Category Archives: Communication

Our stormy Sun

Astronomers have announced that they can now track sunspots forming before the tell-tale dark spots reach the Sun’s surface.

The spots are caused by magnetic activity inside the Sun, and are associated with solar storms, massive bursts of material coming from our star. NASA recently released these staggering observations of our little blue planet being swamped by a sunstorm.

Better prediction of solar storms is vital to protect our communication, navigation and power systems. In 1859 the biggest solar storm on record zapped telegraph systems around the world, with some equipment even bursting into flames. Magnetic compasses went haywire. Aurorae lit up the sky. In today’s wired world, a big storm could be catastrophic.

In 1859, Richard Carrington observed a large group of sunspots, and two solar flares. The flares' path is marked A-C and B-D. This was one of the first observations of solar flares, which Carrington suspected were the cause of the disruption on Earth. (Science Museum)

Accurate space weather predictions would allow authorities to prevent the worst effects of a solar storm by taking satellites offline and shielding power grids. With changes in the Sun’s cycles of sunspot activity, this could become increasingly important over the next few decades.

Today’s solar weather forecasters are the latest in a long tradition of sunspot-spotters. Here are a few illustrations from our collections.

A 1612 illustration of Galileo's observations of sunspots. Galileo was one of several astronomers who independently observed sunspots with a telescope in 1610 (Science Museum).

James Nasmyth's painting of a sunspot, 1860, reveals the extraordinary detail visible through his 20-inch reflecting telescope (Science Museum).

This X-ray map of the Sun's active regions was based on photographs taken from the Skylab space station in 1975 (NASA / Science & Society).

While solar weather can be troublesome, here’s hoping for sunny weather of a different sort for the last few weeks of school holidays. Once again, the Great British Summer has been a bit of a damp squib. Some things never change…

Braving the chill on Brighton Beach in 1966 (NMeM / Tony Ray-Jones).

Celebrating Britain

The 3rd May marks the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. The Festival celebrated the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace as well as advances in British science, technology, manufacturing and art.

You won’t be surprised to hear that some of our objects were displayed there.

Rubber mat depicting the Crystal Palace, 1951 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

On first look, these fabric samples appear to be simple circular designs.

Festival Pattern Group, Manchester, England, 1950-1951 ( Science Museum, London)

To the trained eye however, the pattern is based on the structure of haemoglobin produced by x-ray crystallography. Art, science and manufacturing collaborated on the design – it’s not just a fashionable fabric.

X-ray crystallography was an important tool for scientific discovery - the structures of DNA, penicillin and insulin were discovered in this way.

From one x-ray method to another. This piece of kit is known as a cine-radiography set specifically for the chest and lungs. Instead of taking still images, x-rays are taken in the form of moving film.

Cine-radiography set, England, 1950-1951 ( Science Museum, London)

Although billed as a ‘technical progress of the British x-ray industry’ only two of these machines were ever made. This machine was developed in collaboration with Dr Russell J Reynolds (1880-1964).

Fans of the Science Museum will remember that the Centenary icon was the Russell Reynolds x-ray machine - his first one made at the tender age of just 15.

It’s not just show pieces that we have in the Science Museum’s collections. We also have memorabilia that could be bought by festival-goers.

Souvenir tumblers from Festival of Britain, 1951 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Maybe you have your own piece of the Festival of Britain at home? Souvenirs were available to buy – much like in museums and galleries today.

Batteries not included

What’s the one gadget you couldn’t live without? Your mobile phone, PDA, music player, game console – or all those things combined in a sleek smartphone?

No matter which device you choose, the one thing that all these gadgets couldn’t exist without is their rechargeable battery - the beating heart of the modern world.

The first rechargeable battery was the Lead-Acid battery, invented in 1859 by Gaston Planté, but it was the Nickel Cadmium battery invented in 1899 by Waldemar Jungar that really paved the way for the future of mobile technology.

The very early mobile phones used Nickel Cadmium batteries, but the batteries were so enormous they had to be stored in the boot of a car. As demand increased improvements were made and soon you were able to carry your battery around with you in a handy carry case.

Vodafone transportable mobile phone, 1985. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1983 the first stand alone mobile phone had been developed using the Nickel Cadmium battery the Motorola Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage (DynaTAC 8000X). By 1989 they could even fit in your pocket – though it might have to be quite a large pocket.

Motorola MicroTAC cellular telephone.

