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Struggling to Take Root: The Work of the Electro-Culture Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Between 1918 and 1936 and its Fight for Acceptance

by David Kinahan, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London

 

ABSTRACT

Since the eighteenth century, many scientists and entrepreneurs have explored the idea of using electricity to make plants grow faster. In 1918, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries were so enticed by the idea that they set up a committee to investigate. Here, the work of this committee is discussed using the eighteen Interim Reports that they published between 1918 and 1936, the year that they were disbanded. Furthermore, reasons why the committee was axed, despite some considerable successes, are considered. It is concluded that the Electro-Culture effect is a real one, and that the Committee was axed as a result of economic pressures, not because the idea was wrong.

KEYWORDS: Agronomy, Electro-Culture, Fertilisation, History of Agriculture, History of Science, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Science and Government.

 

Introduction

Making crops grow larger and faster has been the primary concern of agriculture for millennia. All manner of cultivation techniques and technologies have been developed to fulfil this aim, from simple crop rotation to complex synthetic fertilisers. The enterprise of agricultural science is testament to this cause. It is therefore unsurprising to find that newly discovered technologies and phenomena have been readily applied to agricultural problems, no matter how abstract they may seem. Some of these applications are now used in everyday, orthodox farming practices, others are not. It is one of the unsuccessful applications of a new and developing technology to agriculture that is the topic of this paper, the attempt to use electricity as a 'fertiliser'.

From the mid-eighteenth century, enterprising individuals have tried to use electricity to boost plant growth because of the promise that such an inexhaustible 'substance' held. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw 'Electro-Culture', as it came to be known, taking hold, with increasing efforts to prove that it worked. Many entrepreneurs involved with Electro-Culture saw statistically significant increases in the yields of their crops. The lavish claims they made gathered sufficient credence to prompt Lord Ernle, the president of the Board of Agriculture, later the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), to found a committee in 1918 to see if Electro-Culture could be employed on a larger scale. Its institutionalisation, however, is the high water mark of the idea, with the Electro-Culture Committee disbanded in 1936 and the whole pursuit branded a failure. Although it saw a small resurgence in the mid-twentieth century, Electro-Culture is now very much a relic of the past. However, there is little proof that the idea is as absurd as it sounds. Much of the work carried out by the Committee saw considerable success, and the mass of results achieved then, and in the 1960s and 1970s, suggest that the growth increases seen by the Electro-Culturists were real. It is the purpose of this paper to discuss why Electro-Culture failed to be accepted as a credible technique.

With this aim in mind, this paper does not discuss much of the history preceding the foundation of the Electro-Culture Committee, the key being that events led to Lord Ernle approving the official investigation. Despite the varied history of Electro-Culture it seems the Committee's eighteen years of work decided the idea's future, and so this period is the main focus of the paper. The discussion begins with a brief description of the work of the Committee, which is based on the information contained within the Committee's eighteen Interim Reports, as well as the other records contained in the National Archives at Kew. The remainder of the paper discusses some of the reasons the Committee's work was ended in 1936, and then tries to arrive at a conclusion as to why an enterprise that had some considerable success was abandoned so completely.

 

The Rise of the Electro-Culture Committee

In 1898, Karl Selim Lemström (1838-1904), Professor of Physics at the University of Helsinki, addressed a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Bristol on the topic of Electro-Culture (Sidaway, 1975: 390). He had been working on the technique since the 1880s when, whilst observing the Aurora Borealis, he noted that the trees in the surrounding area grew rapidly despite the short growing season. Aware of the previous work on Electro-Culture, Lemström attributed this growth to the electrical field generated by the Aurora, and set up a number of experiments to test this hypothesis (Lemström, 1904: 1-20). The experiments involved stringing a network of positively charged wires above a crop, charged to varying potentials for different periods of time, and measuring the difference in the yields obtained compared to controls. It was the results of these experiments that were the subject of Lemström's talk, and also his book Electricity in Agriculture and Horticulture, published in English in 1904.

