Category Archives: Engineering

Back from holiday, slightly flushed

I’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life…

Dundas aqueduct, Kennet & Avon canal (David Rooney)

Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals

Model water closet, c.1900 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to a great movement for the widespread supply of clean water and the provision of effective sewerage in every home.

Civil engineering dealt with the big stuff – pipelines, pumping stations and vast networks of sewers. People like Joseph Bazalgette are now well-known for their work in building Victorian London’s sewer system.

Our health curator, Stewart Emmens, has discussed this at length in his sewage blogpost and his hygiene blogpost, and our Making the Modern World website expands the story.

Joseph Bazalgette (Science Museum / Science & Society)

No less important was the new breed of sanitary engineer which grew up, designing the types of lavatories, basins and pipework that are so common today as to be almost invisible, although in the early days training in its operation was needed:

Hygiene demonstration cabinet, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But please don’t get me wrong. I’m just as appreciative of the engineers who enabled my rented canal boat to be fitted with that chemical toilet I mentioned. I shudder to think what the alternatives might have been…

Bank Holiday Mondays

What would you do on your perfect bank holiday Monday? Well I don’t know about you guys, but as a kid I always dreamt about owning a Lotus and going for drive in the country.

Lotus Elan

Lotus Elan (Wikipedia)

The Lotus Elan was originally conceived by Ron Hickman, the director of Lotus Engineering, in 1963. It was a deeply covetable sport car available in two models – one with fixed position head lights and the other with drop-heads.

If the Lotus Elan is the dream, the reality of the bank holiday tends to be a little different – DIY. My dad was a builder and I remember him getting a Black and Decker workmate one Christmas.  He used that thing almost to destruction and I learnt a few carpentry skills on it as well.

I think mum liked it as well as it saved our chairs from being used as saw horses.

This is exactly what motivated the inventor of the workmate, the very same Ron Hickman who came up with the Lotus Elan, after he sawed into a Windsor chair! We have an early version right here in our collection. I can’t explain the excitement when I saw it for the first time and the flashbacks it triggered.

Work Bench

Folding joiner's work bench, c 1969 (Science Museum)

I love the fact that the designer of a high-end sport car also invented such a critical aid for the everyday man.

The goodness of wood

I stumbled across an old Monty Python sketch the other day that plays with words pleasing to the ear (‘woody’) or displeasing (‘tinny’). I chortled (nice woody word) but then started thinking about wood and science - we don’t often associate the two and we’re culturally conditioned to associate wood with words like ‘old’:

Roe Triplane at Lea Marshes, 1909

Roe Triplane at Lea Marshes, 1909 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

and ‘amateur’;

Man Sawing Wood, 1997

Man Sawing Wood, 1997 (Science Museum/Science & society)

But appearances can be deceptive as the Mosquito aircraft demonstrated. It may have resembled its alloy contemporaries of World War 2 but its sleek exterior cloaked a strong, lightweight structure of balsa, birch and spruce.

And the very obviously metallic masts and aerials of Rugby Radio Station, long standing landmark twixt the A5 and M1, relied on a hidden, cathedral of wood – the Linden or Lime Wood-supporting structure for the transmitter’s tuning coil assembly.

Rugby Radio Station’s Very Low Frequency Tuning Coil Assembly, 2004

Rugby Radio Station’s Very Low Frequency Tuning Coil Assembly, 2004, (Science Museum).

And lest we think of the space age as an era of quintessentially expensive and exotic materials we should remember that Apollo astronauts needed cork to get to the Moon (it lined the boost protective cover that protected their command module and windows should the launch escape system be used),

Apollo Launch Escape System, 1968

Apollo Launch Escape System, 1968 (NASA)

and that China’s Fanhui Shei Weixing reconnaissance satellite had oak in its heat shield to help it ablate (burn away and dissipate the heat of atmospheric re-entry).

Up in the air?

Recently I received an email alerting me to the launch of the United States Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, a winged, unmanned mini-shuttle capable of reaching orbit and then returning autonomously to Earth.

Earlier that day I had been looking at 1960s military wave rider wind-tunnel models at the Science Museum’s main store.

Two waverider wind tunnel configurations trailing pressure sensor cables

Two waverider wind tunnel configurations trailing pressure sensor cables (V. Carroll)

A wave rider is a particular design of aerodynamic wing – for planes and missiles travelling at hypersonic speeds (at least five times the speed of sound) – in which air trapped beneath the vehicle’s underside actually enhances its performance (no classroom jokes, please).

Problem is, such designs – some were incorporated in the massive XB-70 ‘Valkyrie’ bomber, have never really worked that well.

