Museum of Science and Industry volunteer fires up rare example of earliest electrical light

By Culture24 Reporter | 27 January 2012
A photo of a man in a suit peering inside a lamp
Ron Whalley takes a look at the arc lamp© Chris Foster
An intense lamp used to light city streets, railway stations, large buildings and film sets during the mid-1800s will dazzle the public after being restored by a retired electrical engineer who volunteers at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Ron Whalley, an expert in electrical machinery who helped to build the venue’s replica 1830 Planet steam locomotive, relit the earliest form of electrical lighting using a generator in the Electricity Gallery.

"This arc light is one of only two working examples left in the country," says the enterprising illuminator.

"It was a significant development in lighting. It hadn't been fired up for many years but the light and generator just needed some servicing and a safety barrier so that it can be demonstrated to the public."

Children will now be invited to peek at the blazing white light the arc became renowned for after it was demonstrated to the Royal Institution by inventor Sir Humphrey Davey in February 1812.

Davey used hundreds of chemical cells to form a battery connected to two carbon rods, causing an arc-shaped spark when they were touched together.

The headache-inducing ultra-violet content and maintenance demands of the lamps meant they were never used for domestic lighting, and thespians acting under them often chose to protect themselves by wearing sunglasses in between shoots.

The arcs were largely replaced by filament lamps at the start of the 20th century, but they were used in cinema projectors as recently as the 1980s.

The lamp will be demonstrated as part of a series of free family events during the half-term holiday (February 11-19 2012).
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