Author Archives: Merel van der Vaart, Associate Curator Public History

Unpacking bags of Science: Diamonds in the rough

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts where we have been exploring the lives of our ancestors by looking at a collection of tool bags from the Science Museum’s collections. This time we will be looking at the mining industry. We might think we’re fairly familiar with the tools of the mining trade, with the Davy lamp and pickaxe especially being mining icons. But do you know what kind of instruments mining engineers would use?


Mineralogical test kit (Science Museum)

Mining engineers played (and still play)  an important role in the consultation of almost every stage of a mining operation. They first analysed the potential of a mineral deposit, and then determined the profitability of a mine.

When the minerals had been successfully extracted, this mineralogical test kit was used to perform a mineralogical analysis in order to identify mineral species and understand their characteristics and properties. In order for a substance to be classified as a mineral it had to pass a series of tests, and this kit contains the tools needed for mineral testing, including a blowpipe, tweezers and chemicals.

The flame test indicated the identity of the substance being tested by the colour of the flame it produced. For example, a potassium compound burns with a lilac flame. Blowing through the blowpipe over a candle providing a heat source produced a tiny area of intense heat on a charcoal block, and created the right conditions for separating metals from their ores. After the process of mineralogical testing had taken place, this Tutton’s goniometer for cutting, grinding and polishing minerals may have been used. It was manufactured by Troughton and Simms, London c. 1894, and designed by Mr. A.E. Tutton.


Tutton’s goniometer (Science Museum)


Unpacking bags of Science: A snapshot in time

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

These days most of us have a camera the size of our mobile phone. We can effortlessly take pictures of anything and everything, but what role did photography play in the lives of our ancestors?  In this second of a series of blog posts, we will continue to explore the lives of our ancestors by looking at bags from the Science Museum’s collections.

Our ancestors’ photographs tend to look very formal. The family members are often positioned according to age, sex, height and importance. These photographic records may tell us tales about those in front of the camera, but what do we actually know about the people behind it?

Early compact and portable camera in its bag ca. 1885. (National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

This camera was made by George Hare, who was born in York around 1828 (d.1913). It doesn’t use film, but a separate glass plate for each negative. To adjust the focus the photographer had to change the distance between the lens and the glass plate by extending or collapsing the bellows. This camera design was advertised at the time as ‘the best and most compact camera ever invented.’

Originally, George Hare was a cabinet maker trained by his father. After setting up his London-based cabinet business, George switched to camera manufacturing. From 1876 until his death, Hare’s company address remained at 26 Calthorpe Street, London.

The camera unpacked from its leather bag ( © National Museum of Photography, Film & Television / Science & Society Picture Library )

Despite his camera manufacturing business doing well his son (and apprentice) James “Jimmy” Hare (1856-1946) thought it could be doing better. Jimmy believed that his father should start making smaller hand-held cameras, which were just becoming technologically feasible. Photographic film was first patented by George Eastman in 1884, and made popular with his Kodak camera of 1888. Along with shortened exposure times and the mechanical shutter, this changed the nature of photography.

Photographers could leave their studios and record events instead of carefully arranged scenes. And this was exactly what Jimmy was interested in. Jimmy left the camera manufacturing industry to become a free-lance photographer, and later became one of the world’s leading photojournalist during five major wars, from the Spanish-American war to the First World War. So in a way the lives of George and Jimmy are part of a bigger story about the technological advancement and rising popularity of photography. How are the lives of your ancestors intertwined with the history of science, technology, engineering and medicine?

Unpacking bags of Science: The Voices of Science

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

The Science Museum’s collections embody stories about the people that created, used or manufactured them. By looking closely at our objects, we can unpack a wealth of information about them.

Gramophone records containing scientific lectures (Science Museum)

Preserved in leather and aluminium casing, these gramophone records have on them lectures by three leading scientists of the 20thcentury: Archibald Vivian Hill (1886-1977), Sir Charles Lovatt Evans(1884-1968) and Yngve Zotterman (1892-1982). All three worked at University College London for part of their careers.  Each scientist focused on a different aspect of physiology. Hill was interested in biophysics, Lovatt Evans in the chemistry of the body and Zotterman on nerve conduction and the sensory functions of the skin including tickling.   

