Author Archives: Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer for Information Age

Information Age team begin the one year countdown

Charlotte Connelly is a content developer on Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opening in September 2014.

This week over in the Information Age team we passed an exciting marker. Instead of counting the time to the gallery opening in years, for the first time we’ve slipped into counting in weeks and months. It seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done so far, and some of the interesting things we still have to look forward to.

Where we’ve come from

The early days of the project were all about research. We spent time rummaging in the museum stores for great objects we could include, visiting other museums, immersing ourselves in archives and doing interviews with knowledgeable folks about communication and information technology.

Where we found gaps in our collection we came up with plans to fill the gaps, growing our collections and expertise as we went. One of those gaps was a decided lack of mobile phone technologies from developing countries – a massive oversight if you’re trying to tell a story about the impact of mobiles in the world today. Our solution was to embark on an ambitious collecting project in Cameroon, which I’ve written about here.

We collected objects and interviews on a research trip to Cameroon to find out more about the impact of mobile phones in Africa (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

We also set about improving our knowledge of the collections already in the museum, and spent long hours looking at objects and reading through the files we keep on them.

We made some exciting finds rummaging through the museum’s archives (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

As our knowledge about the technology and collections grew so did our ideas about we could include in the gallery. We developed a list of 21 compelling stories about how communication and information technologies have affected our lives over the last 200 years. Our next challenge was working out the best ways to tell those stories. We have been working with a lot of different people to help us, from individuals offering their telegrams for inclusion in Information Age and volunteers helping with our research, to larger organisations like the British Vintage Wireless Society and the Samaritans.

Members of the British Vintage Wireless Society in the museum’s stores (Source: Science Museum)

Where are we now?

With a year to go we’ve selected all the objects that will go into the Information Age gallery, and worked out what the showcases will look. The Museum’s conservation team have been beavering away on preparing the objects for display, and the collections information team have been arranging loans and getting all the paperwork sorted for the new objects we’ve acquired, like a replica of the first ever computer mouse.

Things have started happening in the gallery space too. The space is now empty (we captured this stunning laser scan of the old gallery), waiting for the new Information Age gallery structure to be built. We’re even expecting our first objects to be installed soon (mostly the very big ones that require quite a large hole being made in the wall!)

The empty gallery leaves us with a formidable amount of space to fill. (Source: Science Museum)

In April 2013 we officially launched the project, and invited some of our supporters to see the work we’d been doing. Suddenly we were faced with lots of expectant faces, and it made the whole project feel much more real somehow.

We got some of our objects out to show off to supporters at the Information Age launch (Source: Science Museum)

What comes next?

Those of us working on the content of the gallery have already started writing the labels that accompany the object. We’re also getting started on all the digital things – things like interactive screens in the gallery, and the pages for the website, plus one or two surprises that we’ll announce later.

Some of the audience research team testing a prototype of one of our interactive displays. (Source: Sophie Keyse / Science Museum)

The building work and show cases will soon start to progress quickly, and behind the scenes the conservation team will be slowly but surely working through the list of objects that need preparing for display. It won’t be long before we’re starting to install objects in their final positions, ready for the exciting moment when we open our doors.

Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opens in September 2014.

Putting a piece of Cameroon in the Science Museum

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer on Information Age, a new exhibition opening in 2014. She works on stories about mobile phones, radio and television. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp are conservators based at the Science Museum’s stores at Wroughton.

This week I’ve headed up to Manchester to talk about a tiny part of Information Age at the biggest ever history of science conference. Together with some other people from the Information Age team I’m running a special session about communications technology in Africa, with a special focus on Cameroon.

Last year a small group of us were lucky enough to go to Cameroon on a field trip to collect a range of objects for the museum that show how mobile phones have affected peoples’ lives. Just like in Britain, the mobile phone means that people organise themselves differently now that they’re constantly connected.

