Category Archives: Art

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.

I AM….

In Emily’s second post, find out about one of her favourite art pieces in the Science Museum

Sitting there, watching Listening Post, I was strangely mesmerised. The computer synthesised voices read out posts in different, monotonic keys, creating a calm chorus of gentle noise. I was completely hypnotised and probably could have sat there for hours… 

Listening Post at the Science Museum

Created by artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post is an art project which came to the museum in 2003. It displays small sections of live conversations from public internet chat rooms or bulletins. All the information is uncensored and picked up randomly from English sites so it could be anything. There are seven ‘scenes’ which do various displays on 200 tiny screens. Sounds from the real electronic world are also simulated like clattering of typing, the tone from an answering machine, and in some scenes, a calm, simple musical soundtrack will accompany.

My favourite scene was one where the computer voices read out single lines from a conversation, each one displayed on a new screen, eventually filling the entire display, each sentence designated to a screen on a constant loop. It was a pattern of sentences beginning with ‘I am…’ I was surprised at how much I smiled when the synthesised voice read out ‘I am happy,’ and I suppose I was touched at how someone, somewhere was happy. Along with this, there were some loops which had some rather amusing content and I was forced to hide my chuckle because the whole space was silent aside from the light clattering of changing text and the drone of the electronic voice.

Listening Post at the Science Museum ( Image Graham Peet )

The other scenes had different displays. One read out whole paragraphs of conversation, layering them and creating a harmonised symphony of undecipherable words. It was interesting to see that different ways people used networking. Meeting new people, talking to old friends. It made me feel small and insignificant, that these sections of text and words were only a miniscule fragment of what was out there on the internet at the present time. It also made me more aware that what I might be posting on the internet isn’t private and that it will remain there forever, imprinted on the walls of the World Wide Web.

‘Onward Ever’ – Sir Henry Bessemer 19.1.1813 – 15.3.1898

Sir Henry Bessemer, British inventor and engineer, 1880 ( Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

Sir Henry Bessemer’s motto summed him up – one who strived, faced and overcame obstacles to achieve a number of successes. These culminated in the invention of his process for the bulk production of steel in 1856. This development was to prove massively significant in the extension of the railways and in large construction.

Bessemer, born 200 years ago this month, sought the key process that would allow him to live in the lap of luxury.  His father, Anthony Bessemer, also a successful inventor, encouraged his son’s interest in things mechanical and gave him the freedom to explore his own ideas from the early age of 17.

Early in his career, Henry Bessemer made a fortune from his mechanised process for making bronze powder, previously made in a laborious manual process fiercely protected in Germany, and sold at a high premium. Bessemer took great steps to maintain secrecy, including employing his three brothers-in-law to oversee manufacturing.

Later, Bessemer applied himself assiduously to a method for producing good quality malleable iron in quantity, and eventually high quality steel. On 24 August 1856 he presented his method to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in a paper entitled “The Manufacture of Iron without fuel”.  Later he commented that he should have waited until the process was reliable. He had to overcome early problems with poor quality steel due to high quantities of phosphorus in the iron ore used – an issue later resolved by Sidney Thomas Gilchrist. Robert Mushet also offered improvements to the process by his numerous experiments to control the amount of carbon in iron ore. Although Bessemer rejected his claims, he agreed to pay Mushet an annual pension of £300 a year for an undisclosed reason – perhaps to avoid troublesome litigation.

Pilot Bessemer converter, 1865 ( Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

Despite the Bessemer process rapidly gaining international recognition, notably in France, Belgium and North America, Bessemer had a tougher time gaining in acceptance in Britain, in particular with the War Office and the Admiralty.

Never one to let a perceived injustice or lack of recognition go without a fight, in 1878 Bessemer wrote to the Times and to the entire cabinet, including the Prime Minster, Lord Beaconsfield, about his important role, in 1833, of inventing a way of stamping state documents that could not be open to fraud. His contribution was finally recognised with a knighthood conferred by Queen Victoria in 1879.

Bessemer and the Royal Family, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, 1875 ( Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

As to his invention of the Bessemer process for bulk production of steel – it seems inevitable, understanding his character of steely determination combined with hard work, wide experience and enormous intellect, that he would be able to look at an area outside his direct area of expertise, approach it with an open mind, not be hidebound by received practice, and finally find a satisfactory solution which was to have a worldwide impact

History Carnival 116

Something a bit different from Stories from the Stores today – we’re hosting the History Carnival, and bringing you a roundup of last month’s blogs on history (and a few other links we just found interesting). Don’t worry – in true STFS style, we’re still illustrating it with objects and images from the Science Museum’s collections!

