Electricity: The Spark of Life at the Science and Industry Museum

Gemma Gibb, Associate Editor
Museum of London

Electricity: The spark of life at Science and Industry Museum, Castlefield, 18 October 2018–28 April 2019, free entry - Visit now

The electric revolution changed the world thanks, in part, to pioneering Manchester inventors. A fascinating new exhibition Electricity: The spark of life at the Science and Industry Museum explores how humans have battled to control and use this thrilling force of nature since history began.

It’s something that we take for granted but our cultural and scientific fascination with electricity is everywhere you look.

A headline event for this year’s Manchester Science Festival, the exhibition shows how the wonder of natural electricity has captivated the imagination for centuries, from the Aurora Borealis to the power of natural materials as conductors and animals to emit electric charge.

Italian biologist and philospher Galvani was the first to discover the power of animal electricity and how to create an electric charge in the 1700s, following which other scientists including Volta and Faraday tried to harness its force to serve humans.  These experiments and wider moral philosophy behind it inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a story that’s still relevant to our age today.

‘Positive Discharge’ by Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton, 1892. Courtesy Science and Industry Museum


Explore the race to tame this power for domestic and industrial use. Manchester inventor Sebastian de Ferranti was known as one of the giants of electricity with Edison, Tesla and Hopkins.  The chisel and cable used by him in the historic experiment to prove that AC (alternating current) power was safe in on display. He was an expert in this system, designing the first electric power station in Deptford (the systems behind which are still used around the world today). We love that the Science and Industry Museum’s famous sign on Liverpool Road is part of this history, made from a piece from the generating hall in Deptford.

The exhibition also celebrates “possibly Britain’s most overlooked inventor” Lancashire-born William Sturgeon. Not content with teaching himself physics and maths, he also went on to make the first electromagnet and electric motor in 1832 to help carry out useful work. What a guy.

Manchester’s hall of fame also includes innovative electromagnetic generator the “Manchester Dynamo”, designed at Manchester University in 1886.

Manchester Dynamo courtesy Science and Industry Museum


We love how the story is told through many different lenses. Top things to look out for include some of the first photographic images of electric sparks by British electrical engineer and amateur photographer Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton and images demonstrating the first electric perms by famed hairdresser Eugène Suter.

Mass distribution of electricity has changed our lives and our landscapes. The exhibition provokes some big discussion too about the current and future environmental impact of this force. Commissions from contemporary artists include a brand new data art installation by Tekja. This will immerse us in the sheer scale of electricity used in Manchester and the North West using live data.

Look out for the accompanying interactive events programme for families and adults alike. Electrifying stuff.



Electricity: The spark of life at Science and Industry Museum, Castlefield

18 October 2018–28 April 2019
Free entry