Hill's lectures ( Science Museum, London )

The record was made by Columbia Graphophone Co Ltd for the International Educational Society of Petty France in Westminster, London. Hill’s lecture on ‘The Muscle and Its Energy’ was number 65 in a series that included lessons on Latin.  Although they may not resemble a conventional tool bag, they were the tools of the trade used by scientists at the time. For example, scientists used gramophones to record their lectures whilst teachers, students and researchers  used them to help them teach or learn about science.

These objects were donated to the Science Museum's collections by the Department of Physiology at University College London. (Science Museum)

By looking at objects we soon discover the tales of the people related to them. So, what can objects tell us about our ancestors? After all, objects become so much more meaningful when they are personal to us by relating to our families.  In this series of blog posts we will be exploring the lives of our ancestors by looking at a series of (tool) bags from the Science Museum’s collections.


If the shoe fits…

This post was written by Amy Charlton, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

Pedoscope (Science Museum)

Where do you think you might find this object? Known in  Britain by the trade name ‘Pedoscope’, this was a familiar object in shoe-shops of the mid 20th century. The machine produced an X-ray of the customer’s foot inside a shoe to ensure shoes fitted accurately, which both increased the wear-time of the shoe and with that, the reputation of the shoe shop.

The customer placed their foot over an X-ray tube contained within the wooden base of the Pedoscope. From this, a beam of X-rays passed through the foot and cast an image onto a fluorescent screen above. The screen could be observed via three viewing points – one for the shoe-fitter, one for the customer, and one for a third party (usually the guardian of a child being fitted). The accommodation for three viewing points may seem a little extravagant, but it may be an indication of the popularity of the Pedoscope and the interest the public had in the machine.

 The entertainment value was unprecedented but there was a darker side to the Pedoscope. Think about how careful we are with X-rays today to avoid the health risks associated with radiation. As early as 1950, the British Medical Journal wrote of the risk of direct radiation for customers, and the dangers facing shoe-fitters from scattered radiation. Trade literature issued by The Pedoscope Company called these concerns ‘fantasy’.

"Service, expected appreciated" advert (Science Museum)

One of the primary concerns was that no record was kept of the number of exposures a person received, so there was no way of regulating this. Consequently, in 1958 the Home Office necessitated that the following notice be mounted on each machine near the viewing point: ‘Repeated exposure to X-rays may be harmful. It is unwise for customers to have more than twelve shoe-fitting exposures a year.’ In the same year, the Medical Research Council published this statement: ‘We hope that the use of X-rays in shoe-fitting will be abandoned except when prescribed for orthopaedic reasons.’

Despite the awareness of the health risks of the Pedoscope, it was not until the 1970s that the Pedoscope faded from view. Perhaps this is telling of the unparalleled entertainment value that this innovative (yet precarious) use of modern science and technology had upon the public at the time.



In search of the beat

One of my favourite objects in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition is the TB-303. Marketed in the 1980s as a ‘base accompaniment’ for solo musicians it failed to impress. As a consequence TB-303s soon became available on the second hand market, where they were picked up by inventive DJs creating a new type of sound know as House in cities such as Detroit and Chicago. By pushing the TB-303 to its limits they found a unique ‘liquid’ sound that became the signature sound of Acid House. Together with the TB-303, drum machines played a pivotal role in the development of House music. Today there are few music genres that don’t use electronically produced drum sounds.

Roland TB-303 synthesizer on loan from the Museum of Techno (Credit: Science Museum)

In our sound (re)production stores at Blythe you can find two big wooden boxes. They are very early ‘rhythm accompaniment’ instruments. Much like the TB-303 they were intended to accompany solo musicians. But unlike the TB-303 both instruments are not purely electronic devices, they have mechanical parts as well.

Chamberlin Rhythmate in storage at Blythe (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The oldest of the two is a Chamberlin Rhythmate . It arrived on the market in the late 1940s, but was never very popular. It is a bit like a tape machine playing a pre-recorded drum rhythm on loop. Instead of one tape, there are fourteen. By moving the tape head from one tape to the other you can switch between rhythms. You can also speed up the tapes, or slow them down to change the tempo.

Wurlitzer Sideman in storage at Blythe House (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The other box is the aptly named Wurlitzer Sideman . This was built some ten years after the Rhythmate and doesn’t use pre-recorded material, but creates the sound electronically. Metal brushes attached to an arm sweep around a circular base, touching little contacts as they go along. When the brush and contact are connected, a current is sent to one of a number of sound-making circuits. The type of circuit that is activated decides the type of sound that is created. The speed at which the brush goes round defines the tempo.

