Category Archives: Engineering

A Royal Execution

My colleague Katie recently posted about the upcoming royal wedding. But of course, public events involving royalty have not always been so benign.

On January 21st 1793, ‘citizen’ Louis Capet – formerly Louis XVI of France – was taken by carriage to the Place de la Concorde (re-named Place de la Révolution at the time). Here, in front of a crowd of many thousands, the ex-king was beheaded. 

Medal depicting Louis XVI

Medal depicting King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, German, 1793 (Science Museum)

Although death at the hands of your people is about as low as it gets for a monarch, at least his departure was relatively swift. For just 9 months earlier the guillotine had been introduced to France. Previously, a king would probably have had his head removed with either a sword or axe – a messy business, even in experienced hands.

The development of this more reliable piece of execution technology had been instigated by Joseph Ignace Guillotin and fellow doctor, Antoine Louis. Not that it was the first automated method of decapitation. The Halifax Gibbet being one machine that preceded the guillotine by several centuries.

Guillotine blade

Guillotine blade, France, 1794 (Science Museum)

Ironically, given the guillotine’s role in the Reign of Terror that began in earnest later in 1793, Guillotin had seen it as a humane alternative to less reliable methods. As a fast-acting execution machine that wouldn’t fail and a step along the way to the end of the death penalty - a sentence that Guillotin actually opposed. As it was, the guillotine remained France’s official method of execution until capital punishment was abolished in 1981

Commemorative medal

Reverse of medal shown above, commemorating the executions of Louis XVI and his queen, German, 1793 (Science Museum)

Nine months after Louis, his wife Marie Antoinette, by then referred to simply as the ‘Widow Capet’ arrived at the Place de la Révolution in an open cart. In front of another large crowd, she too fell victim to ‘le rasoir national’ – France’s very efficient ‘national razor’.

James Watt’s family life

To me the most touching item in James Watt’s workshop is his son’s trunk.

Gregory Watt's trunk

Gregory Watt's trunk (Science Museum)

Gregory died of consumption at only 27 years old. The trunk is full of his schoolwork; beautiful paintings, drawings, diagrams and page upon page of his lessons and notes, in immaculate copperplate writing.

It is a poignant reminder that the genius engineer was as human as the rest of us.

Quite apart from his own bad health, his first wife died in childbirth and only one of his 7 children (James) outlived him.

Yet despite such tragedies, plus the ups and downs of his business life, James Watt lived to the ripe old age of 83 – a ‘good innings’ even by today’s standards.

So perhaps it’s true – an active mind really is the secret to a long life!

An Artist in Search of Colour

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) was born in Germany and studied in Strasburg and Paris. He became artistic adviser at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1771-81.

As an innovative set designer and scene painter, he helped to lay the foundations of pictorial illusion in stagecraft. After abandoning theatre in the 1780s, he became an important figure in British landscape painting.

The Science Museum holds one of his most famous works, ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, 1801. This epitomises the romantic view of the growth of industry in its formerly pastoral setting.

The development of coke smelting in Shropshire in the 18th century revolutionised the production of iron and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.

Coalbrookdale by Night © Science Museum / Science & Society

In the Science Museum Archives there is a letter from De Loutherbourg to Matthew Boulton, James Watt’s business partner.

He was desperate to find an ingredient for one of his colours, yellow copperas. The letter says:

“I am a little at leasure at present, and wanting it very much, even for the Small Pictures, wich you was so kind as to ask me to do for you”.

And what a difference the colour makes.

Ironworks, Coalbrookdale, 1805 © Science Museum / Science & Society

Ironworks, Coalbrookdale 1805 © Science Museum / Science & Society

Why did James Watt own a saw with no teeth?

Preparing the contents of an 18th century workshop for display is a complicated and fascinating thing to do. And when it belongs to the engineering icon, James Watt, it’s even more challenging.

Watt was a Scottish engineer, born in 1736. His fame stems from a stupendously clever improvement to the steam engine, the separate condenser. He and his other contemporaries kick-started what we now sometimes call the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1815

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1815 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve got the garret workshop from his retirement home at Heathfield near Birmingham. It contains over 2400 items – tools, machines, instruments, bits and pieces he worked on, pots containing chemicals and all sorts of wonderful stuff from various times in his life.

James Watt's garret workshop, 1790-1819.

James Watt's garret workshop, 1790-1819. Science Museum / Science & Society

One of the chests of drawers contained a saw that looked a bit odd.

