Author Archives: David Rooney, Curator of Transport

The Clock of the Long Now

The Science Museum’s curator of time, David Rooney, reflects on the ‘Clock of the Long Now’, a prototype of which is on show in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. David will be talking about clocks, speed and slowness at this month’s Science Museum Lates.

‘Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multitasking. All are on the increase’. This analysis of society at the end of the twentieth century was written in 1998 by Stewart Brand (born 1938), writer, inventor and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Brand, together with computer designer Danny Hillis (born 1956) and other prominent fin de siècle thinkers, had become increasingly concerned that the year 2000 had come to be seen as a temporal mental barrier to the future. Brand explained: ‘Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries’.

Hillis’s proposal was to build ‘both a mechanism and a myth’, a monumental-scale mechanical clock capable of telling time for 10,000 years—if it was maintained properly. Such a clock would prompt conversations about ‘deep time’, perhaps becoming a public icon for time in the same way that photographs of earth from space taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968 have become icons for a fragile planet in boundless space (It was partly due to Brand’s agitation that NASA released earlier satellite-based photographs of earth to the public in 1966).

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission.

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. Credit: NASA / SSPL

In 1996, Brand and Hillis formed a board of like-minded friends. Calling themselves ‘The Long Now Foundation’, the organization’s title sprang from a suggestion by musician and composer Brian Eno that ‘The Long Now’ could be seen as an important extension of human temporal horizons.

In this scheme, ‘now’ was seen as the present moment plus or minus a day, and ‘nowadays’ extended the time horizon to a decade or so forward and backward. However, the ‘long now’ would dramatically extend this ‘time envelope’. Since settled farming began in about 8000 BCE, the futurist Peter Schwartz proposed that the ‘long now’ should mean the present day plus or minus 10,000 years—‘about as long as the history of human technology’, explained Hillis.

The design principles established for the clock laid down strict parameters for its construction. With occasional maintenance, it was thought that the clock should reasonably be expected to display the correct time for 10,000 years. It was designed to be maintainable with Bronze Age technology. The plan was also that it should be possible to determine the operational principles of the clock by close inspection, to improve the clock over time and to build working models of the clock from table-top to monumental size using the same design.

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

In 1997, a small team of expert engineers, mechanics and designers based in San Francisco, led by Alexander Rose, set about constructing a prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, as the project became known. Driven by the power of two falling weights, which are wound every few days, the torsional (twisting) pendulum beats twice per minute, transmitting its time through an oversized watch-escapement mechanism to the heart of the clock, a mechanical computer.

This computer, conceptually linked to the machines of nineteenth-century polymath Charles Babbage, operates once every hour, updating timekeeping elements within the dial display, including the position of the sun, the lunar phase and the locally-visible star field. The slowest-moving part of this display indicates the precession of the equinoxes.

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

As the designer of some of the world’s fastest supercomputers in the 1980s, Danny Hillis said in the 1990s that he wished to ‘atone for his sins’ of speeding up the world by designing the world’s slowest computer for the Clock of the Long Now.

This range of tempos reflects the Foundation’s idea of ‘layers of time’ in human existence. The fastest-changing layer is fashion and art; a little slower is commerce. Infrastructure and governance take still longer to change. Cultures change very slowly, with nature reflecting the slowest tempo of all. ‘The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize’, explained Brand. The Foundation believes that an understanding of the opportunities and threats embodied in these layers of temporal change is crucial in correcting humankind’s apparent short-sightedness.

These ambitions and ideals were expressed eloquently in the finished prototype clock, which first ticked in San Francisco moments before the end of New Year’s Eve 1999. It was then moved to London, where the Clock of the Long Now had been selected as the final exhibit in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, opened by Her Majesty The Queen in 2000.

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

Meanwhile, the Foundation continued to build further prototypes, refining the design of the clock’s several constituent subassemblies in preparation for the construction (now underway) of a 10,000-year clock inside a mountain in western Texas, near the town of Van Horn. The Foundation hopes to build several ‘millennial clocks’ over the course of time, and a site for another has been purchased atop a mountain in eastern Nevada, adjacent to Great Basin National Park.

By its nature, the clock is both a conclusion—of a long process of human thinking, making and acting—and a starting point, for a long future, the contents of which are uncertain, the opportunities of which are infinite. Stewart Brand observed, ‘This present moment used to be the unimaginable future’.

As a symbol for the past, present and future of human ingenuity, the Clock of the Long Now is a fitting device to represent the modern world and all of its milestones. As Danny Hillis has said, ‘Time is a ride—and you are on it’.

David Rooney (@rooneyvision)

The Turing Tour on Twitter

Curator David Rooney is preparing to take our Twitter followers on a rather unique tour.

