Electricity Sparks Fears in 1900?
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Elec in Ports/ SeacoastNH

As 1900 dawns, the Seacoast faces a shocking new technology. Is electricity safe? Is it just another toy for the rich? Do we really need it when gas lights work just fine and horses are easier to ride than cars? Should we develop this new science or leave the genie in the bulb?



A Reporter's Notebook

Electric, electric, electric! The way people bandy that word about nowadays, you'd think electricity is the new salvation of mankind. That attitude is particularly "on the wire" this week as the Old Town by the Sea hurtles relentlessly from the comfortably familiar 19th century into the unknown landscape of the 20th.

This writer, however, urges caution as we contemplate the coming Electric Age, admonishing readers not to entertain Utopian flights of fancy. Certainly this modern miracle has its usefulness, but for every labor-saving benefit, electricity brings us -- something, we fear, is lost in the trade.

We have long acknowledged the value of the telegraph, bringing us speedy long distance communication, but bringing with it, an unsightly army of poles and wires that pollute the view of our historic city. Now comes the electric telephone, which offers promise. It promises, detractors fear, to strike at the very sociability of our community. People who would normally seek out each other's company, may now speak over a wire, and so far, with minimal fidelity. Still, the prophets (or should we say "profits") tell us that some two million telephone receivers may be in use by this time next year in 1901. Whether all these gentle people truly have something worthy to say, remains a mystery.

elec/ seacoastNH.com

We were pleased, years back, to see electric bells made available to area businesses in need of alarms to protect goods from theft and fire. Here, at last, was a use above reproach, but progress waits for no man. Today we see that Trafton & Sons of 36 Congress Street are advertising electric light wiring for business and for homes. Electrified stores and electrified street lamps we can applaud -- but electrified homes? To date, thanks to the "shocking" cost of power from the Rockingham Electric Light and Power Company on Daniel Street near the ferry to Kittery, few residents can afford the conversion from the dependability of gas. But to see the future, a local pundit informs me, one need only walk down Water Street at night where the incandescent glow of electrical lights beckon hapless sailors from across the Piscataqua to visit houses of adult entertainment. Vice and corruption, it seems, have deep pockets. Electricity is the new Jezebel, seducing our young men into the arms of immorality.

CONTINUE Electricity in 1900  

Early Electricity in NH 20th Cenutry

Currently, the current flowing from the local power plant is used up mostly to activate our new Electric Roads. Here again, the lightning bolts of MightyThor giveth and taketh away in equal measure. Few citizens will argue that the trolley ride from Kittery to York, to Exeter, Rye, Hampton and Newburyport are among the most delightful in the whole country. Whatever socialization the telephone may steal from us, the Electric Road repays -- bringing all the lovely beaches, shops and historic sites of our neighbors to our doorstep, literally within minutes. New Castle and Eliot are hoping to be added to the line soon and people have actually begun building houses along unoccupied stretches of the newly installed electric railway.

Trolley postcard 1900 Portsmouth, NH / SeacoastNH.com

And the cost? The speedy 20th century will certainly take its toll on our ancient New Hampshire city. With the metropolis of Boston just an hour away by train, can we hope to keep our children from seeking dangerous new pastures? And what of the electric current flowing through our homes and streets? Despite the vaunted medical benefits of electrotherapy, can we be assured of its true safety? The untapped electrical fluid leaking from these outlets and wires, we are told, may cause serious bodily damage and – with prolonged exposure – possibly death. We are certainly gaining momentum in this Modern Day, but can anyone tell us where we are headed?

Just the other day, in Market Square, a deadly accident almost occurred. We say "almost" because Nature saved the day when the old mare leading a cart of hay took it into her head to back up near where the fountain meets the Electric Road. At the same moment, the electric car came briskly up Congress, ironically near Trafton Electricians. The cart met the trolley and, instead of a thrilling accident, rose high up on the metal bumper, whereupon it simply fell off with a giant bump, dumping both occupants of the horse-cart into the street. The mare, halted in her backward journey, reversed direction and stepped ahead toward Pleasant Street as if nothing had happened, but bystanders were convinced there will be many accidents.

Not so lucky was our beloved historian Miss Sarah Haven Foster who was killed this year while crossing at the corner of Middle Street and Richards Avenue. She was struck by an electric trolley. In her 70s, the author of our well known "Guide to Portsmouth" was rushed to the cottage hospital where she died of her injuries -- the first victim of 20th century technology in the state of New Hampshire – but we predict, far from the last.

Lighted tower 1900Meanwhile, the fearsome autoists are also on their way. A few automobiles have already made their way through our fair city, lured by the nearby sandy beaches, fine hotels, Revolutionary history and panoramic scenery. Hoards more of them cannot be far off, their engines fouling our already gritty air, their horns blaring as they compete for their share of the muddy downtown streets with the trolleys and the horse carts. Thankfully, rumor has it, that a breed of highly efficient electric motorcars may quickly replace the fearful petrol powered vehicles. Motoring is bound to be the latest craze for the idle rich. Thankfully there is legislation planned that will require all motorcars to be proceeded by a man on foot waving a warning flag. This is certainly a commendable safety measure and should be supported.

If you believe the likes of Mr. Jules Verne and the proponents of the upcoming 1900 World's Fair -- electricity may someday replace the coal furnace, eliminate the icebox, eradicate the plow, outstrip the printing press, modernize the outhouse, and put the cart horse permanently out to pasture. But will we become the masters of the lightning or its slaves? What will we do with endless hours of sunlight and ceaseless days of leisure? What will we build with the power of the gods at our fingertips? Sure, it's fun to light up the Eiffel Tower, but Portsmouth?

But never fear, fair Seacoast citizens of this New Year. This is but the dawning of the Electric Age and its power still remains within our grasp. Thankfully man, for all his presumption and cleverness, has yet to learn to effectively navigate the air. If and when we learn to fly, the shocking consequences will make electricity seem as tame as the invisible atom itself.

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