Category Archives: Engineering

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?

The Clock of the Long Now

The Science Museum’s curator of time, David Rooney, reflects on the ‘Clock of the Long Now’, a prototype of which is on show in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. David will be talking about clocks, speed and slowness at this month’s Science Museum Lates.

‘Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multitasking. All are on the increase’. This analysis of society at the end of the twentieth century was written in 1998 by Stewart Brand (born 1938), writer, inventor and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Brand, together with computer designer Danny Hillis (born 1956) and other prominent fin de siècle thinkers, had become increasingly concerned that the year 2000 had come to be seen as a temporal mental barrier to the future. Brand explained: ‘Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries’.

Hillis’s proposal was to build ‘both a mechanism and a myth’, a monumental-scale mechanical clock capable of telling time for 10,000 years—if it was maintained properly. Such a clock would prompt conversations about ‘deep time’, perhaps becoming a public icon for time in the same way that photographs of earth from space taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968 have become icons for a fragile planet in boundless space (It was partly due to Brand’s agitation that NASA released earlier satellite-based photographs of earth to the public in 1966).

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission.

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. Credit: NASA / SSPL

In 1996, Brand and Hillis formed a board of like-minded friends. Calling themselves ‘The Long Now Foundation’, the organization’s title sprang from a suggestion by musician and composer Brian Eno that ‘The Long Now’ could be seen as an important extension of human temporal horizons.

In this scheme, ‘now’ was seen as the present moment plus or minus a day, and ‘nowadays’ extended the time horizon to a decade or so forward and backward. However, the ‘long now’ would dramatically extend this ‘time envelope’. Since settled farming began in about 8000 BCE, the futurist Peter Schwartz proposed that the ‘long now’ should mean the present day plus or minus 10,000 years—‘about as long as the history of human technology’, explained Hillis.

The design principles established for the clock laid down strict parameters for its construction. With occasional maintenance, it was thought that the clock should reasonably be expected to display the correct time for 10,000 years. It was designed to be maintainable with Bronze Age technology. The plan was also that it should be possible to determine the operational principles of the clock by close inspection, to improve the clock over time and to build working models of the clock from table-top to monumental size using the same design.

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

In 1997, a small team of expert engineers, mechanics and designers based in San Francisco, led by Alexander Rose, set about constructing a prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, as the project became known. Driven by the power of two falling weights, which are wound every few days, the torsional (twisting) pendulum beats twice per minute, transmitting its time through an oversized watch-escapement mechanism to the heart of the clock, a mechanical computer.

This computer, conceptually linked to the machines of nineteenth-century polymath Charles Babbage, operates once every hour, updating timekeeping elements within the dial display, including the position of the sun, the lunar phase and the locally-visible star field. The slowest-moving part of this display indicates the precession of the equinoxes.

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

As the designer of some of the world’s fastest supercomputers in the 1980s, Danny Hillis said in the 1990s that he wished to ‘atone for his sins’ of speeding up the world by designing the world’s slowest computer for the Clock of the Long Now.

This range of tempos reflects the Foundation’s idea of ‘layers of time’ in human existence. The fastest-changing layer is fashion and art; a little slower is commerce. Infrastructure and governance take still longer to change. Cultures change very slowly, with nature reflecting the slowest tempo of all. ‘The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize’, explained Brand. The Foundation believes that an understanding of the opportunities and threats embodied in these layers of temporal change is crucial in correcting humankind’s apparent short-sightedness.

These ambitions and ideals were expressed eloquently in the finished prototype clock, which first ticked in San Francisco moments before the end of New Year’s Eve 1999. It was then moved to London, where the Clock of the Long Now had been selected as the final exhibit in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, opened by Her Majesty The Queen in 2000.

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

Meanwhile, the Foundation continued to build further prototypes, refining the design of the clock’s several constituent subassemblies in preparation for the construction (now underway) of a 10,000-year clock inside a mountain in western Texas, near the town of Van Horn. The Foundation hopes to build several ‘millennial clocks’ over the course of time, and a site for another has been purchased atop a mountain in eastern Nevada, adjacent to Great Basin National Park.

