Category Archives: Events


On Saturday I had tickets to see the Men’s Road Race competition. It was terrifically exciting as they zoomed nine times round Box Hill. Shame about the result but ho hum. In recent times Britain has become bike mad. Bicycle bits crop up a surprising amount of times – in rather unusual ways - in the medical collections.  So even if it all goes wrong for Bradley Wiggins in the time trial (and fingers crossed not!)- here’s some ideas to put his bike to good use to:

(The radium 'bomb' was built in the hospital's workshops - put together from simple available equipment such as bike parts. Credit: Science Museum)

This stange looking contraption is known as a radium ‘bomb’. Radium was a radioactive source used to give radiotherapy for cancer treatment in the 1930s at Westminster Hospital.  The radium was placed in the egg-shaped lead-lined head (known as the ‘bomb’) and a bicycle break cable enabled doctors to expose patients to the radium by opening and closing the shutter at a distance – helping them to avoid exposure to the radiation. 

This ‘exo-skeleton’  leg frame was designed to relieve pressure on the joints of people with arthritis. It features an adapted bicycle seat to help the user to rest their weight when strapped into the frame.  

(Made by Professor W. Thring in the 1960s, Thring was one of the first people to work on domestic robots. Credit: Science Museum)

Perhaps our star object is the Stoke Mandeville Hospital bed cycle – which employed bike chain and cassette to help injured WW2 veterans rebuild strength in arms and lengths by pushing pedals. Stoke Mandeville Hospital was the site for the games that went on to become the Paralympics

Dr Ludwig Guttmann set up the specialist Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944 where the bed cycle was used. On the first day of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, sixteen ex-servicemen took to the Hospital lawn in Aylesbury to compete in the first ever Stoke Mandeville Games. Credit: Science Museum).

Cycling is clearly not just a recent passion. A number of tattoo’s in our collection, dating from around the 1890s show a great love for the sport.

(Despite not being able to get hold of an image of my favourite tattoo - a pig riding a bike - here's a tattoo of a man riding a penny farthing. The inscription was a regular motto for German cyclists "All Heil!" meaning 'All's well!'. Credit: Science Museum)

It would be interesting to know whether many of the GB Team have taken their passion for cycling as far inking the skin. Anyway – good luck to Wiggins and all the cyclists – let’s hope they strike gold!

PS. Yay – Gold! Congratulations to Bradley Wiggins for winning the time trial. Ok so he wasn’t ever in danger of needing to break up his bike for hospital parts.




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.

Hello Dolly

Today would have been the 15th birthday of the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep. Named after the singer Dolly Parton, Dolly caused quite a storm when the news first broke of her birth.

In September 1997, a competition called ‘Do a Design for Dolly’ was launched by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and supported by Portman Building Society. In March the following year, a 12-year-old girl, Holly Wharton, was announced as the winner. Her design was made from Dolly’s wool and is now on display in Making the Modern World.

Jumper made from Dolly the Sheep's wool (1998-48, Science Museum, London)

Dolly got me thinking about other sheep in the collections and a quick search found many more examples than I expected, even outside of our veterinary and agriculture collections.

Amulets for toothache, 1900s ( Science Museum, London )

For example, a sheep’s tooth used in South Devon to ward off toothache. The idea behind this amulet is to supposedly transfer the pain from person to animal tooth. And it wasn’t just sheep’s teeth that were used for this purpose.

Reaching into ancient history, sheep’s livers were used for divination by the Babylonians. This enabled healer-priests to forecast when the most opportune time for treatment would be or to aid diagnosis. The liver was considered the seat of life.

Replica of a Babylonian model of a sheep's liver ( Science Museum, London)

Sheep gut was also used for condoms. This poster comes with the tag line about the fabled 1700s Italian Giacomo Casanova by saying: ‘So if the world’s greatest lover made do with a sheep gut, surely you can use a condom’. Fair point…

'Sex hasn't changed much over the years' poster, 1988-1993 ( Science Museum, London )

Naturally, we have to give a nod to our other well-known sheep - Tracy - a transgenic ewe who was created to supply milk that would hopefully help those with cystic fibrosis. Tracy is normally on display in Making the Modern World but is currently on holiday in another exhibition.

Tracy, a transgenic sheep, 1999 ( Science Museum, London)

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.

Women in History month

March is National Women’s History Month. To coincide with the centenary of the Nobel Prizes, it seems an ideal time to look at the achievements of Marie Curie (1897-1934).

Marie and Pierre Curie with their daughter, Iréne (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

Marie Curie was the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes - one in 1903 with her husband Pierre and the another in 1911 for Chemistry for her work on radioactivity.

Glass flask used by Marie Curie ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Like many of the objects Marie Curie used in her work, this flask has slight traces of radioactivity and needs to be stored and handled carefully.

