Invisible Dust

London | Wednesday 16 January
Pollution level: Moderate

Victorian Manchester: ‘The Chimney of the World’



Air pollution is by no means a recent problem, particularly in Manchester. In 1884 John Ruskin described Manchester as the spiritual home of air pollution. As Stephen Mosley described in his book ‘The Chimney of the World’ by the 1880’s, after a century of industrial and urban expansion, “the name Manchester had become synonymous with leaden skies, dirt and smoke.” As the world’s first real industrial city Manchester was the epitome of a polluted industrial city. Ruskin, considered by some to be ‘the first Green man in England’, went as far as to describe the city’s smog as “Manchester Devil’s Darkness”.

In 1931, a thick smog cloud descended upon Manchester, killing 450 people. This catastrophe helped prompt the National Smoke Abatement Society’s campaign for a smokeless zone in the city, which was eventually established in 1952.

While the pollution caused by coal industry may have receded, in 1995 Manchester was said to have the “foulest air in Britain”, with 65,000 cars entering the city centre daily. This time around the main culprit was pollutants emitted by car exhausts. This time around the city was not blackened, but the urban environment itself was being eroded. Building stone is being eaten away by the high levels of sulphur dioxide.

Today Manchester is beginning to readdress this reoccurring battle with pollution. For one, it is in the midst of a year-long data collection research project called ‘SimplifAI’. The hope is that by utilizing data on average traffic speed, wind speed, temperature, nitrogen dioxide emissions and route geography. Manchester’s Urban Traffic Control team will be able to increase traffic flows in real time, minimise delays and consequently reduce air pollution.

Another important aspect is public awareness. Invisible Dust is currently working with digital artist Kasia Molga and scientist Professor Frank Kelly, as part of Manchester European City of Science, to create an exciting new project ‘Human Sensor’. In July 2016 performs will traverse the city wearing air quality responsive illuminating capes created by Molga. This public performance will offer a rare opportunity for the public to engage with the issue of invisible pollutants though a visible, tangible, live artwork. Data collected though the project will be available to the public though an exciting and ambitious interactive website.


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