Alan Wilson: The Current War changed the world. Now today’s electricians can continue to change it for the better
As the movie about Thomas Edison and electricity ‘The Current War’ prepares for release tomorrow, Alan Wilson reflects on the history of electricity and the future of the industry.
The lights went out in New York City again recently (14 July). Homes were plunged into darkness, the subways ground to a halt and communications failed over large swathes of the metropolis.
It was not as bad as the Great Blackout of 1977, and power was restored after about five hours, but it was another stark reminder of how dependent our society is on an uninterrupted supply of electricity and how vulnerable it is without it.
And it is apposite that the end of the month will see the opening of a Hollywood blockbuster about the men who literally lit up the modern world with electricity and, in so doing, changed civilisation forever.
The Current War, released on July 26, stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult and Tom Holland in the story of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, the greatest inventors of the modern industrial age.
It follows them as they engage in a battle of technology and ideas to determine whose electrical system will power the new century. Edison dazzles the world by lighting Manhattan. However, Westinghouse, aided by Nikola Tesla, sees fatal flaws in Edison’s direct current design and bets everything on risky and dangerous alternating current.
Before the arrival of these men – and their driven genius – flickering candles and oil lamps lit homes when night fell, horses were the primary means of transport and polluting coal and wood fires were the only means of heating and cooking.
But if electricity was an important innovation at the time of The Current War, consider how utterly indispensable it is now. It underpins everything in our everyday lives, from the internet and international communications to our cars, hospitals, homes and businesses.
As a source of power, it is about to revolutionise personal transport. Electric cars are without question the future, and they will solve at a stroke all the climate implications of the internal combustion engine.
And what is quite remarkable is that, while electricity up until now has had to be generated by the burning of fossil fuels – or, even more controversially, by nuclear power – governments across the globe are moving inexorably to renewable sources.
This is the ultimate virtuous circle. The forces of nature – the sun, the wind and the sea – are gradually being harnessed to provide the electricity that will power our lives into the foreseeable future.
The Scottish Government’s target in its Annual Energy Statement for this year was for 50% of all energy to come from renewables by 2030, up from just 20% in 2017. It is also targeting major increases in energy productivity.
The fact is that there has never been a more exciting time to be part of the electrotechnical industry. It is a time of dynamic change as dramatic as that experienced by Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla.
And while these Titans built major industrial conglomerates from the innovative science that fascinated and engrossed them, young people today can build challenging, worthwhile and rewarding careers in the electrical industry.
The skills that are needed in the fast-paced and continually developing electrotechnical sector are as complex and demanding as those required for most levels of a traditional university degree.
That is why SELECT, the campaigning trade body for the electrotechnical sector in Scotland, has been running a sustained campaign to have the status of electricians raised to that of a profession and to have Protection of Title, meaning that people would have to be fully trained and highly qualified to be able to operate in the field.
In the early days of electricity, safety was something of a trial and error scenario, with the error part tending to be fatal. These days safety is the vital core of the industry, the first and last consideration in all work undertaken.
This is another reason that only professionally qualified and accredited people should be able to undertake work in a field which is of such primary importance to us all.
It is difficult to know at this distance in time whether the early pioneers of electricity knew how radically they were going to change the world. But it is encouraging to know that the current generation of electricians can continue to change it for the better.
- Alan Wilson is managing director of SELECT