Blog Post Wednesday 13 December 2017
It’s easy to take electricity for granted, but the next time you recharge your phone or turn on your computer, stop for a moment and think about what you’d do without electricity. From the rapidly spoiling food in your fridge to the pile of unwashed laundry in your washing machine, the impact on your new life minus the electricity is profound. So how did we live before electricity was discovered?
Humans have known about electricity for millennia, but it wasn’t until Benjamin Franklin that we started understanding more about this energy source. Franklin, with his work in the mid-1700s, is credited with furthering understanding of electricity and establishing a foundation for other scientists and inventors.
Later, in 1831, British scientist Michael Faraday discovered the basics of electricity generation. Starting in the 1870s, Thomas Edison would master electricity for lighting and start a wave of invention and industry that would eventually bring electricity to everyday consumers.
Today electricity is readily available and it’s hard to imagine life without it. People managed quite well without electricity, but no electricity meant more time spent on chores, inconvenience, and manual labour. Nearly all aspects of everyday life were more inconvenient, whether it was sitting in a dimly lit living room after sunset, salting and drying meat so it wouldn’t spoil, or washing the laundry by hand.
Kerosene lamps, candles, fireplaces, and gas lamps were some of the ways you could light up your home after dark. If you were eating, reading a book, or taking a bath after sunset, you needed to carry your lamp or candle with you to make sure you didn’t trip over or end up fumbling in the dark. These lighting sources were dimmer than light bulbs - one 60-watt lightbulb gives you the same amount of light from 100 candles.
Food spoiled quickly in the world before electricity-power refrigeration, but these societies still had ways to keep food fresh for longer. For example, meat safes and cool pantries kept meat and other food cool while keeping flies and insects away. These were placed in the coolest places in the house, away from direct sunlight. Smoking, salting, and drying food were also good ways to extend the shelf life of produce.
Without electricity, you had to cook over an open fire, such as on a metal stovetop or over a fireplace. There weren’t any appliances either, so bakers relied on labour-saving devices like manual mixers to make batter and dough. Ovens, for making bread and other baked goods, relied on firewood-powered fires.
In the colder months, you couldn’t reach over and switch on your trusted electric heater. Other than sitting by an open fireplace and draping an extra blanket over yourself, there wasn’t a lot of options for heating your indoor spaces. Hence in the winter months, firewood was essential and keeping a fire going throughout the day served two purposes: you could cook meals over the fire while you heated up the space.
While today it’s easy enough to fill the kettle and switch it on for your cup of tea, in the old days you had to start the fire, add extra firewood, and suspend the billy can over a fire or set it over the stove.
Before electric irons were available, the people used charcoal clothes irons and even petrol clothes irons. The charcoal models could be heated on top of a hot surface like a stove, or it could be filled with hot coals from the fireplace before you did your ironing. The petrol model was hailed as a big advancement on the charcoal design as it ran on petrol and incremental heat control was possible.
The electric washing machine is probably one of the biggest labour-saving appliances in the modern household. Before we had washing machines, we relied on washboards and washed clothes by hand. The washboard was set in a laundry trough or bucket, and you rubbed the clothes against the ribbing to remove stains. Later, people started using manual washing machines. These used compressed air and suction mechanisms to churn your dirty laundry around in the soapy water and remove dirt and stains.
Electricity powers every area of our modern lives, so it’s no surprise how much labour and time savings it brings. Without electricity keeping our food fresh and our homes warm and well lit, we would end up losing a lot of comfort and convenience. So, what would you miss most in a world without electricity?