But, in Cameroon telecommunication technology used to be very expensive and difficult to access for most people, and now many more people can own and use a mobile phone making communication much easier. Although we collected lots of different kinds of mobile phone technologies I want to tell you about just one of objects we collected.

Emmanuel’s call box in Bamenda, Cameroon (Source: Science Museum / Sjoerd Epe Sijsma)

Emmanuel Bongsunu lives and works in Bamenda, in the English speaking part of Cameroon. He set up his first call box business in the late 1990s, very soon after mobile phones were introduced into the country. His call box tells the story of how the business evolved over time. In the picture you can see the original part of the call box – the small yellow box at the front that he would have sat behind, probably under an umbrella. As the business grew so too did his call box until eventually it was big enough to stand in, and even had its own electricity supply. When we spoke to Emmanuel he offered to sell us his call box as it would allow him to get a brand new one made to meet his needs today. It was such a great example that we couldn’t resist – even though getting such a big object back to the UK was going to be tricky.

A local carpenter helped us by building enormous crates to put our objects in, and his team also helped us to dismantle this large item. It was difficult to watch it being taken to pieces, and I made endless notes and labelled each part carefully so we would know how to put it back together afterwards.

Our crates ready to be taken to the port and shipped to the UK (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

A few weeks ago I travelled to our stores at Wroughton to work with two of the Science Museum’s conservation team to finally bring the call box back to life. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp have written about the part they played in reconstructing this rather dilapidated object. Here’s what they had to say:

When this item first arrived at Wroughton we froze it to eliminate any unwanted pest activity, after that it arrived in the conservation laboratory in its disassembled state. We decided to give the object a relatively light clean and to make only necessary repairs to the structure to allow it to be put back together in a stable condition.  Running repairs and rough edges were all part of the object’s history and we wanted to preserve this, making it look too clean or new would not give a true impression of its working life, or the piecemeal way in which it had been constructed.

We did a light surface clean to remove some insect debris and thick soiling that had built up during transportation. Original nails also had to be removed where they were sticking out from the timbers as they were usually bent and corroded and would get in the way of the reassembly, as well posing as a safety hazard to the team. We used modern fixings in the re-build instead, as this involved putting the timbers under less stress and also means in the future it will be obvious which bits are the original object, and which bits we added. Anything we added to the object has been carefully recorded.

Esther and Diana working on reconstructing Emmanuel’s call box (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

Some timbers had to be repaired for the structural integrity of the object; in these cases the damage had been caused entirely through the deconstruction process.  The work included ‘consolidating’ the feet of the object to prevent any of the original wood being lost and to protect them during transport to the gallery. Working on the roof was quite challenging, and we built a special support so that it could be worked on upside-down. We haven’t put the roof back on yet because it’ll be easier to transport it back to London in two pieces ready for the display.

Keep your eyes peeled for future posts about how we’re working with Cameroonians based in London to decide together how the various objects we brought back should be displayed.

Beyond the mouse – the future of computer interfaces

Chloe Vince, volunteer on the Information Age project takes a look at the humble computer mouse, Douglas Englebart’s best-known contribution to modern computing.

Since its invention in 1963, the computer mouse has become an iconic image of personal computing. It was designed and developed by visionary engineer Douglas Engelbart who recently passed away on 4th July 2013 at the age of 88.

This early version of the computer mouse bears very little resemblance to those that we use today – it began as simply a wooden shell encasing a circuit board attached to two wheels which allowed movement across a surface. It was the wire that extended from the wooden shell and connected it to the computer that gave it is resemblance to its namesake – christening it a ‘mouse.’

A replica of the first ever computer mouse designed by Douglas Engelbart invented in 1963 and patented in 1970 (Source: SRI International)

Whilst the function of the mouse has remained the same since this initial model, the design has become much more streamlined. In 1972 computer engineer Bill English replaced the wheels for a ball, allowing the mouse to move in any direction. However this design soon encountered problems when dirt accumulated on the ball and restricted its use and as a result, in 1981 the mouse underwent another redesign.

