Author Archives: Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer for Information Age

The decline of WorldSpace

Last month I went to a conference marking 50 years of the UK in space. Some of the speakers reminded us many of us use space daily without even thinking about it when we watch satellite television or get directions from our GPS.

A snapshot from last month’s conference (Credit: Alex Costa)

I recently took delivery of a new object for the collection that also uses space – a satellite radio made for WorldSpace. The WorldSpace company was founded in 1990 and used geostationary satellites to broadcast to Asia and Africa. At one point they had 170,000 paid up listeners.

This WorldSpace WSSR-11 satellite radio broadcast receiver we recently added to the Museum’s collection (Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

The company also maintained a not-for-profit arm, using 5% of the satellite’s bandwidth to broadcast programs giving advice on HIV and AIDS, agriculture or providing information for women. It was tricky to make these programs localised enough to be really useful. For example, WorldSpace broadcast some Somali language programmes for use in classrooms in one region of one country, but anyone in Africa could tune in.

Satellite radio also faces technical challenges; I spoke to an engineer who explained that the signal is easily interrupted by concrete, glass, trees and even smoke.

“I had a guy in Ethiopia write me every day that his signal was lost at roughly 10am, 1pm, and 4pm daily. We couldn’t figure it out… It turned out the antenna was in a courtyard, and people took their smoke break in front of the antenna – effectively cutting the signal until they finished their break.”

Aerial masts are a common feature of the landscape in Africa now. This picture was taken in Buea, Cameroon in March 2012 (Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

Unfortunately WorldSpace was unsustainable as a business and went into liquidation in 2008. It might be surprising that a business with 170,000 customers would struggle, but communications technology has changed rapidly since the service started. Back then mobile phones were only just getting going in developed countries, and satellite radio seemed to be a really good way forward. Now, however, mobile phones have completely changed telecommunications in Africa and Asia, and satellite technology is expensive and hard to localise.

The Closure of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

This artice was written by Ellie West-Thomas, Research Assistant for Electronic Music  

Fourteen years ago the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who created innovative music and techniques that made it one of the most significant influences on electronic music today, closed its doors for the last time. Maida Vale Studios, the home to the workshop, was a place once filled by people brimming with ideas that changed the course of Electronic Music.

The Workshop was set up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for “radiophonic” sounds from a group of producers and studio managers at the BBC, including Daphne Oram.

For some time there had been much interest in producing innovative music and sounds to go with the pioneering programming of the era. Much of The Radiophonic Workshop’s early work was in effects for radio, in particular experimental drama and “radiophonic poems”.

New sounds were created using recordings of everyday sounds such as voices, bells or even gravel as the raw materials for “radiophonic” manipulations. In these manipulations, audio tape could be played back at different speeds (altering a sound’s pitch), reversed, cut and joined, or processed using reverb or equalisation.

Sounds being made at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Science Museum)

Perhaps the most significant recording in Radiophonic Workshop history came in 1963 when they were approached by composer Ron Grainer to record a theme tune for an upcoming BBC television series called Doctor Who. Presented with the task of “realising” Grainer’s score, complete with its descriptions of “sweeps”, “swoops”, “wind clouds” and “wind bubbles”, it has become one of television’s most recognisable themes. Delia Derbyshire created it by using a plucked string, 12 oscillators and a lot of tape manipulation.

The sound of the TARDIS materialising and dematerialising was made in an even less conventional way. It was created by running keys along the rusty bass strings of a broken piano, with the recording slowed down to make an even lower sound. It may not sound like it but look back at some old Who and see if you can hear those keys. Why not try it yourself – grab your house keys and take them to some rusty strings of a piano.

On display in The Oramics to Electronica Exhibition are some of the objects used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create sounds. Here is an example.

A Lampshade used by Delia Derbyshire (Credit: Science Museum)

This lamp shade was used by Delia Derbyshire as a sound source for ‘Blue Veils & Golden Sands’ in 1967.

For a more contemporary performance, here’s a link to Coldcut who performed classic compositions at the Electric Proms in 2008, in an evening which was devoted to the Workshop . 

 

Lily Pavey’s Musikriter

This article was written by Ellie West-Thomas, Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Whilst exploring the Science Museum’s Stores at Blythe House, I came across something rather unusual. Being classically trained in music and music theory I have had to write a score and use musical notations on many occasions, but I never knew that a typewriter could be used to write sheet music.

