Exhibiting Electricity in Manchester
By Ceri Houlbrook , University of Hertfordshire
With the Electric Generations exhibition now open at the Irish World Heritage Centre, we wanted to consider Manchester’s role in bringing electricity to people’s homes. It’s no surprise that this industrial powerhouse of a city embraced technological developments – and hosted a number of large-scale exhibitions showcasing them.
In 1887 they held the four-month Royal Jubilee Exhibition, opened by the Prince of Wales and admitting over four million visitors. Many newly developed electrical devices were on display. The building was lit by arc and incandescent lighting, installed by the Anglo-American Electric Light and the Manchester Edison Swan companies. An installation by Mather and Platt of Manchester included generators (pictured below), used to power a printing machine and electrical singeing machine, and various other electrical miscellany were on display: electric bells, electric cigar lighters, even a miniature electric bath ‘for medical purposes’. And a lot of attention was given to the telephone, with visitors being invited to use public telephones, managed by operators, to send over 100,000 messages to towns in Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Just over two decades later, in 1908, Manchester hosted another large-scale Electrical Exhibition. This one was organised by Manchester Corporation and was sited in a temporary building in Platt Fields. All manner of electrical devices were showcased, from lightbulbs to for-hire taximeters. This exhibition was well documented by The Engineer, who wrote on 25 September 1908:
In adopting Manchester as the place for holding an exhibition of electrical appliances the promoters made a judicious selection, for it is questionable whether any city in these islands is the centre of so many manufacturing industries, or is more easy of access by so large a population interested in the production and utilisation of electrical energy…Probably never before in this country have the many commercial and industrial applications of electricity to power and lighting purposes been so well illustrated in one building.
A postcard featuring the above image, courtesy of rusholmearchives.org, was sent to the US with the following message:
I went to the Electrical Exhibition last week & spent a very enjoyable afternoon. There was a model electrical home which had kettles boiling & frying pans on the go, all on a clean table, without a speck of dust & in the bedroom, a nice bed, warmed with radiators at the side.
Three years later, on 29 September 1911, The Engineer reminisced about this event:
‘…it will be remembered that a very successful exhibition…was organised in Manchester in 1908. Those of our readers who visited the Manchester show must have noticed that every available piece of space was utilised, and there were times when the building became so thickly populated that admission had to be refused. Electrical exhibitions appeal far more to the general public than ordinary machinery exhibitions, for the simple reason that electricity now plays a prominent part in domestic affairs’
These exhibitions were clearly very popular with the public, for whom electricity was still an exciting innovation. They attracted people the way funfairs and football matches draw people today; they were a form of entertainment, but they were also a source of fascination. And they paved the way for what was soon to come: allowing this mysterious new power into the home.
Beauchamp, K. G. 1997. Exhibiting Electricity. IET
Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home is on display at the University of Hertfordshire until the end of April 2018, and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester until June 2018. Learn more about Ceri and the Electric Generations team here.