London Electrical Society

The London Electrical Society was established in 1837 to enable amateur electricians to meet and share their interests in “experimental investigation of Electrical Science in all its various branches”.[1] Although it initially flourished the society soon showed weaknesses in its organisation and ways of working. After a period of considerable financial difficulty it closed in 1845.

Rise and fallEdit

The London Electrical Society[2] was founded at a meeting held on 16 May 1837 at Edward M Clarke's[3] “Laboratory of Science” in Lowther Arcade, near the Strand.[4] The idea for the Society had arisen from discussions during a course of lectures on electricity delivered by William Sturgeon at the same venue. He was assisted in establishing the Society by operative chemist William Leithead; John Peter Gassiot, an amateur scientist with a particular interest in electricity; and Charles Vincent Walker, an electrical engineer.

The London Electrical Society's aim was to provide a forum for amateur scientists and to foster their interest in the practical applications of electricity. It served to strengthen the informal links which many of the experimenters had already made. In “The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences” Secord[5] notes that:

The bulk of its membership were 'amateur experimentalists', as founder and first president Sturgeon admitted. Typical of the group were the instrument-maker Edward M. Clarke, the young Manchester electrician James Prescott Joule, and William Leithead, employed by the Gallery as a demonstrator. Others, like Walter Hawkins, William G Lettsom, John Peter Gassiot and [Andrew] Crosse were either successful men business or independently wealthy. Conspicuously absent were the real controlling interests in the London scientific world, men like John Herschel, William Grove and Faraday.

Membership was made up of resident (living within 20 miles of London) and non-resident participants, with annual fees set at two guineas and one guinea respectively.[1] Non-resident members were elsewhere in Great Britain (e.g. Bath and Shrewsbury), or abroad (e.g. Amsterdam and Marseille). At first, members styled themselves Mem. Elec. Soc., but later they used the post-nominal MES.

In the early days the Society met in Clarke's Laboratory of Science, but at the first annual general meeting, on 7 October 1837 (with John P Gassiot, Treasurer, in the chair), it was announced that future meetings would be held at the nearby Adelaide Gallery on the Strand, to accommodate the growing membership. The gallery's proprietors generously made their electrical apparatus freely available for the use of the Society's members.

The meetings, initially held on the first and third Saturdays of the month at 7:00pm, involved the reading and discussion of experimental papers by members and their guests. Roughly half of the first 120 papers had an emphasis on technology, typically describing an improvement in a technique, or of a piece of apparatus. An example is Charles V Walker's “An Account of Experiments with a ‘Constant Voltaic Battery’” read in October 1838,[6] in which he described the results of assembling and testing a 160-cell battery of zinc and copper electrodes immersed in saturated copper sulphate solution. Other papers were of a more theoretical nature, such as Thomas Pollock’s “On the Connection between the Atomic Arrangement and the Conducting power of Bodies.”[7]

The London Electrical Society had decided early on that it would not prepare standing Rules and Regulations or formally elect Officers until the membership had reached 50. At the October AGM that threshold was raised to 100 resident members, a number which it never reached. Nonetheless, the Society flourished in the early days: membership grew and papers were published.

Then signs began to appear that all was not well. There was a gap of about a year in which meetings did not take place. Membership fell, and the Society's debts began to grow. This was made worse by the decision to publish many extra copies of the Proceedings and distribute them widely to other organisations in the hope of attracting new members. These factors, and internal rows over ownership of experimental findings, and the departure of Sturgeon for Manchester, all contributed to the Society's downfall. The story is more fully explained by Morus in “Currents from the Underworld".[8]

Known membersEdit

This list of 94 members was gathered from the Minute Books of the London Electrical Society,[9] and from papers published in the society's Transactions and Proceedings,.[10][11] Names of members which could not be clearly read in the Minutes have not been included. It is not known how many of the total were all members at the same time, although the number listed here is consistent with Morus's observation that "In 1839 the membership was no greater than eighty of whom only about half were resident members. Reminiscing almost half a century later, Walker recalled that membership had peaked at seventy-six."[12]


