‘Doctor, are you willing, to try this Penicillin?’

Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine, takes a look at the story behind a new addition to our collections.

One of the most enjoyable parts of a curator’s job is acquiring objects which become part of the national collections. Not only do we go out and actively seek objects but we also get offered some real gems. Recently arrived at the Science Museum is this rather wonderful object.

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson, RAMC, to transport penicillin supplies to North Africa during the Second World War, 1939-1945.

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson. Credit: Science Museum

Major Scott Thomson (1909-1992), a bacteriologist, used this chest was used to carry supplies of penicillin to combat gas gangrene during the Second World War.

Penicillin sample, London, 1943 ( Science & Society Picture Library )

Penicillin sample, London, 1943 ( Science & Society Picture Library )

Scott Thomson’s career during the Second World War began as Pathologist to various military hospitals until 1943 when he was appointed by the War Office to be bacteriologist to the Penicillin Research Team. Thomson was posted to Algiers in May 1943 with surgeon Ian Fraser after under going special training at Oxford with Howard Florey.

On returning to Britain with the successful results of his trials, a decision was taken by the MRC Penicillin Committee to concentrate supplies of penicillin in one area of main battle activity in Italy. In December 1943 he was posted to Monte Cassino and according to his obituary in the Journal of Medical Microbiology he was responsible for all of the world’s supply of penicillin during those months – a fact his daughters remember him retelling.

Manufacturing penicillin, 1943 ( Science and Society Picture Library )

Manufacturing penicillin, 1943 (Science & Society Picture Library)

Like many of his contemporaries, Scott Thomson talked little about his time during the Second World War. However, I was lucky enough to meet Major Scott Thomson’s family who delighted me with the snippets of information that they had about his experiences.

Consisting of just five people, the Penicillin units were often at the back of every march, considered at the lower end of the army hierarchy. The lines between Allied and Axis forces were often so blurred that senior Axis officers wandered into the Allied camp.

Scott Thomson believed that the medical profession’s job was to cure and bacteriology was the main way of doing this and focussed his research into antibiotics. In the late 1960s, his daughters remember him talking about the overuse of antibiotic resistance – a subject which is always in the news.

By far, my favourite snippet the family were kind enough to share was the lyrics to Song for Penicillin which may have been penned by a German friend of Thomson with German, English and Italian lyrics. Although the tune is not known, but believed to be based a popular German oompah song. I’ll leave you with the chorus of the song:

German Doctor, are you willin’?

Go and try this Penicillin

This is something else than killin’ – Penicillin!

Penicillin! Penicillin!

Conserving a “Super Selector”

Sophia Oelman works on the conservation team for Information Age, a brand new gallery about the last 200 years of communication and information technology, opening this autumn.

There are a huge range of exciting objects being prepared for the Information Age gallery. As one of the six conservators working on the project, I have the privilege of cleaning, documenting and repairing the objects before they go on public display. My favourite object is the Super Selector Radio Receiver, made around 1927 in London by Selectors Limited.

The Selector super portable before conservation (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Selector super portable before conservation (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Super Selector appeals to me because of its interesting shape and design – it looks more like a piece of furniture than a modern radio set. The radio has attracted lots of attention, although because of its size and shape it is commonly mistaken for a wooden PC computer.

The portable radio is very heavy compared to today's pocket electronics. Perhaps that explains the rather well worn back of the object. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The portable radio is very heavy compared to today’s pocket electronics. Perhaps that explains the rather well worn back of the object. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The first challenge of working with this radio, was moving it from the storage rooms to the conservation lab at the Museum.  Although it is called “super portable”, it weighs about ten kilos and is certainly not super portable by today’s standards, weighing one hundred times more than an average MP3 player.

When the object arrived at the Museum, there were several areas of damage that needed to be documented and repaired before it could go on display. The main areas of concern were the leather handle, which was powdery and weakened and the textile speaker which was torn with sections of missing fabric.  The object needed to be documented, cleaned, repaired and then documented again to record the changes it went through during conservation.