It has been said that one of the founders of a well known company producing synthesisers and drum machines was inspired by the Sideman to start making his own drum machines. The company produced many popular instruments, but one of them initially didn’t do very well. It was called the TB-303.

The doble and the seagull

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit. Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

This is the last of my short series of posts about displays from the former British Small Craft exhibition at the Science Museum, which is now being moved to storage after a remarkable 50 years on show.

The doble model and the seagull, peter-boats and dobles showcase (Image: Science Museum)

Apart from sounding like the name of a real good old-fashioned pub, or the beginning of a joke, the above title can also be associated with this scene of a chap leaning over the hull of a Medway doble while a little seagull perches on a mooring post nearby.  This 1:4 scale model was part of the peter-boats and dobles showcase.

The doble and seagull from a different angle. (Image: James Fenner)

This little boat type was used to catch sprats with netting, and each doble was fitted with a wet-well (a well of river water built into the hull to keep the catch fresh).  They were very popular with River Medway fisherman.

Our model was purchased by the museum from a pair of gentleman who had bought it from a boat-builders in Strood (across the river from Rochester) in 1934. In the later 1960s when the model was put in a landscape setting of its own as part of the new Shipping Gallery, it turned out there were some problems of scale when it came to the inclusion of both a human figure and a seagull:

Detail of the troublesome model seagull (Image: Science Museum)

In this display showing small craft of the Thames estuary there is a realistic setting for the Medway doble model and as the scale of this model is very different to that of the other two [models in the case], a scale human figure & a sea gull are included. I might add that there was some argument about the size of a sea gull and the Museum illustrator ended up in the Natural History Museum with a stuffed sea gull to measure.’ (Bathe, Assistant Keeper, 1961)

This model and display has a particular significance for me because I’m originally from Rochester in Kent and know the River Medway very well. I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts on the British Small Craft exhibits – I am certainly enjoying researching them. Thanks for reading.

Oar-some boats!

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit.  Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

I recently told you about the tiny gun-punt model that was on show in the British Small Craft exhibit at  the Science Museum, now closed to make way for a major new gallery on communications. Today, I’ve got three models from the sea boats display to show you: the cutter, gig and lifeboat.

The sea boat models (cutter, gig and lifeboat) formerly shown on the mezzanine of the Shipping Gallery (Image: Science Museum)

The cutter model represents the general utility boat used by the Navy and carried on their warships at the beginning of twentieth century. The label explains that it is clincher-built (overlapping plank construction) and ‘is very much heavier, both in design and construction than a gig.’

Detail of the cutter (Image: Science Museum)

It goes on to say that it was pulled by 12 oars, six aside with each oar equalling one man.  But if you look closely at the model you see that it actually has seven rowlocks down each side making 14 in total, not 12.  This model, along with the gig, was lent to the museum by a Lieutenant Colonel H Wyllie in 1934.

Detail of the gig (Image: Science Museum)

In comparison, the gig (as a boat type) was lightly built using the carvel building method (plank edges fused together side-by-side) creating fine lines for speed. This model represents a captain’s gig used in the Navy at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Because it was a more elegant and lightly built craft it needed fewer men to pull it along, hence the six visible metal rowlocks – three on each side.

Detail of the ship’s lifeboat and the ‘davits’ (Image: Science Museum)

This model of a ship’s lifeboat is shown ‘on davits of a quadrant type, patented by Mr A. Welin in 1900’ as the accompanying label explains.  Axel Welin was a Swedish inventor and industrialist who founded his own engineering firm, the Welin Davit & Engineering Company Ltd.  The model shows his quadrant design for the davits – with the horizontal mechanism movement – which meant that a life boat like this could be lowered quickly and safely over the side of a ship in an evacuation.

 I’ve one more British Small Craft story to share with you – watch out for my final post.

Gun-ho with a punt!

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit.  Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

The river and sea boats showcase, British Small Craft display (Image: Science Museum)

This little model doesn’t look like much but it represents a small boat that packs a punch!  At 1:24 scale, the model represents a canoe-like craft with a flat bottom and a maximum width of the hull just forward of the middle section.  This extra width was necessary to accommodate the eight-foot gun mounted to the hull which essentially acted as a gigantic one-shot shotgun.  As the accompanying label says, ‘this type of craft … is employed on shallow waterways for stalking and shooting wild fowl.’

