Category Archives: Education

Batteries, hairdryers, and an electrical therapy machine: using objects to teach the history of electricity

I am currently working with Harewood House, in north Leeds, on a collaborative project called ‘Harewood’s Electricity Story’, researching the history of the electrification of the house and producing new interpretation and engagement activities based on our findings.

As part of this project, on Thursday 11 August I ran a workshop at the university for students from IntoUniversity, a national charity which provides local learning centres where young people are inspired to achieve.  In particular they work with children from disadvantaged postcode districts who are statistically less likely to go to university or enter the professions than those in more advantaged areas, providing academic support, mentoring, and informal educational opportunities.


Introducing the workshop.

After a short performance from our three actors about the history of electrification at Harewood in the 1930s, I used artefacts from our museum collections to talk about the history of electricity supply and use in the home.  These artefacts included two examples of early batteries – one wet cell one dry cell – with which I pointed out for example that country houses such as Harewood needed to supply their own electricity for a long time before they were connected to centralised power stations, and their electrical installations always included lots of large wet cell batteries. We also touched on the importance of measuring how much electricity you were using – so you knew what you were paying for!


Showing the students a nineteenth-century voltmeter.

In contrast to fears about being hurt by electricity – which had been discussed in the performance – I also discussed how some people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used mild electrical currents as a form of therapy.  This last point I illustrated using a particularly interesting object from our collection: an electrical therapy machine designed for use at home, with two electrodes which the user would apply to parts of their body in order to administer a gentle electrical current.  This, it was argued, was efficacious against many ills, such as headaches, nervous disorders, and even deafness and baldness.  We believe ours dates from the late nineteenth-century, but devices such as these were certainly in use up until the 1920s and 30s.


One of our electrical home therapy kits (we have two).

Whilst presenting these artefacts, I talked to students about best practice in museum object handling: the importance of gloves, of using both hands to pick things up and holding them over tables.  Next we gave the students the chance to handle some historic objects themselves.  Although our own collections were too fragile to allow this, we hired out handling objects from Artemis, the object loans service run by Leeds Museums and Galleries.  These domestic electrical appliances from the 19230s, 40s and 50s included hairdryers, a kettle, a wireless set, an iron, a toaster, a vacuum cleaner and a radiator, and students were very keen to put their gloves on and investigate.  As a hands-on activity this was very popular; the children were happy to have the opportunity to explore these objects themselves.  Knowing they were free to pick them up on their own was invaluable and a great experience.


Gloves on! The students handle some old electrical objects from Artemis.

The energy levels in the room were fantastic throughout; the students certainly seemed to have a lot of fun, and we really enjoyed having them!

The funding for this project comes from The Culture Capital Exchange, a new joint initiative of Arts Council England and the Higher Education Funding Council for England which provides seed funding grants up to £5000 for collaborative research projects between academics, specifically Early Career Researchers, and creative small-medium enterprises or individuals, including artists, performers and heritage organisations.  You can read more about our project here, and for more information about this workshop see our blog post here.

HPS in 20 Objects, Lecture 4: The Microscope

In the fourth of the Museum of HSTM’s public lectures, Clare O’Reilly and Juha Saatsi presented a truly integrated historical and philosophical account of the object which has become emblematic of scientific practice – the microscope. Below is an image of the late-nineteenth-century light microscope that was the object of our talk. It is held in the collections of the Museum of HSTM, along with a number of other excellent examples of nineteenth- and twentieth-century microscopy.

20 Objects Microscope

Seeing is believing. But what exactly should we believe on the basis of what is observed through scientific instruments like microscopes? Clare and Juha’s talk highlighted some of the scientific, historical and philosophical problems faced when making realist inferences from microscopic observations.

Clare, a PhD student with @hpsleeds, opened the lecture by introducing our large audience to some of the natural philosophers who documented the unseen microscopic world around them. Robert Hooke and Antony van Leeuwenhoek were two such irrepressibly curious people. Hooke’s 1665 Micrographia was a wonderfully detailed record of his observations, while Leeuwenhoek became known for his ‘little animals’. So extraordinary were their illustrations of magnified fleas, snowflakes and numerous other curios that contemporaries did not know whether to believe they were real.