After inspecting the exterior of the radio I began to look inside. Luckily, there were two keys with the radio set which allowed us access to the fascinating mechanisms inside.  Inside the radio, some of the most attractive components are the glass valves.  The valves are potentially dangerous if broken as this may cause flying glass, so one of my first tasks, after cleaning the radio, was to pack the valves with tissue to prevent any breakages.  After packing the valves, the conservation treatment of the radio receiver involved more cleaning, securing the handle and repairing the textile speaker.

The delicate glass valves inside the set needed to be carefully packed before work began. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The delicate glass valves inside the set needed to be carefully packed before work began. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The silk speaker posed the biggest challenge in terms of repair, but after consulting a specialist textile conservator at the National Maritime Museum I decided to cover the fragile silk with toned patches of special conservation silk. I cut the patches to shape, coloured them so that they matched the green colour on the speaker and carefully attached the patches to the speaker frame.  This technique prevents further damage to the object from light, physical damage and dust.

Sophie works to conserve the silk speaker area (Source: Science Museum)

Sophie works to conserve the silk speaker area (Source: Science Museum)

The Super Selector radio receiver was a fascinating object to work with and despite the challenges involved, I believe the radio will stay in good condition for visitors to enjoy in the Information Age gallery for many years to come.

The radio is now fully conserved and radio for display in Information Age when it opens later this year. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The radio is now fully conserved and radio for display in Information Age when it opens later this year. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The man who named the clouds

Assistant Curator Rachel Boon looks at the pioneering work of Luke Howard, who died 150 years ago today.

Stare up the sky and what can you see hiding amongst the clouds?  Mythical creatures perhaps or maybe you neighbour’s dog chasing a ball. Spotting shapes in the sky is fun, especially on a sunny day. The amateur meteorologist Luke Howard looked up and classified these wisps of white, changing the course of meteorology forever. 

Luke Howard had been inspired by nature from a young age. Born in London in 1772 Howard developed his childhood passion and became an amateur meteorologist. He even built a laboratory at his home filled with instruments to analyse the weather. Even though his day job was manufacturing chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry, Howard’s scientific work changed the way we understand the climate around us.

Luke Howard blue plaque. Credit: Wikipedia/Acabashi

Luke Howard blue plaque. Credit: Wikipedia/Acabashi

Before the 19th century, many meteorologists thought of each cloud as unique, unclassifiable and in a state of temporary existence. Instead of strict descriptions clouds were recorded by colour or individual interpretation. This all changed when Howard presented his Essay on the Modification of Clouds to the Askesian Society in 1802. The impact of this work was immense, elevating the natural phenomenon to the realms of worthy scientific investigation. Founded in detailed observations, with a pinch of imagination, these cloud types were; cumulus, Latin for ‘heap’; stratus, Latin for ‘layer’, and cirrus, Latin for ‘curl of hair’. Words we still use today.

Luke Howard captured these transient phenomena in delicate, though scientifically scrutinised sketches. The Science Museum has a rich collection of these images in a range of medium from pencil to watercolours, with some on display in our Making the Modern World gallery. It has been argued by historians of art and science that Howard’s contemporary John Constable was influenced by this new meteorological theory and visible in his powerful landscapes. Not only did Howard’s images inspire great art but so did his published essays which stimulated the imaginations of the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Percy Shelly.

Watercolour sketch by Edward Kennion with cloud studies by Luke Howard c 1808-1811

Watercolour sketch by Edward Kennion with cloud studies by Luke Howard, c 1808-1811. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Even though Luke Howard was only an amateur meteorologist he believed strongly that developments in science depended on accurate data gathering. By taking daily observations of temperature, rainfall, atmospheric pressure and wind direction from his home in Tottenham, Howard became one of the first pioneers of urban climate studies. He published the first two volumes of The Climate of London deduced from Meteorological Observations at different places in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis in 1818 and 1820, followed by an extensive second edition in 1833. Howard noted the changes in weather religiously for over 30 years recording his results in tables and innovative graphics.