Slaughter, Shakespeare and squibs

November’s remembered for gunpowder treason and plot, for which Guy Fawkes suffered a traitor’s execution: hung, drawn and quartered. As Kathleen McIlvenna points out at the Royal Armouries blog, the more merciful swift beheading was reserved for the rich. Fawkes remains an iconic figure: Sheila O’Connell at the British Museum explores allusions from Macbeth to Occupy. The BM’s Shakespeare: Staging the World Exhibition, which has just closed, featured the lantern Fawkes was carrying on that fateful night (well, maybe) – you can see it on permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. And of course, the fifth of November is commemorated with fireworks. OxfordWords explores the origins of damp squibs, Catherine wheels and Roman candles,  while Rupert Baker showcases the Royal Society’s copy of John Babington’s Pyrotechnia and the Whipple Library Books blog explores John Bate’s The Mysteries of Nature and Art. Here’s another illustration from the Science Museum Library’s copy:

Fireworks on a rope between two trees, John Bate, 1635 (Science Museum).

 Furry faces and health reforms

In recent years, November’s also become associated with male facial hair, to raise awareness of men’s health. Curators, librarians and archivists worldwide haven’t been able to resist raiding their catalogues for moustachioed splendour: here are some bristles from Essex Record Office, Artinfo, Penn Museum and Europeana.

For some more impressive facial hair, here’s Edwin  Chadwick. As Vanessa Heggie shows on the H-Word, his sanitary reforms addressed the spread of disease, but not the suffering of workhouse inmates. Meanwhile, at the Quack Doctor, Caroline Rance describes how William T Davison aimed to provide wider access to patented medicines.

Edwin Chadwick (Wellcome Library, London)

American adventures

This November also saw the US Presidential Elections. While the Smithsonian’s curators have been busy collecting on the campaign trail, bloggers have been turning to past elections and presidents: JD Thomas at Accessible Archives compares voting rights across states in 1838, while at Victorian Commons James Owen charts how 19th century British MPs viewed proceedings across the Pond. We’ve seen two sides to Abraham Lincoln: the wartime President exerting his authority over General McClellan at the History Tavern and the grieving father sitting by his son’s body at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Meanwhile, Michael Kramer notes that though it’s tempting to try and use timelines to understand the narrative arc of folk music in the US, in reality history is much more messy

Abraham Lincoln, c.1840 (Science Museum)

And finally…

It seems appropriate for a History Carnival blog to close with two posts exploring how the web is changing the practice of historians. At the H-Word, Becky Higgitt celebrates 50 years of the British Journal for the History of Science (you can read past editors’ picks here) at a time when many are questioning how academic publications will adapt to an increasingly digital, open-access world. Meanwhile, Mia Ridge is looking for participants into her study of how online resources have (or haven’t) affected how scholars work.

Next month’s History Carnival is at The Recipes Project – see you there!


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?

Waxing lyrical

This post was written by Emily Yates, object conservator at Blythe House

As a conservator, it is always fun to work on weird objects, even the gory ones! This beautiful, if macabre, wax model will be on shown in the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at  the Museum of London, running 19 October 2012 until 14 April 2013. To get her looking her best before going on show I had to remove the layers of dust and dirt that had built up over the years and make a few cosmetic repairs.

This anatomical wax model shows the internal organs, the heart is entirely removable, made by Francesco Calenzuoli (1796-1821) ( Science Museum, London )

I gently removed the dirt layers using a soft brush and a detergent solution. Once the dirt was loosened it was carefully blotted away from the surface. As there are some many crevices this was a long, careful process, but was very worthwhile as it made the coloured wax much more bright and vivid. This change in surface brightness can be seen in the images where the intricate features are much more visible. 

The lower left side of the heart has been cleaned, revealing the much brighter red of the heart ( Science Museum, London )

Wax is highly fragile, as she was made in 1818 it was inevitable that some damage had occurred over nearly 200 years. Some fragments of the wax had become detached from the edges; these formed the skin flaps representing the peeled back surface. Areas of the folded back skin running along the edge of the torso have been lost over the years, but it was possible to reattach some of these, shown in the photo.

