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Manchester's engineers, scientists, business owners and workers helped win the First World War by supplying equipment and ideas that were vital for victory.

The amazing story of Manchester’s wartime “innovation race” was the subject of an exhibition here at the museum in 2016, featuring many incredible items from our collections. For WW1 Stories Day, we revisit the exhibition here and share images of the objects and people that changed the course of the war.

Building a war machine

By June 1915, Britain was in crisis. After almost a year at war, hopes of a quick victory had faded. In the trenches, soldiers faced deadly shell bombardments and vicious machine gun fire.

The army called for more ammunition and better equipment but the factories could not supply it quickly enough.

The new Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George appealed to the people of industrial cities like Manchester. Could their ingenuity help win the war?

Manchester’s makers leapt into action and began supplying Britain’s front-line fighters with  weapons and equipment.

A turning lathe for 18pdr shrapnel shells

Scientists also rose to the challenge, starting work on battlewinning inventions. Thousands joined Manchester’s home front workforce. Without them, there could be no victory.

The war of invention

Rapid innovation was crucial. It was up to Britain’s best scientists and engineers to develop the most powerful weapons and the strongest defences. Both sides used modern technology like never before. Soldiers needed types of equipment that had not even been invented.

Scientists and engineers cooperated with the government and the military to try and win the war. They joined organisations like the Munitions Inventions Department and put their knowledge to use.

Manchester’s leading minds used their ingenuity to come up with new technologies that changed how the war was fought.

They worked on destructive weapons like shells but also developed inventions that helped save lives.

Scientists and engineers join the ranks

Sebastian Ferranti (pictured above), whose archive is held at the Museum of Science and Industry, was a brilliant electrical engineer. Lloyd George wrote to Ferranti inviting him to join the new Munitions Inventions Department. Ferranti agreed even though his munitions work was already keeping him extremely busy.

He joined the Munitions Inventions Department to work with other top engineers and scientists on new, potentially war-winning technologies.

Everyone was welcome to submit inventions and Ferranti used his electrical knowledge to assess new ideas.

The group watched real battle footage to consider how new technology could help the army. A light and portable trench weapon called the Stokes Mortar was one of their most effective innovations.

Ferranti’s letters from the time are now in the archives at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Letters between Ferranti and Lloyd George are now held in the archives at the Museum of Science and Industry


Eyes in the skies

Skilled workers at Manchester camera makers Thornton Pickard produced aerial cameras during the First World War.

Thornton Pickard engineers assembled cameras in their factories in Manchester

Aerial photographers were the army’s eyes, revealing the position of enemy trenches. Although air travel was only ten years old, taking photographs from the sky quickly became a vital tactic.

Engineers at Thornton Pickard worked on wartime improvements. Photographers could operate the 1915 ‘Type C’ camera by pulling a cord inside the cockpit so they did not have to lean out of the aircraft.

After the war, Thornton Pickard marketed their aerial cameras for general use.

An advert for a Thornton Pickard camera, after the war

Detecting the underwater enemy

In 1917, scientist Sir Ernest Rutherford put aside atomic research at Manchester University to join engineers and businessmen on the Lancashire Anti-Submarine Committee.

The Lancashire Anti Submarine Committee

German U-boats lurked beneath the sea and attacked Britain’s ships, threatening food supplies and killing thousands.

The committee experimented with sound waves in the River Mersey to develop ways of detecting the deadly submarines.

They created the ‘Lancashire Fish’, a triangle of three microphones to be towed underwater. The group also studied underwater echoes, developing technology way ahead of its time.

The ‘Lancashire Fish’ helped detect deadly U-boats

After reviewing the situation arising from enemy submarine attacks, an attempt was made to plan some systematic attack on the problems of detection.

Life saving inventions

Engineers at Manchester firm Mather and Platt Ltd developed a life-saving device called an electrolyser which turned sea-water into a disinfectant. It helped thousands of wounded soldiers on hospital ships by stopping the spread of disease.

The company’s sprinkler systems put out hundreds of fires caused by Germany’s terrifying Zeppelin raids on Britain.

Supplying the fighting fronts

Manchester’s makers helped supply the equipment needed to win the war. The pressures of war transformed factory life. An army of new workers flooded into the factories. Thousands of women replaced men who went to fight.

Some men who were highly skilled or unfit to fight stayed behind making munitions alongside the women. Hundreds of businesses became ‘controlled establishments’ under the Ministry of Munitions. Shells, fuzes and guns, as well as clothing and armour, poured off their production lines.

Engineers and business owners like Sebastian Ferranti found ingenious ways of making better munitions in ever-increasing numbers. These new methods had a lasting impact on British industry and women workers after the war.

The Ferranti fuze shop

At Beyer, Peacock and Co., in Gorton, East Manchester, workers made artillery, armoured wagons and gun carriages. They discovered clever ways to adapt existing machinery to make munitions. Workers also repaired damaged guns sent from the battlefields.

As the war continued the factory produced more advanced types of munitions, including anti-submarine guns for navy ships.

An artillery gun at Beyer, Peacock and Co in Gorton, East Manchester

Changing workforce

As men went to war, thousands of women took their places in the factories. Women already worked in industry but the urgent need for munitions brought more into Manchester’s workshops than ever before.

Women had to learn difficult and repetitive tasks quickly. Some did exactly the same jobs as men but often women learned a smaller, specialised part of a skilled role, as there was no time to train them fully.

Women munitions workers, including members of the Ferranti family

At first, they worked alongside experienced male workers but as more men left to fight, women took over increasingly complex positions.

Employers issued these badges to men who stayed behind carrying out essential war work. They were intended to stop them being recruited by the army or accused of cowardice.

 Ferranti’s wartime workshop

Sebastian Ferranti spent countless hours developing innovative ways to make shells and fuzes. Bad quality steel and machinery breakdowns caused problems but Ferranti was determined. He increased output by ten times to over ten thousand shells per week by 1918.

These hand tools belonged to Mr Lomas, an engineer at Ferranti Ltd. He used them to maintain machinery at the factory. Some of them are marked 1915.

Olivia Forbes, a close friend of the Ferranti family, became the factory’s first woman supervisor. She looked after over one thousand female munitions workers and stayed with the company for forty years.

The Ferranti family at war

This extract from Ferranti’s diary sees him write about his son Basil’s death at the Front

War transformed the lives of Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti and his family. Ferranti turned his electrical engineering business in Oldham into a munitions factory. It churned out thousands of shells and fuzes. Ferranti’s sons Basil and Vincent went to war. Basil was killed in 1917 after a German shell bombardment. Vincent came home from the fighting to help with the mounting munitions work.

He then returned to the Front.

Ferranti’s wife Gertrude recruited new female workers. His daughter Vera became a skilled mechanic when she started work at the munitions factory.

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