You can learn more about Luke Howard’s instruments in the Science in the 18th Century gallery as part of the Climate Changing Stories display.

Behind the Scenes at Blythe House

Alice Williams is part of the team of Science Museum Conservators and Collections Assistants that have been working behind the scenes since June 2012 on objects that will be displayed in the new Information Age gallery.

As a Collections Assistant working on the new Information Age gallery my role means I work with the objects through each stage of their journey – from storage to display. At the moment I spend my day working in the stores, where each object must be checked for any potential hazards (such as lead or mercury), handled, and moved for conservation. With so many objects to keep track of a lot of time is spent planning conservation and logistics schedules, and making sure every object is accurately documented and well cared for in storage.

With over 800 objects to conserve, pack, transport and install, this is certainly no mean feat. The team is divided across two sites, with three Conservators based at our store for large objects in Wroughton and three Conservators, two Collections Assistants and one Conservation Student based at Blythe House in West London.

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House (The National Archives: Public Record Office NSC 27/2 Album of Blythe Road photographs)

Blythe House, formerly the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank and built between 1899 and 1903, is now a museum storage facility and home to the Science Museum’s incredible collection of small to medium sized objects. There are over 203,000 objects stored over 90 rooms at Blythe House, with extensive and diverse collections ranging from the History of Medicine to Telecommunications.

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

The Conservators work meticulously on each object in our Conservation Laboratory, carrying out research and treatments, and documenting every object in great detail. The Conservators also advise on the best way to display the objects, ensuring the objects will be safe, secure and stable when in the gallery and that they are protected for the future.

Conservators at work in the conservation lab

Conservators at work in the conservation lab (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

While each Information Age object will go through the same thorough process, every day is different for the team at Blythe House. Whether it is co-ordinating the move of larger and more challenging objects, taking part in public events, providing tours, couriering loans, or planning for the arrival of new acquisitions, there is never a dull moment in the stores.

Some carefully stored early radio receivers

Some carefully stored early radio receivers (source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

With the opening of the Information Age gallery planned for later this year, we will soon be reaching the final stages of object conservation. Before long we’ll be packing and transporting the objects to the Science Museum where we will all be on hand to install the objects in the new gallery.

Message received: collecting telegrams across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new gallery about the history of information and communication opening in Autumn 2014.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the telegram collecting project which has been taking place to support the Information Age gallery development. This project is now nearing an end, with over 350 telegrams collected as digital scans by our amazing group of community collectors from across the UK.

These telegrams will now be narrowed down to a short list of highlights, spanning a range of subject areas and covering stories and people from across the UK. The final selection will be displayed on a screen in the new gallery, allowing our visitors to get a sense of why telegrams were sent over the decades and what messages they contained.

For now, here is a sneak preview of one of them. This telegram was sent by Mr Ross to his wife in November 1902, having just found out he’d been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1916

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1902

I wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to the volunteers who worked with us on the project across the Science Museum and our five partner museums (The Cardiff StoryNational Museums ScotlandThe Riverside Museum in GlasgowPorthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum). I also wanted to provide them with the opportunity to share their thoughts on what they learned from the project. Here are some thoughts from three of the community collectors.

 “What I enjoyed the most about the project was organising the collecting event and getting to hear all the participants’ stories. It was great to work with Heather at Riverside too, I learnt so much relating to Glasgow Museums’ collection. Overall it was an amazing experience, getting to know people from all over the UK and being able to visit the Science Museum.” Elena, Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

 “The most surprising thing I learned from the telegram collecting project was that about 100 years ago people used telegrams as we do use Email today: to let people know if they will be late, to order things, to make sure you get picked up from a train etc. It’s amazing how special and dear the telegrams are to the people who own them today, be it that they wrote or received them or inherited them, telegrams are a little treasure to the owners. I really enjoyed engaging in the people’s stories and lives, getting more curious and pulled into the story behind the telegram was my favourite part of the work on the project.” Maja, Science Museum, London.

