By Anne Locker

The first steam traction engines in India. The first electric lights installed in the Vienna Opera House. The first domestic electricity supply schemes in the UK. These, and many more engineering firsts, were the work of the fearless experimenter and engineering enthusiast Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton.

Crompton was born in 1845, between the first and second industrial revolutions. The young boy was fascinated by machinery, an interest fuelled by his visit to the Great Exhibition in 1851:

“For me the unforgettable part and focus of the whole Exhibition was the Machinery Hall at one end of it. Thither I dragged my mother, and there I would willingly have stayed. Neither Koh-i-noor diamond, nor Osler’s Crystal Fountain, nor any of the numerous side-shows had any attractions for me to compare with those of the locomotives, with their brilliantly polished piston rods and brasses burnished like gold.”

Crompton, Reminiscences p. 5

While at school, Crompton built an electrostatic machine to carry out experiments (and give his schoolfriends electric shocks). He also started work on a steam-driven model road engine. This engine would later be named the Blue Belle and its remaining parts are held at the Science Museum in London.

After he left school, there was some discussion in the family about Crompton’s future. He could go into the army, but would a commission in the Foreign Office be preferable? He was duly sent to Paris to learn French. Then the decision was made that he should go into the Army after all, and he obtained a commission in the Rifle Brigade, but not before he went to the Great Northern Railway in Doncaster to get some basic engineering training.

Crompton was stationed in India, where he managed to persuade the authorities to have his schoolboy steam engine sent from England. He wanted to demonstrate that steam traction could be used for road transport, and was awarded the title of ‘Superintendent of the Government Steam Train.’ After some successful demonstrations, he got funding to return to the UK and build two more road traction engines, this time using an improved boiler design and (a real innovation) pneumatic tyres. He took the opportunity to get married, bringing his new wife on the engine’s first test journey between Ipswich and Wolverhampton. A later run between Ipswich and Edinburgh, with 25 passengers, saw the vehicle reach speeds of 20-30 mph. This required a special license, as he was exceeding the speed limit twice over!

Crompton left the Army in 1875. He wanted to continue working as an engineer, but didn’t see much prospect for steam transport in the UK. He joined the Chelmsford engineering firm T H P Dennis & Co. as a partner, and worked as a consulting engineer on waterwheels, steam trams and foundries. It was at a foundry that Crompton first experimented with electric arc lamps, importing a Gramme machine from France for the electrical supply. He soon saw the possibilities of electric lighting, and set up Crompton & Co to make arc lamps and electrical plant in the Chelmsford works.

Crompton & Co would become the preeminent engineering firm for electric light in the UK. Keen to show off the new technology, Crompton set up portable arc lamps at Henley Regatta in 1879. St Enoch station, Glasgow, was lit by Crompton arc lamps, and he was awarded the contract to install electric lighting at the newly rebuilt Ring Theatre in Vienna. The generating station suppled the theatre and other public buildings within a 1 mile radius – the most ambitious supply system then in operation.

In principle, a similar system could be used for domestic houses. In 1886, Crompton set up a lighting scheme in Kensington Court, London, a new housing estate with around 100 large houses connected by subways. A station generating 550 kw supplied the houses at 200 (later 400) watts at a charge of 8p per unit.

Crompton & Co went on to design electric heaters and domestic appliances such as cookers and kettles. To help convince the public, a School of Electric Cookery was set up in 1894.

Street lighting with Crompton arc lamps, from a Crompton & Co catalogue, 1913 (NAEST 077)

In 1898, Crompton returned to military life, this time as a volunteer. He was one of the founder members of the Electrical Engineers (Royal Engineers) Volunteers, later the London Electrical Engineers. Crompton worked as a consultant on military matters and contributed to the first designs for the British landship (or tank) in the First World War.

Not content with pioneering steam traction, electric light and domestic electricity supply, Crompton was also an early supporter of national and international electrical standards. In 1904, he presented a paper on electrical standardisation and was asked to head a commission on the topic. His recommendations led to the foundation of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in 1906. He also sat on the first committee of the Wiring Regulations in 1882.

In 1929 Crompton and Co. merged with F & A Parkinson to form Crompton-Parkinson Ltd. Crompton decided to retire – he was then in his early 80s.

Colonel Crompton died in 1940 at the age of 94. He had seen electrical technology develop from a child’s toy to the National Grid, and road traction engines become consumer cars. Throughout his career, he worked with his fellow engineers to make practical devices to light our homes, cook our meals and get us to our destination. On his 90th birthday a banquet was held in his honour, and the occasion was marked by a special supplement in the Engineer journal. A tribute to the man who had never forgotten the beauty of engineering and “brasses burnished like gold.”

Colonel Crompton, taken on his 90th birthday