IN 1859, THE CITY OF LONDON UNDERWENT AN ASTONISHING METAMORPHOSIS. A tangle of electric wires, suddenly and inescapably, was brought to the streets, shops, and residential rooftops of its two and a half million inhabitants. I will let one of the most famous English novelists, who was an eyewitness, begin the story.
“About twelve years ago,” wrote Charles Dickens, “when the tavern fashion of supplying beer and sandwiches at a fixed price became very general, the proprietor of a small suburban pothouse reduced the system to an absurdity by announcing that he sold a glass of ale and an electric shock for four-pence. That he really traded in this combination of science and drink is more than doubtful, and his chief object must have been to procure an increase of business by an unusual display of shop keeping wit.
Whatever motive he had to stimulate his humour, the fact should certainly be put upon record that he was a man considerably in advance of his age. He was probably not aware that his philosophy in sport would be made a science in earnest in the space of a few years, any more than many other bold humorists who have been amusing on what they know nothing about. The period has not yet arrived when the readers of Bishop Wilkin’s famous discourse upon aerial navigation will be able to fly to the moon, but the hour is almost at hand when the fanciful announcement of the beer-shop keeper will represent an every-day familiar fact. A glass of ale and an electric shock will shortly be sold for four-pence, and the scientific part of the bargain will be something more useful than a mere fillip to the human nerves. It will be an electric shock that sends a message across the house-tops through the web of wires to any one of a hundred and twenty district telegraph stations, that are to be scattered amongst the shopkeepers all over the town.