“The highs have been the excitement of the discoveries through the sheer colour and design of telegrams, the discoveries of stories which have touched the heart and which have international, national and local historical impacts. This has been an incredible journey. It has been a privilege to share in the life stories of others and be part of that sharing of these with a wider audience. I have taken away from this project the pleasure and privilege of being part of a Team. The project has given me the opportunity to develop my research skills and has reinforced for me the advantages gained from networking and collaborative work.” John, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Cornwall.

30 years on: the rise of the Macintosh computer

Chloe Vince, a volunteer working on the upcoming Information Age gallery, celebrates 30 years of the Apple Macintosh computer.

‘Hello, I am Macintosh’ said the robotic voice ‘It sure is great to get out of that bag!

The robotic voice in question belonged to a computer called Macintosh, which was first launched and demonstrated by Steve Jobs 30 years ago, on January 24 1984, in front of expectant audience of 3000 people. The Macintosh (there’s one from our collection pictured below) bears little resemble to those that are used today. A beige upright case housed a 9-inch black and white screen and had an in-built handle to easily transport its 7.5kg weight.

The Apple Macintosh, launched 24 January 1984 (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Apple Macintosh, launched 24 January 1984 (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Apple Macintosh was not the first of the Macintosh computers, but it was the first that was commercially successful. In comparison to previous models, it was considered to be relatively affordable at £1,840 and sold 70,000 in the first 5 months of sale. Prior to this, the Apple Lisa, targeted more at business users, was less affordable at £6,000 resulting in only around 6,500 being sold worldwide.

The Apple Lisa was the precursor the Apple Macintosh, but did not share such commercial success (Souce: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Apple Lisa was the precursor the Apple Macintosh, but did not share such commercial success (Souce: Science Museum / SSPL)

But it was not just the price that made this computer so popular. Firstly, it came complete with a mouse, which may seem an obvious counterpart to desktop computers we use today, but prior to this most computers had to rely on the keyboard entirely. In addition there was also 3.5” floppy disk drive which could manage 25% more data than discs used previously.

The biggest improvement came with the graphical user interface (GUI) which used square pixels instead of rectangular ones making the graphics much clearer and sharper. It also included icons of real-life items such as a ‘documents’ image and a ‘trash’ image instead of abstract text commands used previously.

These developments made the Macintosh an ideal personal computer for the majority of those that had no previous experience of computing, or as the advertising famously stated, ‘introducing Macintosh… for the rest of us.’

Do you own or have any memories of the original 1984 Macintosh? Can you remember a time before Macintosh existed or have you always grown up around these computers?

Discover more about the history of communication technologies in our new Information Age gallery, opening in Autumn 2014.

Alexander Parkes: Living in a material world

Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technology and Engineering, blogs on creating a new display to explore the life and legacy of Alexander Parkes.

As an Assistant Curator, I get the opportunity to work with thousands of objects – from early supercomputers to model steam engines – to bring their stories to life. About eight months ago I started working on a small display celebrating an anniversary in science, technology, engineering or medicine.

Representing the scale of discovery, invention or the life of an important figure in science in a 2 x 3 meter showcase was going to be a challenge. Not deterred I thought this case was the perfect size to celebrate the life and work of the often forgotten 19th century inventor Alexander Parkes.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848. Credit: SSPL

Parkes was born 200 years ago last month (read more about him here) and contributed to a vast range of metallurgical and material developments. Awarded a whopping 80 patents, Parkes’ work ranged from electroplating works of art to developing the first semi-synthetic plastic, Parkesine.

Two gilt vases by Alexander Parkes, 19th century.

Gilt vases by Alexander Parkes. Made by Elkington & Co. Credit: SSPL

We wanted to show both sides of Parkes, one as Parkes experimenting in his laboratory, and the other as Parkes the talented craftsman. All the objects in the display show the interplay between these skills. The most eye catching and shiny object on display is an electroplated vase that Parkes made early in his career while working at Elkington and Co. in Birmingham. Next to that are bars of copper produced during the Parkes’ process, a method of extracting valuable metal from lead.

