Author Archives: Tim Boon, Chief Curator

We have also sound-houses…

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet…”

Daphne Oram, founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, returned time and again to this quotation from Francis Bacon’s 17th century fantasy, The New Atlantis.

Now, with help from our friends at Goldsmiths College, we have been able to acquire the machine that was fed by these fantasies, “The Oramics Machine”, as she called it.

Input device for Oramics machine, before conservation (credit: Tim Boon)

Listen! That’s Daphne herself showing off just some of the sounds that this extraordinary beast could produce.  

Oramics Machine sound generator cabinet (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

People like to say that things are unique. This one really is - there was only ever one. Daphne operated it by painting on the ten synchronised strips of 35mm film that used to run across the top of the machine. Via light-dependent transistors this produced voltages that controlled the sound generators in the white cabinet. These too were based on hand-painted waveforms:

Two waveform slides hand-painted by Daphne Oram, from her Oramics Machine (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

We have big plans for this unique machine.

We can report that it has been very carefully conserved by our experts and it’s going to go on display in the Museum later this year, surrounded by other gems from the Museum’s music and sound collections.

Nick Street has posted a video of the machine’s arrival in this country: Oramics by Nick Street. If you’d like to hear more about the project, keep an eye on this blog or e-mail us at: publichistory@sciencemuseum.org.uk.

Science on the telly

The Science Museum is formally over 100 years old.

The Science Museum's permanent building under construction, 1916 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Over the century since 1909, it has had to compete with more and more media getting-in on the business of popular science.

A hundred years ago, popular science publishing was already a big scene, as Peter Bowler shows in his enlightening new book, Science for All.

Radio came along in the 1930s, and soon featured science. But our biggest competitor really got into its stride in the 1950s, when television began to get seriously interested, long before even Tomorrow’s World .

BBC producers had heated arguments about whether to treat science in highly-crafted documentaries, or as topical live programmes in the studio or out in the scientists’ labs.

Very often, the same subjects have been treated in books, radio, television and the Museum. Sometimes the same people crop up on television, in Museum displays, and also behind the scenes. One example is Lawrence Bragg, the distinguished physicist.

Bragg served on the BBC’s General Advisory Council, where he worked hard to promote the cause of science broadcasts. He was also on the Science Museum’s Advisory Council in the ’60s. His Royal Institution Lectures were the first to be broadcast live in 1959. There is a rare opportunity to see him in action, in Before Horizon, a special showing at BFI Southbank on Monday 7th June. Why not make a day of it and spend the afternoon at the Science Museum?

Our displays include at the X-ray spectrometer used by Lawrence and his father William in our Making the Modern World gallery.

In space, no one can hear country music

If ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’, as the publicity for the film Alien says, then certainly no one can hear Country music. Except, that is, if they are in a spaceship.

Apollo Ten, 1969 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Outer space is a vacuum and – like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 crew – you can travel through it in a private capsule of sound. Each of the astronauts was allowed to take one tape on the mission, and Country music was the preference of two of them. Cowboy music. Music for opening-up a new frontier.

During the Apollo concert, July 2009 (Gaetan Lee)

Last year, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the moon landings, the Science Museum, with new music promoters Sound & Music, staged the first live performances of Apollo, the score to Al Reinert’s film For All Mankind. The arrangement was by Wujun Lee, and performed by Icebreaker with BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar – and that’s where the Country music comes in. Brian Eno - who created the music with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois – was very tickled by the astronaut’s choice, and so incorporated slide guitar into the sound.

BJ Cole (BJ Cole)

Apollo 10 Command Module, 1969

Apollo 10 Command Module, 1969 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Afterwards, excited punters paused in our Making the Modern World looking with renewed interest at our Apollo 10 capsule.

Now the Apollo concerts have broken free of the Science Museum’s gravity and have begun to appear in new orbits. Last weekend saw new performances at the Brighton Festival. Apollo will be performed at Camp Bestival (30 July) and Aldeburgh (23 Aug), before going on tour throughout the UK in the autumn.