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Electricity: The Spark of Life @ Manchester Science Festival

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Our friend electric
Electricity will run through Manchester, even before the Christmas lights are turned on - as the city's science festival sparks up interest in a form of energy which we now take for granted.

Electricity: The Spark of Life is a free exhibition at the Science and Industry Museum. It shines a halogen glow on how "scientists experimented with electricity and how mass generation and distribution changed our lives."

Sentinel, Climate Change, Sound & Light, Manchester Science Festival
Sentinel - Climate Change in Sound & Light Manchester Science Festival. Photographer: Jason Lock.

Having already been at the Wellcome Collection (London) and Teylers Museum (Haarlem, Netherlands) the exhibition visits Manchester before it goes into storage.

The story of electricity spans a shocking amount of time.

Amber: A Pendant carved in the form of a frog from 550–450 BCE (Origin unknown) is an artefact which represents the "the source of the earliest documented manifestations of static electricity." The pendant's title is a reference to "Amber's light-inducing effect." The ancient Greeks named it 'elektron' (meaning "formed by the sun"),

Electric Rays or Torpedo Rays are also part of the story because of their ability to produce an electric shock for the capture of prey and for defence. They can be seen in Plate for serving fish Campania, Southern Italy 325-300 BCE.

Louis Figuier (1819 –1894) was one of the scientists who moved the public's understanding of electricity beyond an 'act of the Gods' explanation.

Les Merveilles de la Science (1867–70) from Louis Figuier 's illustrated compendium, depicts Jean-Antoine Nollet's 1746 experiment in which he electrified a human chain of 180 royal guards in front of King Louis XV. He used a Leyden jar a device for storing electrical charge, which was invented by Pieter van Musschenbroek in 1745.

Experiments, of course, play a vital part in advancing scientific and popular understanding. Electrical experiments included making use of metal wires, lightning rods, metallic conductors and electric eels amongst other things.

Science and Industry Museum, electricity, Manchester Science Festival, Imperial War Museum North, British Library, Euston Road London, computer coding, dance
The Electric Boy, Essai sur l'electricité des corps, 1746. By Jean-Antoine Nollet (19 November 1700 – 25 April 1770) - Science History Institute, Public Domain,

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electricity was used in the medical treatments - in the form of electrotherapy. The electrotherapeutic chair produced a current that was passed through wires to the metal hand grips.

Meanwhile the electric chair - an instrument of punishment and death - was emerging into the light (or darkness). Its stark reality can be seen in a photograph of the original electric chair used at Sing Sing Prison, New York (c.1950).

A review of history leads to the question, Electricity – where now? Sir Peter Cook and Christine Hawley 1982 concept Solar City envisioned clean energy in the home via: "An assembly of space-economic structures with extended surfaces of photovoltaic cells."

Traditional Arabic planning principles combined with state-of-the-art technologies are behind the British architects Foster Partners Masdar City project. The work-in-progress aims for sustainable eco-city on the edge of the desert near Abu Dhabi.

Electricity: The Spark of Life is at Science and Industry Museum, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester, until Sunday 28 April 2019.

The 12th Manchester Science Festival starts on 18th October. It is made up of 'exhibitions, interactive events for all ages, virtual soundscapes, science-focused conversations, cinema-making and computer coding'.

The Arts Meets Science element includes the world premiere of Future Bodies at HOME in Manchester (until Saturday 13 October). Future Bodies envisages a world where our brains can be uploaded to computers and our faculties can be upgraded.

Contagion, is a new work by choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh. It includes digital visuals, to tell the story of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, commonly termed Spanish Flu.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the pandemic got its name because the Spanish press were the first to report it. It infected 33% of the Earth's population and resulted in a bigger death toll than the First World War (1914-18).

Contagion, which involves eight female dancers, will be at Imperial War Museum North on 21 October and the British Library, Euston Road London on 2-3 November.

A more contemporary danger to life on earth is addressed in Sentinel, Climate Change, Sound & Light, at Waterside, in Sale, Trafford, on Thursday 25 October. It uses synths and electro-rhythms mixed with live vocals, data art, laser lighting and video to create a show inspired by themes of climate change and forced migration.

Sentinel, Climate Change, Sound & Light, Manchester Science Festival
Photographer: Jason Lock.

Sentinel was conceived and composed by Richard Evans (previously a keyboardist with Manchester band James). Live vocals are performed by Charlotte Dalton, and visuals provided by artist Valentina D'efilippo.

Science and Industry Museum, electricity, Manchester Science Festival, Imperial War Museum North, British Library, Euston Road London, computer coding, dance
Totem by entrance to Museum of Science and Industry. By MSI Marketing - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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Why? Electrifying Exhibition in Manchester
When: 10 October - 28 April 2019
Where: Science and Industry Museum, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester, M3 4FP
Cost: Many events free
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