Matchstick Scientist: Helen Czerski’s Mancunian Heritage

Posted on 3rd November 2016 by Sally Campbell
Helen Czerski is a physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster with a passion for revealing the wonder in our everyday lives. Her fascination with the world of fast-moving, small-scale phenomena led her first to undertake a PhD in Experimental Explosive Physics at Cambridge University and has since led her to the study of ocean bubble formation. Her first book A Storm in a Teacup is a brilliantly entertaining introduction to physics in general that manages to make this hugley complex topic accessible to all.

Each of us has our own heritage, a foundation built from a set of collective identities that are shared with perhaps thousands or millions of others, all glued together with the very personal events that have happened only to us. Cultural seeds that were sown long ago many still have a significant influence on our lives, but the ability to pick apart those influences comes only with the benefit of hindsight. In the course of writing this book, I realized that I had never consciously connected my northern roots with my path in science. But the connecting threads are there, and the whole process has made me reflect on how growing up in the north-west of England influenced my attitudes towards science and technology.  

Of course, one of the great joys of living in northern Europe is the richness of lasting imprints from the past. Many of us live in cities founded by the Romans, or commute every day past cathedrals that are a thousand years old. And there are the smaller things too: the plague stones, cobbled streets, stone water troughs, slightly wonky traditional pubs, and the sound of Big Ben. We rarely consciously register them, but their presence is comfortingly familiar to most of us who live in Britain. Then there are the regional quirks, the things that you take for granted until you realize that everyone else doesn’t.   

For me, it began with the Bridgewater canal. This calm conduit for water and barges passed only a couple of hundred metres from the house I grew up in. The towpath alongside it was sparsely populated by strolling locals and stoical silent fishermen who never seemed to catch anything. My friends and I only ever crossed the canal and turned left, since this was the route for escape out to the open countryside and the freedom of fields and hedges and the Dunham village shop. But if you turned right and kept going for about eight miles, you arrived at the reason for the canal’s existence: the centre of Manchester, one of the powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution. The Bridgewater canal is often considered England’s first ‘true’ canal, paving the way for a vastly improved transportation system connecting raw materials, factories and an eager market.  The first section was opened in 1761, to carry coal from the mines in Worsley to the industries that needed it in Manchester.    Thousands of horses would have trudged along the towpath that I played on, hauling a revolution behind them. The signs of centuries of use were all still there when I was a kid: the mooring rings, old cranes, the structure of the stone bridges and the warehouses that lined the route. The past may have been covered in moss and overgrown with brambles, but it was definitely still here.  

Now I look back at it, school trips were also dominated by industrial heritage, probably because that’s what there was. Possibly my first ever school trip was to the Linotype factory in Broadheath, less than a mile from home. I remember being shown how colour pictures were printed with a giant press, by overlaying three layers of ink. It was impressive then, even if it seems embarrassingly anachronistic now to have seen such a thing while it was still in use. I didn’t know about the huge importance of Linotype to moveable type and font design until much later – it was just one of the buildings next to the canal.     

It’s almost startling now to think about how much of the background of my childhood was dominated by the history of the Industrial Revolution. Quarry Bank Mill, a common destination for a Sunday family outing, was a clanking, clattering, busy reminder of the importance of the cotton industry to this area. The Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, next to the canal’s route through Manchester, is on the site of the world’s first railway station. There were steam fairs and chimneys and waterwheels and brick buildings that had housed factories.    It wasn’t just that you could see the litter of history – the important part was that the mechanisms were visible: lock gates, giant steam-driven pistons, boilers and pulleys. People had invented things and built things and you could still see how their ideas had changed what was possible.    

The Industrial Revolution wasn’t just about factories. Science and industry were intertwined, and Manchester was a hub for both. There’s a pub in Sale (on the Bridgewater canal on the way into Manchester) called the J. P. Joule, after James Prescott Joule, a man who had twin complementary careers as brewer and physicist. His studies of heat and mechanical work in the 1840s were so important that the unit of measurement of energy, the Joule, is named after him. Joule was part of a rich scientific scene in Manchester, just one of the celebrated physicists who worked in the city, one link in a chain that stretches from 1800 to the current day.  

Manchester was buzzing with novel manufacturing throughout the 1900s, as businesses moved in to capitalize on the local knowledge base and contribute to its growth. Also building on that technical expertise came the pioneers of early computers. The world’s first stored program computer (nicknamed Baby) was built and tested in Manchester in 1948 by a team that included Alan Turing. That led directly to the Ferranti Mark I, the world’s first commercially available computer.  And there the links with my own past pop up again: my mum worked for Ferranti a few decades later, as a computer programmer. The legacy of each generation was the foundation for the next, and the chain carries on. Both of my parents and plenty of my family worked for companies based on manufacturing, computing and engineering knowledge. It’s hard not to conclude that my personal background, as well as the environment I grew up in, had an influence on my interests and decisions.  At the very least, it must have been easier for me to explore and study the scientific world, because it seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do.  

I never felt as though I was growing up in an industrial metropolis. I certainly spent far more time out in the countryside than in the city centre. But I recognize those L. S. Lowry scenes of matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs, frozen on their way through a landscape of chimneys and warehouses and broad open streets. I identify with that world, even though I wasn’t there at the time. I have walked those streets, in the shadow of those buildings, because they are still there. The attitude to invention and the respect for technical knowledge that built the environment Lowry painted lives on in this region today. The matchstick men and women are associated with a grimy, smoky, laborious existence, for good reason. But these individuals should also be celebrated for the contribution that they made, because they were the expert cogs in a machine that did great things.     

We live in a world that is growing ever more connections, perhaps one that softens local identities, because now all of us have a global identity too. That means that we’re sharing our own culture and heritage at the same time as we’re learning about those of others. I carry my northern identity with me, even though I haven’t lived there since I left for university. I still make parkin (a Lancashire ginger cake) around Guy Fawkes night, given half a chance. I know what a chip barm is, even though I haven’t seen one for about fifteen years,[*] and I will only ever pronounce ‘bath’ with a short vowel (which, by the way, is the original form). And now I feel as though my own family’s connection to our shared local scientific and industrial heritage should go into that same category. I’m proud of my northern heritage, but only now do I appreciate that science and industry were a major part of it.  

Obviously, Manchester was and is just one hub in a much wider landscape of change.  The work of many thousands of people in many hundreds of places has built the technological capability we take for granted today.  Science and engineering thrive on collaboration, and history has taught us to welcome anyone from any background who has ideas to contribute. We could still do better when it comes to recognizing the wide range of contributors who have built our present world.  We could certainly do better at encouraging, training and listening to those who could be building our future. But it doesn’t do any harm to know where we came from, and to be aware of the foundation that each of us is building on. I feel lucky to work with those who have come from completely different backgrounds, because their perspective is vital to enrich and improve this collective endeavour. But I also feel lucky to have a deep personal connection to a very distinctive part of our scientific and technological history. You can take the scientist out of the north, but you can’t take the north out of the scientist – not this one, anyway.   And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


[*] For those who have missed out until now, this is a round white bread roll filled with chips, possibly with ketchup or brown sauce. Also known as a chip butty.


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