Certificate signed by Marie Curie, 1926 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

This certificate specifies radium content signed by Marie Curie in her role as director of the Institute de Radium. Radium became used for cancer treatments and you can read about the ‘radium bomb’ courtesy of my colleague Katie.

Marie Curie also provided radioactive samples to other researchers including Sir William Crookes. Crookes invented a device for visualising radium and its decay – a spinthariscope using the radium Marie Curie provided.

Crookes' experimental spinthariscopes, c. 1902 (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

And it didn’t end there. Marie Curie’s daughter Iréne Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) followed in her mother’s footsteps. Iréne worked with her husband Frédéric Joliot (1900-1958) on producing artificial radioactivity.

Glass tube used in the discovery of artificial radioactivity (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

The second generation husband and wife team won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery.

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’.

Christmas Science Spectaculars

Hope everyone enjoyed the holidays. If you got a bit bored of watching re-runs of the soaps while chewing on leftover turkey, you could have entertained yourself by tuning in to the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures.

This year, materials scientist Mark Miodownik talked about everything from chocolate to elephants and you can still catch the lectures on  BBC i-Player.

The RI’s Christmas Lectures began in 1825 and have continued ever since, pausing only during World War II. The roll of past lecturers includes such famous names as David Attenborough and Carl Sagan. But the person who’ll always be most associated with the Christmas Lectures is their founder Michael Faraday, with 19 of the annual series to his name.

Faraday first gave the festive lectures himself in 1827-8. His series of family lectures on chemistry wowed audiences and the press. By 1855, when this lithograph was made, lecture-goers included such distinguished guests as Prince Albert.

Faraday's lecture of 27 December 1855 (Science Museum)

The Royal Polytechnic Institution, famous for ‘abominable smells and… the odd explosion’, also started running a popular series of Christmas lectures. Such shows became a festive feature at institutions around the country.

An Illustrated London News engraving of 'Christmas at the Polytechnic', 1858 (Science Museum)

The RI lectures aren’t the only festive legacy of the 19th century – the aforementioned Prince Albert is often credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Britain. Actually, some people (including the royal family) had adopted the German tradition years before, but it was Albert and the popular Queen Victoria who made it widely fashionable. I guess it’s about time to get round to vacuuming up those pine needles…

Enjoying the Christmas tree, c.1948 (NMeM / Photographic Advertising / Science & Society)

Lil’ Ol’ St Nick

Whether its Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, we have quite a fixed  image (soft-drink company influenced?) in our heads of what the man delivering presents down the chimney should look like. But could this be what the original ‘Santa’ really looked like…?

Wooden statue of St Nicholas, France, 1801-1900 (Image credit: Science Museum)

This rather charming tabbarded fellow in our collections is Saint Nicholas. He looks distinctly un-santa-esque because he was in fact the Bishop of Myra (now south-west Turkey) during the third century. Pictured with three children, it’s not surprising to find that Nicholas became the patron saint of young people. During his lifetime, he had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Because of the many miracles attributed to him, he was also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker - (imagine Santa with a superhero cape!).

But where does the Santa connection fit in? In the Netherlands (and other European countries), the evening before Saint Nicholas’s feast day (on 6 December) is the primary occasion for gift-giving – which in Dutch is Sinterklaas (like saying Saint Nicholas really quickly!).

Turns out that Lil’ Ol’ St Nick is also the patron saint of sailors, unmarried women, apothecaries, perfumers and pawnbrokers. Well with all that to deal with at least now we know what else Santa gets up to for the rest of the year

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.

Science on the telly

The Science Museum is formally over 100 years old.

The Science Museum's permanent building under construction, 1916 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Over the century since 1909, it has had to compete with more and more media getting-in on the business of popular science.

A hundred years ago, popular science publishing was already a big scene, as Peter Bowler shows in his enlightening new book, Science for All.

Radio came along in the 1930s, and soon featured science. But our biggest competitor really got into its stride in the 1950s, when television began to get seriously interested, long before even Tomorrow’s World .

BBC producers had heated arguments about whether to treat science in highly-crafted documentaries, or as topical live programmes in the studio or out in the scientists’ labs.

Very often, the same subjects have been treated in books, radio, television and the Museum. Sometimes the same people crop up on television, in Museum displays, and also behind the scenes. One example is Lawrence Bragg, the distinguished physicist.

Bragg served on the BBC’s General Advisory Council, where he worked hard to promote the cause of science broadcasts. He was also on the Science Museum’s Advisory Council in the ’60s. His Royal Institution Lectures were the first to be broadcast live in 1959. There is a rare opportunity to see him in action, in Before Horizon, a special showing at BFI Southbank on Monday 7th June. Why not make a day of it and spend the afternoon at the Science Museum?

Our displays include at the X-ray spectrometer used by Lawrence and his father William in our Making the Modern World gallery.