Category Archives: Computing

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 Out of date before it was in proper use, the Science Museum’s Rabbit Phone is virtually unused.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.

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.

Cosmic Collections launch event unveiled

Gaetan Lee is organising tomorrow’s launch event for Cosmic Collections, our website competition. Find out a little more about what to expect.

Gaetan Lee

Gaetan Lee

What should people expect at the event tomorrow?

Well they should expect to get a chance to meet some great people and really get a chance to contribute – to a certain extent its going to be a user-generated event. By coming along they will be able to hear the story of eighteenth century astronomer Caroline Herschel from one of our drama characters and delve into the secrets of the Cosmos & Culture gallery from Ali Boyle, our curator of Astronomy. Dr Chris Welsh from Kingston University will be on hand as well to give people a real insight into how we’re studying the stars today. More importantly though this is a bit of an experiment for the Science Museum, because although we have some great sessions from these experts, we also want the people coming along to add to it as well, sharing their own experience, ideas and talents.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

We’re going to be running a special wall activity whereby people can create their own narratives and links between museum objects in much the same way as the curators do when they start to plan an exhibition. We’re really interested to see what the attendees do and how they choose to link their own stories and objects together.

What kind of people will be there?

We’re hoping for a real mix of people, from people with a background in web development, in astronomy or just a general interest in science and technology. Once we get all these people together we’re planning to mix them up and get them working in teams, so it will be a mash-up of people as well as ideas.

Do you think it will give competition entrants an advantage?

By coming along tomorrow people will get a real chance to find other people to work with and but more importantly to get the inside scoop behind our amazing collection of objects. Plus it should be fun!

If you have any questions for Gaetan please leave them as comments below. You can also check out interviews with Mia Ridge, our Web Developer and Ali Boyle, our Curator of Astronomy.

Cosmic Collections: the geeky stuff

This Saturday (24 October), we’re launching our Cosmic Collections website ‘mash-up’ competition. Just in case anyone else is as baffled as me, I asked our Lead Web Developer, Mia Ridge, a few questions about the competition.

For the non-geeks out there, what’s a mash-up?

A mashup is a website or application that combines separate data sources and/or visualisation tools into a single integrated interface.

A really useful example is moveflat – you can search for housing by bus route or on a map of London.  The site mashes up data provided in housing ads with StreetMap and GoogleMaps so that the interface just works for the site visitor.

Why did you decide to run a mash-up competition for Cosmos & Culture?The idea of a mashup just seemed a perfect match for this exhibition.

Over the past few years there’s been a lot of discussion in cultural heritage technology forums about the need for APIs (instructions and methods for computers to request content and functions from each other) in museums. Some museums have released APIs, but it’s been difficult to find out how much real demand there is from non-museum programmers – I thought this would be one way to find out.

A comparatively small budget for web work in the original project meant we risked producing a bland museum microsite that might not do the objects and their stories justice.  There are so many ways of looking at these objects – as pieces of industrial design, as examples of the way we tell stories about the night sky, as artefacts from the history of science and technology, as personal items belonging to explorers and innovators, as beautiful objects in their own right… opening up the data to let people create their own sites seemed like a good way to enable other people to show us the collections as they see them.

A page from Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus celestium orbium

A page from Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus celestium orbium

I knew there was an active online astronomy community, and that sites like Galaxy Zoo had ‘crowdsourced’ the classifications of galaxies, leading to some new discoveries.  One of the key messages of the exhibition was that amateur astronomers can still make important contributions, and that seemed to be a good match with the idea of encouraging people use our data in their own research.

Converting some of our web budget into prize money seemed like a concrete way of recognising the contributions and work of people working with our content.

How ground-breaking is it for a museum?

As far as I know, we’re the first museum to run a competition to crowd-source the creation of an exhibition site like this.

A few museums have produced APIs or published other ways to programmatically access their data and there have been lots of mashup competitions and hack days in the private and public sector but the combination is new. I’m very lucky – when I approached the curator with my idea, she could have thought I was being just a bit too experimental, but she decided to give it a go.

What might the finished mash-ups look like?

Good question!  I have absolutely no idea – which is both exciting and scary. Typically, mashups might use timelines or maps, but there’s some amazing visualisation work going on and tools like IBM’s Many Eyes make them really easy.

I’m hoping that the final submission date won’t be the end of it – we’d like to help build a community of developers who are interested in working with museum content. I’ll also be using the competition to work out how we can improve our collections API, and as input to on-going experiments with our online collections. I’m taking the approach of small experiments and iterative development that I can fit in around bigger project deadlines, partly because it’s a good match for the available resources and partly to test the benefits of a more agile approach.

If you have more questions for Mia please post them as comments below. To find out more about the exhibition and the objects on display check out our earlier interview with Ali Boyle, Curator of Astronomy.

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.