By its nature, the clock is both a conclusion—of a long process of human thinking, making and acting—and a starting point, for a long future, the contents of which are uncertain, the opportunities of which are infinite. Stewart Brand observed, ‘This present moment used to be the unimaginable future’.

As a symbol for the past, present and future of human ingenuity, the Clock of the Long Now is a fitting device to represent the modern world and all of its milestones. As Danny Hillis has said, ‘Time is a ride—and you are on it’.

David Rooney (@rooneyvision)

“Love to Soph”, hidden Morse messages from the SS Great Eastern

Jennifer Bainbridge, Conservator on the new Information Age gallery, writes about the conservation of Morse code tapes from the SS Great Eastern, 1865, a ship which undertook the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable. John Liffen, Curator of Communication, provides details of transcription.

As one of the conservators working on the new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014, I handle, document and carry out treatments on objects destined for display.  Working so closely with artifacts means I am often in the lucky position of discovering new quirks or secrets, as I was recently reminded when undertaking conservation of some Morse code tapes from the S.S Great Eastern voyage of 1865.

Morse code tapes before treatment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Looking at the tapes on a shelf in our Telecommunications Store, sitting alongside larger and grander objects, they appeared deceptively small and manageable, while at the same time they held the promise of untold stories.  Curator of Communication, John Liffen, informed me that within living memory at the museum the tapes had never been unravelled and no transcription of the message existed. It was now my job to enable this task! Firstly, I had to determine the object’s condition. Wound round an old paper envelope core the tapes were overlapping as they were coiled round and round.

While providing a compact means of storage, the tapes looked under stress.  They were, however strong enough for unravelling to take place.  The unwinding was quite a slow process as it turned out there were nine tapes wound together, with some being very lengthy.

You can see why the tapes were wrapped around an old envelope, they’re a little unwieldy when unwrapped. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

Once unravelled, the tapes were lightly cleaned with Smoke Sponge, a natural vulcanised rubber which gently picked up dust and dirt.  The tapes then needed to be humidified to relax the bends and creases caused by having been rolled.  Direct moisture causes cockling of paper and potential running of inks, so instead the paper was rested on a one-way permeable membrane to allow vapour, rather than water though.  Once lying flat the tears were repaired using heat set tissue, activated with a heated spatula.

With the tape repaired John then stepped in to commence the transcription. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

The main problem encountered at the transcription stage was that the dots and dashes inked on the tape can at times be ambiguous, with a dot often looking like a dash and vice versa.  As John says,

“To a twenty-first century researcher much of the Morse on the tapes translates as random letters. However, in places recognisable words can be read. On piece 1, the phrases ‘still in Vienna have red red’ and ‘none from Paris’ can be seen. Piece 6 was indecipherable, but when the tape was inverted the phrase ‘concludes lead iron cable’ was found within a string of Morse letters. This is more promising as part of a possible message. Most intriguingly, on piece 4 can be found ‘love to Sophbin’. Presumably ‘Sophie’ is the intended word but the Morse clearly shows a ‘b’ after the letter h. Whoever Sophie was, how did she come to be on board the Great Eastern during its cable-laying voyage?”.

First Time Out…second time around

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine at the Science Museum, writes about the collaborative museums project, First Time Out

A while ago the Science Museum took part in a project called First Time Out – where museums put on display a ‘treasure’ from their stored collections that had never before been seen in public. Well we’re giving it a go again – but this time the project is larger than ever. Ten museums, from all over England, have paired up to swap objects from their collections, with the Science Museum partnering with the Discovery Museum in Newcastle (a great day out – go visit!).

We’ve chosen a rather splendid set of ten ivory mathematical puzzles that was made in China and exported to Britain in the mid-late 1800s.

Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 - tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes – according to problems posed by a picture book.
Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 – tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes.

 In July, all the museums are swapping objects with their partners. We’re very excited about the early light-bulb and light switch that will be heading down from the Discovery Museum.