A saw with no teeth

A saw with no teeth! Found in James Watt’s workshop. (Science Museum)

No teeth! Now, this was in fact the standard bit of kit for cutting stone – you chiselled a groove where you wanted to cut, poured emery dust or some other abrasive material into the crack, and then used the saw to make the final cut.

As one of James Watt’s final inventions was a method of copying sculpture, which involved cutting the copies out of blanks, the saw must have been used for producing the little ingots to go in his copying machines.

So the saw makes sense of some other mysteries - like the presence of lots of powdered emery and those rather impressive busts.

“The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls”

From November 1782, James Watt and his friends were excited by the Montgolfier brothers’ experiments with hot air balloons.

Watt wrote to Dr Joseph Black in 1783 that “The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls at present”.

In August 1783 the Frenchman J A C Charles and two brothers called Robert substituted hydrogen, or“inflammable air”, for hot air. Alarmed locals pitchforked their balloon where it landed.

Pitchforking the alien © Science Museum / Science & Society

In December Charles and one Robert brother set off on their first manned flight, using hydrogen made by passing steam over hot iron.

Launch site of hydrogen balloon December 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

They went up

The balloon rising Dec 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

And up

The balloon rose further Science Museum / Science & Society

And up even more.

The balloon rose even further Science Museum / Science & Society

Before touching ground again on the property of an interested landowner who was intrigued by his sudden visitors arriving in such a novel manner.

First touch down Science Museum / Science & Society

Robert  hopped out to explain what they were up to, whereupon the balloon took off again with Charles still aboard. This time he was taken so high he had an almost religious experience (probably along the lines of “I swear if I get down from up here in one piece, I’ll never do it again”).  

The balloon and its pilot were loaded on to a wagon and returned to Paris, closing a dramatic chapter in the early history of aeronautics.

Triumphant return to Paris © Science Museum / Science & Society

Watt’s partner Matthew Boulton experimented with thin copper, along the way managing to make one of his test balloons explode in mid air. 

It wasn’t really their thing, and Watt wrote to another friend in October 1794

“Mr Boulton did idle a great deal of his time in playing with some small balloons some time ago but I hope he is now cured of the balloonomania” .

James Watt, RIP

James Watt died 191 years ago today. He was considered one of the most important engineers in the country, and after his death he was turned into a national hero. The result was a slew of statues, memorials and paintings – some of which will go on show in a new exhibition opening in spring 2011. More details to follow…

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792.

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

When Watt was 59, his friend and partner Matthew Boulton introduced him to Carl von Breda, who painted the earliest portrait that that Watt was known to sit for. At the time, 1792, he was fighting to save their steam engine business from legal challenges, but was wealthy enough to have built his house Heathfield near Birmingham to suit his growing family.

James Watt from painting by Lawrence, 1813 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1815, he was more relaxed, and more prepared to have his portrait painted. This one, by Thomas Lawrence, was much liked by the artist, who thought it was the finest he had ever painted, but the family – James Watt, and his eldest son James Watt Jnr – didn’t really care for it.

James Watt, Scottish engineer (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Another highly regarded artist, Sir Francis Chantrey, produced a marble bust for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1815. Watt was swathed in a toga-like cloak as a 19th century conceit to show he was a true philosopher.

The bust was much copied, and even Watt had a go, using the bust to test his sculpture-copying machines. He wrote to a friend “I do not think myself of importance enough to fill up so much of my friends’ houses as the original bust does”.

James Watt, British engineer, as a young man, c 1769 painted 1860. Science Museum / Science & Society

This was painted after Watt’s death, but he is shown as a young man studying a mal-functioning model of a Newcomen steam engine. The challenge of trying to get it to work put Watt on the road to perfecting full-size engines.

Bizarrely there was even a Japanese woodcut, prepared in the 1880s for primary school children, showing him testing the steam from a boiling kettle in his aunt’s house.

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!

Birds’ Eye Views

I wonder if the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) had a little-known sub-section devoted to pigeon fanciers.  A branch, perhaps (or a wing)? How else to explain the preponderance of interesting  features high up on old buildings that are indistinct at street level but – presumably – clear as bread crumbs to passing pigeons?

I was mulling this over yesterday as I squinted at the figures and details of The Treasury’s Whitehall pediment, and then again while attempting to make out the features on one of Imperial College’s older buildings, just around the corner from the Science Museum.

