Back in industrial Victorian Britain, Sir William Armstrong was an all-round inventive genius. He was an expert scientist with an interest in electricity and hydraulics. He was a successful engineer who designed ships and weapons of mass destruction. And in 1880 his Cheviot moorland house, Cragside, became the first anywhere in the world to be lit by electricity [photo].
Sir William's thirst for invention led him to design several labour-saving devices which kept his household ticking over more efficiently. In his kitchen he installed an automatic rotating spit and an elementary dishwasher – not bad for the 19th century. To help his staff to move around the house quicker he installed a fully functional hydraulic passenger lift. And to power all of these appliances, in an age well before the National Grid, he created a series of artificial lakes and used them to generate a steady supply of hydroelectricity. Which is how, in 1880, he became the first person to adopt Joseph Swan's brand new electric filament bulb to light his house. Thomas Edison may have been first to the patent office, but William Armstrong was first to flick the domestic switch.
The original four table lamps – resembling glowing glass globes perched on top of elegant china vases - still light the drawing room today. Most visitors fail to notice their significance, preferring instead to ooh and aah at all the fixtures and furnishings preserved throughout this vast 100-room house. Cragside's setting is spectacular, perched halfway up a hillside overlooking a thick coniferous valley. At this time of year Sir William's 400 acre estate is resplendent with pink and purple rhododendrons (not all of which have yet wilted, not quite). The National Trust faithful come in their hundreds to enjoy the heady combination of horticultural expertise and engineering brilliance. And a very nice teashop, of course.