By Anne Locker, Library and Archives Manager

Illustration from ‘Train lighting from the car axle’, Consolidated Railway Electric Lighting and Equipment Company 1900 (IEE Pamphlets 625.2)

This illustration of the interior of an elegant private train car, fitted with the latest electric technology, is taken from the Consolidated Railway Electric Lighting and Equipment Company pamphlet, ‘Train lighting from the car axle’ (1900).

Electric lighting on trains predates the electrification of the railways. The first trains to be lit by electricity were designed by the engineer William Stroudley for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway around 1881. The lights relied on batteries, but the motive power was still provided by steam. The first electric railway in the UK was also in Brighton – Volk’s railway in 1883 – and in 1890 electric trains began to be run on the London Underground.

The Consolidated Railway Electric Lighting and Equipment Company system did not rely on the locomotive being run on electricity. Power for the lights came from a dynamo connected to the axle of an individual carriage. As the carriage moved, the dynamo generated power. Excess current was stored in batteries, which could be used when the train was stationary or moving at low speed. The current was controlled by a rheostat, to ensure a steady supply of between 32 and 40 volts. This ‘Axle Light’ system was mounted under the carriage in a sealed unit, and weighed “considerably less than one thousand pounds”.

Generator attached to the train carriage

Lighting was provided by 16-candlepower incandescent lamps with short, sturdy filaments. The pamphlet claims that each carriage could be fitted with 17 to 80 lamps, 2 to 8 electric fans and even an electric refrigerator.

Electric lighting in the private car drawing room

Electric lighting was still very new in 1900, and marketing often focused on three benefits: beauty, utility and safety. The beauty of the new electric lamps is shown off in this pamphlet with its detailed illustrations, but utility and safety were important too. The company stated that, once fitted, the system needed little maintenance. It could run for 3-4 months without oiling, and it didn’t require trained staff to operate it on long journeys. If the train crashed, the electric system was far less dangerous than gas, it had a low fire risk, and there were no unpleasant smells.

Electric lighting in a US Postal Car

Electric lighting would become the default, but its early history can be difficult to trace. This pamphlet belongs to a class of library publications known (rather uninspiringly) as ‘grey literature’. Grey literature is information published by companies, governments or academia outside the standard commercial publishing model, i.e. not books, journals or formal research publications. While the quality of these publications can vary, it’s often the place where new technologies are documented. It’s also the type of publication that is easily lost. We are very grateful to previous IET librarians, who thought it was important to collect and keep pamphlets like these.

It’s still a challenge when documenting technology today: how do we identify and preserve current ‘grey literature’, now including varied sources like social media and blogs? We don’t have an easy answer, but we are still collecting. If you have been working on a new technology, and have some interesting sources you think need to be preserved, please get in touch.