The Musicgraph or Musikriter, was invented by Lily Pavey, patented in 1961 and completed in 1963. Pavey was the first inventor to receive National Assistance to enable her to continue working on this project.

It is a typewriter that when you strike the key, as on any normal typewriter, it sounds a note of music and prints the note in the proper place on music paper. The machine could write vertically as well as horizontally, meaning that anyone could fundamentally teach themselves the basics of music theory.           

Lily Pavey knew that other people had tried to perfect a musical typewriter but failed, however she was not a trained engineer. She studied music and mathematics and the mechanisms of the typewriter and electronics. She figured out how to give vertical elevation with moving the paper and how to create 8000 combinations with 46 keys.

The typewriter Lily Pavey tinkered with to make her prototype (Science Museum, Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

She hoped that more and more composers would be more encouraged to set down their new inspirations and ideas instead of following what had already been written.

It then was put in to production and called the Imperial Pavey Musigraph.

She developed the Musicgraph in to a device called the Spherigraph. Not only was it able to add words to music but it could be used for complicated maths, chemistry symbols and even ballet choreography notation.

The production model Pavey Musigraph (Science Museum, Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

Bell’s heart on the line

Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 (Science Museum / Science and Society)

The 14th of February 1876 is a very significant date in the history of the telephone. On that day both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed papers with the US Patent Office for a working telephone. Following a dispute Bell’s patent was granted and published on the 7th of March 1876. Recently some historians have suggested that the dispute may have been resolved so quickly because Bell found a way to incorporate some of Gray’s ideas into his patent applications – but what could have driven Bell to such deception?

Only three months earlier Bell had been forced to make a difficult decision; should he choose to marry the love of his life, or continue work on his telephone? Bell’s day job was teaching deaf people to speak, and his interest in the production of sounds had stimulated an interest in electrical science. He had been researching a ‘harmonic telegraph’ and, since June 1875, investigating the telephone after an accidental discovery that enabled him to transmit and receive sounds. The father of Mabel Hubbard, one of Bell’s students, became interested in Bell’s harmonic telegraph and offered financial support which Bell accepted while also remaining committed to his teaching. Meanwhile Bell was becoming aware that his feelings for Mabel were turning from a teacher and pupil relationship towards those of love for her.

An exact replica of Bell's first telephone made in June 1875 by the same maker, Charles Wiliams Jr. of Boston (Science Museum)

Bell’s decision came in November 1875 when Mabel’s father, Gardiner Hubbard, asked Bell to give up teaching and other researches and devote all his time to the telegraph. If he did so, Hubbard would provide his living expenses enabling Bell to marry. Bell was too proud to accept a handout and rejected the offer, writing:

You are Mabel’s father and I will not urge you to give – nor will I accept it if offered – any pecuniary assistance other than that we agreed upon before my affection for Mabel was known … I shall certainly not relinquish my profession until I find something more profitable (which shall be difficult) nor until I have qualified others to work in the same field.

Fortunately for Bell the Hubbard family accepted the situation and allowed Mabel to make up her own mind. Two days later she and Bell became engaged.

Although Bell had not been prepared to accept Gardiner Hubbard’s money, he took the hint and looked again at the harmonic telegraph. Alongside this work he also continued research into the telephone against Gardiner Hubbard’s wishes, for he was convinced he could make it work. His work on the telephone gained some urgency when he became aware that he had a competitor in Elisha Gray, and furthermore because he still did not have enough money to marry Mabel. Bell’s submission of his patent papers on the 14 February, the same day as Gray submitted his, shows how close the race was. If Bell did indeed make illicit additions to his papers, perhaps it is because he was driven by his desire to marry Mabel Hubbard, which he finally did in July 1877.

Replica of Bell's 'Centennial' telephone transmitter of 1876 (Science Museum)

 

Exploring our vintage radios

When I was asked to help develop ideas about early radio broadcasting for a proposed new gallery at the Science Museum I soon realised that I needed help to build up my knowledge quickly. I began with the usual resources – I read some books, looked online and scoured our collection for likely looking objects to explore. While all of these resources could provide me with a technical understanding of the history of radio, I struggled to get a grasp of what it must have felt like to have used early radio sets or listened to early broadcasts. It was time, I decided, to seek some expert help.

