War and the development of the British electricity supply. Not only was access to electrical power vital to any economy that operated on a war footing: contrary to the claims of Thomas Hughes and Leslie Hannah – the First World War was to have a lasting and pervasive influence on the development of electrical supply in Britain.

Prior to the war electrical supply networks in Britain were predominantly regional restricted by government regulation to supplying only small civic/county catchment areas. The Great War changed this, the huge increase in demand for munitions production leading to increased demands for electricity. By mid-1915 the Ministry of Munitions had secured unprecedented control of electrical energy production. It thus acquired the authority to allocate resources for the extension and construction of new power stations, where possible interconnection of power networks was encouraged in order to improve efficiency and security of supply. Realising the potential importance of electricity to the nation, Lloyd George’s wartime government instigated a series of commissions and reports into the future organisation of the electricity supply, the conclusions of which formed the basis of a significant post-war re-organisation of the electricity supply industry resulting in the creation of the National Grid in 1926.

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