Tag Archives: electricity

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.

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.”

Seeing the light – Lord Kelvin’s mirror galvanometer

Mirror galvanometer

One of our mirror galvanometers. In this instrument the mirror apparatus has been removed.

Amongst the many objects the museum has inherited from the old History of Education Museum collections are over thirty galvanometers, instruments used for detecting and measuring electrical current. Galvanometers work on the principle, first discovered by the Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted in 1820, that electrical current flowing through a wire will deflect a magnetic needle. Amongst the galvanometers in our collections are several examples of the mirror galvanometer, a much more sensitive version of the original instrument which was first patented by William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, in 1858.

The mirror galvanometer was developed in response to a pressing practical and commercial need; advances in submarine telegraphy demonstrated to engineers and investors alike that the scientific principles on which the technology was based were not properly understood. This became really important with the attempts to lay a telegraph cable across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to connect Great Britain and America in 1857 and 1858, the longest cable ever laid up until that time. The problem was that, over a long underwater cable, signals at the receiving end were very faint and difficult to detect. This was because the discrete electrical impulses became attenuated, stretched out, due to the capacitance, or electrical storage properties, of the long underwater cables. The end was result was that one signal would become stretched out and blurry, and multiple signals sent one after the other would run into one another and all that was detected at the receiving end would be a messy, unintelligible noise.

Two solutions were proposed to this problem. One was, effectively, to push more current through the wire (see here for more). However, the result of this was to burn out the already faulty 1858 cable, only three months and 732 messages after it had been laid (see Charles Bright, The Story of the Atlantic Cable, 1903). Thomson’s solution was instead to design a more sensitive receiving instrument. The mirror galvanometer comprised a small mirror with a magnet fixed to the back, suspended within a coil of wire so that it hung freely in the middle. When the current flowed through the wire, the magnet moved, thus twisting the mirror. A lamp was used to shine a light onto the mirror, and, as it moved, the light was reflected onto a scale set up opposite the galvanometer. This in effect created a weightless pointer. The movement of the light-spot on the scale indicated the presence, and the magnitude, of the current passing through the receiving instrument.

The author Arthur C. Clarke provided an elegant explanation for how this instrument detected such small currents: the initial electrical impulse, he wrote, in Voice Across the Sea, was like water behind the wall of a dam (1974, pg. 46-50). The edge was clearly defined by the vertical line of the wall. However, if the wall broke, the water would immediately begin to flatten out, and would form a wave, the crest of which would form a short distance behind the beginning of the flow of water. Clarke explained that this was similar to the attenuation of the electrical impulse; the first current to reach the receiving instrument from the original electrical impulse would be the equivalent of a trickle before the crest of the wave. The efficacy of Thomson’s mirror galvanometer arose from its ability to detect this initial trickle, without needing to wait for the crest of the electrical wave before registering a signal. Thus, it could rapidly provide separate readings for multiple, consecutive signals, one after another.

Mirror galvanometer, 1858, Science Museum
Here you can see the lamp and scale required to operate this 1858 mirror galvanometer (Science Museum, London).

The mirror galvanometer gave experimenters a tool for studying and quantifying electrical current which was so accurate that variations on it were used in laboratories for decades afterwards (see Graeme Gooday, The Morals of Measurement, 2004, pg. 137-48). It is thus a good example of an instrument which was devised for a commercial purpose but which then went on to benefit scientific research into electricity. The mirror galvanometer inspired such wonder amongst many of Thomson’s contemporaries that one, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, was inspired in 1872 to write a short poem about it, parodying some of Tennyson’s verses: “The lamplight falls on blackened walls, and streams through narrow perforations. The long beam trails o’er pasteboard scales, with slow decaying oscillations. Flow, current, flow, set the quick light-spot flying. Flow, current, answer, light-spot, flashing, quivering, dying.” (Clarke pg. 51 or Gooday pg. 148)

Our mirror galvanometers date from the early 1900s, and would have been used in local Yorkshire schools to teach children about physics.

Lights on at Lotherton

This summer, thanks to some funding from ‘ignite’, Claire Jones and I worked with Sue Davies from Leeds Museums & Galleries and Dee Matthews, the education officer at Lotherton Hall on a project to bring some of Graeme Gooday’s research to school children.


The aim of the project was to make use of Graeme’s research on ‘Domesticating Electricity”, while at the same time creating a science workshop that would be fun to 11 year olds, make use of the site & the collections at Lotherton & fit with the National Curriculum.  This is what we came up with.

1. We made little character cards for the kids to find in each room of the house – the maid who feared this new and dangerous technology; Mr Gascoigne, the owner proud of his cutting edge new purchase etc
2. We has some objects from the university & council collections for them to identify & handle.
3. We had a worksheet tour of the house where they had to try & spot various things to do with the installation of electricity into the home & attempts made to make that technology more attractive.
4. We had an art workshop where they made lampshades.
5. We ended the day with a debate. Each group was given prop cards and had to argue for or against electricity.

The workshop seemed to go very well. We followed it up with interviews with the teachers and with Sue and Dee.

From the teachers we heard it went well, but we’d tried to pack too much in for one morning. Also, the art workshop could have been made more challenging.

From Sue and Dee a similar assessment, but they added to this that for them, the best thing to come out of it was that it helped overcome their fears, as non-scientists, of putting together & delivering a science workshop.

The school is already booking its next visit.