Electrifying the streets : the surface-contact controversy in five English towns 1880-1920

Colley, Gerald (2015). Electrifying the streets : the surface-contact controversy in five English towns 1880-1920. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000d65c


The turn of the nineteenth century was an exciting time for urban transport innovation. Inventors and entrepreneurs sought a power source that was efficient and economical. In some towns, however, other considerations were equally important in choices about transport mode and subsequent operation. Technology, socio-cultural, political, and economic concerns, as well as environmental and aesthetic considerations were all factors. This research considers their influence in the social shaping of the design and implementation processes.

Opposition to overhead tram traction was widespread but quickly overcome inmost towns. However, after lengthy debates, five towns in England opted for the surface-contact system. Of these, Wolverhampton and Hastings are the main focus for this research because they occupy opposite ends of the social and political spectrum. Lincoln, Torquay, and Mexborough, where surface-contact traction survived for some time, are covered in less detail.

Most historians of technology regard surface-contact tram traction as a failure anda temporary deviation from electric traction development. They maintain that surface-contact was technologically and economically unattractive compared to conventional overhead systems. More recent historians have suggested that aesthetic arguments were a surrogate for other interests. Through an analysis of primary and secondary source material, this thesis investigates those claims. It finds that despite technical difficulties, surface-contact traction survived for several years in the five towns, fulfilling the aesthetic ideals of the time and supporting economic and social development in the process. To this extent, the thesis judges surface-contact to have been a success.

The evolution of urban transport, the development of the towns, and social dynamics including networks of power are all covered, together with aesthetic,environmental and economic considerations, as well as political and commercial pressures. The thesis examines how these diverse issues influenced decisions,and concludes there was no single factor that prompted either adoption or abandonment.

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