Author Archives: Alan Worman, Explainer

Bank Holiday Mondays

What would you do on your perfect bank holiday Monday? Well I don’t know about you guys, but as a kid I always dreamt about owning a Lotus and going for drive in the country.

Lotus Elan

Lotus Elan (Wikipedia)

The Lotus Elan was originally conceived by Ron Hickman, the director of Lotus Engineering, in 1963. It was a deeply covetable sport car available in two models – one with fixed position head lights and the other with drop-heads.

If the Lotus Elan is the dream, the reality of the bank holiday tends to be a little different – DIY. My dad was a builder and I remember him getting a Black and Decker workmate one Christmas.  He used that thing almost to destruction and I learnt a few carpentry skills on it as well.

I think mum liked it as well as it saved our chairs from being used as saw horses.

This is exactly what motivated the inventor of the workmate, the very same Ron Hickman who came up with the Lotus Elan, after he sawed into a Windsor chair! We have an early version right here in our collection. I can’t explain the excitement when I saw it for the first time and the flashbacks it triggered.

Work Bench

Folding joiner's work bench, c 1969 (Science Museum)

I love the fact that the designer of a high-end sport car also invented such a critical aid for the everyday man.

Moon Man Nasmyth

While growing up, when I wasn’t busy playing with hammers, I was intrigued by the Moon and I would act out Lego explorations of the Lunarscape. Two interests that that I have in common with engineer James Hall Nasmyth – whose invention of the steam hammer I explored in an earlier post.

Astronomy was one of Nasmyth’s passions and when he retired in 1856, he had more time to devote to scientific investigation.

He used this 20-inch reflecting telescope for looking at the Moon and Sun.

Nasmyth's 20 inch reflecting telescope (Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

I first came across it on a visit to our Blythe House store, and I was drawn to the huge grey iron lump of a telescope amongst a display of slender wood and brass ones. You can really see his history in making industrial machinery.

Nasmyth used his chunky telescope to make detailed drawings and plaster models of his observations, and co-wrote a book with James Carpenter called The Moon, Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite.

It was impossible at the time to photograph all that he could see through his telescope, so instead he photographed his plaster models for use in the book.

Plaster relief model of a portion of the Moon

Plaster relief model of a portion of the Moon by James Nasmyth (Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

So two of our museum objects – a massive hammer and a lumpy telescope – have led to me on a journey through the story of James Hall Nasmyth. I jumped for joy last year when I saw that that same lumpy telescope was taken from storage and put on display as the entrance piece of our new Cosmos & Culture exhibition.

Nasmyth's telescope at the entrance of Cosmos & Culture

Nasmyth's telescope at the entrance of Cosmos & Culture (Science Museum)

If I Had a Hammer

I love hammers, or to be more precise, I like hitting things with hammers. Be it nails, walnuts or – at some point in the long-distant past – brothers. So when I saw this giant steam powered hammer looming over me in Making the Modern World I had to learn more.

Nasmyth Steam Hammer

Nasmyth Steam Hammer (Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library)

It was invented by James Hall Nasmyth. He was born in 1808, and drawn to mechanics from a young age, making his first steam engine at the age of 17.

He forged a successful career making industrial machinery – at least after an early setback when a piece of his iron work broke through the wooden floor of his workshop and landed in the glass cutters flat below.

The impetus for creating the steam hammer came in 1838 when the Great Western Company was experiencing problems making the Ship SS Great Britain. The company’s engineer, Francis Humphries, wrote to Nasmyth with a challenge: “I find there is not a forge-hammer in England or Scotland powerful enough to forge the paddle-shaft of the engine for the Great Britain! What am I to do?”

Steam Hammer painting by Nasymth

He’d come to the right man. Nasmyth patented the steam hammer in June 1842 and demonstrated it at The Great Exhibition of 1851. Well aware that the machine’s accuracy combined with its extraordinary power was a remarkable selling point, he set an egg resting on a glass under the hammer. When the hammer fell it broke the egg but not the glass. 

He then reset the machine, and the hammer thudded down with a thump that shook the building.

Although Nasmyth patented the hammer, and built his reputation on it, the first one was actually built at Eugene Schneider’s Le Creusot Ironworks in France, before 1842. This may have been the result of Schneider visiting Nasmyth’s works while he was away, and being shown Nasmyth’s sketch for the as-yet-unbuilt hammer. Nasmyth discovered the hammer working when he later paid a return visit to Le Creusot, and had to rush through a patent on his return to England. Always keep your secret drawings under lock and key!