While working on the project I found Parkes’ legacy hiding around every corner, or at least painted on the walls.

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Bread Collective and the community of Hackney Wick worked together on The Walls Have Ears project to paint a mural celebrating the industrial history of the area. Why, you may ask is Parkesine, a Birmingham inventor’s miracle material, immortalised on a wall between wasteland and an Overground station? The answer is the Parkesine Company Ltd, opened in Hackney Wick in 1866 to commercialise Parkesine.

During the 19th century, desirable materials such as ivory, ebony and tortoiseshell became increasingly rare and expensive. A sustainable replica was required to meet the demand. Not only could Parkesine imitate expensive materials it also changed the face of consumerism and mass-produced goods.

Cheap to produce but moulded into the finery of the day – imitation ivory mirrors or tortoiseshell jewellery – Parkesine opened the door to people from all walks of life to be the proud owners of fancy-looking goods.  Analogous to today’s high street stores imitating designer clothes and accessories. We may proudly walk around in Pri-marni now, but Parkes was changing social aspirations over 150 years ago.

Despite Parkes’ enthusiasm and his ability to raise £100,000 (worth £10 million today) from the great industrialists of the time, the factory filed for bankruptcy after two years. Parkes’ desire to compete against natural rubbers and keep his investors happy affected the quality of the goods produced. There are records of combs deforming after a few weeks and other items exploding!

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

The final group of 14 objects on display reflect the range of objects Parkes made, from jewellery to cutlery, along with the enchanting variety of coloured pigments used.

One of my favourite objects is a toothed wheel made out of black Parkesine. If used, this small item was more likely to set your factory alight than run machinery! Parkesine is a combination of organic matter – cotton fibre – mixed with chemical nitrates, vegetable oils, camphor and alcohol.  When nitrates get hot they have a tendency to explode, so using Parkesine for anything that creates friction is asking for trouble.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860. Credit: SSPL

Lucky, the Science Museum also looks after the notebooks of Alexander Parkes in our Archives at Wroughton. Parkes’ scribbles in these notebooks shows more than just his dedication to rigorous experimentation. Imbedded between the pages listing chemical combinations are delicate sketches of British landscapes. This material, along with the objects in store was integral for the 3D and 2D designers without whom this case would not look so captivating.

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Image: SSPL

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Credit: SSPL

Producing a display like this is a team effort, with many departments helping to turn hours spent researching and rummaging through stores into a display for visitors. The workshops team were up at the crack of dawn to build and install the display and the conservation team were involved from the start to ensure the objects would be safely displayed. Finally, after months of writing and rewriting text, the ribbon was cut and my first showcase was opened.

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

How early radio experimenter Hugh Ryan made contact with the USA

Geoff Chapman is a Science Museum volunteer who catalogued a box of amateur radio materials for our exciting new gallery Information Age. You can read his earlier blog posts here and here.

Since writing my last blog post I’ve looked further into the box of papers on wireless I described in my first blog to find out about experimenter Hugh Ryan who was active from the early 1920s.

Hugh Ryan’s morse code test, essential to obtain a licence at the time, was arranged in August 1922.  He apparently passed because in November 1922 he demonstrated music and speech transmission, with reception at a church hall in Southfields.  ”The use of such apparatus for amusement is irregular” wrote a GPO official, even though the demonstration was permitted.

Radio licenses in the 1920s were strictly for experiment, not for general amusement – as the Post Office are reminding Hugh Ryan here (Source: Science Museum)

In 1923 Hugh Ryan was perhaps pushing boundaries and as a consequence received a letter in July 1923 asking him to strictly observe the terms of the permit issued to his mother.