Newcastle was a hotbed of activity during the development of electric lighting, with pioneers such as Joseph Swan based there. (Image courtesy of Discovery Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne).

It’s strange to think on the 4th July all ten objects will be hitting the road, crossing paths up and down the country, until they reach their temporary new home. And there’s some seriously amazing objects that have been uncovered. The bone model guillotine from Peterborough Museum, and the Natural History Museum’s tattooed dolphin skull are pretty remarkable.

Previously lurking in Peterborough Museum’s store is this model guillotine made from animal bone by prisoners of the Napoleanic Wars. (Credit: Photo John Moore, Vivacity Culture and Leisure)

I think it’s useful for museums to draw attention to material in store – both to explore the strangeness and explain the significance of holding material in storage for perpetuity, as well as to highlight the particular riches to be found behind the scenes.  Objects of course convey multiple meanings. Museums as well aren’t homogenous, so perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the project are the different perspectives each partner brings to the same object.

From a personal point of view, it’s been great working on First Time Out. Part of the fun was in selecting potential object candidates to be displayed, it was a great opportunity to look beyond the usual artefacts I work with (medical stuff) and explore collections I don’t usually get my hands on such as maths or astronomy colletions pictured here within Blythe House. (Credit: Laura Porter)

First Time Out opens with home objects on display from 6th June. You can see the Discovery Museum’s objects on display in the Museum from 5th July – until the beginning of August.

Unpacking bags of Science: Diamonds in the rough

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.

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts where we have been exploring the lives of our ancestors by looking at a collection of tool bags from the Science Museum’s collections. This time we will be looking at the mining industry. We might think we’re fairly familiar with the tools of the mining trade, with the Davy lamp and pickaxe especially being mining icons. But do you know what kind of instruments mining engineers would use?

 

Mineralogical test kit (Science Museum)

Mining engineers played (and still play)  an important role in the consultation of almost every stage of a mining operation. They first analysed the potential of a mineral deposit, and then determined the profitability of a mine.

When the minerals had been successfully extracted, this mineralogical test kit was used to perform a mineralogical analysis in order to identify mineral species and understand their characteristics and properties. In order for a substance to be classified as a mineral it had to pass a series of tests, and this kit contains the tools needed for mineral testing, including a blowpipe, tweezers and chemicals.

The flame test indicated the identity of the substance being tested by the colour of the flame it produced. For example, a potassium compound burns with a lilac flame. Blowing through the blowpipe over a candle providing a heat source produced a tiny area of intense heat on a charcoal block, and created the right conditions for separating metals from their ores. After the process of mineralogical testing had taken place, this Tutton’s goniometer for cutting, grinding and polishing minerals may have been used. It was manufactured by Troughton and Simms, London c. 1894, and designed by Mr. A.E. Tutton.

 

Tutton’s goniometer (Science Museum)

 

‘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
.

Collecting synthetic biology – an iGEM of an idea

Collecting stuff is generally the bit I like most about my job. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit over excited about the new acquisitions we’ve made related to synthetic biology – from no other than Tom Knight widely described as the “father” of the discipline.

Synthetic biology is research that combines biology and engineering. Sounds like genetic engineering by another name? Well yes, but it goes much further. It looks to create new biological functions not found in nature, designing them according to engineering principles.  Some see the field as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Biofilm made by the UT Austin / UCSF team for the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition. From drugs to biofuels the potential applications are huge. (Image: WikiCommons)

Now like a lot of biotech, synthetic biology isn’t particularly easy to collect or represent through objects – as it’s the biology that’s interesting and most of the ‘stuff’ used in research is entirely indistinguishable from other biological equipment e.g. micropipettes and microwells.  

What we’ve acquired are a number of iGEM kits – hardware consisting of standardised biological components known as BioBricks™ . Students competing in iGEM are sent these kits to engineer new applications. Check out some of the former winner’s projects: Arsenic Biodetector, Bactoblood, E. Chromi.

