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Electric Worlds / Mondes électriques

Creations, Circulations, Tensions, Transitions (19th–21st C.)


Edited By Alain Beltran, Léonard Laborie, Pierre Lanthier and Stéphanie Le Gallic

What interpretation(s) do today’s historians make of electrification? Electrification is a process which began almost a hundred and fifty years ago but which more than one billion men and women still do not have access to. This book displays the social diversity of the electric worlds and of the approaches to their history. It updates the historical knowledge and shows the renewal of the historiography in both its themes and its approaches. Four questions about the passage to the electrical age are raised: which innovations or combination of innovations made this passage a reality? According to which networks and appropriation? Evolving thanks to which tensions and alliances? And resulting in which transition and accumulation?

Quel(s) regard(s) les historiens d’aujourd’hui portent-ils sur l’électrification, processus engagé il y a près de cent cinquante ans mais auquel plus d’un milliard d’hommes et de femmes restent encore étrangers ? Le présent volume rend compte de la diversité des mondes sociaux électriques et des manières d’enquêter sur leur histoire. Il actualise les connaissances et témoigne du renouvellement de l’historiographie, dans ses objets et ses approches. Quatre points d’interrogation sur le basculement des sociétés dans l’âge électrique jalonnent le volume : moyennant quelles créations ou combinaisons créatrices ? En vertu de quelles circulations et appropriations ? Selon quelles tensions et alliances ? Et produisant quelles transitions et accumulations ?

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Electricity at Court. Technology in Representation of Imperial Power

← 64 | 65 →

Electricity at Court

Technology in Representation of Imperial Power



By the late nineteenth century, the huge potential of electricity was clear to many. However, the electrification of Russian urban spaces and royal palaces developed gradually and required public exposure and approval. Electric illumination started to be an integral part of royal ceremonies. Through ceremonial and festive demonstrations electricity found its way into the palaces. Electrical illumination marked a line between public and private spaces of a palace. The cultural response to the introduction of electric power was cloaked in positive and negative emotive overtones. In addition, the usage of electricity may be interpreted as a representation of the Emperor’s power. The article aims at presenting a cultural history of electricity tracing the advent of electric light to court residences, and the role that electric light played in court holidays, ceremonies, and entertainments. The history of electricity in nineteenth century Russia is inscribed in a wider temporal and spatial context. A comprehensive study of the interactions between the history of technology, history of consumption and court culture are presented.

Keywords: cultural history of electricity, electric sublime, technological sublime, representation of imperial power, coronation ceremony, scientific spectacle



Electric light provided uncanny spectacular effect during the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896.1 The presentation of an electrical bouquet to the Empress was a signal to start the coronation ceremony:

Once she took the bouquet with hidden bulbs secretly connected to electric wires, it started glowing. And at the same very moment, as if by magic, lights of different colors flashed out on the Kremlin towers and the bell tower, and then spread further along the ancient walls. Truly, the Kremlin ← 65 | 66 → was an enchanting, breath-taking, fairytale image! Billowing lines of electric Kremlin strongholds made a fascinating impression on the spectators […] Electric suns threw huge rays of light at great distances […] About 190,000 electric bulbs, gas burners and candle lamps were used.2

This event indicates the growing cultural, political, and social meaning of electrical illumination in nineteenth century Russia. By the late nineteenth century, the huge potential of electricity as a driving force of change was clear to many individuals. The actual introduction of electricity into Russian urban spaces as well as its royal palaces was a slow and gradual process. The present paper outlines the appearance of electric light in court culture and royal residences.

Electric illumination started to be an integral part of royal ceremonies, lit the ballrooms, but was not admitted to the living quarters of the palaces’ inhabitants. The introduction of electricity to imperial quarters was no simple measure for the sake of comfort, but rather a complex public event, which required public exposure and approval in order to support the current scenario of power. Looking ahead, it is possible to say that electric light didn’t just illuminate court premises, but also became a central agent of court ceremonies and aristocratic leisure. The cultural response to the introduction of electric power was linked to the intellectual and cultural legacy shared by the people, and was cloaked in positive and negative emotive overtones. In addition, the usage and presence of electricity may be interpreted as a representation of the Emperor’s power.