Lemström's results, and his 'overhead discharge technique' piqued the interest of a number of British scientists. The botanist J. H Priestley, working in cooperation with the physicist J. E. Newman, achieved a 17% increase in the yield of their cucumbers with Lemström's technique (Priestly 1906 and 1910 cited in Sidaway, 1975: 390). Sir Oliver Lodge, the famous physicist, again working with Newman, designed an eight hectare installation based on Lemström's design,[1] and achieved a 24-39% increase in wheat grain yield (Sidaway, 1975: 390). Together with more experimental work from Miss E. C. Dudgeon in Lincluden, Dumfries, and Professor V. H. Blackman at Imperial College London, these British applications and developments of Lemström's method resulted in considerable interest from the agricultural community (ibid.). It was as a result of their lobbying that Lord Ernle set up the Electro-Culture Committee in 1918.

The Committee's purpose was to advise the Minister on everything electro-cultural, with special emphasis on solving the difficulties of experimentation, the construction of suitable apparatus, and, particularly, its economic feasibility (Snell, J.et al., 1919: 2). Their aim was clear, to transform the promise held by the previous, rather informal experiments into something practical. As had been the case throughout the history of Electro-Culture, successes, although in the majority, had been accompanied by numerous failures or results that were not statistically significant even under seemingly identical conditions[2] (See Lemström, 1904; Sidaway, 1975; Porter, 1968; and Spence, 1962). Ironing-out these inconsistencies was therefore of great importance within the Committee's work, and to an extent it can be seen as its raison d'être. The stress that World War One had put Britain under, in particular the food shortages resulting from the German Atlantic campaign, made the potential yield-boosts of Electro-Culture very attractive. (Spence 1962: 150) However, the cash-strapped nation and its farmers could not put their faith in an expensive technique that had yet to be proved practicable. With this responsibility in mind, the eleven-member Committee Lord Ernle appointed consisted of an interdisciplinary mix of physicists, biologists, electrical engineers, and agriculturalists. The committee included some 6 fellows of the Royal Society, and a Nobel-Prize-winner,[3] and was chaired by Sir John Snell, an electrical engineer and Chairman of the Electricity Commission, the body responsible for shaping Britain's electricity policy (See Ross 2004).

 

The Programme of Work

Unfortunately, due to the limits of this paper, there is not the opportunity to give a full description of the Committee's efforts. However, briefly, the Committee's work was almost entirely experimental, and took Lemström's technique as its basis.[4] Their most fundamental studies were done in the laboratory. For instance, Blackman et al. were able to establish, by growing Barley shoots in nutrient solution under highly-charged metallic points, that the optimum current through the plant was 3x10-9A, and that the increased growth-rate, in some cases, continued for as long as five hours after the current had been switched off (Blackman et al, 1923: 222-228). As well as spending considerable time in the laboratory looking at this and other problems, no time was lost in applying the results in the field.

Through a range of large-scale field trials, based at both Rothamsted and Lincluden, the committee attempted to apply their laboratory-learnt knowledge to a wide range of crops, from wheat and oats to potatoes and cabbages. These experiments differed little from those of the early electro-culturists,[5] except for one: in 1921, an 'economic installation' was built which was designed to be viable for actual farming (the cables were much higher off the ground so as not interfere with farm machinery and workers) and also to give a realistic cost for installing the apparatus (Snell, J. et al. 1922: 4). However, even though the growth results that the Committee achieved with these large-scale trials were positive, there were some serious complications.

Including Blackman's field trials on oats at Rothamsted between 1915 and 1917,[6] by 1920 the Committee had amassed quite a considerable body of data. They had run twelve experiments, eleven of which found positive increases in yield, and eight of these were between 30% and 50% (Snell, J. et al., 1920: 13). However, although the next two years saw concerted efforts to build on this excellent start, poor weather, a very wet season in 1920 and a very dry one in 1921, led to very disappointing results, the Interim Reports do not even mention them (Snell, J. et al.,1921: 2 and Snell, J. et al., 1922: 2). After experiencing yet another disappointing season in 1922, the Committee decided to abandon the large-scale fieldwork, except for what was being done on the economic installation, in favour of the smaller-scale experiments that they were also pursuing[7] (Snell, J. et al. 1923: 2 and 5-6). Although there was some work done on ' small-plot experiments' (smaller versions of the above based on concepts that would be too expensive to do on a larger scale),[8] the bulk of the small-scale work was done in 'pot-culture'. Essentially a small number of plants in pots under 'discharge nets', pot-culture allowed for a much greater degree of control (factors such as soil type, condition, and climate being more easily manipulated) as well as allowing for a far greater range of experiments in the same period of time, simply by using more pots. It was as a result of these advantages that the Committee focussed almost all of their efforts on pot-culture in 1923.