XB-70A bomber used some wave rider features, 1965 (NASA)

Sunday’s paper carried another story, this time about the launch of the United States Defence Advanced Research Project’s Agency’s (DARPA) HTV-2 or Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2:  an unmanned, rocket-launched, manoeuvrable, hypersonic air vehicle that glides through the Earth’s atmosphere at incredibly fast speeds—up to Mach 20.

On the way home last night I dipped into David Edgerton’s ‘The Shock of the Old’ in which he suggests that some of today’s aerospace technologies are little changed from those of forty and fifty years ago… and still not all they are made out to be.

I expect the latest launches from the USAF and DARPA will also fizzle and pop towards cancellation, like many of their predecessors, their high velocity achievements still only inching us forward at incrementally slow rates.

But, if the novel technologies touted – aerodynamic shape… thermal protection structures… autonomous hypersonic navigation guidance and control systems… prove  truly effective then, just perhaps, we are about to enter a new era of prompt global reach and swift access to space with all the implications that holds.

Hitting the accelerator

Science Museum curators seem to have a curious affinity for tunnels. Stewart’s been down a sewer, David ventured under the Thames, and I’ve just been to one of the biggest tunnels in the world, a 27km ring under Switzerland and France. Yes, it’s the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Unlike my colleagues I didn’t get to enter this tunnel – that would be a bit inconvenient right now, as on Tuesday the LHC commenced physics operations, colliding beams of protons at the highest energies ever achieved by a particle accelerator.

Hitting the headlines: 'a first big bang rocks Geneva'. (Alison Boyle)

I was visiting CERN as part of our physics collecting project, to see what artefacts they might be able to spare for the Science Museum. Like us, they are wrestling with how to preserve Big Science. I had a fascinating tour around the magnet lab – these ones were damaged in the 2008 accident that temporarily halted the LHC, and are being repaired.

Magnets under repair (Alison Boyle)

Before I left, I had a splurge in CERN’s gift shop. As well as serious science kit, we like to collect ephemera showing popular reactions to science. This natty bag features part of the mathematical equation predicting the existence of the Higgs Boson, which the LHC’s ATLAS experiment aims to detect. This jigsaw looks almost as complicated to build as ATLAS itself!

Scientific souvenirs (Alison Boyle)

A great thing about visiting places like CERN is that you hear some interesting anecdotes. It turns out there’s a reason why the LHC’s dipole magnets are clad in blue piping.

LHC magnets in an enclosure showing how big the tunnel is. (Alison Boyle)

CERN’s Director General during LHC planning was Chris Llewellyn Smith. Asked what colour to make the pipes, he opted for the colours of Oxford University, where he was a professor. I wonder if a link to the world’s highest-energy accelerator will give Oxford the edge over Cambridge in this Saturday’s Boat Race?

If I Had a Hammer

I love hammers, or to be more precise, I like hitting things with hammers. Be it nails, walnuts or – at some point in the long-distant past – brothers. So when I saw this giant steam powered hammer looming over me in Making the Modern World I had to learn more.

Nasmyth Steam Hammer

Nasmyth Steam Hammer (Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library)

It was invented by James Hall Nasmyth. He was born in 1808, and drawn to mechanics from a young age, making his first steam engine at the age of 17.

He forged a successful career making industrial machinery – at least after an early setback when a piece of his iron work broke through the wooden floor of his workshop and landed in the glass cutters flat below.

The impetus for creating the steam hammer came in 1838 when the Great Western Company was experiencing problems making the Ship SS Great Britain. The company’s engineer, Francis Humphries, wrote to Nasmyth with a challenge: “I find there is not a forge-hammer in England or Scotland powerful enough to forge the paddle-shaft of the engine for the Great Britain! What am I to do?”

Steam Hammer painting by Nasymth

He’d come to the right man. Nasmyth patented the steam hammer in June 1842 and demonstrated it at The Great Exhibition of 1851. Well aware that the machine’s accuracy combined with its extraordinary power was a remarkable selling point, he set an egg resting on a glass under the hammer. When the hammer fell it broke the egg but not the glass. 

He then reset the machine, and the hammer thudded down with a thump that shook the building.

Although Nasmyth patented the hammer, and built his reputation on it, the first one was actually built at Eugene Schneider’s Le Creusot Ironworks in France, before 1842. This may have been the result of Schneider visiting Nasmyth’s works while he was away, and being shown Nasmyth’s sketch for the as-yet-unbuilt hammer. Nasmyth discovered the hammer working when he later paid a return visit to Le Creusot, and had to rush through a patent on his return to England. Always keep your secret drawings under lock and key!

Nasmyth retired in 1856 announcing, “I have now enough of this world’s goods: let younger men have their chance”. He might have been done with worldly goods, but he certainly wasn’t done with science. More on that in my next post…