L0043503 Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea

‘Engraving of a flea’. Robert Hooke, Micrographia. Wellcome Library, London

The microscope’s reliability remained a subject of debate and uncertainty throughout the eighteenth century. This changed during the nineteenth century, however, as specimens could be cut more thinly and stained with dyes for more ready examination on glass slides. Indeed,the microscope had become such a powerful tool that it allowed biology to become the nineteenth-century science par excellence. A person’s skill now lay in preparing slides and ‘reading’ the images observed on those slides. The level of intuitiveness or inference required to ‘read’ slides meant that microscopy came to be considered an art form, rather than just a scientific procedure. By the 1930s Irene Manton, a plant cytologist at the University of Leeds, was becoming well known for her work with ultraviolet and, later, electron microscopes. Her electron microscope is still held in the collections of the Museum of HSTM.

Drawing upon Clare’s historical introduction, Juha introduced our audience to some of the key philosophical problems surrounding the limits of scientific knowledge and observation. Scientific instruments such as microscopes furnish us with knowledge that transcends what our senses could otherwise perceive of the natural world. But can this ever be an objective experience? What role does inference and observation play in microscopy?

There has been a growing reliance upon technologies that allow us to ‘see’ microscopic phenomena that were previously the subject of inference. The light microscope was one such example. However, it became subject to competing theories of empiricism and realism. Hooke’s optimism about microscopy – that there was nothing too small to escape inquiry, thereby opening up an entirely new visible world – was soon challenged by the empirical theories of his contemporaries. Empiricists believed that scientific instruments did not, as Hooke hypothesised, reveal what existed behind observable phenomena, but instead created entirely new sets of phenomena to be observed and interpreted independently.

Empiricists, such as John Locke, questioned whether phenomena observed under the microscope could be used reliably to understand the natural world. For example, could the ‘nature’ of blood be understood through microscopic examination? Its colour and consistency changed so dramatically under the microscope that Locke believed it impossible to observe its natural mechanisms, which correlated microscope images with what was observable to the naked eye. Locke was not simply highlighting the mechanical limitations of the apparatus. He was philosophically challenging whether microscopes could ever reveal true microstructures, rather than simply an impression open to inference and interpretation.

Today, however, many philosophers have adopted the middle ground between realism and empiricism, and Juha concluded the lecture with a brief discussion of this position. ‘Moderate realism’ posits that we can learn to see with microscopes, but not through them. Microscopes facilitate interaction with the natural world, but do not provide a more high-resolution version of reality. It is instead a continuum of vision.

If you would like to see more commentary and images from this and other lectures in the series, follow the Twitter hashtag #hpsin20.

Good things come in twenties (in HPS)

DSCF3548-Copy-604x1024This week my attention is turning to the contents of the Gillinson Room cases. As some of you might know, starting in January 2016, the Centre for HPS will be hosting a 20-month lecture series entitled “HPS in 20 objects”. At the risk of sounding like an advertiser; this series will use questions from HPS, along with objects from the Museum of HSTM to explore ideas and practices in science, technology and medicine from the ancient world to the present day. The lectures are for a public audience, and will assume no prior knowledge of the objects or subjects being discussed. Information about each object will be made available online, including podcasts and video recordings of each lecture. More information, dates, times etc will be posted here in the coming months:

By happy coincidence the rearranging of cases in the Gillinson Room, along with the new additions brought up from the store, have given us twenty display spaces (plus two that don’t match but will have information about the museum in them). So we will be designing the displays around twenty questions asked by people working in PRHS. We will then explore *some* of the ways these questions could be addressed by our colleagues and/or how they have been tackled in the past.

