Culture

Mary Shelley & Man Ray: 5 Electrifying science facts from The Spark of Life

By Kitty Knowles 20 February 2017
Summary

Electricity - it's powerful stuff.

Electricity is everywhere – not just in your lightbulbs and laptops. It traverses through our brains, and makes up the very atoms that form our universe. Pretty cool.

That’s why we’re excited to see Electricity: The spark of life shine a light (so to speak) on some of the most powerful facts about this incredible invisible force.

Opening at London’s Wellcome Collection this week, the new exhibition will feature over 100 intriguing electricity-related objects from nature, history, ancient and modern culture.

Do you know how science inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or how photographer Man Ray helped illuminate Paris?

Then check out these facts we learned at Electricity: The spark of life…

Giovanni Aldini, Essai...sur le galvanisme... (1804). Pic: CC/Wellcome Library, London.
Giovanni Aldini, Essai...sur le galvanisme... (1804). Pic: CC/Wellcome Library, London.

Nature & novels

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the evidence of electricity in nature – in lightning, and aurora borealis, for example – that first stunned early scientists.

One 1700s pioneer, the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani, famously even went on to explore the effects of electricity on dead animals and humans.

And it’s his frog leg ‘reanimation experiments’ that are said to have directly inspired gothic author Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

Not only was Shelley’s father friends with some of the leading scientists of the era, but she became a fierce partisan of Galvani’s so-called “animal electricity”.

With this in mind, one can see why she imagined the awakening of her infamous monster as being infused with ‘a spark of being.’

Nikola Tesla, with his equipment (1901). Pic: CC/Wellcome Collection
Nikola Tesla, with his equipment (1901). Pic: CC/Wellcome Collection

War & death

When you think of Tesla, you probably imagine the cars of the future. But the name of Elon Musk’s automotive company is actually a nod to Nikola Tesla, the man behind the ‘AC’ electrical current that runs through our networks today.

This wasn’t an easy win, however.

Throughout the late 1880s and early 1890s Tesla was a key player in the rather dramatically-named ‘war of the currents’ – a battle between the direct current (DC) based Edison Electric Light Company and the alternating current (AC) based Westinghouse Electric Company.

This era of ‘war’ isn’t just defined by its roused sense of competition, but by the climate of fear it fanned around the dangers of electricity and its ability to kill – the electric chair would be introduced in 1890.

General Electric Co Ltd Osram light bulb. Pic: CC/Wellcome Collection.
General Electric Co Ltd Osram light bulb. Pic: CC/Wellcome Collection.

Daredevil engineers

Bright lights are now synonymous with our cities. But London didn’t have its own electricity network until 1889.

The British engineer behind the innovation, Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, was a known risk-taker, and famously conducted a daring safety test that involved hammering into a live 10,000 volt cable at the world’s first high-voltage power station in Deptford.

Wellcome Collection visitors will be able to see the the original chisel and cable alongside maps and London Underground posters…

Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1888–89). © Musée des arts et métiers-Cnam, Paris.
Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1888–89). © Musée des arts et métiers-Cnam, Paris.

Photographic inspiration

Electricity has also long captivated the world’s artists: the above shows artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot capturing electrical charge around a coin in 1888.

The iconic surrealist photographer Man Ray was even commissioned by the Parisian electrical board in 1931 to create his acclaimed series Electricité.

The private power company hoped that his work (created with the light from electric light bulbs and domestic appliances like fans and irons) would encourage the public to switch from gas or coal, to their new modern electrical devices.

Reading a Meter tea towel Courtesy Womens Engineering Society
Reading a Meter tea towel Courtesy Womens Engineering Society

Electricity in the home

It wasn’t long before the ‘all-electric house’ became the new must-have novelty, but this required a certain amount of education.

Some even benefitted from tea towels (like the above, produced by the Electrical Association of Women) in the 1930s which offered practical safety advice for the use of electricity in a domestic setting.

Not only we we love on of these today, but we bet the public would benefit from a tea towel that promotes safety in the ‘smart homes’.

Want to learn more? Electricity: The spark of life will run at the Wellcome Collection, London, from 23 February – 25 June 2017.