The Innovation Race at MOSI: Flea-filled shells & forgotten family history

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of exhibits in The Innovation Race

A new exhibition highlights what part Manchester – and in particular Mancunian inventors – played during World War One.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. True enough, when it comes to war; conflict often brings about huge advances in everything from medicine to politics. Take World War One: as a new exhibition at MOSI illustrates, innovation can become essential when you send so many men to fight that you almost run out of shells.

The Shell Crisis of 1915 led to the fall of a government – but also to a revolution in manufacturing here in Manchester. The aptly-named Innovation Race at MOSI explores this; it’s an exhibition that reveals the sometimes clever, sometimes funny ways in which Britain addressed its arms crisis and, in the end, won the long war. For example, a superb “Story Juke Box” in the middle of the small room tells the surprisingly personal stories of the people who mass produced shells in Manchester’s factories, while an invention table against one wall allows visitors to draw their own ideas alongside cartoons of the (often bizarre) weaponry suggestions made by the public at the time. Suggestions like flea-filled shells, gun-grabbing balloons and a pneumatic snake launcher.

An exhibition that reveals the clever, sometimes funny ways in which Britain addressed its arms crisis

It becomes clear that one man – the electrical engineer, Sebastian Ziani de Farranti – was particularly important (in a more serious way) to Manchester’s contribution to the war effort, which came as a surprise even to his own descendents. “His inventions, and what he did at the early part of electricity – we knew all about that,” says Frances Ross, referring to her great grandfather’s involvement in the development of the National Grid. “But we didn’t have a clue about the World War One stuff.”

The exhibition is packed with previously untold stories – like the way that Ferranti, spurred on by having two sons away at war, transformed his domestic goods factories for the production of shells and fuzes. “If you’re the person making the shells, and your son is the person firing the gun… that would have to be a motivator,” says Ross. Ferranti increased output by ten times, recruiting his daughter Vera to both work in the factory and seek out more women as staff.

Somehow, the archival family photographs and the letters between Ferranti and David Lloyd George – all aptly pinned behind three-core fabric cable – have never before been seen by most of the inventor’s heirs. Yet Ferranti’s entrepreneurial streak runs in the family. Ross’ mother, for example, invented the first disposable nappy. Ross shows me a photograph of herself advertising them as a child – “the last time I did any press photographs.”

Carefully put together – with lovely details like peepholes for looking at aerial shots taken from planes – this exhibition signals promising things for the new gallery MOSI has in the pipeline, funded by the government and, it’s just been announced, the Wellcome Trust. Congratulations to MOSI for this, then – and an inventive exhibition that has taken more than one person by surprise.

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