The challenge now is to come up with appropriate questions which reflect the school and can be answered using our collection. Equally, if not more importantly, these objects (and the accompanying text) need to be interesting, engaging and visual. And fit into our cases – which aren’t huge.

So, a call out to staff and students working in PRHS, if there are any objects which you think are particularly representative of a field or your own work please let us know so we can think about incorporating them into the displays.


24th May Education Event and Tour of Old Medical School

Monday the 24th of May saw the first in a series of school workshops to be hosted this summer by the museum. Around 15 children travelled up from Newham in London to take part in a three day stay at Leeds University that kicked off with the museum’s Victorian surgery workshop followed by a tour of the Old Medical School. The kids, who were in years ten and eleven and in the process of completing their GCSEs, had been selected as the ‘gifted and talented’ students from their respective year groups and invited to take part in this scheme.

Laura led for the first section of the workshop (a presentation about Victorian amputation) and Kiara led for the second section, ably assisted by Claire, Sue, Liz, Lawrence, Becky, and myself. The students could have been forgiven for being a bit tired after an early start and a long coach trip up from London but were instantly engaged by Laura’s ebullient delivery and were quick to answer the questions that were put to them during the presentation.

The kids also responded very well to the second section of the workshop which required them to try and deduce the uses of certain objects from our medicine collection by looking only at the object itself. Within just a few minutes (we were a bit pushed for time as the group had arrived a bit late) almost all of the groups were able to make an accurate assessment of what the object would have been used for and give strong reasons for their judgments.

Plaque outside the Old Medical School.

Plaque outside the Old Medical School.

Next it was on to the tour of the Old Medical School. After the short walk down from the Gillinson Room through the LGI and into the Old Medical School the school group and volunteers were greeted by our enthusiastic tour guide John.

The Old Medical School was opened in 1894 and operated as the site for the Medical School until as recently as 1977, when the new Worsley Medical building was opened. The building was designed by W.H. Thorp, who was also responsible for the Leeds City Art Gallery, and had many features that would have been considered technologically advanced around the turn of the twentieth-century; such as electric lighting, natural roof lighting in lecture theatres and dissecting rooms, and an ingenious steam-powered heating and ventilation system.

Old Medical School

Old Medical School.

Our tour started in the hexagonal Entrance Hall, where John pointed out the various crests of associated medical and educational institutions that adorn the walls, the Medical School’s Latin motto (which translates as ‘Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers; freely have you received, freely give’) and the stair set from which the medical students’ results would have been publicly announced.

We then moved into the Library, a splendid wood-panelled room, which is now occupied by laboratory benches and a presentation area, but was originally used as a study area for the students of the Medical School, as well as for degree ceremonies and even as a ballroom. On display in the Library are some interesting objects from the Medical School’s past, which could well be worthy of further investigation. Next, we went up to the first floor of the building and into The Anatomy Lecture Theatre, a steep amphitheatre-like room with a large roof light designed for illuminating the dissections that would have taken place in front of the medical students.

Dissecting Room, 1895.

Dissecting Room, 1895.

After this we ventured past the old dissecting room and up to the hexagonal meeting room at the top of the building. Here John told us of his successful search for evidence of a tunnel leading from the crypt of St. George’s Church directly to the basement of The Old Medical School. We then descended through the rest of the building, seeing the room in which cadavers used to be stored prior to dissection, before going into the courtyard and leaving through the gate where hearses once delivered the bodies for the use of the Medical School.

The whole afternoon was a success, especially considering it was the first time that the workshop has been held since Easter, and the tour was an interesting opportunity to see the building in which much of Leeds’ recent medical history was written, and for which thanks must go to John. The students who had travelled up from London were engaged and interested throughout both the tour and the workshop and hopefully it will encourage some of them to consider doing a degree in HPS at Leeds University and possibly even join the ranks of the museum’s volunteer team.


All information on the history of the Old Medical School taken from Bill Mathie’s excellent pamphlet entitled: A Brief Tour of the Old Medical School.

