Please note: Electricity: The spark of life ended in April 2019. To find out what exhibitions and activities are open today, visit our What’s On section.
I love pylons. When I look at pylons in the landscape, I see a group of climbers roped together, marching across the land. There is something stately and magnificent about these steel and wire structures that makes me forget that they carry up to 400 kV of electricity in their wires. When I’m out and about, I often stop to take photographs of pylons that catch my eye, although I haven’t yet submitted a picture to the Pylon of the Month website.
I’m in no way an expert on pylons, but I wanted to include the story of British pylon design in our upcoming exhibition, Electricity: The spark of life. The Science and Industry Museum holds the archive of the Electricity Council and its predecessor organisations, and I already knew that there had been a competition to choose the design for these towers. When I carried out some more research into this design process, I discovered that not everyone wanted them in the landscape, but some people loved them so much that they wrote poems about them.
In the UK, pylons are officially called transmission towers by Distribution Network Operators. In his book Electricity before Nationalisation, Leslie Hannah explains where the name pylon comes from:
Pylons were the monumental gateways to Egyptian temples. Naming steel towers that would carry the National Grid transmission lines pylons reflected popular interest in Egyptology at the time.
(Hannah, 1979: 116)
The National Grid is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Before it was set up, the UK’s electricity supply was fragmented, with different companies supplying electricity at different voltages, sometimes in the same city. During the First World War, many of the UK’s heavy industries were taken over by the government for war work. In order to keep factories running, a reliable and secure electricity supply was needed, something that Britain didn’t yet have. After the war, the increasing number of companies generating and supplying electricity showed that Britain needed to develop a national electricity supply network.
The 1926 Electricity (Supply) Act created a government body called the Central Electricity Board (CEB). The CEB was tasked with creating the UK’s first synchronised, nationwide AC grid. Construction of the National Grid was the single biggest peacetime building project that Britain had ever seen. It laid the framework for cheap, abundant electricity for everyone.
The grid mostly used overhead cables to link the most efficient power stations in the country. These cables were carried by transmission towers, or pylons. In 1927, the CEB ran a competition to design the pylons. The architect Sir Reginald Blomfield chose the design, which still graces the UK landscape today. Some people think that Blomfield came up with the design himself, but the structure is a modification of a design submitted to the competition by the Milliken Brothers, engineers based in the United States.
I found references to Sir Reginald Blomfield’s decision making among the pages of the CEB minute books and annual reports in the Electricity Council archive, but there was very little detailed information about the competition itself, or the Milliken Brothers’ design.
Gerald Bloomfield, a researcher based in Canada, has been making extensive use of the Electricity Council archive to track the development of different sections of the grid. In an as yet unpublished research paper, Bloomfield says that:
Blomfield’s appointment as a consultant to the CEB was an attempt to reassure the public that new technology, large-scale standardisation, and a new public authority could be made acceptable. His immediate task was to recommend a standard tower design which could carry the 132,000 volt power lines across the country with minimal visual disturbance.
(Bloomfield, unpublished research paper)
The first pylon was put up at Bonnyfield near Falkirk in Scotland on 14 July 1928, but the CEB’s new transmission grid didn’t begin operating until 1933, when it was run as a series of regional grids. The grid became a truly national system in 1938, ten years after the first pylon was set up.
At the time the grid was being formed, writers and thinkers like Rudyard Kipling and John Maynard Keynes were opposed to the insertion of pylons into the landscape. Their opposition was on similar grounds to that offered by people today who don’t want to see wind turbines on the horizon. Kipling and Keynes were co-signatories to a letter to The Times opposing the construction of pylons in Sussex, claiming that the new steel towers and their connecting wires across the Sussex Downs was nothing less than ‘the permanent disfigurement of a familiar feature of the English landscape.’
Sir Reginald Blomfield responded on 1 November 1929 with the words:
Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills—one may not like it, but the world moves on.
Other writers and artists of the time were on Blomfield’s side, including my favourite British sculptor Barbara Hepworth who, on seeing a line of pylons through the window of an electric train, said that she was inspired by the sight of ‘pylons in lovely juxtaposition with springy turf and trees of every stature’.
That’s pretty poetic as a sentence goes, but a group of actual poets, who became known as the Pylon Poets, also wrote odes to the at times terrifying beauty of pylons. Chief among them was Stephen Spender. One of his poems can be seen at the end of this article from The Guardian. For anyone interested in an academic appraisal of the work of the Pylon Poets, this essay on Amodern is worth a read.
Clearly, I’m with Blomfield, Hepworth and Spender in my love for pylons, but how about you? Do you, like Bill Bryson defending the Lake District a few years ago and people living in the Highlands of Scotland, believe that pylons are a razor cut through the landscape? Or perhaps, like me, you can see a beauty and grace in the way they cross the land, carrying the electricity we all rely on so heavily.
Some of the images of pylons we have in the archive collection here at the Science and Industry Museum will appear in Electricity: The spark of life, but I’ll leave you with this photograph of a buckled and exhausted looking pylon from the W T Glover collection held at the museum. Even the biggest giants can be brought down by fatigue, it seems.