It was then that engineers at technology company Xerox developed the first optical mouse, which worked by using focused beams of light to detect the movement of the mouse relative the surface it was on. In successive years, the combination of reduced cost in equipment and the progression in optical technology provided us with the optical computer mice that are used widely today.

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

While computer mice have retained their popularity with desktop computers and laptops, more intuitive computer interface technologies started becoming favoured on tablet computers and smart phones.

In the early 1990’s, the stylus pen began to be used widely, particularly with smart phones and message pads. Shortly after, the pen was lost and multi-touch screens became the most popular means to interact with these devices. These screens can detect two or more points of contact on an interface so users can rotate, pinch and zoom in on graphics – something you may be used to doing on your mobile phone.

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

This technology is so effortless to use it is difficult to think of how this interaction can become any easier – but what if you didn’t have to do anything at all? What if all you had to do was think about what you wanted your computer to do?

Computer tablets and smart phones used today mostly use a combination of multi-touch screens and voice recognition software. (Source: Flickr user ‘Exacq’ under creative commons license)

This month, scientists at the University of Washington have published findings showing that patients who had a thin layer of electrodes placed in their brain were able to move a cursor on a computer screen by demand by just thinking about it. Although in the early stages, this technology has the potential for users to communicate with computers using only their thoughts to control the commands on the screen.

While the idea of computers interpreting our thoughts may seem like a daunting prospect for most, patients suffering with severe forms of paralysis could find this research to be a life-line, allowing them to communicate with people via computers for the first time.

At the moment it is unknown whether this technology will be taken further commercially. Do you think it has the potential to be used at home or work to improve our lives? Or do you think this could take our relationship with computer technology too far?

A replica of Englebart’s mouse prototype will be on display in the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014.

Mobile technology: past, present and future

This blog post is writted by Chloe Vince, volunteer for Information Age. Information Age is a brand new communications gallery opening in 2014. 

“Joel, I’m calling you from a ‘real’ cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone.”

These words, spoken by Martin Cooper – a senior engineer at Motorola, to Joel Engel – a competing developer at the company Bell Labs, began the first ever conversation to be had on a mobile telephone.

It was 40 years ago that Martin Cooper, who has since become known as the father of the mobile telephone, made that call on a Motorola DynaTAC – a device 9 inches tall, 5 inches deep and weighing 28 ounces – truly a ‘brick’. However, it was still not until what has become known as the ‘digital decade’ between 1993 and 2003 that the mobile phones really took off commercially.

The Motorola 8800X ‘block phone’ launched in 1993 at the beginning of the ‘digital decade,’ (Source; Science Museum)

Since then the mobile phone has advanced significantly – not least of all in size and design. Using mobile telephones as a means of calling your friends seems to have become inconsequential with the use of mobile internet, maps, text messaging, music and access to various other applications on-the-go. Which leaves me wondering – where next? How can mobile phone technology developer even further in the next forty years?

The Motorola StarTAC mobile phone launched in 1996 was the first ever ‘clamshell’ design phone, and was one of the first mobile phones to succeed commercially – selling around 60 million. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Motorola StarTAC was the first ever ‘clamshell’ design phone. Launched in 1996, it was one of the first mobile phones to succeed commercially. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

Several communication companies, such as Telstra are currently trialling the use of mobile phones alongside health monitors, for example heart rate monitors attached discreetly to elderly patients, to transmit real-time health data to your GP enabling them to respond quickly to any abnormal activity. This technology would also have the potential to screen for major illness every time it takes a reading. Can you imagine how many lives could be saved rather than waiting five years between health screenings? Not to mention the time and money saved from reduced face-to-face check-ups and appointments.

But let’s take a step back for a moment – is this all good news? Mobile phone companies already have access to a lot of your personal information – most call and text message records are retained for at least a year and GPS services allow mobile networks to trace where your phone is used. Do you want mobile phone companies to have access to our health data too? Or do you think the potential health benefits outweigh the possible privacy risks?

