Category Archives: Exhibitions

Behind the Scenes at Blythe House

Alice Williams is part of the team of Science Museum Conservators and Collections Assistants that have been working behind the scenes since June 2012 on objects that will be displayed in the new Information Age gallery.

As a Collections Assistant working on the new Information Age gallery my role means I work with the objects through each stage of their journey – from storage to display. At the moment I spend my day working in the stores, where each object must be checked for any potential hazards (such as lead or mercury), handled, and moved for conservation. With so many objects to keep track of a lot of time is spent planning conservation and logistics schedules, and making sure every object is accurately documented and well cared for in storage.

With over 800 objects to conserve, pack, transport and install, this is certainly no mean feat. The team is divided across two sites, with three Conservators based at our store for large objects in Wroughton and three Conservators, two Collections Assistants and one Conservation Student based at Blythe House in West London.

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House (The National Archives: Public Record Office NSC 27/2 Album of Blythe Road photographs)

Blythe House, formerly the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank and built between 1899 and 1903, is now a museum storage facility and home to the Science Museum’s incredible collection of small to medium sized objects. There are over 203,000 objects stored over 90 rooms at Blythe House, with extensive and diverse collections ranging from the History of Medicine to Telecommunications.

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

The Conservators work meticulously on each object in our Conservation Laboratory, carrying out research and treatments, and documenting every object in great detail. The Conservators also advise on the best way to display the objects, ensuring the objects will be safe, secure and stable when in the gallery and that they are protected for the future.

Conservators at work in the conservation lab

Conservators at work in the conservation lab (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

While each Information Age object will go through the same thorough process, every day is different for the team at Blythe House. Whether it is co-ordinating the move of larger and more challenging objects, taking part in public events, providing tours, couriering loans, or planning for the arrival of new acquisitions, there is never a dull moment in the stores.

Some carefully stored early radio receivers

Some carefully stored early radio receivers (source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

With the opening of the Information Age gallery planned for later this year, we will soon be reaching the final stages of object conservation. Before long we’ll be packing and transporting the objects to the Science Museum where we will all be on hand to install the objects in the new gallery.

Message received: collecting telegrams across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new gallery about the history of information and communication opening in Autumn 2014.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the telegram collecting project which has been taking place to support the Information Age gallery development. This project is now nearing an end, with over 350 telegrams collected as digital scans by our amazing group of community collectors from across the UK.

These telegrams will now be narrowed down to a short list of highlights, spanning a range of subject areas and covering stories and people from across the UK. The final selection will be displayed on a screen in the new gallery, allowing our visitors to get a sense of why telegrams were sent over the decades and what messages they contained.

For now, here is a sneak preview of one of them. This telegram was sent by Mr Ross to his wife in November 1902, having just found out he’d been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1916

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1902

I wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to the volunteers who worked with us on the project across the Science Museum and our five partner museums (The Cardiff StoryNational Museums ScotlandThe Riverside Museum in GlasgowPorthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum). I also wanted to provide them with the opportunity to share their thoughts on what they learned from the project. Here are some thoughts from three of the community collectors.

 “What I enjoyed the most about the project was organising the collecting event and getting to hear all the participants’ stories. It was great to work with Heather at Riverside too, I learnt so much relating to Glasgow Museums’ collection. Overall it was an amazing experience, getting to know people from all over the UK and being able to visit the Science Museum.” Elena, Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

 “The most surprising thing I learned from the telegram collecting project was that about 100 years ago people used telegrams as we do use Email today: to let people know if they will be late, to order things, to make sure you get picked up from a train etc. It’s amazing how special and dear the telegrams are to the people who own them today, be it that they wrote or received them or inherited them, telegrams are a little treasure to the owners. I really enjoyed engaging in the people’s stories and lives, getting more curious and pulled into the story behind the telegram was my favourite part of the work on the project.” Maja, Science Museum, London.