Although some pot-work had been done since 1918, it was not until 1922, in response to the frustrations of the bad weather, that these experiments were conducted on a considerable scale. It was here that the Committee made its most significant findings. In trying to establish the best time and the best length of time to apply the discharge, they achieved phenomenally high grain yields, one pot yielding an increase of 118% over the control. Along with the variability of the weather, this remarkable success was a major factor in the Committee's decision to stop working on the large-scale and concentrate their efforts on pot-culture instead, with the promise of returning to the field in 1925 (Snell, J. et al.1923: 2-3 and 5). However, this never happened. Although, over the next thirteen years, there were a few significant increases, notably when experimenting with different fertilisers in 1927 and 1929[9] when they saw some yield increases of 36%, the Committee mostly met with decreases (Snell, J. et al., 1928: 2 and 1930: 2). For instance, in 1926, 73% of experiments showed a decrease, with the results being attributed to adverse weather (Snell, J. et al., 1927: 2). 1932-35 saw no significant increases whatsoever; the Committee were only able to guess that this was the fault of fertilisers that they were using (Snell, J. et al. 1933: 2, 1934: 2, 1935: 2 and 1937: 2-3). These were the last results from the Electro-Culture Committee as it was disbanded in 1936, issuing its eighteenth and final Interim Report in February 1937.

As illustrated, there were some significant successes in the work of the Electro-Culture Committee, but they were dogged by sometimes inexplicable difficulties. The laboratory work established the bounds within which current had a positive effect upon the growth of plants; the field work showed that the electro-cultural effect was real on the large scale, although hard to control; and the pot-cultures indicated some substantial increases in yield were possible, and yet the Committee was disbanded and its results have been largely forgotten.

 

Analysis of the Fall of the Committee

The most significant reason for theabandonment of the Committee waseconomics. They were constituted to iron-out the inconsistencies that the early experimenters had seen in order to make Electro-Culture a practical and affordable technique for British farmers. However, despite all their time, effort and money their results only seemed to confirm the contradictory and unpredictable nature of Electro-Culture, despite its initial promise. As the Committee put it in their Eighteenth and Final Interim Report:

In spite of the failures of recent years, the field results obtained some years ago and the earlier pot culture results would seem to have established the fact that the Electro-Culture effect is a real one. It would seem, however, to be of little advantage to continue the work either on economic or on scientific grounds. Increases of 20 per cent can hardly be considered economic even if obtained in most years; experiments, however, demonstrate that the regular occurrence of the effect cannot be expected. On the scientific side the erratic occurrence of the phenomena to be investigated renders their full study impossible… The Committee regret that after so exhaustive a study of this matter the practical results should be so disappointing (Snell, J. et al.1937 3-4).

As Sidaway argues, and as this quote illustrates, the Committee were bowed under considerable pressure to produce realistic results, and it eventually took its toll (Sidaway 1975: 392-3). The Development Commission was simply not prepared to fund a project that was very expensive, and did not yield tangible benefits. However, it is notable, given that the peak in the results was in 1922, that the Committee was not disbanded sooner given this pressure. For instance, after the large-scale trials were curtailed in 1923, no results of any real significance were achieved, with the possible exception of the trials of fertilisers in 1927 and 1929, yet the Committee was allowed to carry on until 1936. However, this apparent contradiction is perhaps explained by considering the sources that have formed the basis of this paper: Interim Reports are not just reproductions of the results of the Committee's experiments, but also appeals for further funding.

Every Interim Report, including the last, puts a positive spin on the results regardless of their significance. For instance, in the sixteenth report, published in June 1934, it was asserted:

The results of 1933 are similar to those of 1932 in that no significant incremental effects have been observed as a result of exposure to the positive discharge except for a slight effect on tillering and on shoot height. The negative discharge on the other hand has reduced the size of the ears and has increased the flower sterility. On the basis of grain yield and dry weight the sets exposed to a positive discharge show a markedly significant difference to the negative discharge, although the positive or the negative discharge may have given no significant difference over the controls. The detrimental effect of the negative discharge is clearly brought out. It may perhaps be tentatively suggested that the differential effect of positive and negative discharges indicates some electrical action on the transport of substance in the plant (Snell, J. et al. 1934: 2).

