We asked some experts about their favourite objects in The SSE Heritage Collection. Here's what they said ...
Katherine Platt, Cataloguing Assistant
Southern Electricity Service motorcycleThe Southern Electricity Service motorcycle looks so pleasingly cumbersome! It must have been incredibly difficult to drive – suggesting it was only used for travelling very short distances to visit local houses which were supplied by Southern Electricity. The front storage area was used to transport tools and replacement parts. I believe the drivers were also equipped with coats and goggles so they must have looked very smart when making visits. The motorcycle was part of a much larger fleet of company vehicles that carried out a variety of purposes. I like the motorcycle because it’s a link to how the company interacted with its customers and would have been one of the most publicly visible elements of the company. The staff at the museum also clearly took a lot of care in restoring it and I like it for that reason too.
Rawdon Jones, Education / Visitor Centre Manager
Statue of Phoebe
"Our statue of Phoebe has a great story to tell on many levels. We believe she was made for an electrical exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1882. As the goddess of light and luminescence she's holding aloft an electric light.
As an ex-teacher it is fascinating for me to think that by this point the Crystal Palace was as an academy for the arts, music and science as in modern times these aren't lumped together; whereas Phoebe holding aloft her electric light embodies this. We thought at one point she may have been at the Great Exhibition of 1851: but seems unlikely as Swan didn't demonstrate a light bulb until 1878. There also doesn't seem to be enough room on her to house an arc lamp.
After the exhibition she was plonked on top of the old Bankside Power Station circa 1890's - now the site of the Tate Modern. This power station would have been very polluting and not a great place to be. In fact Charles Booth wrote in his Inquiry into Life and Labour of the People of London
"... there is in this round a set of courts and small streets which for number, viciousness, poverty and crowding is unrivalled in anything I have hitherto seen in London ... the inhabitants are ... the dregs of the population."
Poor Phoebe! I wander what those sad eyes saw looking down through the smoke in impoverished Victorian London. It seems she was in bad company.
The old power station made it through to the end of World War Two but was demolished in 1959. It made way for the bigger more efficient power station we know today as the Tate Modern. Phoebe was saved and somehow ended up in our Museum in the early 80's.
I like Phoebe because I love Greek mythology since seeing a matinee of Clash of the Titans as a little boy. Since then I've always found the stories compelling. Phoebe was a titan, older than the gods of Olympus - she's actually Zeus's auntie. Zeus (Laurence Olivier in the movie) overthrew the Titans and was quite a character. He is often pictured throwing lightning bolts. I like to think he had a soft spot for Aunty Phoebe with her electric light and made sure she ended up in our collection where she'd be well looked after."
Ian West, Archaeologist
Electricity supply boxThis box, like much street furniture, is the sort of thing that is often overlooked by historians and engineers, let alone the general public. People walk by grey boxes in the street all the time. But have you ever stopped to wonder what is inside and why? Objects like this can tell an important story about urban development. They reveal how electrical infrastructure was fitted into crowded cities. It also shows how utilities tried to make their technology look a part of the street scene, which is still a challenge today.
Nowadays the attractive detail on this box would be seen as unnecessary - and probably too expensive - but I enjoy it. It is something very much of its time. It’s a box full of Edwardian pride in both electricity and ornamentation.
Mark McKerracher, Cataloguing Assistant
Photo: Cooker delivery by boatMy favourite image dates from the 1940s. A crofter from an isolated village in the north of Scotland has come to collect his new electric cooker in a rowing boat across the loch. He looks rather pleased with his purchase; the delivery men beside him in the boat seem damp and exhausted; and the dog on the shore watches with understandable curiosity. For me, this picture encapsulates the often untold story of how the coming of the electricity network to rural Scotland changed lives.
Many photographs in the collection compare the glimmer of gaslight to the gleam of its electric successor. There are many records of civic dignitaries 'flicking the switch' in ceremonies that heralded a new age. So many of us now take electric power for granted: its epic history deserves to be told. To me, an old crofter with a cooker is as memorable as a Lord Mayor.
I think the SSE archive is a fantastically rich and diverse history resource. Photographs, journals, handbooks, letters, legal documents, company records and technical drawings combine to chronicle not only the history of the company, but also the electrification of the United Kingdom. As a relative newcomer to the world of Britain’s industrial heritage, I found the black-and-white images of early power stations particularly beguiling. There is romance in those vast Victorian halls with their stark, muscular black turbines and boilers, and bowler-hatted engineers standing nearby, proud of what they had created.
Dan Dennett, Cataloguing Assistant
Photo: Staff who never returned from warThere are some very poignant objects in the SSE archive: perhaps none more so than a small pile of Second World War mobilisation staff cards that I found during cataloguing. Each of these cards recorded employees’ dates of mobilisation and their destination unit. On many of the cards, there is an additional line at the bottom. It gives brief but final information about those who did not return.
Nigel Ellis, Techology Development Manager, SSE
Seeds of the Smart Grid?I’ve chosen an Economy 7 time switch as my favourite object because it is about demand management and better use of generation assets by moving load to the middle of the night. Even today, there is about 16 GW of storage heating connected to the UK grid.
When we rolled out teleswitches, we used to have a product called total heating, total control, which was a teleswitch tariff. We could use spare capacity in the afternoon to give customers a boost. Funnily enough though, people used to ring up and complain that we were giving them power in the afternoon when they didn’t want it! So that always reminds me that understanding customer psychology is vital to successful innovation.
Nowadays, we are seeking to manage the grid using a much more sophisticated and up to date version of the off-peak timer concept. The task is to use energy when there is capacity rather than designing the entire system around peak load.
We can do so much more with a smart grid and smart appliances. One that I helped develop is Quantum storage heating. It’s all about the idea that storage heaters could be much, much better. The old ones used to come on and off using a fixed input and output. I thought, could we make a heater that allows heat out in a much more controlled way? So we created a better insulated heat store with fan-controlled output and with a precision controllable core. It can work hand in hand with a smart meter. It should also allow us to deal with more intermittent generation.
How do we take the best thinking of our forefathers and adapt it for the c.20th? That is something which the SSE Heritage collection helps me to remember.