How times change

This has little to do with O.R., except to illustrate how a profession can change in half a century. What was O.R. like in the 1950s? There are people who can remember it then. The following extract comes from H V Morton's book "In Search of London" (1951) and is his edited account of meeting a man who had been an electrician in the 1890s and early 20th century. I found it fascinating.

He took a screw-driver from the pocket of his alpaca coat, he did something and, behold, the thing worked again !

"That was clever of you," I said. " You are evidently a wireless expert?"

"Oh no, sir, not an expert by any means," he replied. "But I understand electricity."

"Is it your business?" I asked.

"It was, sir, it was. Nearly sixty years ago, sir, I was apprenticed to a Bond Street electrician. In those days electricity was a dangerous novelty. The firm was a fashionable one, and it served the aristocracy; yes, sir, it served the highest in the land. It was a great thing to be employed by this firm. All the employees when they were sent out to mend a fuse, or to see a duchess about switching over from gas to electricity, had to wear frock coats and bowler hats. And we always had to wear gloves. Funny, isn't it, sir, to think of those days now, when an electrician will go into any house in Park Lane wearing blue overalls! But when I was a young man we were inspected by the head of the firm before we went out on a job. And we were never allowed to carry a tool-kit. They were carried by small boys. And we always had to go out in a four-wheeler."

"An electrician's life must have been a very gentlemanly one in those days."

"Ah yes, sir, that was the policy of the firm. As I say, sir, electricity was a novelty, and the aristocracy were very proud of their wonderful new electric light. But, looking back on it, how very primitive it was! I have often been ordered to sit until two in the morning beside the switch-board when a dance was being given in the West End, in case the lights fused. And one had to be properly dressed for that, too."

I was delighted with the little man. I had been right about him. He was interesting. His manner, his voice, his spurious gentility were all a reflection of the dead-and-gone Edwardian era, when even Bond Street electricians had to dress up and wear gloves when they served the aristocracy.

"And there was another rule of the firm," said the little man." If you went into a lady's bedroom and saw jewels lying about-and by God, sir, you did see some sparklers in
those days, for you know what the aristocracy were like coming home three sheets to the wind and flinging everything all over the place; well, it was a rule of the firm that you had to call the butler and ask him to see that the jewels were locked up. It wasn't that the firm distrusted its employees. Oh no, sir. As the head of the firm used to say to us, 'It isn't you we mistrust, but suppose her ladyship lost her pearls one night, she might blame it on the electrician!' "

And as we chugged down the Thames on that hot summer day the little man in the alpaca coat managed to build up for me a life-like picture of a dead world: "toffs" in silk hats handing out tips of golden sovereigns to young electricians, great ladies in low decolletage moving towards dressing-tables in a haze of champagne, butlers guiding the young man from Bond Street round the house, and the young man from Bond Street carefully drawing on a pair of silk gloves (provided by the firm) so that the delicate paint-work should not be damaged.

"It was a very different London, sir," said the little man

"Do you think it was a happier London?" I asked.

"Oh, undoubtedly, sir," he replied. "People were not spiteful in those days. And, say what you like, the aristocracy were the cream of the earth, sir. And in those days, sir, a sovereign went as far as ten pounds go to-day. But to-day, sir, nobody is happy."

And with these depressing words we arrived at Greenwich.


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