Author Archives: David Rooney, Curator of Transport

Cruising for scientists

I commute to work most days by fast catamaran. It’s a delightful way to travel, and lets me see London from a different perspective.

Cruise ship at Tower Bridge, 7 June 2010 (David Rooney)

Right now there are lots of big cruise ships using the River Thames as a stopping-off point. One popular mooring location is a spot beside HMS Belfast, near Tower Bridge. Earlier this week, I spotted a ship there called Alexander von Humboldt:

The Alexander von Humboldt (detail) (David Rooney)

Humboldt was a German scientific explorer of the eighteenth century. He became famous for his journal describing his voyages to Latin America from 1799 to 1804 (available online at the Humboldt Digital Library).

There’s an English-language selection from his journal available, which is an exquisite read. It’s fresh to this day.

As with many ‘celebrities’, he was immortalised in art and material culture, and we’ve a fair bit of Humboldtian stuff in our collections, from portraits of him as a dashing young explorer to busts of him as a grand old man of science.

Alexander von Humboldt c.1806 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Celebrity’s a funny thing. For those who make it, their name can live on seemingly forever (even if on the side of a cruise ship). Yet many who carry out life-changing work remain obscure, their stories little told.

We’re working on a major new history of science gallery here at the Science Museum, which we hope will open in 2014. Right now we’re grappling with new ways to tell stories about the people and stuff of science, and we’ll be talking about our work as we do it, so watch this space (and others). Sadly, though, my idea of a curatorial team cruise on the Alexander von Humboldt  has been rejected. Curses.

Back from holiday, slightly flushed

I’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life…

Dundas aqueduct, Kennet & Avon canal (David Rooney)

Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals

Model water closet, c.1900 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to a great movement for the widespread supply of clean water and the provision of effective sewerage in every home.

Civil engineering dealt with the big stuff – pipelines, pumping stations and vast networks of sewers. People like Joseph Bazalgette are now well-known for their work in building Victorian London’s sewer system.

Our health curator, Stewart Emmens, has discussed this at length in his sewage blogpost and his hygiene blogpost, and our Making the Modern World website expands the story.

Joseph Bazalgette (Science Museum / Science & Society)

No less important was the new breed of sanitary engineer which grew up, designing the types of lavatories, basins and pipework that are so common today as to be almost invisible, although in the early days training in its operation was needed:

Hygiene demonstration cabinet, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But please don’t get me wrong. I’m just as appreciative of the engineers who enabled my rented canal boat to be fitted with that chemical toilet I mentioned. I shudder to think what the alternatives might have been…

Messing about in boats

As you read this, I’m away on a short break, taking my first holiday on a canal boat with some friends.

Canals can tell us a great deal about our history and our national identity. This scene, on show in the ‘British small craft’ display in our shipping gallery, contrasts the old and the new on Britain’s inland waterways in the 1960s:

Canal boats display, Science Museum (David Rooney)

A working barge features in the foreground, while a (then) modern canal cruiser sits behind.

This shift of use, from haulage to leisure, is a fascinating story in Britain’s marine history, and the rest of the display similarly sheds light on how we felt about our coastal identity back in the 60s, and how it sat in wider culture.

British Transport Films cameraman filming canal boat, 1950 (NRM / BTF / Science & Society)

We’ve got a really interesting vacancy at the moment. If you’re thinking of starting a PhD, we’ve got funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to pay for a doctoral student to study our British small craft display.

You can find out more about the project, being run jointly between the University of Nottingham’s geography department and ourselves, here.

If you’re interested, please contact Professor David Matless at Nottingham for an informal discussion. Closing date for applications is Friday 4 June, with interviews being held at the Science Museum on Thursday 17 June.

Meanwhile, if I haven’t accidentally fallen in the Kennet & Avon canal, I’ll be back in London next week. Now, does anyone know how to steer this thing?

Going for broker

Many seventeen-year-olds become very familiar with the world of insurance as they pick up the keys for their first hot hatch…

VW Golf, 1975 (David Rooney)

Few of us think about the system that sits behind our insurance policies, but everything in the transport world plays its part in a network of brokers, underwriters, syndicates and financiers – from passenger jets to fleets of reps, container ships to communication satellites.