Last June, we opened our Codebreaker exhibition, which reveals the life and legacy of a truly remarkable man, Alan Turing. The opening coincided with Turing’s 100th birthday, and over the last 12 months it has been a pleasure to read your comments and welcome so many of you to our exhibition.

To anticipate Turing’s birthday this year, I’ll be giving a live tour of the exhibition via Twitter on Tuesday 18th June between 18.00-18.30 BST. You can join in by following #TuringTour and tweeting your questions to @sciencemuseum.

After the tour, from 18.30-19.00 BST, I will be answering your questions about Turing and our exhibition on Twitter. Send your questions to @sciencemuseum or leave them in the comments below. You’ll need to be on Twitter to see my answers as I’ll be replying through the @sciencemuseum twitter account.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

I hope you can join me for our #TuringTour next week to discover more about the life and legacy of this extraordinary man.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

The multiple lives of Alan Turing

February is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month, and this year the focus is on mathematics, science and engineering. Here, David Rooney, curator of the Science Museum’s award-winning Codebreaker exhibition, discusses mathematician Alan Turing’s contributions to science and society.

Alan Turing’s life had many facets. He is perhaps most widely known today for his wartime codebreaking exploits at Bletchley Park, where he devised processes and technologies to crack German ‘Enigma’ messages on an industrial scale. The intelligence uncovered at Bletchley was central to Britain’s war effort and may have shortened the conflict by up to two years. Winston Churchill described the site’s cryptanalysts as his ‘golden geese that never cackled’.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

Turing’s first major contribution to science had been a paper written in 1936, when he was just 24, on an abstruse theoretical problem in the philosophy of mathematics. ‘On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ attacked German mathematician David Hilbert’s so-called ‘decision problem’, which sought a formal underpinning of mathematics. Turing’s paper was a philosophical bombshell which destroyed the consistency of the subject.

This work brought Turing to the attention of a small group of mathematicians and philosophers, but it was its theoretical description of a ‘universal computing machine’, capable of carrying out any computable task, which was later seen as the conceptual basis of today’s stored-program computers. For Turing, his 1936 universal machines were simply thought experiments, but for others they signalled the future of computing. Turing himself wrote one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, later realised as the ‘Pilot ACE’, on display in the exhibition.

The first demonstration of the pilot ACE at NPL, December, 1950.

Alongside his work in cryptanalysis and computing, Turing is also widely remembered for his work on machine intelligence after he left wartime Bletchley Park. The ‘Turing test’, sketched out in his seminal 1950 paper ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, has become a popular trope in artificial intelligence. It was Turing’s response to a philosophical stumbling block. First he asked, ‘Can machines think?’ He then proposed that this, itself, could never be known. Instead, if a machine could appear to be intelligent in a guessing game, then it could be assumed to be intelligent.

The relationship between thought and matter was a common theme throughout Turing’s life. As a teenager at Sherborne School, Dorset, he became closely attracted to a fellow student, Christopher Morcom, who was a year older. Morcom was, if anything, even brighter than Turing, and more devoted to mathematics and science. The pair became close friends, although Turing’s love of Morcom was unrequited.

Meeting Morcom was a watershed in Turing’s life, acting as an emotional catalyst that converted the previously ill-focused, undisciplined but undoubtedly clever boy into a young man constantly attempting to improve himself. Morcom died, aged 18, from tuberculosis, and the rest of Turing’s life seemed to be an attempt to keep Morcom alive and make him proud.

If Morcom’s friendship and death was material in Turing’s intellectual development, it can also be seen as a focus for the complex ideas about intelligence and the mind that Turing developed towards the end of his own life. Writing to Morcom’s mother soon after her bereavement, Turing said, ‘when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body’. Even in his 1950 paper on machine intelligence Turing showed great interest in paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and psychokinesis that were at the fringes of scientific respectability even then.

Turing’s science remained resolutely off the mainstream. Having broken codes for the nation and conceived new paradigms in mathematics, computing and intelligence, he produced final work that was so avant-garde that it was virtually abandoned after his death in 1954, only to be picked up again relatively recently. Morphogenesis – the development of pattern and form in living things – occupied his thoughts for the last four years of his life as he ran computer simulations of the mathematics and chemistry of life itself.

The intercept control room in hut 6 at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, the British forces’ intelligence centre during WWII. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

At Cambridge University, where he studied in the 1930s, and at wartime Bletchley Park, Turing’s homosexuality was relatively tolerated. But in post-war Britain a new morality was rapidly emerging. Britain’s future rested on repopulating the country with young men to replace the millions slaughtered at war. Homosexual people – men and women – were increasingly characterised as deviant and harmful to the fitness of the race, and their presence in society became a matter of national concern.

