How Did Great Britain Develop A National Electricity Supply?

The United Kingdom has one of the most reliable electricity systems in the world, with effectively the entire country being provided access and a continuity of supply of 99.9999 per cent.

One of the biggest reasons for this is the National Grid, an electricity transmission system that covers Great Britain and many of the larger islands surrounding it, as well as interconnections to Northern Ireland and Western Europe.

This means that, with the help of trained electricians, effectively anyone, effectively anywhere in the country can be supplied with mains electricity, but this phenomenal success, one that ultimately took just 12 years to accomplish, was born out of failure.

In 1920, just 750,000 people had mains electricity, but by 1938, just prior to the declaration of the Second World War, that number had increased to nine million people.

Whilst the latter number naturally is discussed a lot more, it is important to remember why the number was so low in 1920, just as much of the rest of the world was starting to electrify, and this was credited to what was described as a ‘diagnosis of failure’.


Diagnosis Of Failure And Symptoms Of Success 

The three-phase electric power distribution system at the heart of the National Grid was first devised by Nikola Tesla, but it would take until 1901 for the system to be used around the North East, first at Neptune Bank near Newcastle.

The slow development of local electricity suppliers was interrupted by the First World War, which whilst far from helpful at least halted the already-emerging issues of fragmentation, inefficiency and incompatible systems, using a wide variety of operating frequencies in a way that would be anathema to a modern electrical engineer.

This had been somewhat exacerbated by a reluctance in the corridors of power to have a national system that appeared to interfere with the interests of private energy companies at the time.

However, this stance proved largely untenable in the seven years following the passing of the original Electricity (Supply) Bill in 1919, and the rampant inefficiency of the UK’s electricity sector meant that there were over 600 supply companies, each with different operating frequencies and voltages.

Perhaps the most telling sign that something needed to be done to create some semblance of order was that some parts of the country had electricity distribution take place using direct current rather than alternating current.

The 1919 Bill and a subsequent amended act in 1922 that at least allowed the joint electricity authorities to finance some work to make sense of the messy electricity network ultimately led to what has since become rather infamously known as the “diagnosis of failure”.

In 1925, a committee chaired by William Weir, First Viscount Weir, led to the creation of the Central Electricity Board and what Lord Weir described as a “national gridiron” of electricity.

This created a standardised electrical frequency and voltage and rolled out electrical supplies across the country, operating as an integrated system by 1938 and providing power to the nation.