Motorola MicroTAC cellular telephone, 1993. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Today the battery that probably powers the phone in your pocket and the laptop on your desk is a Lithium battery, most likely a Lithium-Ion battery.

Introduced in 1990 these batteries have emerged as the best energy to weight ratio, meaning they last longer but weigh less, and they have enabled mobile phones to become smaller and smarter.

Sony Ericson T68i mobile phone, 2002. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The iUnit concept car in our Plasticity exhibition is proof that in the future lithium batteries could be used to power even more aspects of our mobile lives.

Toyota i-Unit concept car, 2005 (Science Museum website)

The year of the Rabbit

Whilst doing some research into the history of the mobile phone in Britain I made a discovery in the Museum’s collections that took me back in time. Back to when a pay phone was a useful piece of street furniture and the iPhone was but a twinkle in Steve Job’s eye.

The year - 1992.
The discovery - the Rabbit Phone.

The Rabbit Phone is a glitch in our technological past – a transitional invention that represented where technology was going, but not how the British public wanted to get there.


Rabbit telepoint telephone by Hutchison Personal Communications Ltd, 1993. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was one of a number of telepoint services that were available between 1989 and 1994, that operated on the basis of a domestic cordless phone.

You could carry around your lightweight Rabbit Phone but it would only work when you were within 100-200 metres of a Rabbit base station, advertised by a friendly white and blue sign posted in windows and on walls. What added to the frustration was that these phones could only make calls whilst on the move. Not very practical…

Rabbit Telepoint Sign in New Barnet Station, 2002. (BBC website)

Unsurprisingly the Rabbit Phone only attracted 10,000 subscribers and the network was closed on 31 December 1993. As a replacement, customers were offered an Orange mobile phone on the cellular network.

The Rabbit Phone could be considered one of history’s technological turkeys, but I choose to see the Rabbit Phone as a symbol of the mobile phone’s success rather than telepoint’s failure.

The rise and dominance of the mobile phone was so fast that it took everyone by surprise. Out of date before it was in proper use, the Science Museum’s Rabbit Phone is virtually unused.

Today telepoint’s legacy lives on, echoed in the wifi internet networks we now have in trains, cafes and bars.

Wifi Zone sign, 2003 - present (BBC website)

As this recent article in The Guardian shows these hotspots are becoming an increasingly useful and important part of our daily lives.

A Regal Recording?

This week I learnt about a mystery object in the museum’s collections – the mystery is not what the object is, but what the object contains.

Wax cylinder recording for use with a graphophone, c. 1888. Science Museum inventory number 1929-607 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

What you can see is a wax coated cardboard tube, similar in size to a loo roll, with three bands in the surface of the wax. The tube was used with a graphophone, a device invented in the 1880s which recorded sound in a similar way to a vinyl record.

Reproduction graphophone made in 1987 by Mike Field (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Museum acquired the cylinder in 1929, but without any way of playing it. The donor, a descendant of Samuel Morse, suggested that the cylinder had been used with a graphophone that was demonstrated to Queen Victoria in 1878, although he gave no clues as to what was recorded on the cylinder.

Research half a century later by technical writer Paul Tritton uncovered a letter that the Queen’s Private Secretary had written home to his wife in August 1888 about a machine that could reproduce sounds as often as you liked,

” Edwards whistled and I laughed – my ‘coachman’s laugh.’ “

He also wrote that

“H. M. [Her Majesty] spoke into it – but we told Mr Morse he must not go round the country reproducing the Queen’s words.”

These revelations spurred the museum to try and play the cylinder – with no idea what might be on it. With the help of the National Sound Archive, now the British Library Sound Archive, the cylinder was played for the first time in decades.

The three marked bands you can see on the cylinder are three separate recordings. The first recording was a man speaking and then whistling.

Whistled tune recorded on the graphophone, can you help us identify it?

One of the other recordings is unfortunately so damaged that it is impossible to make out any words. However, the second recording is about 20 seconds long, and although poor quality a few snatches can be heard of a well spoken lady saying, “Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten.” Could this be the voice of Queen Victoria? With only circumstantial evidence to guide us we can’t say for sure, and perhaps we will never know.

Listen here and make your own mind up.

To find out more listen to Punt, P. I. on BBC Radio 4, 2nd October at 10.30am for an interview by Steve Punt with John Liffen, Curator of Communication.

