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Archives Biographies: Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti

Dr Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti was an innovator in the development of electrical engineering, an engineer who led the application of power generation and distribution, and the entrepreneur founder of the Ferranti group of companies. He was born at 130 Bold Street, Liverpool on 9 April 1864 where his father, César Ferranti had a photographic art studio.

A career in electrical engineering

Sebastian became interested in electrical engineering whilst still a teenager. His father consulted him on the installation of electric lighting at Bold Street in 1877 when Sebastian was 13. Sebastian constructed, and patented, with Sir William Thomson - Lord Kelvin, the Ferranti dynamo at the age of 16, and one year later sold a dynamo for £5 10s. In 1881, this was a significant sum of money. 

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 the 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.

The Ferranti works moved from London to Hollinwood in 1896. Dr Ferranti's interest were much wider than electrical engineering and embraced mechanical engineering, the design and manufacture of textile machinery, and instrumentation. In the First World War Ferranti supervised and controlled munitions production at Hollinwood.

Ferranti and the IEE and other societies

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti joined the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1891, became a member of Council in 1895, and served as IEE President in 1910-11. He was awarded the Faraday Medal in 1924. His son, Sir Vincent Z. de Ferranti also served as IEE President, and his grandson Sebastian J.Z. de Ferranti presented the IEE Faraday Lecture.

Ferranti was a frequent visitor to Liverpool. The year 2000 marked the centenary of his election to the membership of the Liverpool Engineering Society. Pupils of the G.F.Lyster, who was the Engineer-in-Chief of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, founded the Society in 1875. 

The Society's aims were the "promotion, study and practice of engineering". Activities of the local branches and centres of the major professional engineering institutions gradually subsumed the Liverpool Engineering Society's role, and it ceased to operate 99 years after its foundation.

Commemorating his life

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;
  • the millennium.

Due to the refurbishment of the exterior of 130 Bold Street, these plaques have now been removed. They are currently in the process of being transferred to the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University, where they will be displayed in an appropriate setting.

Information supplied by Barry Daniels and Paul Ellis.