Skip to main content

Science and Industry Museum

Manchester pioneers celebrated in electric new exhibition

For immediate release

The super-charged history of Manchester’s place in the electric revolution is to be explored in a new exhibition opening in October. 

Objects including the chisel and cable used by Manchester inventor Sebastian de Ferranti in a high-stakes experiment to prove that AC power was safe will be featured in Electricity: The spark of life at the Museum of Science and Industry. 

The exhibition, which opens on Thursday 18 October as a headline event for this year’s Manchester Science Festival, tells the story of mankind’s quest to understand, unlock and master the power of electricity.

The exhibition shows how this invisible yet vital force is fundamental to human life and has captivated inventors, scientists and artists alike for centuries. From our ancestors’ early encounters with natural wonders such as the Aurora Borealis and Galvani’s experiments that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the taming of power into domestic appliances and household utilities, Electricity: The spark of life will cover three core themes—discovery, distribution and demand.

The first section, Discovery, will show how natural electricity has fascinated everyone from the ancient Greeks to 18th century pioneers and philosophers and beyond. The exhibition discovers how through complex scientific experiments, thinkers such as Galvani began to unravel the mysteries of electricity and design devices that would create an electric charge, and how they demonstrated these discoveries to an awe-struck public. Following Galvani, scientists including Volta and Faraday wrestled this unruly force into submission and began to experiment with how it could be used to serve human masters. 

The second section, Distribution, looks at a time when the giants of electricity, from Edison to Tesla, Hopkinson to Ferranti, battled against each other to prove which was safer, an AC or a DC supply. Electric lighting became the must-have innovation of any self-respecting town and pylons marched across the landscape to create a network of electricity for use in homes and industry. 

Finally, Demand looks at the consequences of electricity becoming the modern energy for a modern way of life, and how, at a time when we are more reliant on electricity than ever before, the exhibition will ask us to contemplate our ongoing relationship with electricity, the environmental impact of our choices and imagine what the future might look like.

The exhibition will also feature a brand-new commission from data artists Tekja, which will highlight to audiences the sheer scale of electricity used in Manchester and the North West, using real data provided by the region’s power network operator, Electricity North West. 

The work will span past, present and future, exploring historic electricity usage through time, and use data modelling to project future scenarios.

The exhibition has been produced in collaboration with Wellcome in London, and Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, with support from Shell, Electricity North West and the EPSRC. 

Electricity: The spark of life runs from Thursday 18 October to Sunday 28 April.  

Notes to editors

For more information or images, please contact Kat Harrison-Dibbits, Press and PR Manager at the Museum of Science and Industry on 0161 606 0176 or email Kat.Dibbits@msimanchester.org.uk