It was possible to reattach this fragment of skin; you can also see the improved clean surface of the wax ( Science Museum, London )

The veins are made of thread with a wax coating and so are very fragile. Some of these had become dislodged or even crushed. These were also reattached in place, and any flaking wax was consolidated to prevent further damage occurring.

This picture shows damage to the fragile veins and dust build up in the crevices ( Science Museum, London )

If you would like to see the model, she will be on display from tomorrow at the Museum of London along with several other objects  including post mortem kits, dissecting aprons, a piece of brain and even tattoos, all from the Science Museum’s Blythe House store.

Art at the coalface

This is undoubtedly our most famous painting: Philip J. de Loutherbourg’s 1801 ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, a noisome depiction of the industrial revolution in all its terrible glory.

P.J. de Loutherbourg, 'Coalbrookdale by Night', 1801 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Here are the ‘Bedlam furnaces’ in action – open coke hearths used for smelting iron, the visible face of a burgeoning coal industry. But if we dig a little deeper, we find a rich and little-known iconographic seam in the Science Museum’s art collection.

For one thing, what de Loutherbourg saw at Coalbrookdale was not all fire and brimstone:

P.J. de Loutherbourg, 'Colebrook Dale' (engraved by William Pickett), 1805 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

In this engraving, done only a few years after ‘Coalbrookdale’, everything is reversed: night has become day, the horse returns, and the sublime power of the iron works has transformed into picturesque calm. This is in line with much 19th-century industrial art; in the 1840s, for example, W. Wheldon produced the following two oil-paintings of collieries:

W. Wheldon, 'North Eastern coalfield: colliery pit-head and coking ovens' and 'Colliery and wagonway, Northumberland and Durham coalfield', both 1845 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Although he shows us the pollution at one colliery and the rough incursion into the landscape of the other, Wheldon’s pit-heads and coke ovens are undoubtedly clean and well organised, the elegant buildings perhaps even preferable to unruly Nature.

Attractive as these images are they don’t really tell us what life was like in the heart of the colliery, deep underground in the mines themselves. Such frank portrayals of the lives of miners are rare – it’s not easy to get access to a mine, much less to publicise its cruel machinations.

But amongst the Science Museum’s pictorial collections there is one such piece of documentary evidence: a remarkable set of amateur paintings, dating from the 1920s and ’30s, done by a miner called Gilbert Daykin. After each day at the pit Daykin would return home to paint from memory in his kitchen studio. Here is his 1934 ‘Thirst – The End of a Shift’, in which the deputy looks on dispassionately as one of his charges drinks from his 3-pint ‘Dudley’ flask:

Gilbert Daykin, 'The Dudley: Thirst - The End of a Shift', 1934 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

In all of his works Daykin shows the stoic miners, neither pitying nor lionizing them. Yet he was subtly polemical. Another 1934 painting is entitled ‘The Tub: At the end of the coalface’, and shows two men working in cramped conditions:

Gilbert Daykin, ''The Tub: At the End of the Coalface', 1934 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

The startling light and looming shadows create an impressive scene, an apt counterpart to de Loutherbourg’s grandiose ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’. But look closely and you’ll see that all is not well: the main crossbeam is cracking. The miner, his head touching the ceiling, is at risk of being crushed.

As Daykin said when interviewed for his exhibition: “I live in eternal dread of some injury to my eyes and hands. I am a specialist in dangerous jobs.” In 1939 Daykin was killed when the mineshaft he was working in collapsed.

The return of the ‘Green Peril’

Anti-absinthe poster

L'Absinthe c'est la Mort (Absinthe is death), 1905. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

After nearly a century’s banishment, one of the most notorious of all alcoholic drinks is set to return to its… er… spiritual homeland, France. Distinctively green and extremely powerful, sales of absinthe have been banned there since 1915.

Absinthe poster

Poster for Absinthe Robette, by Henri Privat-Livemont, 1896. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

Its geographical origins may lie in Switzerland, but absinthe is forever associated with the bohemian and artistic circles of Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not that it was a peculiarly French habit. With its main ingredients of fennel, anise and the herb wormwood, it was imbibed across much of Europe and the United States. Initially considered a drink of the aristocracy, ‘absinthe fever’ rapidly spread to all social classes during the second half of the 19th century.

