Society

Charge of the light brigade

Torch lights Photo: ACHUTHSANKAR S. NAIR

On October 1, 1879, the electric bulb was born in Menlo Park in the United States. Thomas Alva Edison demonstrated his invention to the public on December 31, 1879.

The world suddenly brightened up but erstwhile Trivandrum was still lit up by dim kerosene lamps. The knowledge about electricity was confined to the British masters and their elite company.

John Caldecott, founder director of the observatory in the capital city, introduced many modern scientific instruments in erstwhile Travancore. He was close to Kings Swathi Tirunal and Uthram Thirunal, both of whom were curious about modern science.

Documents tell us that Uthram Thirunal was in possession of a ‘Powerful electric machine’ (possibly a dynamo), galvanic battery, air pump, ice-making machine, telescope and a microscope.

Thus we see that a battery found its way to Trivandrum in 1850s. One Kolhoff is seen as having presented a “hydro-electric machine” to the state of Travancore in 1863.

In 1896, the first Carbon-zinc battery came into being and the electric torch soon followed in 1899. Estrella Batteries appeared in India, but ‘Eveready’ batteries soon conquered the scene. Torches which used storage cells were the first use of electric lights in Travancore and possibly arrived in the early 20th century.

The electric torch was named ‘njekku vilakku’ , which reveals the curiosity was centred around the ability to produce light at the flick of a switch.

Torches which used two, four and six cells came into use. Torches of the nostalgic era survive to the present. You can buy look-alike Eveready torches from the electronic hub of the city, Thakaraparambu. They come with LED bulbs, but the look and feel are of the olden torches.

The first proposal for electric lights in came from one C.S. Narayanaswami Iyer, describing himself as electrician. In September 1897, he made a detailed proposal for electrification of Trivandrum. “The town of Trivandrum not being compact” , he claimed, “wires have been estimated for a length of 25 miles, and this item absorbs nearly half amount of the whole initial outlay, taking into consideration the highly dispersed and segregated dwelling”.

His proposal was to replace the existing 700 kerosene lights, by 16 candle power, incandescent lamps on the existing lamp posts and also to set up 500 lights for the Maharaja’s palace, and a few private residences.

The “flickering, unsteady, smoky kerosene lamps are capable of giving out only 3 to 4 candle power each, and that too only when the wick of the lamp is particularly adjusted high up” , argued Narayanaswamy Iyer. The outlay was Rs. 85,000 and the claimed advantages included non-dependence in the attention of lamp lighters, and four times more light.

He rested his case with a remark that “ The electric lights are besides, the most brilliant, steady, cool, non-smoky, un-tarnishing and the least dangerous of all systems of lighting” . The proposal was not accepted.

(This is the seventh part of a series on lighting techniques in erstwhile Travancore)


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Printable version | May 12, 2022 2:30:05 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/Charge-of-the-light-brigade/article14502987.ece