This piece of almost pure speculation attempts to assert that a year in which no yield increases were achieved was a success. Although the effect that this self-justification had on the Minister who read the report cannot be known, it throws some doubt on the reliability of the Interim Reports. In looking for alternative sources of information it is unfortunate that only the first four years of Committee correspondence and minutes survive, but these documents contain some interesting insights. For example, it appears that the Committee was threatened with closure on the basis of their economic output very early on.

At the end of the third Interim Report is this statement:

The Committee have received, with some concern, an intimation from the Development Commissioners that they will not be able to make any further grants after the conclusion of the present year in respect to the Committee's work. The Committee do not regard their work as complete… more experimental work requires to be done before the commercial value of the method can be decided. It is true that the beneficial effect of the overhead electrical discharge has been demonstrated so far as spring sown cereals are concerned, but the actual increase to be expected requires more exact determination before a decision as to the economic value of the process can be reached (Snell, J. et al., 1921: 4).

As this quote reveals, the Committee were genuinely concerned for the integrity of the scientific study. An anonymous handwritten scrawl on the minute sheet for that report says 'The studies continue to show very baffling results. It would be most unwise to discontinue now, only continuous work will clear up the discrepancies and the practical improbabilities.' Underneath, Mr Hale, the secretary of the Committee wrote: 'I agree. I think it is clear that this investigation must be continued, for another year at least' (MAF 33/65). This same file also contains a letter from Mr Berry, a Committee member, to Snell in which he produces a long and impassioned list of reasons for why the Committee should be allowed to continue its investigation. However, as the three Ministers of Agriculture between 1919 and 1921 were keen to point out, the Committee was not constituted to produce a thorough inquiry. Lord Ernle, on receipt of the first Interim Report, was quick to remind Snell of their true aims. In a letter he wrote in 1919 he said:

While I should have been glad to learn that the Committee had been able to reach a definite conclusion as to the effect of overhead discharge on growing crops, I fully realise that a problem of this type may demand several years of experimental work before it is possible to formulate conclusions that will be satisfying to scientists, and sufficiently reliable to enable farmers to decide whether it would be to their advantage, or not, to purchase the electrical apparatus required for Electro-Culture work.

Letters containing similar sentiments were returned to the Committee from Lord Lee and Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, the Ministers for Agriculture in 1920 and 1921. Although all three were forthcoming in their support, it is clear that they firstly regarded it as a short-term project, not necessarily an in-depth scientific analysis of the topic, and secondly that they expected realistic estimates of cost and practicality. Thus it was in an economic light that the threat of closure was made. The Development Commission wanted to withdraw funding because of the lack of realistic results, so the Ministry pushed the committee to generate such results, resulting, in 1922, in the development of the 'economic installation'.

The decision to disband the Committee can therefore be seen as the result of a conflict between the desire for a thorough scientific investigation and the rush to see the investigation completed for economic gain, a concept that is not entirely unfamiliar today. It can only be assumed, thanks to the loss of correspondence from the latter years of the Committee, that similar exchanges went on throughout its existence, and that the Development Commission and the Ministry eventually lost patience and ended the Committee's work.[10] As such, economic pressure, and the fact that the Committee was seen to have failed to make Electro-Culture a practical reality were the most likely reasons for its demise in 1936.

However, another reason for the end of the Committee was the results of experiments in America. Given the potential of Electro-Culture, Britain was not the only country experimenting with it. According to their notes, the Committee were in communication with scientists working on the issue in Norway, as well as elsewhere in Europe, and their results tended to agree with what the Committee had found. However, American scientists, equally determined to realise the promise of Electro-Culture due to the food demands of their booming population, (see Spence, 1962: 150) did not see any such promising results. For instance, a lengthy study commissioned by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and carried out by scientists from the Bureau of Plant Industry at the Arlington Experimental Farms in Virginia, yielded no positive results whatsoever (Sidaway, 1975: 392 and Spence, 1962: 150). Sidaway and Spence both argue that the findings of these experiments, published in two reports (see Briggs, 1926 and Collins, 1929), were a major contributing factor in the demise of the Committee. Although neither Sidaway nor Spence go into any detail, nor is there any mention of these reports in the Committee's Interim Reports, it seems likely that they had an influence on the Committees fate nonetheless. Such high-profile rejections from another state-backed enterprise must have been a significant blow to chances of the Committee keeping their funding. Although there is a lag between the reports and the closure of the Committee in 1936, this does not diminish Spence and Sidaway's conclusion. The American reports would have reinforced the Development Commission's notion that Electro-Culture actually had little economic promise.

