Electricity: The Spark of Life

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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Two electric chairs are exhibited side by side in the Wellcome’s latest show. The first, a photograph, illustrates the revolutionary form of capital punishment introduced to New York’s Sing Sing Prison in 1890. The second, with two metal handles on its armrests, delivered a type of electrotherapy (not to be confused with still-used shock therapy) believed to cure illness in the late nineteenth century. Invented within a few years of each other, they sum up humankind’s contradictory relationship with electricity: a force never created, merely harnessed, both for good and ill, life and death.

The first room ambles through pre-scientific beliefs about electricity – lightning being Zeus in a bad mood – before taking us into the experiments of eighteenth-century pioneers known rather sweetly as ‘electricians’. As usual, the Wellcome gets all intersectional, showing us how the fields of science and spectacle overlap. The Italian physician Luigi Galvani discovered that electricity occurred naturally in the body by zapping countless numbers of unfortunate frogs – but it was his nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who did the same to a convict’s corpse in front of a public audience in London in 1803. 

If the following rooms – which trace electricity’s pivotal role in the modern world – are less thrilling, that’s because it’s so hard to fully grasp the impact of something so vast and ubiquitous (photos of pylons being erected in the 1920s are a good case in point: we barely notice them any more, but back then these monolithic additions to the landscape must have been awe-inspiring). One brilliant surprise is a series of tea towels created by the Electrical Association for Women in the 1950s, which aimed to instruct ladies about the labour-saving benefits of lamps, kettles and other appliances. A quiet little chapter of proto-feminist history, it’s moments like this that jumpstart a slightly diffuse exhibition. You’ll definitely never think of Bovril the same way again.

By: Matt Breen

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