Why Swansea’s scientists are backing the City of Culture bid

Swansea University academics explain why Swansea has always been a city of culture.

Swansea museum hides a secret in its dusty basement. Enter Wales’ oldest museum, turn left and you enter a grand room. The floor is now flat but 150 years ago you would just have entered a theatre where Swansea’s Victorian scientists gathered to witness dramatic displays. There would be regular explosions. Producing electrical sparks, the bigger the better, was strongly encouraged.

The whizzing, popping and coloured smoke is long gone, and the only evidence of the theatre is in the sloped basement ceiling and some old test tubes on worn, stone shelves. But the spirit of discovery lives on in our city. Science and innovation is part of our culture, past, present and, through the discoveries happening in our hospitals, laboratories and universities today, our future too. 

Swansea’s Oriel Science centre. Child with model of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider

Photo credit Mary Gagen: a young visitor to Swansea’s Oriel Science centre explores a model of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

In 1835 Swansea was swarming with scientists. World first experiments happened right here. Much of this experimentation was about solving the challenges of the day, the economy, driven by copper smelting, was growing but pollution was a huge problem.

Swansea University particle physicist Chris Allton, says “people like Michael Faraday worked right here in Swansea. Faraday was such an important scientist that Albert Einstein kept Faraday’s photo in his office, and he was working on experiments in our city, drinking in our pubs perhaps. Faraday writes in his diary about seeing a seal whilst visiting Mumbles Pier. We know he stayed in Singleton Abbey when he was helping the industrialist Vivian work out how to make copper smelting cleaner”. “These Victorian scientists were experimenting to solve the problems of the day, just like we do now”.

Other Swansea scientists were interested in energy. William Grove, born in Swansea in 1811, invented the gas battery, which he used to power boats and whiz them around Penllergaer lake. Grove’s gas battery was an early version of the modern fuel cell, which now powers electrical cars and NASA satellites.

As with any group sooner or later someone wants to form a club, and Swansea’s Victorian scientists did just that forming the Swansea Science Society in 1835 and building their club house in the form of Swansea Museum. Not content to stay small within a year they applied for, and won, Royal Charter becoming the Royal Institution of South Wales. This was the scientific equivalent of busting in to the premiership a year after you enter the league, and it placed Victorian Swansea firmly on the map as a centre of scientific discovery.

Physicists at Swansea University

Photo Credit: Swansea University. Physicists at Swansea University.

The Royal Institution was a place for the city’s people. On open days it would be overrun with visitors. Swansea University historian Louise Miskell writes that 11,000 people visited over one weekend in 1845, where they witnessed electrical and chemical experiments that, at a time when much of the city was lit by gas lamps, must have seemed like a new world. And at a time before women had the vote or could go to university, members of the Royal Institution of South Wales were encouraged to bring their wives and children along to talks and events.  The ambition and drive that is part of projects such as the Tidal Bay Lagoon and the Kilvey Hill Cable Car comes from the momentum started by those ambitious Victorian scientists.

Roll forwards 150 years and Swansea’s scientists are still working on the challenges of today. At the Energy Safety Research Institute Grove’s fuel cells have a part to play in securing affordable and sustainable energy solutions for the future. I imagine William Grove and his fellow pioneers who watched the boats on the tranquil lake in Penllargaer woods would be delighted that fuel cells, the descendants of their gas battery, now power cars by combining hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity and water, providing clean transport solutions.

Swansea’s Victorian scientists understood the cultural value of science and how bringing scientific curiosity and discovery to all of us enriches the community. Wales’ modern-day scientists follow in their footsteps working on climate change, health and wellbeing and trying to find science and engineering solutions to make the world a slighter better, and slightly fairer, place for all.

This article was written by Mary Gagen, Associate Professor of Geography, Swansea University.