Intelsat 6 communication satellite, 1989 (NASA / Science & Society)

Transport pioneers have long needed the services of insurers. One item in our archive is a 1907 insurance policy from Lloyd’s, ‘on the life of Charles C. Turner from the time of leaving earth at Crystal Palace in a balloon’.

Turner made it to Sweden and survived, which must have been a relief back in the Lloyd’s underwriting room at the Royal Exchange, London

Royal Exchange, London, c.1905 (NMeM / RPS / Science & Society)

A few days ago, our space curator Doug Millard organised a staff trip to meet a group of space technology insurers at Lloyd’s. Part of the visit included a tour of the remarkable building itself, designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 1986.

Lloyd's building, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building is amazing! The services hang on the outside, leaving the interior a vast volume uninterrupted by service ducts and lift-shafts.

Lloyd's underwriting room, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building’s scale befits the world of global risk-taking. But the work itself – brokers seeking insurance for their clients, meeting underwriters who’ll back the risk – is carried out face-to-face, as in the seventeenth-century coffee shop of Edward Lloyd, where the business started.

Back in 1907, Charles Turner’s broker sat with a Lloyd’s underwriter at a desk just like these in a building not far away…

Britain’s greatest machines?

Did anyone catch ‘Britain’s Greatest Machines’ on Five last Thursday? Chris Barrie is presenting a series looking at the evolution of engineering in Britain, directed by science documentarist Martin Gorst.

Much of what was talked about in the first episode, covering the 1910s, is represented (as you might expect) in the Science Museum’s collections. Back then we’d just become a fledgling museum in our own right and we were hungry to collect the very latest machines and inventions.

In the show, you see a Morgan three-wheeled cycle-car. At our store in Wroughton we’ve got this rather lovely 1914 model…

Morgan cycle-car, 1914 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Chris Barrie watched a replica of the Vickers ‘Vimy’ that crossed the Atlantic in 1919 with John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. See the original in our Flight gallery…

Vickers 'Vimy', 1919 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

And in our Making the Modern World gallery you can see a First-World-War Vickers machine gun like the one in the programme, alongside a model of a British Mark IV tank from 1917.

British Mark IV tank, France, c.1918 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

There are lots more than I can fit in here so why not watch the first episode on Demand Five here and then pop down to the Museum to see what you spot.

And if you want to find out more about the story of the Museum, we’ve just launched a new book, Science For The Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum. A remarkable institution – and an extraordinary century of machines.

Electric time

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of radio time signals. These days, we’re used to the familiar sound of the six pips on the BBC, and we can buy cheap quartz clocks and watches that get magically set right every day by distant transmitters, such as the British service from Cumbria.

Junghans 'Mega 1' radio-controlled wristwatch, 1990 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Whilst experimental radio time transmissions started in the late nineteenth century, it was in May 1910 that Paris’s Eiffel Tower was used to broadcast the world’s first official regular radio time signal (more in Peter Galison’s excellent book).

Eiffel Tower sheet music, c.1888 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Time-by-radio is just one aspect of a revolution in timekeeping that’s taken place over 150 years - the application of electricity.

Electric horology has had a huge impact on all walks of life, from marine navigation to domestic clocks, scientific measurement to clocking-on at work.

'Synchronome' electric master clock, 1930s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

And, as technologies like mobile telephony and satellite navigation converge in consumer kit we can buy on the high street, the future’s looking bright for electric time.

'Navstar' GPS navigation satellite, 1986 (NASA / Science & Society)

I’m chairing the fourth annual Greenwich Time Symposium next month, on Saturday 12 June, at the National Maritime Museum, in association with the Electrical Horology Group.

We’ll be exploring the theme of ‘Electric Time’ – at sea, at work, in the lab, in everyday life and in the future. There’s lots more information here.

Tickets are just £8 for the day, or £6 if you’re a member of the Antiquarian Horological Society. Maybe see you there…

Horse tram to Metro

I was up in the north-east at the weekend. It’s where I was born and brought up, so I have fond memories of the area’s transport network.

I was seven years old when HM The Queen opened the Tyne and Wear Metro system and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, in November 1981.

Metro train on Queen Elizabeth II bridge, 1993 (NRM / Science & Society)

Billed as the UK’s first fully integrated transport system, the Metro changed the face of travel in the north-east, and I still cherish my copy of the souvenir brochure from the launch. I was determined to be a Metro driver, back then. There’s still time.