However, this American research raises the question of why the results on either side of the Atlantic differed to such a degree. Sidaway suggests a very plausible solution. As one of the researchers who worked on Electro-Culture in the 1960s and 70s, Sidaway argues that the changes in photoperiodicity inherent in the shifting seasons, as well as the differing patterns of shocks of low temperature that occur in spring and autumn, have a significant effect on the way a plant responds to light and other forms of electromagnetism (Sidaway 1975: 392). He argues that autumn-sown crops, which experience many fewer shocks of lower temperatures during germination and early growth than their spring-sown equivalents, and are subjected to a photoperiodic pattern that shifts from long to short days rather than the other way round, will not be ideally suited to Electro-Culture. This spring-sown bias was a phenomenon that the Committee had identified by 1925, although they did not know why it happened, but had largely ignored it as the British climate made autumn-sown crops such a rarity. However, the American researchers, working under much more reliable weather conditions, were able to experiment on both varieties. Sidaway argues that they were so fixated on the negative results obtained from their autumn-sown crops that they disregarded the inconsistent positives that they obtained in spring (ibid.). Crucially, though, the reason that all of the experimental work, British and American alike, was dogged by inconsistency was because the experimenters were working without a proper 'conceptual framework' (ibid: 391). They did not truly understand why they saw the effects they did, and so had little hope of ever actually making Electro-Culture a practical solution, something which becomes clearer still when the work that was done in the 1960s and 1970s is considered.

After the demise of the Committee in 1936, very little work was done on Electro-Culture until 1962. In a series of papers Krueger, Kotaka and Andriese working at the University of California at Berkeley, Murr working at Pennsylvania State University, and Sidaway and Asprey working at University College Cardiff established that gaseous ions were responsible for the effects seen in Electro-Culture. For instance, in 1962 Krueger et al. picked up on Blackman et al.'s laboratory work from 1923 described above, and showed, using newly developed technology, that ions produced from a clean source of radiation were enough to set up a physiological reaction in plants very similar to those the Committee saw (Krueger et al.,1962: 38). Although the fact that the reaction was ion-mediated would have been known by the Committee (since it was the only way electricity could have reached the plants) this was the first time that it had been so succinctly demonstrated (Pohl, 1978: 6). Murr showed that the ions caused an increase in trace elements such as Iron, Zinc and Aluminium in plants; these elements are only associated with certain metabolic enzymes, suggesting a profound physiological response (Murr 1964: 1306). Further work in this area, concisely summarised by Pohl (1978), demonstrates the mechanisms that Electro-Culture operates through are highly complex, involving biochemical concepts that were little understood in the 1920s and 1930s. The understanding of enzymes, for instance, was only just beginning to mature, including the technology required to study them.

It is only recently that a reasonably full physiological mechanism for Electro-Culture has been put forward. Andrew Goldsworthy, a specialist in plant biotechnology at Imperial College, suggested in 2006 that what is seen in Electro-Cultural experiments is a plant's natural reaction to a brewing thunderstorm. Building on the work done in the 1960s and 1970s, he argues that if a plant is to make best use of the water supplied by a thunderstorm, especially if it grows in dry conditions, then it will be a selective advantage to respond quickly before it drains away. The 16 kV/m voltage gradients under thunderclouds are thus an excellent signal of imminent heavy precipitation. Significantly, these are strikingly similar to those that the Committee found in the laboratory to be effective in Electro-Culture, as they are sufficient to establish a current of around 3x10-9A through the plants on the ground, thus suggesting that the Electro-Cultural effect that the Committee and others were studying was actually a physiological response evolved though plant competition for water in dry climates. If the plant is subjected to such an electric field, genes are activated which promote metabolic activity, generating enzymes for example, and increase the permeability of the cell membranes of the roots ready for the water. As such, Goldsworthy argues that an essential part of electroculture must be a ready supply of water, at the latest four hours after electrification and that electrifying the plants in dry conditions is likely to harm them as they will waste so much energy (Goldsworthy, 2006: 248-9). He argues that given that the American researchers switched off the electric current if rain was forecast, it was not at all surprising that they only achieved negative results[11] (ibid.: 249). These later discoveries indicate that the Committee, and other electro-culturists of the time, had a significant gap in their knowledge and an inadequate conceptual framework in place, perhaps even more inadequate than Sidaway suspected.