Iced water dispenser

Dispenser for holding iced water to mix with absinthe, France late 1800s (Science Museum)

Nicknamed ‘the green fairy’, ‘the atrocious sorceress’ and ‘our lady of forgetting’, absinthe developed a fearsome reputation for mental and physical ruination. As such, it eventually became a public health cause celebre, its particular demonisation fuelled by virulent campaigning by temperance groups. They saw it as a easy target, whose abolition might be a first step towards the wider banning of alcoholic products.

Anti-absinthe postcard

Le peril vert (the green peril), postcard c.1910 (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

While its negative social effects and alleged hallucinogenic properties may have been overstated by those opposing its availability, it is a very strong drink. Alcohol levels are over 80% in some brands – twice the strength of whisky. 

And, at the height of its popularity, inferior versions started to appear which found a market among the more desperate drinkers. Just as gin became culturally linked with degradation and death in 18th century London, so absinthe did in the eyes of many Parisians by the end of the next. 

In France, the First World War proved to be a final tipping point in the campaign against the ‘green peril’. Portrayed as a threat to national efficiency at a time many thousands of Frenchmen were fighting on the Western Front, it was prohibited during 1915. Similar bans were applied in other countries around the same time.

Poster announcing ban

Proclamation banning absinthe, 1915. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

The ban was effectively lifted by EU regulations in 1988, but in France it could only be sold if it was not actually labelled with the name absinthe! The recent vote in the French Senate looks set to remove this anomaly so the nation can once more order a glass of the controversial drink Oscar Wilde considered “as poetical as anything in the world”.

A Royal Execution – Part 2

My post on January 21st marked the anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI. Clearly, January was a bad month for European monarchs historically, as the 30th marks the anniversary (the 362nd!) of the be-heading of another flamboyant ruler – Charles I of England – in 1649.

Charles I pendant

Pendant with a portrait of Charles I (Science Museum)

The battered little heart-shaped jet pendant amulet above commemorates this particular royal execution. It would have been worn as a piece of mourning jewellery and, like other memento mori, a reminder of death and the transience of one’s own life. But in featuring an image of Charles I the wearer was also making a political statement in perpetuating the memory of the king and the royalist cause. Such pieces, in a range of designs and materials, began to be produced and worn by loyal supporters from around the time of his death on into the Restoration period.

Reverse side of Charles I pendant

Reverse side of Charles I pendant (Science Museum)

But take a closer look at the back of the pendent and there seems to be a clear error. Atop a crudely engraved skull is the date “JANUARY : THE : 30 : 1648 :” – which is a whole year too early.

This discrepancy can be easily explained. In England, prior to 1752, while January 1st was considered by many to be ‘New Year’s Day’, the start of the civil or legal year was actually… March 25th.  As such, under this ‘Old Style’ of dating, his January execution date was recorded as having taken place in 1648. However, following the formal adoption of the ‘New Style’ of dating through an Act of Parliament, the date is now generally referred to as 1649.

What was Watt up to in the vegetable patch?

How many uses can you think of for red cabbage? Not as many as James Watt I’ll bet…

His friend William Nicholson wrote a Dictionary of Chemistry in 1795. The entry for red cabbage reads:

BRASSICA RUBRA – Mr Watt finds that red cabbage affords a very excellent test, both for acids and alkalis; in which it is superior to litmus, being naturally blue, turning green with alkalis, and red with acids.


Red cabbage used in chemistry [Science Museum / Science & Society

The description of how he prepared the cabbage leaves includes boiling them for several hours. No wonder Mrs Watt banished his workshop activities to the top of the house.


Mrs Annie Watt, James's second wife [Science Museum / Science & Society

Watt’s home at Heathfield near Birmingham was surrounded by gardens and parkland, so there was plenty of space for him to try out his ideas without disturbing the neighbours.

He made the most of the flower gardens, as Nicholson also remarks that he then checked out violets, scarlet roses and pink coloured lychnis for similar reasons.

He wasn’t the only one. Robert Boyle had investigated the use of similar colour changes for acid-alkali reactions in the 17th century. Watt’s chemical interests were both philosophical, and intensely practical – he tried a number of ways of turning science into money, including bleaching, dyeing, and making ink.