The Rays: A Fairy Story

By Ceri Houlbrook, University of Hertfordshire

‘ELECTRICITY is a friend and helper in the home, but sometimes it seems terribly mysterious, because it is so silent and invisible.

This little reader is meant to lead children to think of Electricity with interest and confidence as a friend who is always ready to help, and who need not be feared, if treated with respect.

At the same time, the fairy tale affords a glimpse into some of the wonderful changes through which electrical energy passes before it enters the Home’ (1930: 2)

In 1924, Mrs. M. L. Matthews, a member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) council, proposed a scheme to popularize the domestic use of electricity. This proposal was accepted by the WES council, and so the Electrical Association of Women (EAW) was born, consisting of electrical engineers and representatives of women’s groups. Education was one of their primary aims. They wanted to train people – particularly women and children – in electrical safety, but they also wanted to communicate the value of electricity in the home, and to show that electricity needn’t be a mysterious and frightening force. To meet these aims, the EAW arranged lectures, school visits, summer schools for teachers, a journal, and a number of publications – one of which was this reader for children: The Rays.

The Rays, written by Charles. F. Smith, follows the trend in advertisements to anthropomorphize electricity as some supernatural being from folklore, such as a fairy or a wizard. In this way the “magic” of electricity was communicated, but it was presented as a friendly force, there to help in the home.

The story follows Hilda, a young girl in bed at sunset, who meets the day’s ‘last ray of sunlight’ in the form of a bald little man holding a glossy top-hat. After a brief exchange with him, he disappears as darkness falls, but then her mother turns on the electric light: cue a near-identical little man, who explains that they’re brothers and they’re both ‘Rays’. But while the first Ray came straight from the sun into Hilda’s room, this new Ray ‘came to the Earth a million years ago’.

Image courtesy of IET Archives

What follows is a description of how Ray came out of the sun with his brothers and cousins, and ended up shut up in a lump of coal.

Image courtesy of IET Archives

Having been ‘asleep in the dark for thousands and thousands of years’, Ray was dug out of the earth and employed in a steam engine, which was used to work electric machines. ‘Then I was carried by the electricity ever so fast out of the machine and through long wires buried under the street all the way to your house, in order to light your electric lamp.’

Image courtesy of IET Archives

Over time Hilda encounters a couple more of Ray’s brothers: a heat Ray from her electric iron and a work Ray from the electric sweeper, who explain to her how they work. ‘You cannot see us or feel us while we are shut up in the electric wires; but when the electricity carries us to a lamp or an electric stove, we can become light rays, or heat rays once more.’

Image courtesy of IET Archives

‘Electricity’, Hilda concludes, ‘is a very wonderful thing’.


Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Ceri and the Electric Generations team here.

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