The Cold War intensified these concerns, as gay people were assumed to be at risk of blackmail, endangering the security of the nation. Turing held some of the nation’s most secret knowledge in his head.

Alan Turing and colleagues working on the Ferranti Mark I Computer in 1950. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In 1952, following an unlawful sexual relationship, Turing was tried and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ under the anti-homosexuality legislation of the day. He was stripped of his security clearance and his post-war consultancy to Bletchley Park’s successor, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), ended. He was offered a choice of imprisonment or a one-year course of hormone treatment to suppress his libido, and he took the latter. It was chemical castration.

Turing appeared to recover well from the sentence after its effects subsided, but by then he was under police surveillance and it is likely that his actions had become of grave concern to the security services. On 7 June 1954 he ingested a large amount of cyanide solution at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire and was found dead the next day by his housekeeper. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide, opining that Turing’s ‘mind had become unbalanced’. Turing did not leave a suicide note, and the full circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

For further information visit Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy at the Science Museum, which runs until summer 2013.


How we got the planes in: part two

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how we got the aircraft into our Flight gallery, in response to a Twitter question. I said I’d been to our photo archive to see if we had any pictures of the 1960s aircraft installation, and I turned up lots of great images.

Well, the scans have just arrived, so for those interested in how to get a Supermarine S6B world-speed-record-breaking aeroplane into a third-floor gallery in central London in 1961, here goes…

Supermarine S6B in mid-lift (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B in the air (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B perched on a ledge (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B ready to go in (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B on final approach (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B has landed! The wings go on later (Science Museum)

And their suits are all still pristine!

How did we get the planes in?

Last week one of our visitors asked us a question via Twitter while looking round our third-floor Flight gallery:

Help me settle a debate @sciencemuseum, how did you get the planes in the flight exhibit into the building?

Good question. First opened in 1963, the gallery was refurbished in the 1990s when a couple of new planes (including our Hawker jump-jet and a Hawker Siddeley executive jet) were added.

HS.125 executive jet, 1965 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

To get the aircraft into the gallery, we took some windows out, built a platform out above the service road that runs alongside the building, and craned the aircraft up and inside. Most were dismantled before transportation – the wings were removed, for instance – and then they were rebuilt inside the gallery before being hung up.

We’ve got planes in other galleries, too. If you made it to the Making the Modern World gallery during your visit, you’ll have found a gorgeous Lockheed ‘Electra’ airliner swooping down on you, as well as an Avro 504K biplane, a Rolls-Royce vertical-take-off test rig and a Short SC 1 aircraft.

Short SC 1 aircraft and Rolls-Royce test rig, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As this gallery is on the ground floor, life was a bit easier. The aircraft were brought in to the gallery on low-loaders, reassembled on the gallery floor, then hung up by a team of rigging contractors. This was done before the smaller exhibits were installed, but it was still a real 3D jigsaw for the project managers to work it out.

Lockheed 'Electra' airliner (Science Museum / Science & Society)

I’ve found some lovely photos of the early-1960s aircraft installation. I’m getting them scanned, and I’ll post them here in a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

Deadly predators in Tate Britain

I visited Tate Britain last weekend to see a pair of fighter planes newly on show in the gallery’s central halls.

Sea Harrier jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

Created by British artist Fiona BannerHarrier and Jaguar sees a Sea Harrier suspended like a ‘captured bird’, according to the gallery, with a Jaguar nearby ‘belly up on the floor, its posture suggestive of a submissive animal’. It’s an arresting display.

Jaguar jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

There’s nothing else. Just the two jets, one stripped bare, flipped over and defenceless, the other hanging menacingly as if about to strike, both captured within the spare, classical surroundings of the art gallery.

Sea Harrier jet (detail) in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

I loved the simplicity of the show. With nothing to look at but the exhibits, I was soon lost in thought about what they meant, about the journey they’d made from manufacture, through use, to disposal and, ultimately, this display.

And, as with all experiences like this, it made me want to look at familiar things with fresh eyes. On show in the Science Museum’s Flight gallery is the first prototype that ultimately led to the Harrier, the Hawker P.1127, which first flew (half a century ago!) in October 1960.

Hawker P.1127 prototype jump-jet, 1960 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s a beautiful and terrifying craft, as Banner’s display brought home to me so strongly. A single jet engine with four swivelling nozzles enables the aircraft to take off vertically, hover, and fly forwards or backwards in a ballet of jet-powered precision – yet it’s a machine designed to kill.

Tough stuff – see both displays if you can.

One year, two hundred stories

Stories From The Stores is one year old today. Woo hoo!

Over the past twelve months, we’ve told 200 stories about science, technology, engineering and medicine as captured in our remarkable collections of objects, pictures, books and archives.