Ceremonial Illumination with Electricity

As it was shown by Richard Wortman, imperial ceremonies in Russia and in Europe sought to impress the public, demonstrating the character and efficacy of the monarchy, and the ability of the emperor to control and direct. Lavish processions also conveyed a message about enormousness and diversity of the Russian Empire to European monarchies. Every ceremony had a universal order of procedures, but every monarch organized its allegorical meanings and iconography according to his or her “scenario of power.” The concept of “scenarios of power” reveals the version of the government myth relevant for the monarch. Scenarios cast the new emperor as a mythical hero in a historically sensitive narrative. It is in the scenarios of successive reigns that one observes both the transformations and the persistence of myth as it interacts with personality and history.3 ← 66 | 67 →

Since Peter the Great, ceremonies, including coronation festivities, started to be more secular and to embrace more space and localities. One of the coronation novelties introduced by Peter I was the journey of the monarch from Saint-Petersburg to Moscow, the ancient capital of Russia. The idea of ceremony has been extended, including the celebration of triumphs, birthdays, name days of the members of the royal family. In the nineteenth century ceremonies started to be devoted to numerous jubilees. The religious component of ceremonial rites started to recede into the background, giving floor to secular elements and to the spectacular. Festivities took place not only in cathedrals and palaces, but also on the city streets. While in the eighteenth century ceremonial procedures were a monarchic theatre acted out in front of the elites, in the nineteenth century the coronation was meant to unite the monarch with its people, to engage the masses into this act of legitimization of power. At the same time, the event established authority and ability of the monarch to control the order of things.

City space was very important for the ceremonial events in the nineteenth century. Only the elite could see the coronation itself (the crowning and the anointment), but other events – entry of the monarch into Moscow, the coronation procession, as well as grand illumination of the city were witnessed by the common people. In the nineteenth century electrical technology started to be used to decorate the city. Electrical illumination transformed the city space and helped create the sense of involvement, it was very much awaited by the people. Through its spectacular effect it appealed to the public and made it equal participant of the event.

In 1856, coronation festivities were illuminated by Alexander Shpakovsky’s electrical “Russian Light” for the first time. “Electric suns” were installed on the Kremlin’s towers and on the foreside of Catherine Palace in Lefortovo. The Coronation Album, the official chronicle of the event, states:

During the festive illumination the Chudov Monastery and the Senate pranked with suns, stars, monograms with the letters “A” and “M”, with the imperial crown on top. Amid this flare, a colossal crown shone with fiery sapphires, emeralds and rubies surrounded by spectacular sparkling ears of wheat […] The illumination of Saint Basil’s Cathedral was subtly harmonized by its peculiar architectural lines, so that the cupolas appeared to be flaming arcs floating in the air.4

Alexander Shpakovsky was a military engineer and inventor, he taught at Pavlovsk Cadet corps school. For the coronation illumination ← 67 | 68 → and decoration of other festivities he used limelight and arc light with galvanic batteries.

Figure 1. Preparation of electrical illumination of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in Moscow for the coronation ceremony in 1883.


From the newspaper Vsemirnaya illustratsiya, May, 1883.

In 1883, Edison’s “Electric Suns” impressed the public during Alexander III’s coronation. In the same year, the popular science journal Elektrichestvo [Electricity, first published in 1881] dedicated an article to the event: “The Ivan the Great Bell Tower was covered with 3,500 Edison bulbs. Eight large and thirty small “suns” were hung along the Kremlin Wall.”5 As indicated in the Album:

The whole city was bathed in light. The view of the Kremlin from the Moskva River embankment was outstanding. Its flaming contours appeared against the ← 68 | 69 → dark background of the sky. The view of the Kremlin from the Stone Bridge was extremely clear: the electric suns placed atop the towers permeated the air with magic beams that moved and interlaced the air; flaming towers, flaming walls, and flaming Ivan the Great created a fairytale scene for the wavelike crowds of people wandering around the city center.6

The author of the article paid special attention to the advantages of electric light over that of gas lighting. Rain was no obstacle in the case of electricity. Furthermore, electric bulbs, almost invisible to the eye during the day, did not mar the beauty of the architecture.