Therefore, at the time the Electro-Culture Committee was constituted, it was unlikely that they could ever have fully understood Electro-Culture as was their aim. Their view, as dictated by their brief, was empirical, so they tackled the complexities of Electro-Culture by amassing a great deal of experimental results, thereby hoping to arrive at the best, most reliable method. As a result of this, their work was devoid of any form of theory as to why electricity had the effects that they observed. For instance, it was only in 1925, six years into their experiments, that the Committee began to consider the physiological effect of the electricity on the plants at all, and only then did they consider the gross effects and why this led to an increase in yield.[12] There was no attempt to explain the effects observed. This approach is entirely understandable given that in 1918 the whole problem of Electro-Culture would have simply seemed to be one of ironing-out the inconsistencies by finding the appropriate times and durations for electrification. This understandably flawed approach, combined with the high-profile depreciatory results from America, seem likely to have colluded with the strong economic drive of the Development Commission in causing the downfall of Committee despite the fact that their results showed some considerable promise.

However, this reasoning for the Committee's disbandment in the face of their 'confirmation' that the technique has a positive effect does not account for why Electro-Culture has since faded into history. Here, it seems likely that the Committee were perceived as having failed to 'tame' Electro-Culture, and thus it subsequently gained a reputation for being a curious but unreliable phenomenon and pursuing it was seen as a waste of time, lacking any prestige. Among the biographers of the most prominent Committee members, only two take the time to mention the Committee, suggesting that this perception of the Committee's work is, even now, pervasive. Snell's biographer only mentions in passing that he was chairman, dwarfed amongst his other responsibilities (Ross, 2004). Only one of Blackman's biographers mentions Electro-Culture and then as a rather inconvenient distraction from his otherwise more worthwhile work (Porter, 1968: 51-2). Although Porter makes some interesting observations about Blackman's significant contributions to the Committee, she suggests that as soon as it became clear that the Committee was making little progress in making Electro-Culture practicable, he resigned all interest and focussed his effort on other projects. This rather Popperian interpretation seems to ignore Blackman's significant analytical appendices that were a prominent feature of every Interim Report until the Committee was disbanded. These do not seem to be the work of a disinterested, preoccupied scientist. What is more likely is that the work of the Committee, and indeed Electro-Culture as a whole, came to be seen as failed science, and hence has been forgotten.

However, this perceived disproval of the science of Electro-Culture does not alone account for its disappearance. If the results of the Committee's work were in the public domain, it is reasonable to suggest that their many positives would have been taken as indicative of something substantial. Instead, Electro-Culture remained almost untouched until the 1960s and 70s because from the fourth Interim Report in 1922, the reports were all marked 'not for publication'. From this point on, for the rest of the Committee's existence, only two copies of each report were printed, one for the Minister, the other for the Ministry archives. Although a limited number of edited summaries were made available upon request, unrestricted access to the Committee's work and results was effectively impossible, despite the fact that the work was not officially 'classified'. Although the reasons for this are uncertain, it is reasonable to suggest, as Sidaway does, that here Snell's dual role as chairman of both the Electro-Culture Committee and the Electricity Commission may begin to conflict (Sidaway, 1995: 69 and Sidaway, 2008). Given that one of the main roles of the Electricity Commission was to negotiate and oversee the building of the National Grid, and that there was already considerable opposition to this on aesthetic and safety grounds, publishing results which suggested that the overhead lines might also cause significant bioactivity may not have been wise. Snell's conflict of interest between his two projects, then, dictated that the Committee's reports be made private in order to make sure that the National Grid could go ahead. Although this could be seen as a rather cynical interpretation of events, it seems reasonable to suggest that such a conflict of interest could have been significant and it is certainly one explanation for the non-publication of the remainder of the Committee's work. Whatever the reason, though, it is likely that this non-publication contributed to the illusion that Electro-Culture was a failed science, perpetuating the idea that the Committee failed in taming Electro-Culture because it was impossible to do so, not for the reasons outlined above. It is not known how long the reports languished unseen in the archives, but the 'Thirty-Year Rule'[13] might suggest that it is not a coincidence that Electro-Culture began to resurface, albeit briefly, in the 1960s.

