by Anne Locker
In 1923, IEE member Stanley Parker Smith was planning a new house in Glasgow, designed for “all-electric working” with no coal or gas. The design, construction and electrical installation of the house is described in a paper to the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, given in 1925. It’s a fascinating account of how an engineer faced technical, economic and social challenges to show that domestic electricity was the future.
His efforts were not met with universal enthusiasm. His professional colleagues thought that domestic electricity was too expensive, and that coal fires were essential for comfortable homes (and burning rubbish).
Professor S Parker Smith, ‘An all-electric house’, JIEE 1926
“the carrying out of such an unpopular idea must be largely attributed to the obstinacy of one who thought that the time had arrived when a professor of electrical engineering ought to have enough faith in his convictions and calculations to put them to the test.”
Cost was the biggest concern. As Parker Smith was able to design his house from scratch, he added new features and technology to reduce running costs as far as possible. He estimated that the cost of building his house was 3-4% higher than a standard design.
Designing an all-electric house
Parker Smith’s new home included three reception rooms, one kitchen, five bedrooms and one upstairs bathroom. Chimneys were added for ventilation as well as fireplaces that could be converted back to coal – just in case! There was no scullery, wash house or coal cellar.
Central heating or radiators were considered inferior to single radiant heaters. Smith thought that cool rooms (he suggested 50-55F or 10-12C), with windows open in winter and summer, were much healthier, so small fires were used in each room close to where people would sit. He also assumed a larger house would have domestic servants. A lot of thought went into the electric bell system which included three different bells: one for the front door, one for the side door and a gong for inside with bell pushes installed by the fireplaces.
“it is an advantage to have reliable bell circuits in an electrical engineer’s house.”
It’s good to hear that ‘[i]n general, the Wiring Regulations of the Institution were adhered to.’ Parker Smith chose rubber conduit (CTS) over screwed conduit as it was more expensive but more reliable. Sockets were designed with 15 amp three pin plugs (decades before these were standard in the UK) and a mechanical interlock switch which stopped the plug being removed if the power was still on. The sockets – 4-5 in each room – were built into skirting boards and the switches were foot-operated. Unfortunately, no drawings of the sockets were included.
Other innovations familiar to discussions on economy today included the use of a special off-peak tariff for heating hot water, new meters so the home owner could see how much electricity was being used for different activities, and a preference for heating the person (with individual electric heaters) rather than the whole room. Maintenance costs were reduced by hiring all appliances from Glasgow Corporation, and by running the electric lamps at a lower voltage to avoid damage to the delicate incandescent filaments.
Laundry by electricity
This house pre-dated the widespread adoption of electric washing machines in the UK. Instead, electricity was used to heat the water with a more traditional wash tub and boiler setup located in the kitchen. One new idea was the installation of an electric ‘drying closet’.
This was a small room off the kitchen, fitted with wooden rods for hanging the damp washing. An extractor fan was fitted in the floor, and a small electric heater warmed the air as it came in.
“After an hour the dried clothes come out as fresh as if they have been hung out in sunshine.”
Designing the future
Parker Smith was happy with his new home. He realised that some of the new appliances would be seen as luxuries but reminded his audience that luxuries soon become conveniences, and asserted that all-electric houses should appeal to those interested in new ideas and to households “where coal merely means drudgery.”
To achieve this, the electricity industry needed to get moving. Consumers needed more and better electrical appliances, and electricity undertakings needed to think about the needs of the domestic consumer, not just industry.
“Manufacturers should aim at improving designs, avoiding inferior workmanship and careless assembly, and, above all, reducing the cost of domestic appliances. Backward supply undertakings throughout the country should mend their ways by reducing their charges for the domestic load and hiring out appliances on a commercial basis.”
The future of the electric home
Parker Smith’s paper was popular – it was given in London and at several local centres – and prompted a lot of discussion and debate. Many engineers, as he suspected, were dubious about the idea that an all-electric house could be economical and comfortable. But he had some important supporters. Colonel Crompton, a pioneer of domestic electricity supply, was in favour but was worried about the fragmented supply system in London being practical for large-scale domestic supply. Sebastian de Ferranti described his own installation, which was linked its own generating plant as he lived in the countryside far from the nearest public supply. Ferranti had his own designs for electric heating: he installed heating panels in the ceiling.
Other schemes discussed in the Journal included an all-electric flat, and an experimental all-electric house in Bourneville. In the 1930s, the Electrical Association for Women would go on to build an all-electric house in Bristol. The electric home was here to stay.
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