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Energising materials, connecting stories – local, national and international

By Graeme Gooday, Kylea Little and Cameron Tailford

Energy really matters – in both material and immaterial ways. Since the late 19th century the abstract concept of ‘energy’ has been routinely used not only by practitioners of science and technology to calculate thermodynamic transitions in microscopic and macroscopic processes, but by humans across the planet to calculate the costs of everyday heating, lighting, travelling. The immense and often perilous labour of extracting the fuels to power such activities long pre-dated Victorian coal mining. But could this energy-intensive life just be a short phase of our existence? Energy consumption has everywhere had the most direct practical consequences not only in enabling the continuation of ordinary life 24/7, but also in generating ecological challenges such as global warming that threaten to make longer-term human life unviable.

While it is easy then to interpret energy as the force linking the complex dynamics of the material world, congenial and otherwise, how might we extend that inter-connected understanding to the material historic legacies of energy extraction, generation and consumption? The Congruence Engine project’s energy team aims to map those connections using the tools of the digital humanities to interlink collections across multiple museums and heritage organisations around the UK and beyond. We expect these connections to range widely across the monoliths of power generation equipment (whether extant or extinct); the quotidian vessels for storing and burning fossil fuels; the mass-produced domestic technologies for cooking, chilling, heating and cleaning; and the supply meters to quantify consumption thereof, and much more besides.

But who ultimately will be the consumer for these digital mappings? Digitization is after all only a useful tool, not an end in itself. We will surely need rich and diverse human stories to bring these digital mappings to life for museum researchers, visitors and the wider public. For them understanding the energetic interconnections of evidence from equipment, documents and photographs will mean representing not just technical systems of production and distribution, but whole systems of human consumer activity as well (not forgetting those unable to access such systems for whatever reason).

Some interesting interconnections between energy object collections are apparent if we start by looking at the holdings of Discovery Museum, part of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (which will be the subject of a more detailed blog post to succeed this one). For example at one end of the scale of massive modernity, we find there the original steam turbines invented by Charles Parsons in the 1880s and epitomised in the remarkably nimble 1894 ship ‘Turbinia’(see illustration below). Far more efficient than coal-fired steam engines of the 18th century, and now ubiquitous in power stations across the world, historical examples of steam turbines (patented by Parsons, and later made by others) can also be found in Congruence Engine partner institutions: the Science Museum, National Museums Scotland, Birmingham Museums Trust, and potentially also in the collections of National Museums Northern Ireland.

A photograph of a Parsons' original Steam Turbine generator with spare guide ring and fan.
Parsons’ original Steam Turbine generator with spare guide ring and fan 1884. Science Museum Group Collection. Object Number 1890-59
A cross-section of a photo image of a Parsons' turbo-generator.
Parsons’ turbo-generator, number 261, made by Clarke, Chapman, Parsons and Co. of Gateshead on Tyne in 1889. National Museums Scotland. Museum referenceT. 1905.52

At the other end of the spectrum we find many collections of mining equipment from all across the North east of England, and all the other regions of the UK where coalminers have extracted lumps of combustible black rock from ancient fossil beds. The material culture of coal mining that has been preserved is limited to what survived the many deep-shaft explosions and contested mine closures. But very numerous collections of coal miners’ lamps can be found both in Newcastle, and cognate museums where families have donated cherished lanterns from a now nearly-lost generation of mining men (and some women). For these less well-documented objects to have human interest stories we will need voices from many kinds of sources: autobiographies, letters, films, sound recordings, journalism, models, visual representations of all kinds, not all readily located, and some needing supplementing by oral histories or indirect accounts in literature or art. For example, narrative films such as ‘Black Diamonds’ and the novel ‘The Citadel’.

With this approach, we can forge connections within the energy theme with others partnered in the Congruence Engine project. For instance, the British Film Institute holds industrial films showing the kind of human activity in power plants (footage of people working on steam turbines, educational films on nuclear power etc) and coal mines (training films, news reels and political activist films). Moreover, The National Archive holds central administrative records of the National Coal Board, regional administrative records, technical and scientific records, and records of research establishments. Historic England also has reports detailing the operation of specific power plants and oral histories from those working at power plants during the process of their closure. These records will provide us with technical details, historical and social context, connections across decades, narratives of industrial rise and decline and perhaps most importantly, the human stories behind these objects.