A close up of the gun-punt model on display. (Image: James Fenner).

Essentially, what you would do is paddle up quietly to your quarry (a flock of wildfowl) in a marsh or river, under the camouflage of the reeds, lying prone.  The gun would be primed and ready for action, with the two-inch barrel rammed full of a pound of shot and charge. You would tap the side of the hull; the flock would fly up startled and … BOOM! You’d open fire.  If you were lucky you could hit as many as 50 birds in one go. 

The recoil was so powerful and violent it sent the boat backwards for several yards. This meant that the gun had to be fixed to the hull which, in turn, meant you had to manoeuvre the punt to aim again.  Unfortunately, as well as the risk of missing altogether there was the added problem that you had to take the vessel back to shore to reload.

More on the British Small Craft displays in a future post.

Reel to reel

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

Ferrograph reel to reel tape recorder model 4A, c. 1960 (Science Museum, London)

Tape-players and tape-recorders were perhaps the most important instruments for many of electronic music’s pioneers, and for the staff of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in particular. With few electronic instruments existing, early sonic explorers were forced to adapt and abuse existing technologies, and practices such as tape-splicing soon became vital tools in the search for new sounds. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically for most musicians and electronic instruments and equipment have become ever more accessible and affordable. Or at least, this has been the situation in Western Europe. Many other areas of the globe have not always had such luxuries.

Latvian DJ Mr Tape during a 1991 DJ set

For dance music fans in the USSR of the early 1990s, records and decks were prohibitively expensive, if you could even find them. In Latvia several inventive young DJs turned to reel to reel tape players in order to make their own home-brew techno and house music. Modified tape-players were combined with Western dance and hip-hop songs recorded onto tape from the radio or smuggled records to create black-market dance music. The end results were some of the most inspiring examples of against-all-odds creative ingenuity seen since Daphne Oram and co. first tape-spliced.

The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone (Part Two)

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

Last week we looked at a curious fire-powered organ invented by Strasbourg’s Fréderic Kastner in 1873. For part one of The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone click here.

Pyrophone, 1869. (Science Museum, London)

The instrument wasn’t a great success, but Kastner’s family connections brought it a certain amount of acknowledgement.  While he “was not a distinguished physicist …he had a rich and influential mother who, it has been said, encouraged him in the development of the pyrophone in order to provide him with an occupation that would keep him out of mischief”. Amongst Mme Kastner’s acquaintances was Henry Dunant, the Swiss social activist who had founded the Red Cross, inspired the Geneva Convention and who would later become the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. While down on his luck in the mid-1870s, Dunant accepted a 50,000 Franc commission from Kastner’s mother to take the pyrophone abroad and use his eloquence, persuasive skills and social connections to promote the instrument. Dunant managed to secure the chance to demonstrate the pyrophone at the Royal Society of Arts on the 17th of February 1875, where he demonstrated the instrument with Lack’s God Save the Queen after introducing it with a flowery speech:  “The sound of the pyrophone may truly be said to resemble the sound of the human voice… like a human and impassioned whisper, as an eco of the inward vibration of the soul, something mysterious and indefinable, besides, in general, possessing a character of melancholy, which seems characteristic of all natural harmonies”.

Bronze medal to commemorate J. H. Dunant (front) 1908-1920 (Science Museum, London)


Even with Dunant’s help the pyrophone was not a great success, and the promotional tour soon faltered. The instrument itself had also started malfunctioning and so Dunant donated it to South Kensington Museum, the original incarnation of the Science Museum. Dunant moved on to other projects and Kastner sadly died an early death in 1882. Since then the pyrophone has grown in fame a small amount and has even been exhibited and played occasionally. However, in recent years the original instrument has simply been sitting in the Science Museum’s stores, patiently awaiting its chance for a shot at the Christmas Number One. Occasional attempts to recreate or redsign the pyrophone and similar “fire organs” have been made, but none of them quite match the elegance of Kastner’s petite slice of 19th Century insanity. Peckham’s Experiment 1 have made some interesting artworks using similar ideas.

And what’s more they have even provided some good sound and video files, so you can even hear Monsieur Kastner’s instrument in action! Sort of.