Electricity was also used during the coronation of Nicolas II in 1896. Russian and foreign news reporters competed in their descriptions of the solemn sight underlining the elegance of the Kremlin’s decoration. Everything was enveloped in electric light – the spires and eagles on the Kremlin towers, the cupola and bell tower’s cross; even the movement of the hands of the Spasskaya tower’s clock was illuminated by hundreds of bulbs. During this event, electric light was used together with gas and oil lighting. Embankments and bridges were decorated with shkaliks (little bowls with oil or rendered tallow and a wick), private houses were also decorated with lights. It is interesting that not only the illumination was a fascinating spectacle, but the preparation itself. On the eve of the coronation Russian cities turned in to carpenters and engineers as special pavilions and decorations were built. Not only Moscow, but other cities were involved in the festivities. In the nineteenth century, Moscow used the telegraph to give signal to other cities that the crowning had taken place. After the signal, illumination and bell-ringing started all over Russia more or less simultaneously.

Electric Light as an Agent of Court Ceremonies in the Wake of the Tradition of Fireworks and Public Scientific Spectacles

Tsarist electric illumination of court festivals grew out of eighteenth century fireworks display. Since Peter the Great this fiery performance from a simple fair amusement turned into a visual means to support the state program, the monarch and current ideology. Fireworks displays synthesized various artistic forms (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, theatre) and brought art and technology together. Culture, spectacle, theatricality and performance served social and political ends in imperial Russia. In the eighteenth century, Russia underwent transformations as Peter imported Western culture as a means to build a new state and diminish the role of traditional Moskovite nobility. As Simon Werrett showed in his ← 69 | 70 → seminal work, fireworks were a part of this reform, which gave court culture a central role in the new state.7 The history of fireworks in Russia is also intertwined with the history of the Academy of Sciences that sought legitimization after the death of Peter I, and fireworks came to play an important role in the academy, as a powerful vehicle for promoting the sciences, securing patronage, and educating Russian audiences. In Russia, unlike in Europe, the mechanical invention was not of prime interest; its rhetorical side was. Russian professors set up allegorical designs for court illuminations, thus, the phenomenon of academic pyrotechnics was shaped. Unlike in Europe, where links between natural philosophy and pyrotechnics were promoted by commerce and public culture, in Russia these links were forged by the court.

Fireworks were familiar in Russia before Peter, but he eliminated the religious associations of pyrotechnics in favor of grand princely displays to accompany the New Year – itself a novelty. Battle triumphs also started to be celebrated with fireworks. Fireworks spectacles contained allegorical images and always conveyed ideological message. For instance, after the Northern war the fireworks display showed Swedish lion conquered by Russian eagle, each represented as automaton figures, running on lines, amid transparent paintings illuminated form behind.

Anna Ioannovna, empress of Russia from 1730 to 1740, started the tradition of huge illuminations that accompanied coronation ceremony, birthdays of the emperors, name days, imperial weddings, triumphs and peace celebrations. A very important aspect of the fiery performance was the ability to shape the image of the ruler. Fireworks educated Russian audiences in iconography, but also in ideology. Fireworks were incorporated in a bigger praising program that included odes, panegyrics, dedications, verses, mostly prepared by the academicians. In the fireworks performance for the coronation of Anna Ioannovna, she was represented as Minerva, which demonstrated her love for virtue, sciences, arts, including the art of war. Fireworks were also used to promote sciences – for instance, a dominant theme in academic fireworks was cosmological imagery.8 Another classical example was a panegyrical display of allegorical fireworks, representing Russia delivered from darkness by the brilliant appearance of a phenomenal Catherine II in 1762. The examples of academic pyrotechnics could also be found in later periods. For the Coronation of Nicholas II Moscow University illuminated its building, one of the decorations was a tripod in antique style adorned with flowers. ← 70 | 71 → This tripod shot tongues of Bengal fire – the work of one of the laboratories of the university.

By the end of the nineteenth century, electricity became the means by which to express symbols and allegories. For instance, in 1896 Kremlin illumination abounded with red, blue and white bulbs – the colors of the new national flag officially approved by the Special Commission on the eve of the coronation. According to the Commission, the symbolic meanings of the colors were to unite all the classes of society, and to unite the nation with its monarch.

Another use of electricity is the transformation of scientific experiment into spectacle. Since the Early Modern period, scientific entertainment achieved wide public involvement. The experimental method was presented and accepted as a fascinating and spectacular performance. The experiment itself, beyond its practical significance, was simply a marvel worth seeing. In this regard, we can mention the Leyden jar experiment conducted before King Louis XV at Versailles in 1746, in which current was sent through a chain of 180 Royal Guards. The King was both impressed and amused as the soldiers all jumped into the air simultaneously once the circuit was completed.

