It’s a fact of human nature that we tend to be creatures of habit, and it’s the things we do almost unconsciously that are the most ingrained. For example, you want to call a lift, well you just hit the button. You get in, hit another button, arrive at your floor, and carry on merrily with your journey. You’ll hardly think about what you’re doing, because, having done it so often, it’s practically second nature. If you called the lift, the doors opened, and six dozen purring kittens poured out onto you it would freak you out a bit. It would be awesome, but a bit weird. All because you weren’t expecting it to happen. This is why pranks like this are so amusing (my favourite is the one where the innocent member of the public that thinks they’ve allowed a blind man to plummet to his death down the lift shaft, it’s a tad morally dubious, but jolly good fun).
It was ingrained habits like this which got Englishman George Manners, a clerk from Bayswater in London, into such trouble whilst visiting Dublin in 1899. In London today, if you hop on one of the old Routemasters (route 9 still runs them), you’ll find that you ring the bell by pulling twice on a cord that runs along the ceiling (rather than pressing a button). This gives the signal for the driver to stop. The same system was in use on the trams that used to run in London as well. This was the system that our man George had clearly gotten so used to that it was second nature to him. Travelling down Amiens Road in Dublin, George decided he wanted to get off, so he ambled down to the end of the tram, looked for the cord, and promptly pulled twice on it.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the cord George had pulled didn’t have anything to do with the bell. It was actually a rope tied to the trolley pole, which is the pole which connects the tram to the overhead power cables, as you can see here.
The trolley pole promptly broke loose, spun round violently, smashed the power cables, from which, the local paper reported, “electric flame gushed forth”, and was sprayed onto the hapless passengers sitting on the open-air top deck and one poor bloke who was walking past on the road. Three men had to be taken to hospital, one of whom complained that for hours afterward he felt like he was “on fire”. Luckily, aside from a two suffering temporary amnesia, they were all relatively ok. Or as ok as you can be having been violently electrocuted.
In the meantime the power cables had gotten so tangled that a group of engineers had to be dispatched to try and fix the problem. In a move that would bewilder the modern health and safety executive, nobody actually bothered turning off the electric current as they tried to fix it. Instead, the workmen were “armed with insulating gloves”. However, as the workmen tried to repair the damage the newspaper reported “the wires emitted long tongues of flame accompanied by startling explosions”. But the workmen were obviously fine, because they were wearing gloves (which presumably repelled the explosions). At some point someone did decided to cut off the electricity supply, but also managed to knock out the electrical supply to all the trams in the immediate area which were then stranded for three hours until the cables were finally repaired.
As for George, he’d been promptly arrested and was locked up in the local police station. He was bailed after it was apparent the people he’d electrocuted had recovered, but I suspect Mr George Manners of Bayswater subsequently always though twice before getting off a tram for the rest of his life…