Photos from (in order):



Domesticating Electricity Project at Lotherton Hall

Lotherton Hall Drawing Room

Lotherton Hall Drawing Room. The Perry & Co electrolier in the centre of the room was hung when the electricity supply was first installed in 1903.
Copyright: Lotherton Hall, Leeds Museums and Galleries

For the past few months, I have been working on the second stage of our project with Lotherton Hall, part of Leeds Museums and Galleries. This project is funded by the Creative and Cultural Industries Exchange and inspired by Professor Graeme Gooday’s Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880-1914.

Lighting homes electrically became possible in the late 19th century, following the invention of incandescent carbon-filament bulbs suitable for use in domestic settings and technological improvements in dynamo generators. However, the success of domestic electricity relied on homeowners being convinced that this was a safe, reliable and desirable technology.

Promoters of electric lighting faced issues such as safety fears and objections to the garish and unflattering nature of electric light; problems which were exacerbated by the then still uncertain scientific nature of electricity. Clever advertising which anthropomorphized electricity as an obedient helper, publications advising on how to make electric light aesthetically pleasing, and the introduction of new safety regulations all featured as strategies in the challenging and slow process by which electric light was integrated into domestic settings.

Lotherton Hall, near Aberford, is an Edwardian country home that was owned by the Gascoigne family before it was donated to Leeds City Council in 1968. Frederick Trench Gascoigne and his wife Laura Gwendolen inherited Lotherton in 1893. Making it their family home, the couple began a series of extensions and home improvements.

The generator house at Lotherton Hall, which was demolished in 1968. Copyright: Lotherton Hall, Leeds Museums and Galleries

The generator house at Lotherton Hall, which was demolished in 1968.
Copyright: Lotherton Hall, Leeds Museums and Galleries

These included the installation of a private electric generating plant in 1903, which consisted of a dynamo generator powered by a 15 h.p. Blackstone & Co oil engine, and 53 glass storage cells. This addition made Lotherton one of the first houses in the Leeds area to be lit electrically. Never having had a gas supply, prior to this the house was lit by candles and oil lamps. A number of the original electric light fittings – many of which were designed by the London based Perry & Co – are still lighting the house today.

The main aim of this project was to engage a wider audience with academic research in the history of science by contributing to the interpretation and events programme offered by Lotherton Hall. The first part of the project, Lights on at Lotherton was for school groups, while this second stage is aimed at adults and families.

The outcomes include:

  • An interpretation panel (soon to be installed outside the Servants Gallery) and ‘Find out more’ information sheet on the introduction of electricity to Lotherton Hall and domestic settings in general.
  • A digital story based on an oral history interview with relatives of an engineer and electrician who was employed by the Gascoignes at Garforth Colliery and at Lotherton.
  • An Early Electricity at Lotherton Hall house trail using objects from around the house to explore the issues raised by Graeme’s research.
  • A talk by Graeme as part of Lotherton’s Adult Learning programme.

Biz Horne has also produced a short comic about the Gascoigne family and their staff might have reacted to the introduction of electricity at Lotherton Hall.

The talk took place on the 24th May, and a video can be seen below.

The event seemed to be a success. Half of the attendees asked had visited Lotherton Hall before, but none had previously been to one of their Adult Learning Programme events. They all said they would attend a similar event in the future. Everyone agreed that the talk was understandable and accessible, and for most the afternoon changed the way they think about the history of electricity, suggesting that the aim of engaging a wider audience with Graeme’s research was achieved. The comments we received on the feedback forms were very positive, and showed that people particularly appreciated the fact that the talk was held in historically relevant surroundings;

  • “Having the talk in this venue helped to make the subject matter interesting and add to the atmosphere.”
  • “Excellent, interesting & thought-provoking talk. Great venue and very well organised – perhaps one of the best public talks I’ve been to given the content and location (and thank you for the hospitality…tea & cakes). Nice to attend an event in a heritage location.”
  • “An excellent, accessible talk in a beautiful setting; being in the house made a real difference.”