Experiments with electricity offered dramatic stage effects. As Benjamin Martin enthused in one of his educational texts, electricity provided “Entertainment for Angels rather than for Men.” Travelling lecturers held their audiences spellbound with glowing water jets, electrified insects, and glasses of spirits set aflame by the touch of a sword. Wealthy families bought special devices, enabling aristocratic ladies to titillate their admirers with electric kisses. At the Hanoverian court, electrical demonstrations replaced dancing.9 In nineteenth century Russia, Alexander Petrov carried out public experiments with electric arcs.

Analyzing public demonstration of electricity and electric illumination, it is necessary to appeal to the rhetoric of the “technological sublime,” an interpretation of the classical aesthetic concept of ‘the exalted’ – of beauty that is grand and dangerous. The category of the sublime is linked with the perception of natural phenomena and feelings of astonishment and horror. Leo Marx and David Nye showed that, since the nineteenth century, this category might be extrapolated to the technological objects of exalted power and grandeur. Electrical sublime promised an encounter with the superb and dangerous, which could also be brought on demand.10 ← 71 | 72 → It may be said that electricity was a phenomenon capable of elevating and capturing the mind, primarily impressing individuals with its theatrical nature, rather than utilitarian qualities.

Electrifying Palaces

Organization of electric lighting in the Winter Palace also involved public exposure. For the first time, the Winter Palace fascinated high society with fantastically shining lights in 1885 during a series of Christmas and New Year balls. First, only the public areas were lit – the ball hall and the dining room, later the introduction of electricity was gradually extended. During the Christmas Ball held on 10 January 1885 electric lighting achieved popular acclaim among the guests. Soon after, electrical wiring was installed in Nikolaevsky Hall and the Anteroom; and the marvel of electricity was demonstrated to the public on January 17th, 27th, and 31st. Newspaper reporters and guests characterized the new lighting as magic, a fantastic sight. The source of light was hidden and the lighting created a gorgeous effect with its brilliance. The bulbs were adroitly placed on natural trees, illuminating large-leaved palms with pure sunshine.

Count Sergei Sheremetev, describing the Hermitage Ball, mentioned that “the new lighting with the Edison bulbs was dazzling and good because it did not heat up.”11 For this lighting experiment a portable engine was hired from the Head of Okhta Powder Mill Alexander Studzinsky.12 The novelty impressed Russian high society and it was decided to purchase an engine for the Palace.

Engineer Vasiliy Pashkov was in charge of the organization of electric lighting for the balls in 1885. After successful series of events he prepared a report for the emperor Alexander III and the Ministry of Court, where he described in details the advantages of electric lighting over that of gas, oil and stearin. He mentioned that gas lighting was installed in the Winter Palace as an experiment in 1862 in some premises, and later it was extended nearly to the whole building. There was no single project of installation, so, as and when necessary new pipes were connected to the city gas line, and new holes were made in the building foundation. By 1885 there were 26 holes, which could lead to penetration of gas into the basement. Besides, pipes were already covered with rust, which made lighting dim and unstable. Smoke of gas lamps spoiled walls, ceilings, carpets and gilding. Pashkov paid attention to the fact that gas and oil ← 72 | 73 → lamps, as well as candles consumed more oxygen than human beings needed to breath. This was exceptionally noticeable during balls and receptions – the room filled with suffocating smell, and lighting started to be dim and reddish. Pashkov was sure that this happened because of lighting, and not because of people, since, as he mentioned, during Christmas balls with electric lighting, all the premises kept the smell of flowers and perfume for more than eight hours. Pashkov’s report also contained an overview of American and European successful experience of electric lighting installation, and statistical information on fires caused by gas lighting. Pashkov praised electricity and called it “rational source of light.” He mentioned that in Russia two factories produced electrical engines – Siemens and Halske and Yablochcov and Co. Electricity was widely used by the Naval Ministry (there were 125 dynamos, 85 of which were bought from Siemens and Halske). Report also contained calculations of expenses for the yearly use of electric light in comparison with gas, oil and candles. Pashkov submitted a project of “electrical factory” – building of a power station to be constructed in the yard of the Winter Palace. According to this project, the power station could also be used to install steam heating in the palace, and also for a special construction to melt snow in winter. Installation of this snow melting device helped to avoid the removal of snow in this area and save a considerable sum of money. In his project, Pashkov also specified that candelabras, gas-brackets and Karsel lamps could be easily transformed into electrical lamps.13

