When we think of power, we tend to automatically think of the electrical grid and what it has done for our lives. Indeed, access to electricity is so important to our modern civilization that when it is not available, we are extremely inconvenienced and irritated. But electricity as a power source is not that old; we tend to forget that man turned to other sources of power long before electricity was harnessed and generated for distribution to us.
Ever since man first understood that grain could be ground into flour, he has had the need for power sources. Initially, that power came from his arms, as he ground the kernels on a grinding stone. But as the centuries went by, he began to realize that there were natural forces that could be harnessed to help with this onerous task.
The first natural force to be harnessed to provide power was water flow. The Roman engineer Vitruvius described the first upright waterwheel. The Greek invention of a toothed gear was combined with the wheel with paddles placed in running water to make up the power source known as the paddlewheel. The paddlewheel gave the Romans the first taste of an industrial revolution, as it was used in many ancient industries.
Archaeologists have found some astounding examples of multiple wheels, placed together in sequence, that provided early examples of power stations. The Romans used wheels in combination with each other to raise water out of their mines. In Spain, a find was made of 16 wheels, constructed one above each other, that lifted water approximately 80 feet out of the mine. A similar drainage system has been found in an ancient Roman gold mine in Dolaucothi, Wales, and has been dated back to 90 CE.
Another natural force that has been harnessed to provide power is the wind. Everyone knows that sailing ships have used the wind for millennia, but the wind has also been used on land to provide power. The very first recorded wind-driven machine was described by Heron of Alexandria, a Greek engineer who invented his windwheel in the first century AD.
The earliest recorded practical wind-driven power sources came from the Sistan region of Iran; these horizontally-oriented windmills were known as Panemone windmills. They had anywhere between six and twelve rectangular sails that were covered with woven reed mats or cloth and attached to long, vertical drive shafts. They were used to engage grinding stones for processing grain and sugar cane or to power a wheel of cups that lifted water.
These forms of power served mankind for hundreds of years, but with the inexorable march of invention and technology, electricity became better understood and harnessed as the first electrical power stations arrived on our planet. It was only when the first power stations were built towards the middle of the 1800s that the general public began to enjoy daily access to electricity.
These power stations worked by using generators to convert mechanical power into electrical power. The stations needed to create steam that then enabled turbines to generate electricity; for that, they needed huge amounts of coal.
The demand for electricity became universal, resulting in the building of more power stations, some by private persons for their estates, and a number by private companies that supplied the smaller towns. Municipalities built power stations to provide electricity for the larger towns and cities. However, most of the people living in rural areas remained without electricity.
America led the charge in the generation of electrical power. In 1879, Alfred Dolgeville, a German immigrant, installed a water-powered dynamo at Brockett’s Bridge to run a small industry in the area. This was followed by another water-driven dynamo at Niagara in the following year, and in 1882 a water-powered plant, the Vulcan Street Plant, was built on the Fox River at Appleton, Wisconsin. This station is acknowledged as the first plant to provide commercial customers with an electrical connection.
In the same year, Thomas Edison, through his Edison Illuminating Company, built a power Station at Pearl Street in New York. When it first opened, this direct-current power station provided the power for 400 lights, serving 85 customers over several city blocks of Manhattan.
Development of power stations was also taking place in England; two of the first central power plants, both supplying direct current, were built in 1882. One was London’s Edison Electric Light Station, a public power station that supplied electricity via culverts to the nearby premises.
Deptford Power Station in Greenwich was the world’s largest power station when it opened in 1891. It was also the most advanced central power station, being the first to use high voltage alternating current (AC) in place of the less-satisfactory direct current (DC). It supplied the central London area via the underground mains. Such was the demand that two more power stations were built: Deptford West in 1929 and Deptford East in 1957. Deptford had the doubtful distinction of being bombed in both wars, but remained operational until 1983 and was finally demolished in 1992 to make way for the development of private apartments.
Lots Road Power Station in Chelsea was planned in 1897, but ownership changed hands a few times until finally this steel-framed structure was completed in 1904. It was used for the electrification of the railways, and for the following 98 years supplied the electricity for the underground railway system in that area. Finally decommissioned in 2002, the area was developed as part of the luxury Chelsea Waterfront.
American engineers had pioneered an extremely efficient means of erecting power stations, and British entrepreneurs were quick to take advantage of their expertise.
Their method of erecting the steel framing which provided the support required for the traveling cranes and coal conveyors, as well as for the upper floor levels, was used in building the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company Powerhouse in Bristol.
Erected during 1899–1900, the American-designed structure was manufactured and assembled in Pittsburgh, then shipped across to Bristol. An architect-designed brick front was built specifically for the purpose of hiding the unattractive steel structure of this power station.
A charming example of a private power station was Newborough Hall in Northumberland, built in 1902. When the Hall was being modernized, the plan was to have electricity installed, but as the power station building would be very visible and was rather ugly, it was designed to look like a quaint cottage.
It was built from dressed stone and had a gabled dormer, casement windows, and an unusual turret, all of which hiding the fact that it was, in reality, a power station. Today it is called Gardener’s Cottage and is a privately-owned home.
An important power station, generating alternating current transmitted by underground culverts, was built in 1906. This was the Philadelphia Power Station in Tyne & Wear. It provided local mines with electricity and also supplied the districts’ tramways. Closed after being incorporated into the Newcastle upon Tyne Electric Supply Company, the Coal Board used the building as a public garage, but today it is a workshop.
On the Thames River is Battersea Power Station, probably the most famous power station in Britain. Often featured in the media, most popularly on Pink Floyd’s cover of Animals, this power station has had much public recognition.
Its architecture is a good example of Art Deco, and it was acknowledged as the largest brick building in Europe when it was completed in 1937. The second stage of this power station was built during the 1950s and, although decommissioned in 1983, it has remained a tribute to London’s industrial past. It has recently undergone some restoration and is presently the central point of a 40-acre development which features housing, cafes, shops, and leisure facilities.
Many of these power stations used coal to heat water for creating the steam that drove turbines. The next great change in the heat source was the move to nuclear power generation. The first nuclear-powered electrical generator opened in June 1954 at Obninsk, Russia. Since then, nuclear-powered stations have proliferated all over the globe. Sadly, along with the fantastic progress made in the generation of power came the pollution problem of used fuel and disasters at such places as Chernobyl.
Many of the old coal-fired power stations are viewed nostalgically by the people that live near them, and many have been resurrected to fulfill a new purpose. Some have become housing while others have become shopping precincts, but most were attractive buildings that everyone wanted to save. The same cannot be said for modern nuclear power stations.
Once again, technology and our concern for our planet mean that there is a concerted effort to move towards the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, wave, solar, hydro-electrics, and bio-fuels for the generation of electricity.
It seems that, in a way, we have turned full circle and are once again returning to our old friends – wind and water.
While we are grateful for the ease with which we are supplied with electricity – and salute those who use renewable means for their electrical requirements – it is pleasurably nostalgic to be able to visit these remarkable historical “mammoth” power stations of a bygone era.