Space Debris

X3/Prospero thermal surfaces experiment

X3/Prospero thermal surfaces experiment (Doug Millard, 2005)

This box contains a flight spare set of experimental surfaces for the Prospero satellite that was launched in 1971. They were designed to tell scientists more about how different satellite materials and finishes – matt, shiny etc, would behave in the temperature extremes of space.

It has always reminded me of a much larger experiment flown by NASA (LDEF - which stands for Long Duration Exposure Facility) that was covered with all sorts of equivalent surfaces.

LDEF satellite during its six year stay in orbit

LDEF satellite during its six year stay in orbit (NASA)

The LDEF was brought back to Earth in the Shuttle and scientists discovered that its surfaces were covered with impact craters from micro-meteoroids.

Micro-meteoroid impact crater on the LDEF satellite

Micro-meteoroid impact crater on the LDEF satellite (NASA)

That was back in the 1980s but if the mission were to be repeated now it would almost certainly suffer many more collisions from the bits of space debris that we have put up there. There are thousands upon thousands of pieces of rocket and spacecraft circling Earth and it is becoming a big problem for satellite operators.

Computer representation of just some of the debris pieces orbiting Earth

Computer representation of just some of the debris pieces orbiting Earth (NASA)

At a meeting last week Air Commodore Stuart Evans RAF, Head of Joint Doctrine, Air and Space, DCDC, pointed out that ‘all nine sectors of the UK’s critical national infrastructure (communications, emergency services, government and public services, finance, energy, food, health, transport and water) all rely, to a greater or lesser degree, on space.

What to do about the debris problem, then? There is no simple answer at the moment and all the space players can do is ensure as little new debris is created as possible.

Prospero is still in orbit and next October scientists hope to re-contact it for its 40th anniversary. They won’t be able to examine those experimental surfaces but if they could I wonder what state they would be in now!

FM: No Static At All

Our car is still fitted with a cassette player. Albums from long ago (Steely Dan and Beatles are current favourites) provide regular entertainment on journeys and are also enjoyed by the younger members of the family. I suppose we should have moved over to a CD player or something more exotic still, but somehow it seems unnecessary while the cassettes hold out (now 25 years old plus and still working fine!)

8-Track audio tape

8-Track tapes like this one dominated the American in-car market between the 1960s and 1980s but were then killed off by the improved audio quality of the handy cassette. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I suppose the same can now be said of the car’s FM radio, given government Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s announcement last week that the digital radio switch-over will happen, but only when a vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

He went on to highlight in-car radio as one of the biggest challenges facing the digital switch-over. This because of the difficulty in receiving digital signals while moving at speed. Once again, why bother to spend money on new technology when the old still works just fine.  He threw down the gauntlet to the car manufacturers to work towards some solutions.

But, although we choose perhaps to forget it, this tendency to delay novelty in favour of that which already works is by no means uncommon.

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Take another domestic technology – the electric iron: it’s changed little over at least 70 years. Neither, by and large, has the basic form of the bicycle, now well into its second century of pedalling.

Rover 'Safety' Bicycle, 1885
Rover ‘Safety’ Bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And at the other end of the cost spectrum – we still use rockets adapted from 1950s inter continental ballistic missiles to launch satellites and probes into space – they exist, we know lots about them, they do the job – why fix things that aren’t bust?

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009 (NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall, Tom Farrar)

So novelty is no guarantee of successful innovation. Maybe Steely Dan had something to say about it in one of the songs we were listening to in the car: ‘FM – No Static at All.’

Blame the Satellite

Blame the manager, the ref, the team… I blame the satellite. Before the space age and communications satellites there was no live TV coverage of the World Cup and we could all get on with our work and jobs around the house and garden.

Robomo lawnmowing machine, 1966

Robomo lawnmowing machine, 1966 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

It was just another international sporting event covered by radio, recorded television reports and on the back pages of the newspapers. There was less tension, less hype and, to put it bluntly, less interest. Oh, how times have changed.

Master Football Game, 1945-60

With no live World Cup football on TV until the 1960s slot machines like this Master Football Game were popular, 1945-60 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Telstar relayed the very first TV pictures by satellite in 1962. The event was a technological triumph, a harbinger of near-real time global culture and, not least, the inspiration for one of the most distinctive pop records ever made.

First live TV transmission by the Telstar 1 satellite, 1962

Fred Kappel of AT&T speaks to a trans-Atlantic audience during the first live TV transmission by the Telstar 1 satellite, 1962

Telstar 1 Satellite (replica), 1962

Telstar 1 Satellite (replica), 1962 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Telstar, though, occupied an orbit that made continuous broadcast impossible. After a while the satellite would dip below the horizon and the signal it was relaying would be lost.