Around this time, electricity started to appear in private residences, but for a long time it remained a real sensation. So-called “electric balls,” where guests came specifically to experience the thrill of electricity, became fashionable. Long after the event, ladies couldn’t forget how disgraceful they had looked at the ball: it soon became clear that the common makeup of those times looked very poor under electric light. As a result, only the hostess looked fresh and attractive, and was satisfied with the evening.14 Men had their own entertainment at these “electric balls.” Guests entered a dark room, the host pushed a secret button, and everyone was surprised and delighted as the lights went on.15

In 1886, electricity was hooked up to the Anichkov and Elagin Palaces. They too started out with 700 bulbs for the holiday events and then, in 1890, other areas and buildings were wired for electricity. ← 73 | 74 →

The iconography of electricity was shaped in paintings, ceremonial literature, advertising, postcards. Visual representations rendered the new technology as legitimate. Illustrated postcards that appeared in Russia in the 1870s contained a number of classical views of Saint-Petersburg, including, for instance, the Winter palace and the Marble Palace. The views were similar every year, only some details could be added – people, trees, ornament. In the 1880s a steamboat enlivened the classical architectural lines of urban landscape. The appearance of the postcard with the Marble Palace fantastically lit with electricity in the 1890s was representative, and was covered by the media.

Figure 2. Postcard, the Marble Palace in Saint Petersburg, 1880s


Figure 3. Postcard, the Marble Palace in Saint Petersburg, 1890s


← 74 | 75 →

Since the reign of Alexander II, electric lighting was used in Peterhof (summer residence of the imperial family on the Gulf of Finland) to enhance festive occasions. Official receptions, masquerades, balls, theatrical performances and garden fetes were illuminated by electric lighting, which soon became a common tradition in imperial Peterhof.

This is how one of the newspapers in 1886 described the holiday in Peterhof dedicated to the Name Day of the Empress Maria Fiodorovna:

The illumination started from the railway station, and then crossed the so-called Tsars’ Alley. The entire alley was spangled with thousands of different colored lights, quaintly installed on special sticks. A row of huge chandeliers consisting of white matte lamps lit up the alley. Through the alley, we approached a lake with two small islands. This is where we met an outstanding sight. The lake was lit with underwater electric suns and the shore was covered with thousands of lights, so the lake seemed to burn […] A huge electric sun was installed on the roof of the island pavilion, its beams crossed with the beams of another sun. There were many boats adorned with gas and Bengal lights and moving on the lake. The water became red as fire, then green, then crimson, then yellow.16

Similar, but more advanced, electric effects were used in 1897 when German Emperor Wilhelm II, the cousin of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, visited Peterhof. When the Russian and German Emperors arrived, an enormous electrical eagle, located on the island in the middle of the lake, started shining. A yawl was waiting for the Emperors at the quay right in front of the island. When the Russian Emperor stepped into the boat, the Tsaritsyn Pavilion, which had been completely dark, lit up with three thousand white and red electric bulbs. In 1887, the premises of Peterhof Palace began the wiring process. As in the case with the Winter Palace, electric light found its way into the Palace through festive decorations.

It is noteworthy that a similar scenario about palaces’ adoption of electric power was practiced across Europe. Electric light was installed in public premises and ballrooms, and tested during ceremonial royal events. The installation of electric light was initially carried out in the Supper and Ball Rooms of Buckingham Palace in 1883, after which electric lightning was gradually extended and introduced to the rest of the Palace. Notably, Queen Victoria did not tolerate electric light and preferred candles in her chambers. She also disliked concealed electric lighting. However, the court premises were lit with electric light for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. ← 75 | 76 →

Electricity was included in the symbolic part of the event’s program. An official commemorative medal was issued, whose explanatory card read:

In the centre a figure representing the British Empire sits enthroned, with the sea in the background, resting one hand on the sword of justice, and holding in the other the symbol of victorious rule. A lion is seen on each side of the throne. At the feet of the seated figure lies Mercury, the Lord of Commerce, the mainstay of our imperial strength, holding up in one hand a cup heaped with gold. Opposite him sits the genius of Electricity and Steam.17

Although England was the symbol of the Industrial Revolution, and electricity was a part of the official Royal emblem, Queen Victoria was in no hurry to embrace a full-scale installation of electric lighting. The Queen’s contemporaries mentioned that candles long remained her preferred lighting; the Queen considered this old-fashioned method to be cozier.18 She even said that she had no desire to introduce electric light into the royal palaces at all.