 

Conclusions

This paper has attempted to explain why the Electro-Culture Committee was disbanded in 1936, and why their work has since faded into history despite their apparent conformation that Electro-Culture had a positive effect. The approach that the Committee took and their understandable lack of detailed biochemical and biophysical knowledge meant that they pursued an empirical approach that could not reach any form of practicable method of carrying out Electro-Culture based on Lemström's technique. This was not acceptable to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Development Commission who were looking for practical results, especially in the face of some high-profile depreciatory results from other scientists overseas. Thus, what was seen as the failure of Electro-Culture was actually the failure of the Committee to fulfil its brief. The Electro-Cultural effect is real, and the Committee confirmed this through their careful experiments in the laboratory and in the field. However, the painstaking research and epistemic revolutions required to understand the mechanisms of Electro-Culture were well beyond what a civil-service Committee could hope to achieve. That Electro-Culture has not been revisited since is perhaps a result of the perceived failure of the Committee to confirm the technique, amplified by the fact that the Committee's work remained hidden for so long, possibly as a result of Snell's conflict of interest in his dual roles as chairman of the Electro-Culture Committee and the Electricity Commission. The damage done to the reputation of the science of Electro-Culture, despite the apparent promise of all the work outlined above, has seen it fade into history, thrown in amongst the hundreds of other such failed enterprises. However, as further work has suggested, it seems likely that Electro-Culture could still be employed profitably, especially now that electricity is much cheaper and more easily available. Perhaps given our greater understanding of the topic, it is time for a return to the ' electric fields'.

 

Acknowledgements

My thanks go to Professor Hasok Chang, University College London, for his supervision and input in putting together this paper.

 

Notes

[1] Sidaway notes that this was the forerunner of several commercially supplied 'Lodge-Newman Installations' around the country (Sidaway, 1975: 390). However, he does not reference this fact.

[2] For instance, Lemström said in 1904, summarising his own work as much as that of his predecessors, 'the most striking feature of [electro-cultural] experiments is that they are always contradictory' (Lemström, 1904: 8, Emphasis in original).

[3] The six Fellows of the Royal Society were the extremely influential cytologist and plant physiologist Professor V. H. Blackman (1872-1967) who had already done a good deal of experimental work on Electro-Culture (see Porter, 1968; and Brassley, 2004); the physicist Dr C. Chree, (1860-1928) winner of the Hughes Medal in 1919 for his researches in terrestrial magnetism; the physicist and electrical engineer Dr W. H. Eccles (1875-1966) who was a specialist in wireless radio transmission and the passage of radiation through the air (see Ratcliffe and Procter, 2004); the electrical engineer Professor T. Mather (1856-1937) known for his work on the measurement of electricity and the refinement of instruments for this purpose (see Sumpner, 1938); the agricultural scientist E. J. Russell (1872-1965), director of the Rothamsted Experimental Station (see Thornton, 1966); and the physicist Professor C. T. R. Wilson (1869-1959) renowned for his work on cloud chambers and the study of the passage of ions through air, work for which he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927, as well as winning numerous other awards including the Royal Society's Hughes Medal in 1911, a Royal Medal in 1922 and the Copley Medal in 1935 (see Longair, 2004; and Blackett, 1960).

[4] Their reasoning for this, at least as recorded in their first Interim Report in 1919, and indeed in each subsequent one until 1937, was: 'In view of the complexity of the subject the Committee have confined their experiments during the period under review to Electro-Culture by means of overhead discharge' (Snell, J. et al.,1919: 2). As this implies, and as it is important to remember, there were numerous other techniques throughout the history of Electro-Culture, and the Committee simply picked the one that they saw to have the greatest chance of success.

