By Asha Gage, IET Archivist

When two pieces of carbon are connected to a high voltage electricity supply, an arc of brilliant light is “struck” between them when they are a short distance apart. The first man to observe this dazzling effect was Sir Humphry Davy around 1802, although he did not use it as a source of illumination, rather for a source of heat in his chemical work. During the next 70 years several engineers used the arc to make practical electric lamps

In Britain one of the most successful was William Staite, an important figure in the history of the arc lamp but who received little credit for his work during his life. Between 1846 and 1853 he was granted several patents relating to electric lighting.

Who was William Edwards Staite?

William Edwards Staite was born in 1809 in Bristol. Working with William Petrie they developed a self-regulating arc lamp. As early as 1834 Staite was experimenting with electrical light and by 1846 he presented an improved lamp with a clockwork system that provided fresh coal for the electrodes that allowed for a relatively continuous light source. By 1853 he wrote to Michael Faraday to say that he had simplified his design rendering the clockwork mechanism unnecessary.

Between 1846 and 1853 he worked with Petrie to improve the lamp and took out further patents. During this time Staite gave many lectures and public demonstrations, some had been attended by high profile guests such as Michael Faraday and Queen Victoria. In his memoir he lists over 40 public demonstrations throughout England. The first of these, part of a series of lectures on ‘Electric Illumination’ given at the Sunderland Literary and Philosophical Society on 25 October 1847, was highly influential upon a certain young chemist, Joseph Swan, who later went on to develop a successful electric light bulb. The following evening Staite illuminated a large room for the Society’s annual ball with an arc lamp.

Staite’s public demonstrations

Poster from one of Staite’s public lectures, Newcastle June 1850.

During a stay in Manchester in 1850-1851 Staite gave many demonstrations of his light. A committee was formed to report on its practicality but concluded that the high consumption of metal plates and acid rendered them economically unviable. Despite the committee deciding against using Staite’s lamps for general use, rail companies showed an interest. Accidents in railway tunnels were unfortunately common which led to Staite’s first demonstration of his lighting in Liverpool at a railway premises in June 1851. A year later, also in Liverpool, Staite was asked to demonstrate the feasibility of his light at the Docks. It was a success but Staite carried out these experiments at his own expense.

These public demonstrations at personal expense left Staite at considerable financial loss. Coupled with the staggering costs of the primary cells used to power his electric lights and his ill health Staite’s efforts never achieved commercial success.

Even during his lifetime Staite’s contributions went largely uncredited.  Arc lamps were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but no acknowledgement was given to the features that Staite helped to develop. In response Staite wrote a letter to The Times with his claims but it was not published. This prompted Staite to write a memoir of his work with arc lamps which included the text that the newspaper declined. This manuscript was deposited with the Institution of Electrical Engineers in October 1902 and is now in the IET Archives.

An illuminating memoir

Title page from Volume 1 of Staite’s ‘Electric Light – opinions of the press, notes and notices’ 1847.

In addition to the manuscript by Staite entitled ‘Lighting by Electricity’ the collection also contains two volumes of press cuttings, ‘The Electric Light: Opinions of the Press’ with prefatory remarks by William Staite. Staite attempted to correct the descriptions of the electric light in the press with his manuscript notes and inclusion of patent specifications that showed the subsequent improvements in their design.

He wrote,

“Many of the descriptions of the original Electric-light apparatus, given in the following newspaper-notices, are incorrect, – some of them ridiculously so.”

In addition to press cuttings the volumes also contain poems about Staite and the electric light and a poster for one of his public lectures in Newcastle in June 1850.

One verse, written by Hyam’s National Tailoring and Clothing Establishment, Manchester, bestows this accolade on Staite’s electric light at a recent demonstration,

“And whilst great credit we award,
To the talent of our city,
Were we unnoticed to leave Staite,
Would be in truth a pity.
The Electric Light deserves from all
The warmest admiration;
It is the wonder of the age,
And meets our acclamations!”

Letters in a different collection of correspondence belonging to John Joseph Fahie purport that the Staite papers were deposited after a dialogue between Fahie and Reverend G H Staite, William’s son. Fahie was collecting material to write an article on William Staite. Rev Staite was corresponding with Fahie and in one letter dated 8 Nov 1898 he hoped that Fahie’s article would assist in getting recognition from the Government for his father’s work.

Unfortunately, back in 1846 when Staite was granted patent number 11076, he envisaged the use of either a voltaic battery or a magnetic machine to power his lamps. However, although the lamp had been advanced the means to provide the electrical energy was prohibitive. Staite died at an early age in 1854 so did not achieve financial success nor credit for his endeavours.