Similarly, in Russian palaces up to the end of the nineteenth century and even at the beginning of the twentieth century, electrical illumination somehow marked the line between public and private spaces. Despite the potentiality, convenience and beauty of electric light, the general attitude to it was still one of mistrust, since in private rooms candles were actively used until 1917. The Kremlin palace embraced electric lighting in some premises only for the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896, to please the guests and keep up with fashion. Nicolas II’s Coronation Album reads: “Due to the all-round spread of electric light, it was impossible to leave the Kremlin Palace with stearic candles and oil lamps. So it was necessary to organize a huge electric power plant and wire the Kremlin in its entirety, which led to hard work and heavy expenses.”

It may be assumed that the advent of electricity into royal residences was relatively slow, due to a lack of trust and awareness. Nevertheless, expert electricians already existed – electricity was widely used in the telegraph service; in 1880, the Electro-technical Department of the Imperial Technical Society was opened; there was the Electro-technical Institute in Saint-Petersburg; popular journals regularly published articles on the achievements of electrical engineering in Russia and abroad – yet, despite all this, the perception of electricity and electric light was surrounded by connotations involving alienation, depersonalization, and an elusive loss of coziness and charm. ← 76 | 77 →

A discourse of wander that surrounded the technology at first, at a certain point was replaced by a different emotional response involving alienation, depersonalization, and an elusive loss of coziness and charm. An analysis of the memoirs of members of the royal family and their intimates, as well as of the periodical press of that time, offers much evidence to support this. In the 1910s Count Sergey Sheremetev mentioned in his memoirs that the old romantic, picturesque, authentic flavor of Moscow came to an end – new technologies of electric lighting and telephones offered comfort, but something intangible was lost forever.19 Alexander Benois (artist, historian and courtier) reflecting on the Peterhof illumination stated that modern electric lighting was sharp, motionless, dead. He missed smoky fumes of gas lamps. Even their stinking smell was a necessary element of festivity.20 Representations of electricity in fiction literature of that period were also full of mistrust and rejection. Anton Chekhov’s characters call electricity a swindle (play “Wedding,” 1890). Alexander Grin defined electricity as lifeless (“Gnor’s Life,” 1912). In Alexander Kuprin’s stories electric lights were accompanied by the epithets “pale,” “deadly” and “annoying” (“The Pit,” 1915).

For Alexander III the Winter Palace in Saint-Petersburg was an official residence, but the favorite place was Gatchina Palace, where the royal family spent most of the time. Electricity in private rooms was installed there early. Interestingly, before the lamps were installed in the emperor’s chambers, the head of security, major-general Petr Cherevin, lived with electricity for several months. Only after it was clear that electricity did not do him any harm, electrification was extended to the palace.21 Gatchina was also an important place for the development of technology, since this was where inventions and technical innovations were shown to the emperor and his family, and where the decision about their implementation was made. In this palace electrical demonstrations were shown to the royal family, as well as Edison’s phonograph and demonstration testing of a submarine.22

A certain contradiction may be observed between the development of electrical engineering in Russia, the presentation of Russian technology on the international arena and the fact that court life was electrified by ← 77 | 78 → foreign specialists and equipment. Russia had its own developments and inventors, the Electro-technical Department of the Imperial Technical Society was established in 1878 among other things to promote Russian achievements and to prevent foreign participation, a decree was issued to electrify the Winter palace solely with national technologies and resources. Nevertheless, the preference was often given to European and American specialists and equipment. The organization of festive illumination for the coronation in 1883 that fascinated Russian and the international public and press was carried out by the German company Siemens and Halske, which used Edison lamps. Thus, coronation illumination was at the same time an advertising campaign for such foreign companies, which, to a great extent, predetermined the development of the electrical industry in Russia. After the successful introduction of electricity at court ceremonies, the Siemens Company was entrusted to bring the magic of electricity to the Winter Palace. Later, in 1886 the Emperor allowed Siemens to create the Electric Lighting Society (Obshestvo electricheskogo osvesheniya), and granted it the rights to distribute electric power in Saint-Petersburg and Moscow, and to mark their products with the double-headed eagle (later, Siemens would change the markings on its electrical bulbs because the markings projected ghostly shadows that caused fear among the citizens). The highly centralized manner of governance was reflected in personal involvement of the emperor in technological decisions. For instance, it is known that Alexander III was fascinated by Siemens’s products presented at the 1882 exhibition in Moscow, and this is when their relationship started.