The 2LO transmitter at Marconi House in the Strand (Science Museum)

Several members of the British Vintage Wireless Society (BVWS) were already pencilled in to pay a visit to the Museum to look at the radios in our collection. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to recruit a few of them to work more closely with us. We knew we wanted to display one star object from the collection – the 2LO transmitter, which transmitted the very first BBC radio broadcasts in 1922. In addition we have a large collection of radio receivers from the 1920s and 1930s. What we were missing was a range of fascinating stories to help us choose between all those radios. We invited the members of the BVWS to help us select the stories that represented their experience and knowledge of vintage radios.

Five of the group offered their time, and I worked with a colleague to plan a series of four sessions for them. Over the course of the sessions the group got to know our collections and gradually built up their own set of criteria for selecting radio equipment. We asked them to arrive at a list of three objects each, meaning we would have a total of fifteen radio receivers as a long-list to work with.

Mike and Martyn inspect a speaker horn with my help (Science Museum)

As well as gathering a list of objects we were keen to collect stories about the historical impact of radios on everyday life. We also hoped to find out what led the members of the BVWS to be so enthusiastic about and enthralled with vintage radio equipment. They have a strong emotional attachment to these objects that would be brilliant to share with our visitors. We spent one of the four sessions at the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum which holds an amazing collection of radios and televisions inside the walls of an innocent looking house in South London. While we were there, surrounded by all the fantastic objects in the museum, we interviewed some of the group and asked them about what got them collecting in the first place.

By the end of the four sessions we had a successfully arrived at a list of objects to display alongside the 2LO transmitter, together with stories to support them. One of the more unexpected items to make it onto the list was a ceramic mixing bowl selected by Lorne Clark. He told us how his mother, who had lived near a large transmitter, would place a pair of headphones in a mixing bowl in order to amplify the sound from a crystal radio set and make group listening possible.

The sessions were great fun and I certainly learned a lot about early radio from the group, and much more quickly and enjoyably than if I had been left to my own devices. Inviting outside groups to add their own expertise to the knowledge held by a museum and its curators can add a richness and variety to displays – especially as personal stories such as Lorne’s are often missing from a museum’s formal historic collections. Hopefully all of the BVWS members we worked with enjoyed their experience and gained an interesting insight into how a large museum goes about developing exhibition displays. I’m positive they enjoyed looking at our objects in storage because persuading them to leave the storeroom at the end of a session was always something of a challenge.

Some of the BVWS group with Science Museum staff in the garden of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum – (left to right) Charlotte Connelly, Martyn Bennett, Marie Hobson, Lorne Clark, John Thompson, Deanne Naula. (Courtesy of Lorne Clarke - www.earlywireless.com)

A Regal Recording?

This week I learnt about a mystery object in the museum’s collections – the mystery is not what the object is, but what the object contains.

Wax cylinder recording for use with a graphophone, c. 1888. Science Museum inventory number 1929-607 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

What you can see is a wax coated cardboard tube, similar in size to a loo roll, with three bands in the surface of the wax. The tube was used with a graphophone, a device invented in the 1880s which recorded sound in a similar way to a vinyl record.

Reproduction graphophone made in 1987 by Mike Field (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Museum acquired the cylinder in 1929, but without any way of playing it. The donor, a descendant of Samuel Morse, suggested that the cylinder had been used with a graphophone that was demonstrated to Queen Victoria in 1878, although he gave no clues as to what was recorded on the cylinder.

Research half a century later by technical writer Paul Tritton uncovered a letter that the Queen’s Private Secretary had written home to his wife in August 1888 about a machine that could reproduce sounds as often as you liked,

” Edwards whistled and I laughed – my ‘coachman’s laugh.’ “

He also wrote that

“H. M. [Her Majesty] spoke into it – but we told Mr Morse he must not go round the country reproducing the Queen’s words.”

These revelations spurred the museum to try and play the cylinder – with no idea what might be on it. With the help of the National Sound Archive, now the British Library Sound Archive, the cylinder was played for the first time in decades.

The three marked bands you can see on the cylinder are three separate recordings. The first recording was a man speaking and then whistling.

Whistled tune recorded on the graphophone, can you help us identify it?

One of the other recordings is unfortunately so damaged that it is impossible to make out any words. However, the second recording is about 20 seconds long, and although poor quality a few snatches can be heard of a well spoken lady saying, “Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten.” Could this be the voice of Queen Victoria? With only circumstantial evidence to guide us we can’t say for sure, and perhaps we will never know.

Listen here and make your own mind up.

To find out more listen to Punt, P. I. on BBC Radio 4, 2nd October at 10.30am for an interview by Steve Punt with John Liffen, Curator of Communication.