David Lionel Salomons - Master of electricity and theatricality
From Vanity Fair, 1908:
“His home in Tunbridge Wells is a modern magician's cave, with electricity to play the part of the good genie. All sorts of weird things happen there at the touch of a finger, and the science theatre, though usually patronised by venerably musty savants, would send a child into rapture.”
David Lionel Salomons was interested in electricity from an early age and he was encouraged by his uncle, who provided him with a laboratory at Broomhill. When he inherited the estate in 1873, he set up large laboratories and workshops. Here he investigated electromotive force and electric conductors and carried out countless experiments. He took out patents for electric lamps, current meters and various improvements to electrical equipment.
The workshops were said to contain getting on for 60,000 tools, which could manufacture anything from a watch to a steam engine. They included a vast electromagnet – one of the biggest around. The ‘Broomhill Magnet' was lent to other scientists from time to time, and has since disappeared. Do contact us if you know of its whereabouts!
As well as devoting his time to the painstaking work involved in scientific research, Sir David threw himself enthusiastically into demonstrating the results to others. He was a keen populariser of science and, in 1894, built a large ‘Science Theatre' onto the back of the house at Broomhill. Here he would carry out dramatic electrical experiments for others to see, and present new technologies to his colleagues and the neighbourhood. The Theatre was fitted with a magic lantern, and an organ would play music rolls, producing recordings of famous musicians and singers for visitors to hear. Eventually he would also show moving film. He saw these developments as a way of transmitting knowledge to a wider audience.
One of the new technologies Salomons showed off at Broomhill was the electric lighting installation. He had his own coal-fired generator and could produce enough electricity for 1,000 sixteen candle-power (about 60 watt) light bulbs. Electricity was installed on a small scale at first, in the workshops in 1874, where it was used for an arc light and to drive motors. Domestic electric lighting did not come in until about 1877-1880 when Joseph Swan invented a light bulb that could be used in homes, and Broomhill became one of the first to be lit with electricity. Salomons also developed one of the first electric cooking devices, an electric butter churn and the first electric alarms. As there were then no suppliers of electrical equipment, everything had to be made and installed by Salomons and his staff.
David Lionel Salomons worked with a number of electrical pioneers and leading scientists of the day. The physicist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), the developer of the telegraph Sir Charles Wheatstone, the chemist Sir William Crookes, the mathematician Professor James Joseph Sylvester and the electrical engineer Sir William Siemens were all regular visitors to Broomhill and Salomons' London house. Salomons was one of the founders of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and was the author of a text book on electrical installations that ran to eleven editions. His regular trips to Paris and his fluency in French also gave him access to the leading French scientists and engineers of the time.
In 1894 Salomons was asked to be Mayor of Tunbridge Wells, not least for his electrical expertise and the hope that he would be able to advise on the planned installation of an electricity supply to the borough. William Siemens also lived in Tunbridge Wells and it may have been his and Salomons' influence that led to the town becoming one of the most technologically advanced of its day.