Biological lego – parts that have particular functions and can be readily assembled. The kits document a fascinating ten year period in the discipline of synthetic biology – starting from this basic aliquot kit sent out when iGEM first launched c.2002. (Image: Science Museum)

The origin of these objects and the idea for BioBricks™ is rather curious. They didn’t emerge from biology – but from computer science. Tom Knight was a senior researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Tom became interested in the potential for using biochemistry to overcome the impending limitations of computer transistors.

Knight Lab: Tom set up a biology lab in his computer science department and began to explore whether simple biological systems could be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. That led to setting up iGEM.

From aliquots to paper based DNA to microwells – the kits show the technological change and sheer complexity of distributing biological components to teams competing around the globe.

In 2008 - the kits trialled paper embedded DNA via these folders - but it didn't quite work out. The kits do, however, represent an important ethic - that of open-sourcing in science. Students collaborate and contribute to adding new biological parts. (Image: Science Museum)

Suggestions for other synthetic biology stuff we could collect gratefully received!

In pursuit of power

This article was written by Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering 

1712 was a red letter year for humankind: for the first time, rather than just relying on wind, water, or muscles, a new energy source became available: the steam engine.

Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth took the earlier, and rather ineffective, steam pump by Thomas Savery, christened by him the ‘Miner’s Friend’, and expanded it up into a truly practical industrial machine that harnessed the power of the atmosphere. The first of Newcomen’s engines was erected near Dudley Castle in the Midlands, in 1712. Here, then, was the beginning of our mineral energy-intensive age.  

Thomas Barney’s 1719 engraving of the Newcomen engine erected near Dudley Castle ( Science Museum, London )

As the Science Museum expanded in the early twentieth century, the central role of steam meeting our energy needs placed the engine collection centre-stage: the first things visitors still see entering the museum are engines by James Watt, and other engineers.

The thing was, the museum long had a gap in its collections: there was no Newcomen-type engine to display. Curator HW Dickinson was asked to make good the deficiency. By the end of 1914, and mindful that agents for Henry Ford’s museum at Detroit were also snooping around, he had surveyed all the candidate engines.

The one chosen was that from Pentrich Colliery, Derbyshire. It was built by Francis Thompson in 1791, and used the original working cycle pioneered by Newcomen, although the engine was physically altered (and relocated) during its working life.

The Pentrich engine just before it was dismantled and shipped to the Science Museum ( Science Museum, London )

Dickinson oversaw the purchase, dismantling and re-erection of the 105 tons of iron, stone and timber comprising the engine and large portions of its engine house inside the Science Museum . It remains there today, symbolising the substitution of mineral for organic energy which Britain’s industrial revolution depended upon.

 

For an alternative view of the Newcomen engine why not check out the Science Museum’s Climate Changing Stories.

An interesting post about boring machines (for making tunnels)

Whenever I go to London by train I see the civil engineering works outside Paddington Station for the new Crossrail link. There is a big hole ready to take the giant German-made tunnelling machines which will soon start work boring the Crossrail  tunnels under London.

These amazing pieces of engineering are often scrapped after their job is done. They are far too large to fit in any museum, so we have a model of the similar machines used to bore the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s. 

However, at our Large Object store at Wroughton in Wiltshire we have one of their very much smaller ancestors, the Whitaker Tunnelling machine.

The Whittaker Tunnelling Machine (Credit: Peter Turvey)

Ours was built about 1922 and used for early Channel Tunnel exploratory work.

Like modern machines it has a revolving ‘cutter head’ at the front to chew through soil or soft rock, and is gradually inched forward as the tunnel is excavated.

Whitaker Tunnelling Machine - Cutting Head (Credit: Peter Turvey)

How it came to the Museum is a fascinating story. Abandoned for nearly 70 years outside the short tunnel it excavated near Dover, the machine was rescued in the 1990s, restored, and presented to us.

Yet there is a sombre side side to its history – the Whitaker Tunnelling machine was originally developed to drive tunnels under the German lines during the First World War, so that so that huge caches of explosives could be fired under them to break the stalemate on the Western Front.

The forthcoming anniversary of that destructive conflict reminds us how conflict is often a driver for technological change for good or ill.

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.