With so much progress being made since that first telephone call in 1973, the future of mobile phone technology seems limitless. What do you think the future holds?

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Science Museum enters the Information Age

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer for Information Age, a new communications technology gallery opening in September 2014.

Last night the Science Museum announced exciting details about a new £16m communications gallery, Information Age, which will open in September 2014.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph. Image credit: Science Museum / Universal Design Studio

The gallery will be a celebration of information and communication technologies. We’re already working on cutting edge interactive displays and participatory experiences that will reveal the stories behind how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Hundreds of unique objects from the Science Museum’s collections will go on display, many of which have never been seen before. They will include the BBC’s first radio transmitter 2LO, the BESM-6, the only Russian supercomputer in a museum collection in the West, and a full sized communications satellite.

Laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 proved to be a tricky challenge to overcome. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

In Information Age we tell some of the dramatic stories behind the growth of the worldwide telegraph network in the 19th century and the influence of mobile phones on our lives today. Visitors can uncover stories about the birth of British broadcasting and learn about pioneering achievements in the development of the telephone. The role of satellites in global communications and the birth of the World Wide Web will also be explored in the new gallery.

Not only are we working hard behind the scenes of the Museum, we’ve also been working with lots of other organisations to develop the gallery. For our mobile phone display, we have a great selection of objects collected in Cameroon – look out for a blog post all about that coming soon! We’ve been working with Cameroonian communities in both Cameroon and the UK to decide how these stories are displayed.

We’ve also interviewed women who worked on the manual telephone exchange at Enfield in North London. Their stories have been selected by young women from the same area to be included in the gallery.

Our Curator of Communication, John Liffen, looking at a section of the Enfield exchange when it was installed in the Enfield Museum (Source: Hilary Geoghegan)

Watch this space to discover more about Information Age as the team will be writing regular blog posts about their work on the gallery to keep you up to date. Add your comments below to tell us what you would like to find out about.

Music by Muzak

This article was written by Ellie West-Thomas, An Electronic Music Volunteer.

As Christmas draws closer, how many of you have found yourselves in a shopping centre listening to the dulcet sounds of an instrumental version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’?

‘Department Store by Grace Golden’ ( © The National Archives / Science & Society Picture Library )

Whether we notice it or not, music is always around us. Music by Muzak is a company who scientifically produced to create background music for shopping centres, offices and even lifts. It has been scientifically proven that music effects you and whatever you are doing, however continuous music would very quickly lose its effectiveness as the mind pushed it further back in to the sub-conscious. The solution with Muzak is that a Muzak programme is never repeated, it is designed to be heard not listened to.

The history of Muzak in the UK started in September 1959 but its potential was born in the minds of two English scientists in 1934 who themselves have been influenced by the use made of music by the ancient Egyptians in increasing the efficiency of their labour force while building the Pyramids.  

Music by Muzak Promotional Folder (Credit: Ellie West-Thomas)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This music service is designed to increase sales and employee productivity, attract the right customers, impact dwell time, create a competitive advantage, differentiate your brand and build loyalty. Muzak is specially orchestrated and recorded for the time, the place and the activity. To be of constructive use, music must give a pleasant emotional stimulus without demanding attention. The scientists behind Muzak believe that the average worker goes through a cycle of efficiency each day. The time when the worker is most efficient is in the morning and after lunch. Muzak’s functional music programmes are designed so that when the worker is at their least efficient it should bring them back up to a good level of efficiency. To represent this discovery we are currently acquiring the ‘Muzak Promotional Folder’.

The science is true in essence, for example when you have a louder, heavier piece of music on in the car then you tend to drive a bit faster compared to someone who is listening to softer music like a classical piece. 

Now have a think about what kind of music you would want to listen to in such an environment, different people may want to hear different things whilst doing certain tasks. So if you were Muzak adding to your extensive archive library what music would you have and what for?