Nasmyth retired in 1856 announcing, “I have now enough of this world’s goods: let younger men have their chance”. He might have been done with worldly goods, but he certainly wasn’t done with science. More on that in my next post…

Destruction and discovery – the V2 engine

The V2 rocket engine was the first ballistic missile, built by the Nazis to fire missiles at London, but that wasn’t the only part it had to play in history.


V2 Rocket

It could travel at three times the speed of sound and was the first man-made object that had the capability to reach space.

On the 16 July, 1969 the Apollo 11 mission allowed the first men to walk on the moon. The Saturn V rockets which took up each of the Apollo craft used six J2 engines – developed from the V2 by some of the designers that worked on the V2.

Apollo 10

Apollo 10

So how did Wernher von Braun, the designer of a powerful German weapon then design the engine that helped America land on the moon?

As World War II was ending, Von Braun surrendered to American troops. Von Braun and his team were moved to Fort Bliss, Texas, under the top secret Operation Paperclip.

The V2 was chosen as one of our centenary icons, because it launched us into space. But as the power behind the first long-range missiles, it also threatened to destroy our world. An engine of war and discovery, these rockets have a legacy that still looms over us today. You can see them both in our Exploring Space gallery.

V2-J2 Engine

V2 and J2 engine

Seaplanes to the Spitfire

In my last entry Seaplanes and plump-bottomed angels, I introduced some of the people behind the Supermarine 6SB, a magnificent seaplane that won the Schneider Trophy. One person I didn’t introduce was the plane’s designer, Reginald Joseph Mitchell.

This statue can be seen in the fligth gallery

This statue can be seen in the Flight gallery

Hewn from dark grey slate, his statue cuts an imposing figure in our Flight Gallery as it stares at the two great planes that made Mitchell’s reputation: the 6SB and the Spitfire. Mitchell was born in 1895 and at 16 he became an apprentice at the Kerr Stuart & Co locomotive works. He joined the Supermarine Works in1917 and progressed extremely quickly to become Technical Director. He came across as a shy person but this guy didn’t suffer fools and grew very angry if interrupted while in thought. Eyebrows rose to the fact he was married to a headmistress eleven years older than him.

In the sixteen years Mitchell worked at the Supermarine Company he developed no less than 24 aircraft. The Type 224 aircraft known as the Shrew was rejected by the RAF in 1934 – a major set-back. But Mitchell was working on something else as well…

The Supermarine private venture Type 300 (an all metal mono plane) with a Rolls Royce PV12 engine eventually became the legendary Spitfire with its Merlin engine. The Spitfire, first tested in 1936 was a major defence in the Battle of Britain and was still used by the RAF in the 1950s.

Spitfire on display in the Flight gallery

And what did Mitchell have to say? Apparently when he heard what the plane was going to be called he grumbled “just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose” .

Seaplanes and plump-bottomed angels

Even though I’ve worked at the Science Museum for eight years, I still find the Flight Gallery stunning. It reminds me of my childhood bedroom ceiling, with one big difference: I had plastic kits hanging in dogfight freeze frames, the Flight Gallery has the real things! 

One thing that really sticks out is this crab incrusted trophy with the plump-bottom angel (supposed to represent the Spirit of Flight kissing the waves).

Schneider trophy

Schneider trophy

It’s the Schneider Trophy, which was offered from 1913 to encourage the development of seaplanes. 

The history of the trophy is packed with colourful stories. In 1919, Italy was the only team to get their plane up and around the course but they didn’t win, because due to the fog the panel couldn’t be sure that they’d completed the course.

Then in 1929 a broken piston head was found during a last-minute check on the British plane. They rallied up Rolls Royce engineers in the area but rumour has it that at that late hour the only available engineers were found in the local pub…

It flew the next day and won.

The British Government was slow to support the entries, but some colourful individuals came forward with the money. In 1922, Fanny Huston, an East End musical hall singer who had had a string of extremely wealthy husbands was a major investor.

The Supermarine S6B seaplane won this trophy for Great Britain in 1931, and is also in the Flight Gallery. It reached a top speed of 340mph and as it was the third consequtive win for the Brits we got to keep the trophy, bringing this bit of history to an end.

Supermarine Rolls-Royce S6B seaplane, 1931

Supermarine Rolls-Royce S6B seaplane, 1931

Incredibly, the first race for the Schneider trophy was held only ten years after the first ever flight. The top speed then was 45.75mph and within just 19 years that had increased to 340mph.