Some dynamic women helped make electricity a success

As with many stories about incredible inventions in popular culture, the history of electricity is a tale dominated by males. The Current War is a new film about the fierce competition between Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and others in the nineteenth century for the right to be the man who brought electricity to the people. It falls into the Hollywood trap. The film is directed by Alfonso Gomez Rejon and produced by Martin Scorsese. Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicolas Hoult play Edison, Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla.

We both found the male-centric premise of the film a bit off-putting when we first saw it. As part of an international group, we have been working to change the perception of the history of electrical energy from heroic tales to one that highlights the role played by women. Women were often the ones who persuaded people to accept electricity in their homes by transforming it into an elegant and safe light source. We want to bring these women back into the picture.

In the 19th century, many people were terrified by electricity’s invisible force. Gas companies were ecstatic to hear of deaths by electric shock. They were eager to keep out any competition. As we demonstrated in the BBC Four documentary Victorian Sensations, women were not convinced that the powerful glare from electricity would benefit their faces or homes.

George du Maurier’s Happy Thought (Electric Light), 1889. Electric light is good for furniture, wallpapers, and screens, but it’s not so great for women. You will find light Japanese sunshades invaluable. National Galleries Scotland

Convincing women

Women were therefore needed to “sell” to women the advantages of new technology. In the 1880s, they increasingly became the arbiters and managers of the household and the ultimate decision makers in terms of taste. They played a major role in buying lighting equipment and commissioning design for their homes.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the idea of domestic decor as an expression of a woman’s character was popularised. This was linked to the notion that the home reflects and influences a person’s morality as well as the importance of cleanliness. The idea that interior design is a reflection of the woman’s taste was popularized by guidebooks. Fear of making a mistake led to the creation of decorators who could help women avoid mistakes. Initially, most of these “experts,” who were mostly men, were women. However, as women became more influential within the home and sought professional guidance, this trend changed.

The role of women is still hidden in the history of electricity. We have drawn from the experiences of women who were active as spouses to electrical engineers. The women who worked together were essential to the electrification process, but they were written out of history because of male-centered engineering heroes.

J.E.H Gordon, aka Alice Brandreth.

Some of these professional women included the wives of electrical engineers. Alice Brandreth was one such woman, also known by her married name, Mrs J.E.H. Gordon. Gordon. Gordon, along with her husband James Gordon, was a skilled engineer.

Mary Eliza Haweis was the author of The Art of Decoration in 1881. Wikipedia

Mary Eliza Haweis was another early professional female decorator. She produced one of the first examples of women advising other women about electric lighting in England in The Art of Decoration.

It’s not surprising that Haweis begins her chapter on lighting by saying: “Until electric light becomes more manageable, there are only two ways to light rooms. Gas or lamps, and candles.”

In 1900, in the UK, efficient lighting was still considered a luxury. Haweis and Gordon’s popular messages were therefore glamorized for some time. Indeed, the UK’s Women’s Engineering Society was co-founded by seven eminent women, mostly “engineers-by-marriage”, exactly 100 years ago in 1919. This centenary is an important moment to reflect on the importance of these truly electrifying women.

Canadian historian Ruth Sandwell reminds us that we have an ever-growing analysis of the men’s work, their inventions, and the systems they developed for financing, organizing, selling, operating, repairing, and maintaining new power networks, including electricity, oil, and gas.

Despite the current energy to recognize women’s accomplishments, we find that contemporary histories leave little room for recapturing and theorising the energetic relationships women have with their families, their environments, or even society. Nor do they show how these have changed over time.

It is wonderful to see Hollywood shine a spotlight on the history of electric power, but it would also be great to hear the stories of women.

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