Go back to article: Visualising electricity demand: use and users of a 3D chart from the 1950s


Complete knowledge of the use and users of this 3D chart of electricity demand will always remain elusive, as there is likely to have been a multitude over its sixty-year lifespan. Our close inspection of the object through a dual methodology, and the use of this analysis to inform archival research, enabled us to generate three possible roles for the object at the time of its construction, and these were in part borne out by the evidence. We hope that this case study demonstrates the value of collecting, and studying, objects and archives in parallel, and from different disciplinary perspectives.

Key questions remain, that were not answered by our research in this instance. Why did the North-Western Area Board choose to produce a load model for this region in these years? Was it timed to coincide with the significant changes in pricing policy? What exactly was it used for, and by whom? The data was not stratified by the principal classes of consumer, but it did reveal some of the everyday practices of which the demand was likely to have been constituted. Why was this particular model retained? It is likely that other research methods would be needed to answer these questions, such as oral history interviews of electricity supply industry employees, as the archive records are not currently catalogued to the degree needed to pinpoint this specific work, by a specific Area Board, at a specific time.

A noteworthy finding is that the ERA report also documented an interest in the data for legacy. The cards were to be stored as an historical record, and this goes some way to explaining why it was retained by the CEGB for long enough to become part of MSI’s collection, with an interpretation panel added to the object somewhere along the way. This begins to illuminate some of the layers of use inherent in the object’s lifespan: as a tool for informing the work (and business) of the electricity supply industry; as an historical record of data; as a demonstration or instructional object; and as a heritage object in a museum collection.

The object remains important as a tangible record of past practice, both of the electricity supply industry and its consumers. We have managed to read this record by delving into the history of Manchester’s electricity development, and the archival evidence about the use and development of 3D load models. Objects such as this can be revealing in terms of the larger history of energy supply and consumption because they represent the practice of the time. The object tells us – and further prompts us to think about – stories about demand over time, and in time, and how our practices of everyday life constitute this demand. For this reason, they should be looked at carefully. It is also pleasing that the size, colour and tactile character of the object make it appealing to today’s museum audiences, and in the Spark of Life exhibition we have taken the opportunity to share these stories. Now perhaps we can offer our audiences a new interpretation: of the object as a tool, as well as historical data.


We are grateful to colleagues who offered comments and suggestions on work-in-progress at the Material Practices of Energy Consumption workshop (15 September 2016), DEMAND seminar (16 November 2016), and Science Museum Group Research Conference (23–24 November 2017).

This work was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council [grant
number EP/K011723/1] as part of the RCUK Energy Programme and by EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180905/006