BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page was last updated in May 2008We've left it here for reference.More information

31 August 2014
Accessibility help
Text only

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!


History features

You are in: Manchester > History > History features > The cartoon engineer

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti

The cartoon engineer

There’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and an engineer who included elves in his technical drawings could be said to be walking it. So it’s surprising to find that that man was none other than Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti.

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti

- born in Liverpool in 1864 to a photographer father and concert pianist mother
- first invention, aged 13, was a street arc light
- designed Deptford Power Station, which was the world’s largest when it opened in 1890
- took out 176 patents in his lifetime
- advocated alternating current and was influential in UK's use of it
- died in Zurich, Switzerland in 1930

Ferranti has been called the European Edison, a man who was massively important to the progress of science – and in particular, the field of electricity – at the turn of the twentieth century,

However, electricity wasn’t his only area of influence. His work led to his company collaborating with the University of Manchester on the Ferranti Mark I, the world's first commercial computer.

And during the First World War, Ferranti’s company designed and manufactured systems which went on to shape the global defence industry.

A doodling genius

Whether cartoon creations helped in the design of the Mark I or the defences is not known, but one thing’s for certain – Ferranti wasn’t a typical Victorian engineer.

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti's sketch

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti's sketch

His archive, which is held at the Museum Of Science And Industry (MOSI), reveals a number of notebooks featuring sketches of electricity generation systems and gas turbines festooned with tiny cartoon figures in hats and fairies. His wife, Gertrude Ruth Ince, and their seven children also featured in his technical drawings.

The illustrations reveal a mind that was at once both technically brilliant and amazingly creative – an apt description for a man who invented his first innovation at 13 and took out 176 patents in his lifetime (though sadly, none for anything fairy-powered.)

An AC employer

Born in 1862, Ferranti worked across the country throughout his lifetime, but it is the work that he and his company did in the Manchester area that made his name.

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti's sketch

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti's sketch

It certainly shaped Britain’s electricity supply; Ferranti was a strong advocate of alternating current (AC) as opposed to direct current (the norm in Victorian Britain and his inventions) and successful installation of AC systems contributed to its eventual adoption as the standard across the UK.

Ferranti was also a huge employer in Manchester. After the manufacture of his first product, the Ferranti-Thomson alternator in 1882, he founded Ferranti Limited, moving the company to Hollinwood, near Oldham, in 1896, where it remained until 1993.

There were further sites in Moston, Wythenshawe and Poynton, and at its peak, the company had 40 factories and offices across the country – though sadly, financial troubles forced it into receivership in the early 1990s.

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti died in 1930 but his son took up the family interest in new technology, leading the company into their collaboration with the University of Manchester and ensuring that the name Ferranti would be forever synonymous with Manchester’s long tradition of invention, creation and innovation.

Ferranti’s drawings can be seen at MOSI as part of their May half term activities between Saturday 24 May and Sunday 1 June. The Ferranti archive exhibition in the Collections Centre continues until Saturday 28 June.

last updated: 22/05/2008 at 17:11
created: 21/05/2008

You are in: Manchester > History > History features > The cartoon engineer


Thomas Clarkson

Manchester: the slave trade and its abolition

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy