Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

The man who named the clouds

Assistant Curator Rachel Boon looks at the pioneering work of Luke Howard, who died 150 years ago today.

Stare up the sky and what can you see hiding amongst the clouds?  Mythical creatures perhaps or maybe you neighbour’s dog chasing a ball. Spotting shapes in the sky is fun, especially on a sunny day. The amateur meteorologist Luke Howard looked up and classified these wisps of white, changing the course of meteorology forever. 

Luke Howard had been inspired by nature from a young age. Born in London in 1772 Howard developed his childhood passion and became an amateur meteorologist. He even built a laboratory at his home filled with instruments to analyse the weather. Even though his day job was manufacturing chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry, Howard’s scientific work changed the way we understand the climate around us.

Luke Howard blue plaque. Credit: Wikipedia/Acabashi

Luke Howard blue plaque. Credit: Wikipedia/Acabashi

Before the 19th century, many meteorologists thought of each cloud as unique, unclassifiable and in a state of temporary existence. Instead of strict descriptions clouds were recorded by colour or individual interpretation. This all changed when Howard presented his Essay on the Modification of Clouds to the Askesian Society in 1802. The impact of this work was immense, elevating the natural phenomenon to the realms of worthy scientific investigation. Founded in detailed observations, with a pinch of imagination, these cloud types were; cumulus, Latin for ‘heap’; stratus, Latin for ‘layer’, and cirrus, Latin for ‘curl of hair’. Words we still use today.

Luke Howard captured these transient phenomena in delicate, though scientifically scrutinised sketches. The Science Museum has a rich collection of these images in a range of medium from pencil to watercolours, with some on display in our Making the Modern World gallery. It has been argued by historians of art and science that Howard’s contemporary John Constable was influenced by this new meteorological theory and visible in his powerful landscapes. Not only did Howard’s images inspire great art but so did his published essays which stimulated the imaginations of the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Percy Shelly.

Watercolour sketch by Edward Kennion with cloud studies by Luke Howard c 1808-1811

Watercolour sketch by Edward Kennion with cloud studies by Luke Howard, c 1808-1811. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Even though Luke Howard was only an amateur meteorologist he believed strongly that developments in science depended on accurate data gathering. By taking daily observations of temperature, rainfall, atmospheric pressure and wind direction from his home in Tottenham, Howard became one of the first pioneers of urban climate studies. He published the first two volumes of The Climate of London deduced from Meteorological Observations at different places in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis in 1818 and 1820, followed by an extensive second edition in 1833. Howard noted the changes in weather religiously for over 30 years recording his results in tables and innovative graphics.

You can learn more about Luke Howard’s instruments in the Science in the 18th Century gallery as part of the Climate Changing Stories display.

Alexander Parkes: Living in a material world

Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technology and Engineering, blogs on creating a new display to explore the life and legacy of Alexander Parkes.

As an Assistant Curator, I get the opportunity to work with thousands of objects – from early supercomputers to model steam engines – to bring their stories to life. About eight months ago I started working on a small display celebrating an anniversary in science, technology, engineering or medicine.

Representing the scale of discovery, invention or the life of an important figure in science in a 2 x 3 meter showcase was going to be a challenge. Not deterred I thought this case was the perfect size to celebrate the life and work of the often forgotten 19th century inventor Alexander Parkes.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848. Credit: SSPL

Parkes was born 200 years ago last month (read more about him here) and contributed to a vast range of metallurgical and material developments. Awarded a whopping 80 patents, Parkes’ work ranged from electroplating works of art to developing the first semi-synthetic plastic, Parkesine.

Two gilt vases by Alexander Parkes, 19th century.

Gilt vases by Alexander Parkes. Made by Elkington & Co. Credit: SSPL

We wanted to show both sides of Parkes, one as Parkes experimenting in his laboratory, and the other as Parkes the talented craftsman. All the objects in the display show the interplay between these skills. The most eye catching and shiny object on display is an electroplated vase that Parkes made early in his career while working at Elkington and Co. in Birmingham. Next to that are bars of copper produced during the Parkes’ process, a method of extracting valuable metal from lead.

While working on the project I found Parkes’ legacy hiding around every corner, or at least painted on the walls.

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Bread Collective and the community of Hackney Wick worked together on The Walls Have Ears project to paint a mural celebrating the industrial history of the area. Why, you may ask is Parkesine, a Birmingham inventor’s miracle material, immortalised on a wall between wasteland and an Overground station? The answer is the Parkesine Company Ltd, opened in Hackney Wick in 1866 to commercialise Parkesine.

During the 19th century, desirable materials such as ivory, ebony and tortoiseshell became increasingly rare and expensive. A sustainable replica was required to meet the demand. Not only could Parkesine imitate expensive materials it also changed the face of consumerism and mass-produced goods.

Cheap to produce but moulded into the finery of the day – imitation ivory mirrors or tortoiseshell jewellery – Parkesine opened the door to people from all walks of life to be the proud owners of fancy-looking goods.  Analogous to today’s high street stores imitating designer clothes and accessories. We may proudly walk around in Pri-marni now, but Parkes was changing social aspirations over 150 years ago.

Despite Parkes’ enthusiasm and his ability to raise £100,000 (worth £10 million today) from the great industrialists of the time, the factory filed for bankruptcy after two years. Parkes’ desire to compete against natural rubbers and keep his investors happy affected the quality of the goods produced. There are records of combs deforming after a few weeks and other items exploding!

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

The final group of 14 objects on display reflect the range of objects Parkes made, from jewellery to cutlery, along with the enchanting variety of coloured pigments used.

One of my favourite objects is a toothed wheel made out of black Parkesine. If used, this small item was more likely to set your factory alight than run machinery! Parkesine is a combination of organic matter – cotton fibre – mixed with chemical nitrates, vegetable oils, camphor and alcohol.  When nitrates get hot they have a tendency to explode, so using Parkesine for anything that creates friction is asking for trouble.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860. Credit: SSPL

Lucky, the Science Museum also looks after the notebooks of Alexander Parkes in our Archives at Wroughton. Parkes’ scribbles in these notebooks shows more than just his dedication to rigorous experimentation. Imbedded between the pages listing chemical combinations are delicate sketches of British landscapes. This material, along with the objects in store was integral for the 3D and 2D designers without whom this case would not look so captivating.

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Image: SSPL

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Credit: SSPL

Producing a display like this is a team effort, with many departments helping to turn hours spent researching and rummaging through stores into a display for visitors. The workshops team were up at the crack of dawn to build and install the display and the conservation team were involved from the start to ensure the objects would be safely displayed. Finally, after months of writing and rewriting text, the ribbon was cut and my first showcase was opened.

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

A glimpse of Dalton’s life and work

To celebrate John Dalton’s birthday, Archivist Cecilia Cassingham delves into the Science Museum Library and Archives for a glimpse of Dalton’s life and work.  

Thermometers, barometers and atoms. The daily weather, and how his body worked. Our archives provide fascinating glimpses and insights into John Dalton and his work, which was based on careful and rigorous observation.

John Dalton, English chemist, 1814.

John Dalton, English chemist, 1814. Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

We see this in Dalton’s daily habit of recording meteorological data – for which he was also well known – and we have two of his journals, dating between 1803 and 1827. Dalton records daily weather data, including barometric pressure and general remarks such as “raining most of the day”. On his birthday, 6 September 1803, the weather was “fine and sunny”. Should you want to know more about rain in Manchester in the 1800s, the Meteorological Register is the thing to read!

Dalton's Meteorological Register, Manchester, 1816 – 1827

Dalton’s Meteorological Register, Manchester, 1816 – 1827

Of particular fascination is Dalton’s colour blindness and life as such a diligent observer. This booklet of coloured silk threads, was used by John Dalton to test his own colour blindness, includes columns for recording impressions of vision in daylight and by candle light.

Booklet of coloured silk threads, c 1825-1844. Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Booklet of coloured silk threads, c 1825-1844. Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Finally, in a fascinating letter in the collection, from Dalton to his cousin George Bewley of Whitehaven, on the 9 th of 4 mo 1790, that is, the 9th April 1790, Dalton expresses his desire to “quit his present profession as teacher and enter upon some other…”. He asks his cousin’s advice about his plans: “I wish to enter upon the study of physics and science”. In the same letter, he describes his experiment on himself “to determine a near as might be the quantity of matter discharged from the body by insensible perspiration …evacuations solid, liquid, perspiration…” – so that from this we are even given an idea about what he ate and drank : loaf bread, cheese, oat bread, meal, meat, potatoes; beer, boiled milk and tea.

The pride and passion of Mr Babbage

Cate Watson, Content Developer takes a look at the pride and passion of Charles Babbage.

Designing the Difference and Analytical engines was a monumental task, demanding dedication and extreme attention to detail. Both engines were made up of thousands of parts that required near identical manufacturing – pushing Victorian technology to its limits. And Babbage was determined to make the machines operate without any possibility of errors.

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage was very certain his engines would work. His passion for his machines kept him going despite numerous setbacks such as losing funding and the lack of acclaim or understanding of his inventions. Babbage continued designing engines until he died, absolutely sure that one day his work would be appreciated.

Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

And he was right. Nearly 150 years after Babbage’s death, our modern technological society can fully appreciate his genius in inventing the Analytical engine – a machine that embodies all the major principles of our computers – and the potential it had to change society.

Babbage passionately believed in his inventions and the importance of science. This uncompromising certainty made him highly critical of those who didn’t live up to his high standards. He published a scornful, sarcastic attack against the unscientific practices of the Royal Society. It was so shocking that Babbage’s friend John Herschel told him he would have given him a ‘good slap in the face’ for writing it if he had been within reach.

Babbage's Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage acted according to his scientific principles and succeeded in alienating the Royal Society – which had previously persuaded the Government to fund the Difference Engine. Babbage tried demanding more money from the Prime Minister, failed and lost all hope of further support.

Babbage’s uncompromising personality contributed to his failure to build his machines. Yet it was his unswerving dedication to science that made him continue to work beyond hope of realisation and produce the engine plans you can see on show in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.

100 years of stainless steel

Steph Millard in the exhibitions team looks back over 100 years of stainless steel, first cast in August 1913 by Harry Brearley. 

Today’s journey into work sets me thinking. Looking at the queue of cars ahead with their stainless steel exhaust systems I repeatedly glance at my wristwatch – with its stainless steel back – to check I won’t be late. To my right, the Canary Wharf tower – with its 370,000 square feet of stainless steel cladding – glints majestically in the early morning sunshine.

Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, 2007.  © Science Museum/SSPL

Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, 2007

Stainless steel impacts on our lives in so many different ways. But what exactly is it and who invented it? Well, as luck would have it, an important milestone is about to be celebrated. One hundred years ago, in August 1913, an Englishman named Harry Brearley reported that he had cast an ingot of low-carbon steel that could resist attack from a variety of acids including lemon juice and vinegar. He called it ‘rustless steel’.

Harry Brearley, 1871–1948.  © Science Museum/SSPL

Harry Brearley, 1871–1948. Image © Science Museum/SSPL

At the time, Brearley had been helping an arms manufacturer overcome the problem of gun barrel erosion caused by the release of gases when the weapon is fired. His genius lay in the fact that he could foresee the commercial application of his new material within the cutlery industry. After initial scepticism, manufacturers in his home town of Sheffield were also able to recognise the potential.

An early stainless steel knife made by Butler of Sheffield, c. 1915.

An early stainless steel knife made by Butler of Sheffield, c. 1915. © Science Museum/SSPL

The essential ingredient of any stainless steel is chromium, which combines with oxygen in the air to form a strong, invisible film – a protective coating on the surface of the metal that continually self-repairs whenever scratched or grazed. But Brearley was by no means the first person to investigate the addition of chromium to steel. In the century before his discovery metallurgists from across Europe and North America were also experimenting with iron-chromium alloys.

