History of science in Manchester


The Grocers' Warehouse, Castlefield. Built 1770-80. Demolished 1960. Rebuilt 1986... partly. Business as usual in Manchester.

I grew up in a variety of places within about 25 miles of Manchester, and have lived and worked here since 2004. I first got interested in using the possibilities of the city itself when I inherited an undergrad history of technology course which included an optional walking tour around local industrial sites. I soon discovered that, if you are trying to communicate the nature of a mill, there is a lot to be said for marching the students straight down to Cambridge Street and shouting "Look at that!" Granted, you still need do some work in explaining what they're looking at, but it makes a difference.

I now deliver occasional local tours and locally themed lectures for various organisations, and have been an advisor on the history of science and technology to several of the Green Badge Guides who qualified in 2009. I've found, in dealing with public audiences, that stressing any local context you can find -- particularly if it connects to people's first-hand experience -- generates an engagement that you just can't get any other way (particularly when, as often happens, the audience turns out to know more than you do). More detail on this in a report on the Manchester Histories Festival which I wrote for BSHS Viewpoint in 2009.

Walking tours

So far, I've developed routes around three main areas:

John Dalton's Manchester (city centre). A shortish walk. Between his arrival in 1793 and his 1844 death, Dalton was usually to be found at one or other of a handful of locations in central Manchester, even as his atomic theory made him one of chemistry's international heroes. With John Pickstone, I wrote the script for an audioguide, narrated by "John Dalton" himself, which was recorded as part of the Science Places project. There's also a guidebook based on the same material, created for the Manchester Histories Festival in 2009. I've run versions of this walk for the former University of Manchester Courses for the Public programme, and as a private tutor (see Mancent).

Castlefield. Home to the original Roman fortress which gave Manchester its name. Terminus of the first-ever passenger railway. Beyond this, for my money, one of the most interesting built environments in the world, with its intricate overlaid assemblages of road, canal, rail and metro links, and its even more complicated history of industrial growth, decline, regeneration and re-presentation as the first "urban heritage park". I've attempted the baffling task of working out what order to traverse Castlefield in for the Manchester Science Festival, Courses for the Public, and an international colloquium for science festival directors organised by the British Council.

The University of Manchester. West of Oxford Road stand the original Victorian Gothic buildings of the University, begun for its predecessor, Owens College, in the 1870s. An awful lot has happened within this tiny site: it's best known as the home of the first electronic digital stored-program computer and the place where Ernest Rutherford developed the nuclear model, but has also hosted the unwrapping of mummies, the first Geiger counter, and the beginnings of Marie Stopes' career. I developed a guided walk based on this material for the Manchester Science Festival 2009, and we're hoping to produce a short guidebook soon.

Other things

Manchester Computing. A lecture for the Manchester Histories Festival in 2009, loosely based on material from my undergrad course. There are, of course, significant stories to be told of computer science at the University of Manchester, and of Ferranti manufacturing in Moston and West Gorton. However, it's also important to work in Manchester's role in the home computer software of the 1980s, which a lot of the audience for this kind of talk can relate to at first hand. I ended up talking about Ocean (whose offices were almost literally within spitting distance of the Friends' Meeting House where the talk took place), and (because I couldn't resist it) The Biz by the incomparable Chris Sievey.

The usual disclaimer | Last modified at 08:34, Tuesday 26 July 2011