By Bob Edwards
Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti was born in Liverpool at 130 Bold Street Liverpool in 1864. His Italian father, Cesare, was a photographer (son of composer Marco Aurelio Zani de Ferranti) and his mother Juliana de Ferranti (née Scott) was a concert pianist. He was educated at Hampstead School, London; St. Augustine’s College, Westgate-on-Sea; and University College London.
Sebastian became interested in electrical engineering whilst still a teenager. His father consulted him on the installation of electric lighting at his Bold Street premises in 1877, when Sebastian was 13.
Sebastian and Sir William Thomson – Lord Kelvin later constructed, and patented the Ferranti dynamo when Sebastian was 16. One year later it sold for £5 10s which in 1881 was a significant sum of money.
In the late 1880s, there was a debate within the industry about the transmission of electrical power, known as the War of the Currents. Thomas Edison supported a direct current (DC) based system, largely due to his holding many key patents and having set up some power plants supplying DC power. The rival Westinghouse Electric Corporation supported an alternating current (AC) system.
Ferranti bet on AC early on, and was one of the few experts in this system in the UK. In 1887, the London Electric Supply Corporation (LESCo) hired Ferranti for the design of their power station at Deptford. He designed the building, the generating plant and the distribution system. On its completion in 1891, it was the first truly modern power station, supplying high-voltage AC power that was then “stepped down” for consumer use on each street. This basic system remains in use today around the world. One of the remaining supports of the generating hall of Deptford Power Station forms the frame of the sign at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester UK, home of the Ferranti Archives.
At the age of 22 he became Chief Engineer of the London Electric Supply Corporation, and was deeply involved in the planning, generation and distribution of electricity. The Corporation’s Deptford Power Station commenced operation in 1890, meeting the escalating demand for supply of electrical power in London. The power station was the first to output electricity at 10,000 V.
Sebastian was one of the first people to advocate large scale power generating stations sited outside of population centres and established the principle of the national grid using AC (alternating current) transmission.
Sebastian de Ferranti was President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1910 and 1911, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester in 1912. He was actively involved in the formation of the British Electrical and Allied Manufacturers Association (BEAMA) in 1911 and its first chairman, to 1913.
Ferranti died on 13 January 1930 in Zürich, Switzerland. A previous plaque unveiled in 1947 at 130 Bold Street no longer exists. The Mersey and North Wales Centre of the Institution of Electrical Engineers unveiled a new plaque in 2000 that commemorates the birth of Dr Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti in 1864;
The Centenary of his election as a member of the Liverpool Engineering Society;
The continuing application and development of electrical engineering by local industry, academia, and the professional engineer;
Due to refurbishment of the exterior of 130 Bold Street, these plaques were removed to be transferred to the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University, to be displayed in an appropriate setting.