I found this wonderfully nostalgic poster in the National Railway Museum‘s collection:

'Horse tram to Metro' poster, 1978 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

The area played a major role in railway history – Robert Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, for instance, was built in Newcastle.

Robert Stephenson, 1849 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These days, the Metro is operated by the German national railway, Deutsche Bahn, who last week announced they’re buying Sunderland-based bus and train operator, Arriva. They also own or part-own Chiltern Railways, Wrexham & Shropshire and London Overground.

It’s a complex business. More on the latest addition to the London Overground network soon…

Momentous motoring meeting in Manchester

It was on this day in 1904 that two men met at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, sparking a revolution in motoring. Charles Rolls met Henry Royce.

Charles Rolls (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Henry Royce (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls and Royce agreed to form a partnership, and by the end of the year they had made the first Rolls-Royce car. Rolls kept photographs of his products in a pair of albums, now in our Library and Archives at Wroughton.

You should go and see them in the flesh if you can, but to whet your appetite, here are some pictures of the first car, built in Manchester, on a trip to Dartmoor:

Rolls-Royce motor car, Dartmoor, 1904 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls-Royce motor car, Dartmoor, 1904 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls-Royce motor car, Dartmoor, 1904 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Lovely, huh? 

As well as the photo albums, we’ve also got a 1905 Rolls-Royce in the Science Museum’s transport collection, believed to have been used by Royce himself (read the full story here).

I’ve talked about it before, so if you want to know more, check out this previous post. And if you want to see the car itself, it’s now, very appropriately, on loan to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester.

The Tweed Run

As I’ve mentioned before, back in the Victorian age, the ‘ordinary’ bicycle, or penny-farthing, was the state of the art in cycle technology – and the height of fashion for brave men and women:

Lady and gentleman riding 'ordinary' cycles, 1874 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As with most fashions, this one seems to have come around again. Earlier this month, 400 cyclists dressed in Edwardian and Victorian garb converged on London to take part in the twelve-mile 2010 Tweed Run.

I couldn’t make it myself, but judging by the many pictures on the web, these YouTube videos, and this Guardian write-up, it looks like a super time was had!

Whilst some chose to go retro in outfit alone, others took part on vintage machines too, including quite a few ordinaries.

The Science Museum has a splendid collection of about 150 bicycles, from the earliest days to the present. As we wait for next year’s Tweed Run, I thought you might like to see a few more of our historic machines…

Bayliss-Thomas ordinary bicycle, 1879 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Windsor 'ordinary' bicycle, 1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Singer 'Xtraordinary' bicycle, c.1884 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These cycles, along with most of the rest of the collection, are in our store in Wiltshire. You can write to my Wroughton colleagues for an appointment if you want to study any of them, or if you want to see early cycles in historic context, come to the Science Museum and see the highlights.

Now, where did I put my plus-fours

Taking the Night Ferry

Well, it’s Wednesday morning and it looks like we might soon be able to stop sheltering from the sky.

With air travel still a problem as airlines attempt to return to schedule, fresh attention has been turning to the sea. The Royal Navy brought home some travellers on a warship, and demand for ferries has been high.

For passengers between the UK and France or Belgium, the Eurostar rail service has been a possibility (if you can get a ticket). Back in 1936, when the Channel Tunnel was a distant dream, a new train ferry service linking London and Paris was considered state of the art:

'The New Train Ferry Boats' poster, 1936 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Passengers boarded trains at London Victoria and disembarked at Paris Gare du Nord, fresh from a night’s sleep (give or take a carriage swap or two at Dover and Dunkirk, depending on the depth of their pockets).

The ‘Night Ferry’, as it was known, continued until 1980, when competition from airlines had got too great. Thirty years on, though, is it time to reconsider this slower, but perhaps surer, form of travel?

'Night Ferry' poster, 1959 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Air travel is a wonderful invention, in my view, but it’s not without challenges, and one big problem comes from relying on it to the exclusion of other forms of transport.

This week’s been a bit of a wake-up call. It’s forced us to remember that we’re a maritime nation, and whatever happens in the air, the ferries keep on sailing. We shouldn’t forget that fact once the ash cloud disperses, because who knows what might happen next?