Wimshurst and whimsy: A piece of UC’s “shocking” history

UC recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of New Zealand icon and UC alumni Ernest Rutherford, who was a student at Canterbury College between 1890-1895. While Rutherford was a student here, he was strongly influenced by his teachers, including Professor Alexander William Bickerton. As part of our research for the Canterbury College Survey we have uncovered a number of scientific instruments on campus that are closely connected to Bickerton, and which may have even been used by Rutherford.

Professor Bickerton was a rather controversial figure at Canterbury College engaging in many disputes, including a concern with an educational system that he felt focused too heavily on rote learning and memory. However, Bickerton was well liked by students and his willingness to support experimentation by his students certainly worked in Rutherford’s favour.

The Canterbury College Department of Chemistry opened in 1874 with Professor Bickerton at the helm. The Department acquired many useful scientific instruments like this Wimshurst machine. Some of these devices were bought, but others appear to have been made in-house to allow students the chance to experiment with the latest technology. Rutherford himself likely experimented with such machines throughout his studies and career. For example, while working on his second thesis in 1894, Rutherford essentially invented a new method of studying high-frequency current oscillations in electrical circuits. The first stage of this process necessitated his modifying a Voss machine, another electrostatic machine very similar to the Wimshurst.

Wimshurst machine in care of School of Physical and Chemical Science

The Wimshurst machine was invented between 1880-1883 by James Wimshurst in England. This machine, using electrostatic induction, has a crank that sets two glass plates and wooden pulleys in motion. That in turn creates a lightning like spark between the two electrodes at the top. While a spark of electromagnetic energy does not seem as impressive now, at the time it was being considered for its potential in many areas. For example, an article in a 1908 publication of The Waimate Daily Advertiser talks of electrical wires being strung over fields, because it was thought that the static electricity could be used as “fertilizer” to stimulate crop growth. The article claimed that it led to 29% brighter wheat. Nowadays, static electricity is commonly used inside equipment such as printers to attract the ink and toner to the paper.

Bickerton regularly demonstrated scientific experiments for the community, such as by replicating Nikolas Tesla’s experiments with high-frequency transformers. As Rutherford progressed through Canterbury College he also gave these demonstrations for the public. For example in 1894 Rutherford gave a talk on ‘Electrical Waves and Oscillations’ for the Dialectic Society, the highlight of which was ‘a reproduction on a small scale of Tesla’s experiments on the rapidly alternating currents.’ Demonstrations of this nature would have required the use of Department equipment such as the Wimshurst machine.

We are very lucky at UC to have access to items like this and to be able to learn from them in a whole new way. When Bickerton and Rutherford were at Canterbury, these objects were new technology, charged with potential.  Now they can show us the spark of scientific brilliance that eventually led to the technology that we use so casually on a daily basis.

The Canterbury College Survey is hunting out more touchstones of cultural heritage like this from the later part of UC’s history, post 1957. If you have noticed any neat looking relics in storage or references to objects in your research let us know!

Please contact us if you know of any items that you think might fit the criteria for the new stage of the project, or which illuminate the history of UC in any way. We are excited to continue working with you all!

Find out more about the Canterbury College Collection online here>

Contact the Canterbury College Survey Team at teecemuseum@canterbury.ac.nz