Our history – your history and mine – is embedded in the objects we’ve invented, made and used. Time flies, and we might forget this history if we didn’t collect stuff. Here, for instance, is a state-of-the-art aircraft flight exactly a century ago:

'Mr Gibbs Making an Evening Flight', July 1910 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Wonderful image – and worth remembering if you’re jetting off for a foreign holiday this summer. We’ve come a long way in a short time.

Here’s to the coming year – lots more stories from the Science Museum stores!

Taxi driver

I was working at our large-object store at Wroughton the other day, looking at some of the vehicles in our transport collection. One of them is a really lovely Renault taxi from 1910:

Renault taxi, 1910 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ain’t it just a peach? Anyway, on the train back from Wroughton I was reading a 1930s book by Herbert Hodge, called It’s Draughty In Front: the Autobiography of a London Taxidriver. I was amazed to find that in 1915, aged fifteen, Hodge got a job in a taxi garage that ran Renaults just like the one I’d just seen.

In the book, he provides a terrific first-hand description of the cars and what they were like to run.

“When the drivers arrived I was expected to start their engines for them – a heart-bursting job in those days, especially with war-time petrol… I soon acquired the knack, learning to ‘dope’ the cylinders with petrol, and heat the plugs on the gas-ring, and all the other dodges necessary for those ancient engines.”

He went on:

“The most difficult knack to learn was the sharp pull to start the Renaults. The first time I got it, I gave such an almighty jerk, I brought the open bonnet down on my head. But I started the engine.”

I love finding these first-hand accounts of what new technology was really like, especially relating to stuff we’ve got in our collections. I feel genuinely closer to our Renault taxi having read Hodge’s words, and next time I visit Wroughton, I’ll be all over that car, imagining Hodge struggling to start the engine back in 1915.

Hodge was a very interesting character in other ways. More on that another time…

Killer snakes, steel knots and a silver laboratory

In my last post I showed you a section of gun barrel flattened cold by a steam hammer. Spectacular demonstrations of engineering muscle have often yielded cool Science Museum exhibits, and I thought you might like to see another one on show in our Making the Modern World gallery:

Knot of steel, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is a knot, tied cold, formed by a pair of inch-diameter rods of steel. It was made in 1885 at the Steel Company of Scotland, Glasgow, and comes from a collection of 3,700 metallurgical specimens put together by Dr John Percy FRS. We bought the collection upon Percy’s death in 1889.

John Percy, English metallurgist, 1859 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Percy was the inaugural Professor of Metallurgy at the School of Mines, the first government-backed technical higher education establishment in the UK, and taught there from 1851 to 1879. Here’s his laboratory:

John Percy's metallurgical laboratory, 1877 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Percy had made a name for himself in the 1840s for a new method of extracting silver from ore, which went into widespread use. He went on to develop new ways to make steel, improving Bessemer’s process.

His collection was eclectic, to say the least. While reading through the files in order to write this blogpost, I saw that another of the items in his collection was a box of boa constrictor dung, used as a fuel for smelting. Ingenious…

The School of Mines ended up as part of the Department of Materials at Imperial College, next door to the Science Museum. You can read the history of the school in a super booklet written by Imperial’s wonderful archivist, Anne Barrett.

And if you’re going there to study this autumn, do drop by and see us.

Liquid steel and an underground time machine

My attention was drawn last week to an incredible set of photographs taken recently in Notting Hill Gate underground station, during refurbishment. They show a deserted passageway sealed up in 1959, with advertising posters surviving untouched to this day:

Hidden lift passage, Notting Hill Gate station, 2010 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

The full set, by London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage, Mike Ashworth, are on Flickr. One of them advertises the Science Museum’s then-new Iron and Steel gallery, depicting a Bessemer steel converter in mid-pour:

Science Museum 'Iron and Steel Gallery' poster, Notting Hill Gate station, c.1959 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

I’ve spoken before (in posts about Barrow-in-Furness and Bessemer) about our 1865 converter. It’s now in Making the Modern World but back in the sixties it was in Iron and Steel, as shown here:

Science Museum audioguides, 1961 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

(Hand-held audioguides aren’t a recent museum phenomenon. We were trying them out in the sixties!)

In front of the converter you can see a flattened metal ring. It’s a section of round gun barrel, squashed flat by a steam hammer. It was done cold, and there’s no cracking.

Section of Bessemer steel hammered flat, 1860 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was a demonstration carried out by Bessemer in 1860 to show the superb ductility (flexibility) of his steel, which made it such a useful material – giving us longer bridges, bigger ships, taller buildings, stronger machinery and rails to take heavier and faster trains. You can see it in Making the Modern World, too.

Iron and Steel was replaced in 1995 by our current Challenge of Materials gallery.

(Thanks to Mike Ashworth and London Underground for sharing their pictures.)