Importantly all of these institutions hold photographs as a major part of their collections: Historic England has aerial photographs of power plants; the National Archives records contain photographs depicting places, mining activities, exhibitions, equipment, royal visits, social activities in coal mining regions and housing. National Museums Northern Ireland also houses a wide range of objects related to power generation and photographs relating to energy consumption. As the lead institutional partner in the Energy theme, Discovery Museum is in the process of digitising photographs from its Parsons collection to help bring to human interest to the story of the steam turbine. One major consideration when looking this variety of sources (especially photographs and films) is how much is of it currently digitised or publicly available. For example, on the BFI catalogue searches can link to internally preserved digital assets not publicly available and in other cases analogue assets have not been digitised; there may also be use restrictions due to copyright that will prove a challenge for the Congruence Engine to manage.

With these concerns in mind, we are beginning to cultivate connections with institutions currently outside of the project and explore resources relevant to the Energy theme. For example, the Women’s Engineering Society has digitized its journal The Woman Engineer from 1919, the early issues of which contain Parsons company advertisements that features photographs of female employees constructing elements of gigantic steam turbines. The image below is a company advertisement from that journal showing women working on the insulation of an electric alternator at the Heaton Works (owned by Charles Parsons) in Newcastle.


A black and white poster, printed in the 1920s with a heavy black border titled: Power Station Equipment. In the middle of the poster is a photo of a woman working on the insulation of a large electric alternator.
‘Power Station Equipment’ The Woman Engineer, June 1921, p.74.

Not only have we already located Parsons steam turbines across other collections nationally and internationally, but there is scope to link to the British Library’s collection of recordings related to energy. These are resources to use in future developments, but it is clear already that there are many opportunities to connect energy objects to resources located within and outside those currently working with the Congruence Engine project. To ensure we are revealing important connections between these resources and constructing compelling narratives born out of them, we have agreed upon four key themes to guide our research:

Theme 1: national and international connections – e.g. electricity production, coal-supply.

This is the largest scale theme, and requires us to consider the UK’s internal connections for infrastructure energy logistics, export/import patterns, not least its (neo)colonial connections – for oil and nuclear fuels.

Theme 2: local stories: e.g. the Steam Turbine, miners’ culture of lamps and accident remembrance.

Quite independent of the national stories are the resilient local stories of how energy sources were procured and with what associated cultures – especially for coal-mining – with associated stories of identity and tragedy. Artefacts such as commemorative memorabilia (the ‘disaster glasses’ of Newcastle) pottery and geological maps need to be linked in to highlight what was locally specific and within living memory.

Theme 3: people e.g. miners, power station workers, domestic workers – their economic and emotional stories.

This will likely focus on photographs of workers and their environments (especially those now lost/demolished), as well as personal possessions such as miners lamps. A numbers of museums appear to have extensive collections of these lamps – and it is vital to establish how the national need for these safety devices related to multiple local stories of innovation (many more kinds used than just the over-mythologised Davy lamps).

Theme 4: futures – what have we to show about our Imagined destiny in the world of energy.

This will be more challenging, but we anticipate that past forms of future planning of energy supply systems – for oil, nuclear, geothermal, wind power etc. – will have artefacts about future environments would be imaged and how transitions handled to new energy regimes/resources.

These four themes will also have intersections both with each other, and also with the two other themes of textiles (power supply for production) and communications (how did energy systems hang together?)

In the next blog post we will present a local case study from the TWAM Discovery Museum resources in Tyneside, to explore how its collections can be used a starting point, especially the Parsons’ record-breaking turbine vessel Turbinia of 1894.

A photo from above of the boat the Turbinia on display.
Turbinia on display at Discovery Museum. Object Number TWCMS : 2000.4234


Graeme Gooday

Graeme Gooday is Professor of History of Science & Technology at the University of Leeds’ School of Philosophy, Religion & History of Science. He is the Co-Investigator leading on the Energy theme in the AHRC-funded Congruence Engine project, and has published on the history of electricity supply, most recently on the historical role of women in the electrical industry.

Kylea Little

As lead for the History team at TWAM Kylea has responsibility for the Science and Industry, Maritime, Social History and Costume and Textile collections. She was lead curator for ‘Destination Tyneside’, a major new permanent gallery which opened at Discovery Museum in 2013. The gallery covers the history migration to Tyneside. Prior to that she led on numerous temporary exhibitions programmes with a particular focus on social justice and co-curation with local communities. She has a robust understanding of collections care having had a secondment to Head of Collections and research for TWAM for just under two years.

Cameron Tailford

Cameron Tailford is a research fellow on The Congruence Engine Project. Cameron’s area of research for the subject is the Energy theme and working alongside relevant institutions and museums in order to bring them into the project. Cameron completed his PhD at the University of Leeds in 2021. His research focuses on the visual representation of women workers and consumers within the British inter-war electronics industry. He also has experience of working directly with museum objects and within archives that involved collections care, cataloguing work and organising new archives.

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