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It's Alive! (In Langley)

Dieter Blum has his antique electro-static and electro-magnetic instruments at the Langley Centennial Museum.   - Heather Colpitts/Langley Advance
Dieter Blum has his antique electro-static and electro-magnetic instruments at the Langley Centennial Museum.
— image credit: Heather Colpitts/Langley Advance

In the finest drawing rooms and salons of Europe in the 18th century, refined and genteel nobles entertained themselves by electrocuting each other.

The Ramsden electrostatic generator, with its spinning glass plate, a hand crank and brass fittings, along with many other weird and wonderful aparatus are on display at the Langley Centennial Museum in the new exhibit It’s Alive! The Development of Modern Electricity and Electromagnetism.

Local resident Dieter Blum approached the Township with the exhibit suggestion. Electricity energy has been known about for millennia, but it was a curiosity until people invented ways to capture and store it and use it to power machines.

“These instruments were invented when they didn’t really understand what they were playing with,” he said.

A resident of Langley for two decades, Blum owns a Murrayville-based research and development business.

Blum’s interest in this area of physics started in his childhood in Prince George. He read everything he could, which naturally evolved into collecting books and the devices they described in their research. Blum has about 40 patents, including a computer edge grinder he patented in 1984. It allowed the custom cutting of eye glass lenses and for the creation of one-hour eyeglass stores. He’s also invented an automatic depth control for pneumatic seeders in 1982, a gas price pylon display system for Chevron Canada in 2003, and through his company, explosive detection and magnetic imaging systems.

Blum had to look far and wide to find the items in his collection, buying most online.

Europe is the source of most of Blum’s instruments.

Many of the pieces spent years in dark basements of colleges, universities and museums, considered of little value.

One of the worst trends jeopardizing the preservation of these and other pieces of history has been the steampunk movement in which items are busted up and repurposed.

Blum noted that these old pieces should not be relegated to the mists of time, and said unfortunately the scientific foundation laid by the people who created these machines in centuries past is being lost.

He noted that a few years ago his company needed to do some testing and modern equipment could not measure the subtlety involved. But a device made more almost 150 years ago did the job.

“We actually pulled out the old instruments to make the measurement,” Blum said.

At the museum people can see Blum’s antique light bulbs, and a few pieces used in British Columbia such as a galvanometer used in Bamfield for the telegraph line to Australia.

More than 50 of his 250 plus item collection will be on display.

His oldest pieces date from the late 1700s with items right up until the Edwardian era in the early 1900s.

It’s Alive! shows the progression of electricity from parlour game to powerhouse.

“Everything changed when Volta invented the battery [around 1799],” he said.

Starting in the 1800s energy could be stored. Blum has various batteries in the show, including a dry cell battery from 1895.

Batteries were key for one industry in particular – communications. Most batteries powered telegraphy and telephones.

By the 1860s, electrostatic energy was functional, able to power small motor, like a lathe for a watchmaker.

Get a charge out of exhibit

It’s Alive! runs Oct. 19 to Dec. 23 and the electrifying exhibit ended up being the perfect setting for a Halloween event on Oct. 29.

The Langley Centennial Museum offers two sessions, one at 10 a.m. and the second at 1:30 p.m.

The activities include faceprinting, games, a scavenger hunt, a mystery specimen game, a colouring contest, crafts for kids of all ages and a table where kids can roll up their sleeves and safely build electrical circuits.

There will also be hands-on science equipment to try out, including a plasma ball in which static electrical current is generated with a hand crank, a Telsa coil and a Wimshurst generator.

The cost is $10 for a family of four. People must register in advance at recexpress.tol.ca (barcode 495466 for the morning and 495467 for the afternoon). For more information, call the museum at 604-532-3536.

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