The Post Office checked up on Ryan to make sure he was sticking to the terms if his radio license (Source: Science Museum)

On 17 December 1923 he was granted special authority to take part in trans-atlantic tests and transmission was allowed for a maximum of 15 minutes a night.

In 1923 Ryan was granted permission to experiment with Trans-Atlantic radio communication (Source: Science Museum)

However ahead of the trans-atlantic tests Hugh Ryan claimed to be the first amateur to make radio contact with the USA after he exchanged calls with 8AJW, on 2 Dec 1923 according to several cards in the box.

Ryan was editor of publication EW&WE (Experimental Wireless and Wireless Engineer) and in that capacity received postal reception reports ( also known as DX reports) from experimenters.  Many reception reports were addressed to Hugh Ryan by his callsign 5BV, which was expressed internationally as British 5BV or G5BV.  The reports came from experimenters in many countries and included technical details and speculation with evidence on factors affecting radio propagation such as time of day, moon phase, barometric pressure, weather conditions, aerial type and even polar lights.  A source of echo was speculated as signals taking two paths round the earth.  These reports read as examples of citizen science.  One experimenter reported on experiments with low power.

When amateur radio operators make contact with each other they send a ‘QSL card’ like this as a record. Hugh Ryan wrote on his “The first amateur to work USA”

To quote a few examples from the reception reports.  An experimenter in a letter dated 3 April 1926 mentions “…we are getting some useful data on conditions as we transmit at various times of the day and night and it does seem that on sunny days the fading is a lot worse than any other time…”.  In a letter of 3 Feb 1926 from Copenhagen in the context of transmissions from boat SS Island the writer reports “one night where polar lights completely caused the signals [from SS Island to Copenhagen] to fade out”.  A letter of July 1925 reports a record, the first reception in England of a South African station.

One experimenter mentions conducting reports into fading for the Radio Research Board, perhaps this was an example of citizen science overlapping with official research.  What became of EW&WE is not recorded in the papers in the box, but Hugh Ryan kept up his enthusiasm for radio and was still licensed as a radio amateur as late as 1965.

Discover more about the history of communication technologies in our exciting new gallery Information Age, opening September 2014. 

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man and Polymath

Sue Mossman explores the life of Alexander Parks, inventor of early plastics, on his 200th birthday.

Alexander Parkes was born in Birmingham on 29th December 1813. In his early career he described himself as an artist, and only later a chemist. He might also have described himself as a metallurgist.

A decorative metalworker by training, Parkes was to turn his sharp intelligence towards a variety of old and new materials in the burgeoning industrial world of mid-19th-century Britain. His life was an active one – he was granted over 66 patents. He also found time to father 17 children with two wives, his second wife being the friend of his eldest daughter.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Parkes had a varied and successful career in metallurgy, working on a number of processes, including the desilverising of lead – known as the Parkes process. While employed at Elkington, Mason and Company in Birmingham, he developed a process for electroplating works of art and later fragile natural objects. The epitome of this technique was a silver-plated spider’s web presented to Prince Albert.

Parkes is perhaps best known for the eponymous Parkesine – the first form of celluloid – an early semi-synthetic plastic based on gun cotton. He took out his first related patent in 1855. Parkes later won a bronze medal for excellence of product in the International Exhibition of 1862 and later a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1867.

Objects made from Parkesine, c 1860.

Objects made from Parkesine, c 1860.

Henry Bessemer, of steel production fame, was a colleague of Parkes. Indeed Bessemer topped the list of the investors in the Parkesine Company set up in 1866, although the company failed in 1868 – probably because of issues associated with quality and flammability. Parkes, though a prolific inventor, was no businessman. We might see him as a victim of an agile but perhaps too busy mind, and of a strong moral conscience. When he developed a potentially lucrative explosive powder, he refused to sell it to the British, French or Russian governments.

In a letter written on 7 March 1881, Parkes rather plaintively remarked that: ‘In answer to the American Inquiry “Who Invented Celluloid” … I do wish the World to know who the inventor really was, for it is a poor reward after all I have done to be denied the merit of the invention.’