The appearance and implementation of electric light in Russia is not just a reflection of the history of technology or technological progress. It is also intertwined with the history of royal palaces and court culture. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century was a transition period, during which the utilization of electrical technology was becoming a common and widespread practice. During this period, electricity was more of a symbolic object associated with wealth, power and progress but at the same time it was not free from prejudice and romantic affections.

The role of the court and the imperial family was exceptionally important for the development of electricity. Russian emperors in the nineteenth century personally took part in technological decisions choosing companies and directing their actions. It was common for tsars to be in charge and approve electrification projects up to the aesthetic designs of streetlights. That is why it was so important for businesses, ← 78 | 79 → engineers, scientists, industrialists to seek patronage and goodwill of the court. In this regard, the example of Russian Academy of Sciences in the eighteenth century is comparable to electrotechnical companies and societies in the nineteenth century. The Academy of Sciences was seeking royal acknowledgment and security through creating academic pyrotechnics, which were put in demonstration at ceremonial events, and helped create the governmental myth and build the scenario of power. In the nineteenth century Siemens and Halske paved the way for their company and for the whole industry through successful ceremonial demonstrations of electricity.

The attitude to electricity was complicated by its enigmatic nature, uncertain identity (electricity had no smell or weight), but also uncanny visual effects and fashion appeal. This cultural perception complicated the electrification of the court as well as of private homes. Appropriation of electricity was accompanied by practices of resistance from the side of the uninformed and fearful users, and also from the gas companies, which were afraid to lose their market, and from the palaces’ servants, who used to earn money selling candle-ends.23 This shows that technological, economic and cultural dimensions are equally important to understand the domestication of electricity in the nineteenth century. ← 79 | 80 →

1 Research was supported by the Russian Foundation for Humanities, project No. 16-03-50086.

2 Koronatsionniy albom [Coronation Album], Vol. 1 (Moscow: ТЕRRА, 2003), 283.

3 Richard S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 4.

4 Koronatsionniy albom, 123-4.

5 “Elektricheskaya illuminatsiya kolokolny Ivana Velikogo vo vremya koronatsionnykh torzhestv” [Electric Illumination of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower during the Coronation Festivities], Elektrichestvo 21/22 (1883): 4.

6 Koronatsionniy albom, 144-5.

7 Simon Werrett, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 105.

8 Ibid., 122.

9 Patricia Fara, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 165.

10 David Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge MA): MIT Press, 1996 (1st ed. 1994)), 58.

11 Sergei Sheremetev, Memuary [Memoirs] (Moscow: Indrik, 2001), 550.

12 Note of the palace administration to Alexander Studzinsky, 16 February 1885. Collection 536, Inventory 1, Document 210 (page 30), Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA, Saint Petersburg).

13 Note on Electrification of the Winter Palace by Vasily Pashkov, 4 October 1885. Collection 536, Inventory 1, Document 213 (page 8), RGIA.

14 Vera Bokova, Povsednevnaya zhizn’ Moskvy v XIX veke [Dayly Life in Moscow in the Nineteenth Century] (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 2010), 91.

15 Vladimir Nelidov, Teatralnaya Moskva [Theatrical Moscow] (Moscow: Materik, 2002), 7.

16 Peterburgskiy listok [Saint Petersburg Leaflet] 198 (24 July 1886): 2.

17 Brian Pearce et al., “Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 135/5372 (July 1987): 573-597.

18 Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History Boston: (Da Capo Press, 2001), 181.

19 Kirill Vakha (ed.), Memuary grafa S. Sheremeteva (Moscow: Indrik, 2005), 296.

20 Alexander Benua, Moi vospominaniya [My memoirs], Vol. 2 (Moscow: Nauka, 1990), 280.

21 Galina Korneva, Tatyana Cheboksarova, “O vklade Leopolda Shvede v elektrifikatsiyu imperatorskikh residentsiy Tsarskoe Selo i Livadiya” [About the Contribution of Leopold Schwede to Electrification of Imperial Residences Tsarskoe Selo and Livadiya], Metronom Aptekarskogo ostrova 40 2 (2012): 50-64.

22 Irina Ryzhenko, Alexander III v Gatchine [Alexander III in Gatchina] (Saint Petersburg: Liki Rossii, 2011), 38.

23 Igor Zimin, Detski mir imperatorskih rezidentsiy [Children’s World of Imperial Residences] (Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2011) [available online:].