Circuit Bending Podcast Part Two

 Phew..! Finally the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the resolution to last week’s incredibly dramatic cliff-hanger ending! Here’s the second part of our interview with electronic musician, circuit bender and all-round nice guy Andy Wheddon:

Click here to listen to the podcast. 

Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

Circuit Bending Podcast

 Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

One of the museum’s many wonderful volunteers recently took a trip to Brighton  in order to find out more about an object featured in our Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music exhibition. In an exhibition filled with many bizarre objects and unlikely musical instruments, the circuit bent Speak & Spell toy is certainly one of the most unusual and interesting items.

This brightly coloured jumble of knobs, switches and buttons was created by Andy Wheddon, an electronic musician, record label owner and member of the group of electronic music experts that helped curate the exhibition. He kindly agree to be interviewed about the instrument for the latest Science Museum podcast. Find out more about the modified Speak & Spell, it’s unusual origins and what it can tell us about electronic music and the work of Daphne Oram in the podcast below!

 Click here to listen to the podcast

Part-two of the interview will be posted here soon.

Andy's Modified Speak & Spell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Oramics Podcast!

Today we have a treat for fans of our Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic  exhibition; a lovely little behind the scenes podcast about the Oramics machine! A B-Side to the main exhibition, if you will.

Nick Street‘s documentary about the creation of the exhibition features many fascinating interviews with contemporary electronic musicians, colleagues of Daphne Oram, and the curators and conservators behind the exhibition. Bonus material from Nick’s interviews was used to create this podcast, which features Science Museum Conservator Dennis Kelles-Krause offering his take on the Oramics machine.

Click here to listen to the podcast

Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

E2011.135.1

Patchwerk

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Build-it-yourself Digital Oscillator module, 1985 ( Science Museum, London )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most interesting objects in our Oramics to Electronica exhibition is a home-built synthesiser module. This incredible object (donated by the museum’s very own Tim Boon!) clearly shares a heritage with the ingenious D.I.Y instruments created by ground-breaking electronic fiddlers, solderers and tweakers such as Daphne Oram. However, the object is also extremely significant because it shows that home-made electronic music existed long before Fruity Loops software came along in 1998.

A similar painstakingly crafted and incredibly complex home-built synthesiser recently went on display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s museum. Dr. Joseph Paradiso’s analogue synthesiser, which he has described as “probably the world’s largest homemade modular synthesiser”, was created over more than ten years using “information from manufacturers’ data sheets and hobbyist magazines”, scrounged spare parts and hacked keyboards. For years the instrument took over Paradiso’s living room, replacing couches and coffee tables with wires, processors, knobs and complex logic modules.

However, Paradiso’s synthesiser has now taken on a new virtual life: the synthesiser is attached to an online interface that enables you to control it in real-time from anywhere in the world. Thanks to the programme Patchwerk, Paradiso’s synthesiser can be controlled and modified from your internet browser, with the results streamed back to you and everyone else around the world that is logged in to the site and listening to the live stream.

The project offers an extremely fun and interesting way to engage with what is otherwise one of the more intimidating and less user-friendly types of electronic instruments - analogue synthesisers. What’s more, the instrument is an unusual merger of two of the most significant developments in the democratisation of electronic music: home-made synthesisers and computer-based emulators and virtual interfaces. Home-made synthesisers took electronic music out of professional studios and into the hands of amateur experimenters such as Messrs Boon and Paradiso by eliminating the need for costly physical equipment. Paradiso’ synthesiser, and the use of Patchwerk takes this a step further, combining a virtual and a physical interface in order to make a brilliant (if extreme) example of a hobbyist D.I.Y synthesiser available to anyone with access to the Internet!

Try the instrument out here, or watch Robert de Niro-lookalike Paradiso explain his synthesiser in more detail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and volunteer Science Museum research assistant.