Author Archives: Keeper of Engineering and Technology

Hidden Histories of Information

Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, writes about the hidden histories of information. Information Age, a new £15.6m communication gallery, will reveal how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Our new gallery on information and communications technologies, Information Age, will open in Autumn 2014. It will look at the development of our information networks, from the growth of the worldwide electric telegraph network in the 19th century, to the influence of mobile phones on our lives today.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

One of the challenges of exhibiting the complex, and mostly intangible, world of information in a museum context is how you bring together the technology with the people involved and the information shared. The history of information is not just a neat history of devices. The telegraph instruments, radio and televisions, computers and mobile phones all reflect the material culture of information, but the history and future of information is much more complex.

One approach for dealing with this complexity is to look at how users, as well as innovators, have developed information and communications networks. Through personal stories we can connect visitors to the lived experience of technological change and reveal the significance of these networks to our ancestors’ lives.

As part of this approach we are conducting some new oral histories. We have recorded Gulf War veterans discussing their experience in 1991 of navigating around the desert both with, and without GPS. We have talked to the original engineers who set up Britain’s first commercial mobile phone networks for Vodafone and Cellnet in 1985. We will be talking to those who created and used the world’s first computer for commercial applications, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO 1) in 1951. We have also interviewed some of the women who worked at the last last manual telephone exchange in Greater London, the Enfield Exchange in North London.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

A lovely example of one account if this interview with Jean Singleton, a telephone operator who worked at a few different telephone exchanges, including Enfield when it was still a manual exchange. Jean left school at 15 when she started working for the GPO. Here she describes what made a good telephone operator.

We hope that detailed personal accounts like these will enthuse our audiences, reveal histories that are often not formally documented and show how centuries of ‘new’ information and communication devices have changed people’s lives.

Remembering computer memory

The British inventor of the magnetic drum store, Andrew D. Booth, recently passed away so its a good time to remember the significance of his work for computing today.

Andrew Booth was a physicist and computer scientist who became interested in the structure of explosives when he was working in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. After WW2 he moved to Birkbeck College, University of London, where he met the physicist J.D. Bernal and began to use X-ray crystallography to look at the structures of crystals. The process of crystallographic research required an enormous amount of numerical work and analysis, so Booth wanted to create a computer that could quickly crunch through the numbers. To do so he realised he needed reliable computer memory, so he set to work looking at the options.

Thanks to a donation from Booth himself in the 1940s, the Science Museum has Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store (1946) on display in the computing gallery.

Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store

Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store

It’s an ad hoc affair, with string and wires sticking out. Few people would have suspected at the time that it was to make such a major contribution to the development of computing. But during the 1950s and 60s magnetic drums were an important memory device for storing data and instructions. Even today, your computer’s hard drive is likely to contain a magnetic disk.

Booth worked tirelessly with his assistant (who later became his wife) Kathleen Britten, in what was often no more than a two person team with a shoestring budget. Together they produced some of the earliest digital computers in Britain, such as the All Purpose Electronic Computer (APEC). The design for the HEC computer was to become one of Britain’s best-selling computers during the late 1950s.

Micro Men

The 1980s race to create an affordable and reliable home computer was the subject of BBC4’s ‘Micro Men’ shown last night (and still on iPlayer). Chris Curry, co-founder of Acorn computers, and Sir Clive Sinclair were competitors but they were also close friends and they both did an enormous amount to bring the creativity of computing into British homes.

Our computing collections represent the incredible diversity of British machines at this time, from familiar computers such as the Dragon 32, ZX81 and the Oric 1, to unique computers such as our gold BBC Micro.

Gold BBC Micro

Gold BBC Micro

In March last year we invited the creators of the BBC Micro computer to the museum for a reunion to celebrate the team’s contribution to computing in Britain today. It was attended by ‘Micro Men’ producer Andrea Cornwall and some of the fantastic stories about Acorn that came out that day inspired the programme and the writer Tony Saint.

The creators of the BBC Micro computer

The creators of the BBC Micro computer

The legacy of the BBC Micro in developing the UK’s games development industry and the adoption of ICT in British schools and colleges is enormous. Technologically the BBC Micro also led to Acorn developing the ARM microprocessor. Benefiting from high performance and low power, ARM microprocessors are likely to be found in your mobile phone or ipod, and have been shipped in over 10 billion devices; more than one for each person on earth.

But we mustn’t forget the contribution of Sir Clive Sinclair, who created the first home computer under £100 and sold millions of machines into British homes.