10 Pages

Blackening the face of nature

The inexorable growth of the smoke cloud saw numerous schemes hatched in the second half of the century that were designed to augment the waning powers of nature to neutralise the 'smoke nuisance'. That some contemporaries felt that nature was losing the battle against smoke pollution may be exemplified by briefly sketching a selection of the most inspired and ingenious plans. Not forgetting Spence's colossal chimney, these plans included: constructing large electrically driven fans that would blow away the smoke from a city's chimneys; delivering massive electrical discharges into the atmosphere to stimulate artificial rainstorms; and, not least of all, installing an extensive system of aerial water sprinklers within a town to wash out the suspended particles of carbon. ll3 Industrialisation and urbanisation, then, had not so much mastered nature as gradually and palpably overburdened it locally with air pollutants. In 1876 Robert Angus Smith protested that the atmosphere had become 'a great source of misery' to the urban masses. The air outside which we know as a reservoir of purity and an agent of purification', he wrote, 'becomes to them a thing to be dreaded, being full of soot and coal dust.' 114 So, what were the consequences of overloading the atmosphere with coal smoke?