The development of more powerful space rockets allowed satellites to be launched to the far higher geostationary belt around the Earth’s equator. At an altitude of 36,000m, the satellites’ orbital rates match that of the Earth’s rotation so ‘anchoring’ them at fixed points above the horizon.

Today’s World Cup is being brought to our homes by a fleet of such communications satellitest that collect and distribute the action from South Africa to countries around the world.

BSkyB satellite receiving antenna

BSkyB satellite receiving antenna, 2010 (Doug Millard).

 This can then be beamed back up to a set of Direct Broadcast Satellites (DBS), also occupying the geostationary orbit, which relay them down to the satellite dishes that adorn our walls and roofs.

It is the DBS industry that has invested in the English football league and especially the Premiership, so helping make it the most successful domestic football league in the world. But that’s still no guarantor of success on the pitch…

Sound Advice

I set out to the National Physical Laboratory the other day and on my way down Exhibition Road passed an elephant.

Elephant Family appeal, Exhibition Road

Elephant Family appeal, Exhibition Road, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Some 250 of these colourful models are being positioned across London to raise awareness and funds for the plight of their living cousins. A little later something niggled at the back of my mind – as though that elephant was trying to tell me something – but I thought no more of it and caught a train for Teddington and the NPL.

This, I’m ashamed to say, was my first visit to the Laboratory, also known as the National Measurement Institute, where, for over a century, physical standards have been measured, studied, applied or all three.

Scientists at the NPL, 1932

Scientists at the NPL, 1932 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

It was International Metrology Day, May 20th - exactly 135 years since seventeen nations agreed to the metre as the fundamental unit of length. The original Metre, made from platinum and iridium, is housed in Paris but the NPL has one of the carefully guarded official copies. These days a Metre is defined by the distance light travels in a vacuum during 1/299 792 458 of a second.

NPL also does a lot on sound - acoustics - and I was particularly impressed by the Laboratory’s anechoic chambers.

Science of Acoustics, 1850

Science of Acoustics, 1850 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Now, while the Science Museum has all sorts of acoustics objects and pictures in its collections it has nothing like the NPL’s rather fearsome looking chambers where sounds produce no echo; here’s a link to one of the NPL’s anechoic chambers in action.

NPL Anechoic Chamber, 2010

NPL Anechoic Chamber, 2010 (Crown)

The NPL studies all manner of sounds, those the human ear can readily detect but also those at too high a frequency for us to hear – ultrasonic – or too low – infrasonic. Other animals are different, though: elephants, for example, have been shown to communicate using really low frequencies. Scientists suggest that this allows them to coordinate their own movements over distances of many kilometres. Maybe the Exhibition Road elephant was trying to tell me something earlier that day.

England expects…

London is the space insurance capital of the world. If you have a £150m satellite to cover then you’ll probably end up talking to an underwriter based at Lloyd’s in the City.

I was mulling this over as I gazed up at Nelson on top of his column in Trafalgar Square the other day - I’d been taking a small detour to see what was going on in Downing Street – it was the morning after the general election.

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, under construction, April 1844

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, under construction, April 1844 (Science & Society)

As I walked on down Whitehall I thought of the words I had read on the floor of Lloyds just two days earlier: ‘England Expects that every man will do his duty’. This immortal prose - a signal sent by Nelson just before the Battle of Trafalgar - is preserved in the logbook of HMS Euryalus, an observing, non-combatant ship now displayed amongst Lloyd’s Nelson Collection.

Nelson’s flagship communicated to the fleet by a system of semaphore flags hoisted from its masts. It is likely (does anyone know for sure?) that related messages, once reaching land, were hastened to the Admiralty via semaphore towers that stretched from Portsmouth to London. I’m old enough to remember the working model of a similar ‘Chappe’ tower in the Science Museum’s old Children’s Gallery.

Children's Gallery and model of Chappe Telegraph, 1954

Children's Gallery and model of Chappe Telegraph, 1954 (Science Museum/SSPL)

Times moved on and optical telegraph gave way to electrical and then radio.

Today the armed forces use satellites with the Skynet series another of the UK’s unsung space technology successes. But such military spacecraft are not insured at Lloyds: the government (i.e. the tax-payer) picks up the bill should anything go wrong!