  1. ^ a b Sturgeon, William (1837). The Annals of Electricity, Magnetism, and Chemistry. 1. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper. p. 416.
  2. ^ Initially called “The Electrical Society of London”
  3. ^ "Clarke, Edward Marmaduke (c.1806–1859), scientific instrument maker". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 January 2017.
  4. ^ "Edward Clarke, optician and magnetician". London Street Views. Baldwin Hamey. Retrieved 3 January 2017.
  5. ^ Secord, James A. (1989). "Extraordinary Experiment: Electricity and the Creation of Life in Victorian England". In Gooding, David; Pinch, Trevor; Schaffer, Simon (eds.). The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences. Cambridge University Press. p. 362.
  6. ^ Walker, Charles V. (1841). The Transactions, and the Proceedings of the London Electrical Society, from 1837 to 1840. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 57–65.
  7. ^ Pollock, Thomas (1841). The Transactions, and the Proceedings of the London Electrical Society, from 1837 to 1840. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 145–147.
  8. ^ Morus, Iwan Rhys (1993), "Currents from the Underworld: Electricity and the Technology of Display in Early Victorian England", Isis, 84 (1): 50–69, doi:10.1086/356373, JSTOR 235553
  9. ^ Minute Books of the London Electrical Society 7 October 1837 (unpaginated). Special Collections MS. 42. Archives of The Institution of Engineering and Technology, London WC2R 0BU
  10. ^ “One of the Committee”, ed. (1841). The Transactions, and the Proceedings of the London Electrical Society, from 1837 to 1840. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  11. ^ Walker, Charles V., ed. (1843). Proceedings of the London Electrical Society, During the Sessions 1841-2 and 1842-3. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co.
  12. ^ Morus, Iwan Rhys (1998). Frankenstein's Children: electricity, exhibition, and experiment in early-nineteenth-century London. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 120. ISBN 9780691605272.
  13. ^ Probably John Strettell Brickwood (ca.1785-1867), Secretary, Public Works Loan Commissioners [1] and council member of the Society for the Illustration and Encouragement of Practical Science [2]
  14. ^ Byng was a geologist; a Council member of The Meteorological Society; Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society; author of Thoughts on the first Rainbow, in connection with certain geological facts (London, 1852); and was involved in the provision of gas lighting on Staines bridge. He was born on 1 February 1799 in Dover. He married Ann Watson on 1 January 1822. They had 6 children. Byng died In Ipswich in 1880
  15. ^ Probably Henry English (ca. 1803–1855), mining engineer and founder and editor of the Mining Journal. Also a stockbroker and proprietor of iron mines (1851 census)
  16. ^ Surgeon [3]. Holder of a patent (in 1839)[4] for “an apparatus to be applied to the chimnies of gas and other burners or lamps to improve combustion”. Exhibited [5] at the Colosseum in Regents Park.
  17. ^ William Leithead, chemist. Supervised the Department of Natural Magic [6] at the Regent’s Park Colosseum and author of Electricity; its nature, operation, and importance in the phenomena of the universe (London, 1837)
  18. ^ Lockey (1796-1869) was an early photographer in the Bath area [7]. His negatives were developed using the calotype photographic process, patented by William Henry Fox Talbot.
  19. ^ George Mackrell (ca.1792–6 January 1885), merchant of Cloudesley Square, Islington. In 1861 was “Agent to Naval Officers and Officers of East India Service" (1861 census).
  20. ^ A builder, noted for constructing the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London in 1837
  21. ^ "Horatio Prater". London Remembers. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  22. ^ The Reverend John Shillibeer (1786–3 April 1841) was rector of Stoke Doyle, near Oundle, and Master of the Grammar School at Oundle. He was also an artist [8]
  23. ^ Chemist and surgeon [9] (1818–1877). "His interest in chemistry and electricity, inspired by the physicist John Daniell (1790–1845), led him to develop a new battery cell"[10]
  24. ^ Probably Ralph Stamper (ca.1795-22 January 1858), chemist and druggist of 140 Leadenhall Street.
  25. ^ Anderson, Antony (1988), "The life of an amateur electromagnetician", New Scientist, 120: 74–75