Paul Coleman

PhD Student

Summary: History of Science and Technology

Thesis Summary: My current research is a collaborative project with the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester titled "Danger High Voltage" and seeks to examine the impact of the World Wars on our perceptions of danger in relation to high voltage electricity.


Thesis Title.

‘Safety, Security and Supply: The Development of a National Electricity Network in Britain, 1914-1960’

Electricity is something which we take for granted, only thought of when it fails. Power cuts and brownouts are now seen as an unacceptable interruption to our daily lives, yet this has not always been the case. Prior to the First World War it was by no means obvious that electricity would become the dominant form of power in our cities and homes. Yet by the end of the Second World War high voltage electricity had come to be seen as an essential part of modern life with issues relating to the risks and dangers of high voltage electricity seemingly forgotten.

In this thesis I aim to examine the role of conflict in the development of new technologies and technological systems, such as the National Grid. The demands placed on the nascent electrical networks by the rapid expansion of munitions production, coupled with the threat of damage to power stations by enemy action (aerial attack or coastal shelling), provided the industry and the government with added incentive to ensure that a supply of electricity to key industries and services could be maintained. I will argue that the 1926 Electricity Supply Act, and the development of the National Grid can both be tied to the requirement to ensure a secure supply of electricity for the purpose of national security. Further to this I will demonstrate that a strong domestic demand for electricity had to be created in order to economically provide this supply. 

I will examine advertising and policy documents of major electrical manufacturers, such as the Manchester based Ferranti Company and compare these to the policy documents and advertising materials of the electrical authorities to show that the demand for domestic electricity was artificially generated, both by the government for national security purposes and by private companies, such as Ferranti, which required customers for their products. I will also be examining national and local newspapers for articles, letters and editorials relating to electricity throughout the period being studied, in order to gauge public opinion about electrical development, particularly in relation to issues of electrical safety, which I argue was a key factor in convincing potential users that electricity was safe to have in the home.

Research interests

I have an interest in the History of Technology in early 20th Century Britain, particularly in relation to the role of the newspaper press the development of both civil and military aviation and maritime based systems.

I am also interested in examining literature in order to understand how different generations have understood science and technology, including their hopes and fears for the future. I also enjoy reading Terry Pratchett in particular recent publications such as Going PostalMaking Money and Raising Steam, for the way in which he interprets the impact of technology and institutions on British society and culture.

I have recently started a reading Group on Science, Technology and philosophy in Literature and will be reguarly updating a blog on the ensuing discussions.


Academic Supervisor

Professor Graeme Gooday.