Celluloid, the direct descendant of Parkesine, became a great commercial success, used to make a range of decorative goods, often imitating the more expensive ivory, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. Perhaps its most enduring legacy was its application in cinematic film. Parkes had foreseen the use of Parkesine film as a replacement for glass photographic negatives as early as 1856. Even he would have been amazed by the development of celluloid film and the birth of the Hollywood film industry.

Parkesine is a fragile material, subject to degradation by light, so is seldom put on display. But from December 2013 to mid 2014 a selection of objects made from this beautiful and rare semi-synthetic plastic can be seen at the Science Museum, together with other items associated with the life and works of Alexander Parkes.

Sparks fly in west London

Curator of Communications John Liffen blogs on recreating early ‘wireless telegraphy’ ahead of the opening of Information Age, a new gallery exploring communication technologies.

Radio operators on board ship used to be nicknamed ‘Sparks’ – and with good reason. In the earliest days of ‘wireless telegraphy’ the radio waves were created by a continuous train of high-voltage sparks. The phenomenon can be observed whenever you switch a light on or off if a radio set is switched on nearby. At the moment the switch connects or breaks the mains circuit, sparks are created which send out pulses of radio waves which will be heard as a momentary crackle through the set’s loudspeaker.

On board ship, generating equipment continuously charged up capacitors which spontaneously discharged at high voltage across a spark gap. The radio operator used a morse key (a simple on/off switch) to interrupt the sparks in the form of morse code. The resulting coded radio wave ‘oscillations’ could be heard by other ships within a radius of a hundred miles or so. This was the method of transmission in use at the time of the Titanic disaster in April 1912. Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, the operators on the Titanic, sent out their distress signals in this way which were picked up through the headphones of operators on board other ships with range.

The Titanic, seen shortly before she sailed on her last voyage (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Titanic, seen shortly before she sailed on her last voyage (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

In the 1920s the use of spark transmission was phased out as more efficient transmitters using thermionic valves or ‘tubes’ were introduced. These could be tuned to a much more precise frequency so were less wasteful of the radio-frequency spectrum than spark transmitters. Today almost nobody will have heard the sound of a radio message sent by spark.

Sparks flash across the spark gap (source: Science Museum / John Liffen)

Sparks flash across the spark gap (source: Science Museum / John Liffen)

Consequently when we decided to feature the Titanic disaster in our new Information Age gallery, we felt we should re-create some of the morse distress messages so they could be heard by visitors much as they had been in 1912.

In order to do so we had to find a specialist radio historian with a suitable spark transmitter. One such individual is Dr Tony Constable, the founding Chairman of the British Vintage Wireless Society. Recently I visited his home in west London.

He had set up a suitable induction coil, Hertz-type spark gap and morse key in his living room, set to work at the lowest possible power so as to avoid, as far as possible, interference on neighbours’ radios.

Tony Constable keys in a message. The spark transmitter is on the right (Source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony Constable keys in a message. The spark transmitter is on the right (Source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Together we worked out a couple of messages, adapted from the original transcripts. This from the Titanic:


and this from the rescue ship Carpathia:


CQD was the original morse distress signal. It had been replaced by SOS before 1912 but at that time both were still used by some operators.

Tony Constable at the morse key (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony Constable at the morse key (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony placed an vintage Bush transistor radio on the other side of the same room and de-tuned it on medium wave away from any programmes so that it just gave out a hiss. The morse signals were clearly audible as a harsh buzzing, incidentally demonstrating the un-tuned nature of spark transmission.

How the signals were received: Bush transistor radio on left, digital recorder on right (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

How the signals were received: Bush transistor radio on left, digital recorder on right (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

As you can hear, the recordings were very successful. A word of warning, though. The equipment, though simple, uses very high voltages and must be handled with extreme care. We don’t recommend you try this particular experiment yourself.

Discover more about the history of communication technologies in our new Information Age gallery, opening in 2014.