[5] As such, the installations at Lincluden and Rothamsted involved a mesh of cables, approximately 0.3mm in diameter, strung between poles at about 2m above the ground. The cables were charged using a petrol-driven generator, with the positive terminal attached to the cables and the negative terminal attached to the earth, to establish a field strength of between 10-20kV/m, enough to create a current of 3x10-9A within each individual plant which, as shown above, was established as the optimal amount of current to encourage growth (Snell, J.et al.,1920: 12).

[6] These results are described in quite some depth in appendix 2 of the third Interim Report in 1921.

[7] It is important to note, though, that they fully intended to return to large-scale experimentation, it was not an admission of defeat. They argued that given the drastic effects of the weather on the reliability of the results, something that they didn't fully understand, they would experiment under more controllable conditions until they did. They believed that it would only take two years, 1923 and 1924, to make sufficient progress in their understanding of Electro-Culture to allow them to return to the larger-scale in 1925 (Snell, J. et al.,1923: 6).

[8] For instance, one, setup in 1918 and referred to as the 'caged-plot experiment', involved the construction of something akin to a Faraday Cage of earthed wires around an area of land of about 1/40thacre which aimed to gauge the effect of the Earth's magnetic field on the crops (Snell, J. et al.,1919: 4). However, the results were mixed as they showed that the yields of the crops grown within the cage were 5% lower than that of the electrified fields, but 5% higher than the control plot. The same experiment in 1919 saw much lower yields than both the control and electrified plots, but this was put down to poor conditions (Snell, J. et al.,1920: 7-8). Therefore, it was concluded that the results were insignificant and, after 1920, this experiment was not repeated.

[9] No results were recorded in 1928 as many of the plants were attacked by 'rust'. As such, the Committee concluded that any results seen were insignificant, with the only real conclusion that they needed to take greater steps to avoid disease (Snell, J. et al.,1929: 2).

[10] A significant factor in this may well have been the costings that were returned for the economic installation that suggested that for a farmer to put an equivalent system in place the cost would be around £10 an acre in equipment alone. Considering this would not have included the cost of generating the electricity, and taking into account inflation, it was concluded that Electro-Culture was very expensive.

[11] Equally, though, this explains other oddities experienced by the Committee. For example, Blackman et al.'s (1923) observation that there was a sustained after-effect of electrification that could be explained because the Barley shoots were growing in a nutrient solution, and thus had a plentiful supply of water. This, too, explains the results of 1921, one of the driest seasons experienced for some time, a set of results that contributed to the abandonment of the large-scale field trials.

[12] They concluded that electricity reduced the amount of sterile flowers in the ears of the crops, as well as reducing the amount of tillers, shoots that form at the base of the stalk thus representing unnecessary growth, and as such there was an increase in the yield (Snell, J. et al.,1926: 3; and Snell, J. et al.,1930: 2).

[13] The 'Thirty-Year Rule' is the guideline used by the British government for when documents are to be made available to the public. So, for instance, government documents from the 1970s are only now being made available in the National Archives at Kew. This 'rule' was introduced by Harold Wilson's government who amended the 'Public Records Act 1958' in 1967, revising the time limit down from the previous 'Fifty-Year Rule'. Therefore, the Interim Reports of the Electro-Culture Committee would have become eligible for release in 1967.

 

References

All letters and notes from the minutes come from one file stored in the National Archives at Kew under MAF 33/65

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Snell, J., A. F. Berry, V. H. Blackman, W. H. Eccles, J. S. Highfield, G. W. O. Howe, H. G. Richardson, E. J. Russell and C. T. R. Wilson (1931), The Thirteenth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

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(1922), The Fourth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1923), The Fifth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1924), The Sixth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1925), The Seventh Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1927), The Ninth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1929), The Eleventh Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1930), The Twelfth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1932), The Fourteenth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1934), The Sixteenth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1935), The Seventeenth Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

(1936), The Eighteenth and Final Interim Report of the Electro-Culture Committee, held at the National Archives, Kew, under MAF 33/913

 

To cite this paper please use the following details: Kinahan, D. (2009), ‘Struggling to Take Root: The Work of the Electro-Culture Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Between 1918 and 1936 and its Fight for Acceptance', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 2, Issue 1, http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/issues/volume2issue1/kinahan Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.

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