Since then stainless steel – in all its various forms – has gone on to find a home in the widest range of applications, as a walk around the Science Museum’s galleries will testify. Within our Challenge of Materials gallery visitors can admire a wedding dress made of stainless steel wire – the brainchild of British designer Jeff Banks – whilst in the Exploring Space gallery our J2 rocket engine can remind us that between 1967 and 1973 NASA used stainless steel in all 13 of its Saturn V rockets.

Stainless steel wedding dress, 1995. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Stainless steel wedding dress, 1995. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Smaller, but equally intriguing, is the stainless steel dropper on display in The Science and Art of Medicine gallery, which instils oils through the nose as part of an Ayurvedic detox therapy to cure head ailments such as migraine and sinusitis.

Stainless steel nasal dropper on display in our medical galleries, USA, 2004–05. © Science Museum/SSPL

Stainless steel nasal dropper on display in our medical galleries, USA, 2004–05. © Science Museum/SSPL

As we celebrate Brearley’s role in the history of metallurgy why not come along to the Science Museum and see how many different examples of stainless steel you can discover?

60 years of conquering Mount Everest

Dr Helen Peavitt, curator of Consumer Technology, writes about the technology behind sixty years of conquering Mount Everest.

At 11.30am, on this day (29th May) in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people in the world to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were part of the expedition team led by John Hunt. Despite the relative ‘ease’ with which the summit is climbed today by increasing numbers of people, the magnitude of the 1953 achievement cannot be underestimated. The mountain still maintains its mystique and reasserts its perilous nature during each climbing season, with an average of one death for every ten successful attempts on the summit.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks. Credit © DEA / BERSEZIO / Universal Images Group / Science & Society Picture Library

The infamous character of the Himalayan peak began in 1852, when George Everest’s Great Trigonometrical Survey of India established peak ‘b’ as the survey team first called it as the highest mountain in the world. Straddling Nepal and Tibet – both secretive, inaccessible countries at the time – it was perhaps inevitable that it would enter the imagination of many by providing another unknown, uncharted territory to explore. After the Tibetan government opened up the country to the British in the 1920s, attempts on the mountain’s summit from the north side by a rash of British-led teams began. The successful 1953 party scaled the mountain from the south side.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b'.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b’. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The Science Museum holds a number of artefacts from some of the more well-known attempts on the summit. These reveal both the very private and the public nature of climbing the mountain. Although Hilary himself commented: ‘Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it’, much of the equipment developed for the 1953 expedition used cutting-edge technology. For example, the Pye wireless equipment used, including the walkie talkie in the image below, was specially adapted by Pye for the extremes of weather and temperature experienced on the mountain. This enabled the team to receive broadcasts from the world outside and to communicate with camps up to two miles away.

Pye radio set used on the successful 1953 expedition.

Some of the Pye radio equipment used on the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

An oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shows how even the air we take for granted has to be supplied for most climbing teams at such high altitude. The oxygen levels above 8,000m in the mountain’s Death Zone, are so low that the body uses its store of oxygen up faster than it can be replenished by breathing.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Many of the other Everest-related objects in our collections are more personal items of clothing. There are butter-soft silk gloves and a pair of special lightweight double clinker nailed climbing boots from the 1933 expedition; and a fibre jacket from a 1978 climb – the first successful ascent without bottled oxygen.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Whilst these objects are all in the Museum’s stores, a lurid waterproof jacket and trousers by Karrimor, using Gore-Tex was worn by Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest on the 40th Anniversary Expedition in 1993; is on show in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

There’s also a pair of Indian puttees belonging to Dr Tom Longstaff from the 1922 expedition – the first which set off with the expressed purpose of reaching the summit. Longstaff advised against the expedition’s third attempt on the summit during which seven were killed by an avalanche. Many of these objects form poignant and intimate reminders of the very personal nature of climbing the most famous mountain in the world.