Birmingham’s Lost its Sparkle

Pelligrino sparkling mineral water has pretty much been the unofficial drink of the festival. I was on the radio earlier in the week and the presenter asked “What would you say was the one thing people could look at in the city and rethink their opinion of Birmingham. I wanted to name this brand of sparkling water but “bottled out” and instead suggested the rather flat: “looking up at our buildings”.

Pellegrino is available throughout the city, but bottled in Lombardy in Italy. No element of it is made in Birmingham. Yet I maintain that this is a true Brummie symbol. It’s certainly saved me on a few parched guided tours over the years.

It’s not because of where it’s from or how it was made, but rather the innovations it represents. Let me explain: Joseph Priestley was a C18th Birmingham scientist, teacher and minister who was perhaps best known as the discoverer of oxygen. Amongst his other discoveries was the means by which to create carbonated water. Later, in 1856, Alexander Parkes created the first thermoplastic on Newhall St. I draw your attention to the colours of the Pellegrino brand: green, blue and red. I’m not going to claim these were discovered in Birmingham but in 1799 Samuel Galton Jr, a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, first wrote about the separation of white light into the primary colours.

In his 1998 BBC programme Heart By Pass, Jonathan Meades observes that Birmingham has always been about Italian: he shows a selection of university campaniles and Italianate towers around the city, its canals and highlights the famous interchange named after a pasta to prove it.

Priestly never made use of many of his discoveries: for him science was pure adventure, not a business. Others made it their business and he lost out on more than a few patents by inviting “friends” to view his discoveries at soirees at his home in Sparkbrook. These were the early days of science, and while there is big money to be made by pinching patents, at the time the real opportunities weren’t always obvious to those simply interested in exploration and discovery. I feel this is still the case with Birmingham: allowing others to take the glory or being reluctant to showcase its achievements.

"Have you considered a Skylight Filter on that lens, sir?"

I feel that as your train chugs into New Street, the first thing you see should be something that says “Birmingham: home of Oxygen”. A true and impressive claim, indeed beat that for a discovery! Instead of building a £2 billion new railway station to impress visitors, let’s simply highlight what already happened here: first car in the country, first pneumatic tyre, first crank engine, cotton wool, the kettle, horsepower, patent leather, fingerprinting, the first commercially available computer…At time of writing, the only thing we do celebrate is our exhibition trade (Bingley Hall, first exhibition centre, deliberately burnt down to make way for the ICC) and Home of Metal.

There are plenty of things in the city to look for and celebrate. Important things. Let’s find them and talk about them. Let’s brag about them!

Ben Waddington

for Still Walking, UK’s first Walking Festival

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