Turning water into light

Andrew Sawyer, Property Curator at Cragside, explains how they’re recreating history with the return of hydroelectricity:

Cragside Curator Andrew Sawyer

In 1878 a miracle was performed at Cragside in Northumberland when Lord Armstrong turned water into light to make it the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity.

He achieved this by lighting arc lamps, for his picture gallery, with power derived from a neighbouring brook.

Very quickly he saw the great potential of this free and renewable form of energy. Harnessing the vast landscape around his newly built home to collect as much water as possible and put it to use generating electricity.

The building of lakes quickly followed, as great fuel tanks, to drive his ever evolving hydroelectric system. His friend Joseph Wilson Swan was to change the dynamic by inventing the incandescent light bulb a year or two later. In 1880, these new light bulbs were installed at Cragside, giving a clear, bright and clean light source throughout the house.

Eventually there was to be 97 light bulbs in Lord Armstrong’s house powered by the most up to date water powered turbines and generators of the day. These wonderful pieces of machinery have been conserved by the National Trust, however they are static.

A new Archimedes screw has been switched on today at Cragside in Northumberland and now it will harness the power of water to relight this grand Victorian house just as its previous owner Lord Armstrong did back in 1878.

For many decades our proud boast of the ‘first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity’ was something of a ‘so what moment’. We have been determined to make that ‘so what moment’ into an ‘Armstrong moment’.

Lord Armstrong said – there was nothing new, only a variation on what has gone before. Well our variation has turned out to be something very special indeed. In the form of a reverse Archimedean Screw generator to bring back hydroelectricity to Cragside and light a new type of light bulb.

We have introduced 350 new LED light bulbs into the house, which are all powered by our new turbine. We have performed the same miracle as they did in 1878, using the same ingredients of the place, the people and their passion, to turn water into light!

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