Relief of the globe on the old Chemistry building of Imperial College

Relief of the globe on the old Chemistry building of Imperial College (Doug Millard, 2010)

Albertopolis, as this corner of South Kensington has often been referred to, is awash with such elevated and hard-to-make-out architectural treats. Yesterday I was struggling to read the inscriptions on the other Albert Memorial, the one round the back of the Albert Hall and at the top of the steps (where Michael Caine fought Oliver MacGreevey in ‘The Ipcress File’).

Memorial to Albert and the Great Exhibition of 1851

Memorial to Albert and the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Doug Millard, 2010)

It’s a hugely important monument, commemorating as it does the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the proceeds of which paid for many of the buildings of Albertopolis (the educational institutions, the museums and, of course, the Hall) – and the man behind it, Albert Francis Augustus Charles Emanuel, The Prince Consort.

Harrison's Power Loom, 1851

This loom can be seen in the Science Museum's 'Making the Modern World' gallery but was first displayed in the 'Machinery in Motion' part of the Great Exhibition in 1851 (Science Museum/Science&Society)

But the exhibition itself was in Hyde Park and save passing references to its location on the maps at the Park entrances there is no monument at or near to where Paxton’s gigantic ‘Crystal Palace’ once stood.

Site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park

Site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park (Doug Millard, 2010)

I wonder if, with the recent dry weather revealing ancient disturbances of the ground, it is the pigeons that once again are best placed to appreciate, I would argue, the under-recognised site of one of London’s most significant cultural events.

Killer snakes, steel knots and a silver laboratory

In my last post I showed you a section of gun barrel flattened cold by a steam hammer. Spectacular demonstrations of engineering muscle have often yielded cool Science Museum exhibits, and I thought you might like to see another one on show in our Making the Modern World gallery:

Knot of steel, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is a knot, tied cold, formed by a pair of inch-diameter rods of steel. It was made in 1885 at the Steel Company of Scotland, Glasgow, and comes from a collection of 3,700 metallurgical specimens put together by Dr John Percy FRS. We bought the collection upon Percy’s death in 1889.

John Percy, English metallurgist, 1859 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Percy was the inaugural Professor of Metallurgy at the School of Mines, the first government-backed technical higher education establishment in the UK, and taught there from 1851 to 1879. Here’s his laboratory:

John Percy's metallurgical laboratory, 1877 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Percy had made a name for himself in the 1840s for a new method of extracting silver from ore, which went into widespread use. He went on to develop new ways to make steel, improving Bessemer’s process.

His collection was eclectic, to say the least. While reading through the files in order to write this blogpost, I saw that another of the items in his collection was a box of boa constrictor dung, used as a fuel for smelting. Ingenious…

The School of Mines ended up as part of the Department of Materials at Imperial College, next door to the Science Museum. You can read the history of the school in a super booklet written by Imperial’s wonderful archivist, Anne Barrett.

And if you’re going there to study this autumn, do drop by and see us.

Liquid steel and an underground time machine

My attention was drawn last week to an incredible set of photographs taken recently in Notting Hill Gate underground station, during refurbishment. They show a deserted passageway sealed up in 1959, with advertising posters surviving untouched to this day:

Hidden lift passage, Notting Hill Gate station, 2010 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

The full set, by London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage, Mike Ashworth, are on Flickr. One of them advertises the Science Museum’s then-new Iron and Steel gallery, depicting a Bessemer steel converter in mid-pour:

Science Museum 'Iron and Steel Gallery' poster, Notting Hill Gate station, c.1959 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

I’ve spoken before (in posts about Barrow-in-Furness and Bessemer) about our 1865 converter. It’s now in Making the Modern World but back in the sixties it was in Iron and Steel, as shown here:

Science Museum audioguides, 1961 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

(Hand-held audioguides aren’t a recent museum phenomenon. We were trying them out in the sixties!)

In front of the converter you can see a flattened metal ring. It’s a section of round gun barrel, squashed flat by a steam hammer. It was done cold, and there’s no cracking.

Section of Bessemer steel hammered flat, 1860 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was a demonstration carried out by Bessemer in 1860 to show the superb ductility (flexibility) of his steel, which made it such a useful material – giving us longer bridges, bigger ships, taller buildings, stronger machinery and rails to take heavier and faster trains. You can see it in Making the Modern World, too.

Iron and Steel was replaced in 1995 by our current Challenge of Materials gallery.

(Thanks to Mike Ashworth and London Underground for sharing their pictures.)