“The highs have been the excitement of the discoveries through the sheer colour and design of telegrams, the discoveries of stories which have touched the heart and which have international, national and local historical impacts. This has been an incredible journey. It has been a privilege to share in the life stories of others and be part of that sharing of these with a wider audience. I have taken away from this project the pleasure and privilege of being part of a Team. The project has given me the opportunity to develop my research skills and has reinforced for me the advantages gained from networking and collaborative work.” John, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Cornwall.

Alexander Parkes: Living in a material world

Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technology and Engineering, blogs on creating a new display to explore the life and legacy of Alexander Parkes.

As an Assistant Curator, I get the opportunity to work with thousands of objects – from early supercomputers to model steam engines – to bring their stories to life. About eight months ago I started working on a small display celebrating an anniversary in science, technology, engineering or medicine.

Representing the scale of discovery, invention or the life of an important figure in science in a 2 x 3 meter showcase was going to be a challenge. Not deterred I thought this case was the perfect size to celebrate the life and work of the often forgotten 19th century inventor Alexander Parkes.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848. Credit: SSPL

Parkes was born 200 years ago last month (read more about him here) and contributed to a vast range of metallurgical and material developments. Awarded a whopping 80 patents, Parkes’ work ranged from electroplating works of art to developing the first semi-synthetic plastic, Parkesine.

Two gilt vases by Alexander Parkes, 19th century.

Gilt vases by Alexander Parkes. Made by Elkington & Co. Credit: SSPL

We wanted to show both sides of Parkes, one as Parkes experimenting in his laboratory, and the other as Parkes the talented craftsman. All the objects in the display show the interplay between these skills. The most eye catching and shiny object on display is an electroplated vase that Parkes made early in his career while working at Elkington and Co. in Birmingham. Next to that are bars of copper produced during the Parkes’ process, a method of extracting valuable metal from lead.

While working on the project I found Parkes’ legacy hiding around every corner, or at least painted on the walls.

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Bread Collective and the community of Hackney Wick worked together on The Walls Have Ears project to paint a mural celebrating the industrial history of the area. Why, you may ask is Parkesine, a Birmingham inventor’s miracle material, immortalised on a wall between wasteland and an Overground station? The answer is the Parkesine Company Ltd, opened in Hackney Wick in 1866 to commercialise Parkesine.

During the 19th century, desirable materials such as ivory, ebony and tortoiseshell became increasingly rare and expensive. A sustainable replica was required to meet the demand. Not only could Parkesine imitate expensive materials it also changed the face of consumerism and mass-produced goods.

Cheap to produce but moulded into the finery of the day – imitation ivory mirrors or tortoiseshell jewellery – Parkesine opened the door to people from all walks of life to be the proud owners of fancy-looking goods.  Analogous to today’s high street stores imitating designer clothes and accessories. We may proudly walk around in Pri-marni now, but Parkes was changing social aspirations over 150 years ago.

Despite Parkes’ enthusiasm and his ability to raise £100,000 (worth £10 million today) from the great industrialists of the time, the factory filed for bankruptcy after two years. Parkes’ desire to compete against natural rubbers and keep his investors happy affected the quality of the goods produced. There are records of combs deforming after a few weeks and other items exploding!

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

The final group of 14 objects on display reflect the range of objects Parkes made, from jewellery to cutlery, along with the enchanting variety of coloured pigments used.

One of my favourite objects is a toothed wheel made out of black Parkesine. If used, this small item was more likely to set your factory alight than run machinery! Parkesine is a combination of organic matter – cotton fibre – mixed with chemical nitrates, vegetable oils, camphor and alcohol.  When nitrates get hot they have a tendency to explode, so using Parkesine for anything that creates friction is asking for trouble.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860. Credit: SSPL

Lucky, the Science Museum also looks after the notebooks of Alexander Parkes in our Archives at Wroughton. Parkes’ scribbles in these notebooks shows more than just his dedication to rigorous experimentation. Imbedded between the pages listing chemical combinations are delicate sketches of British landscapes. This material, along with the objects in store was integral for the 3D and 2D designers without whom this case would not look so captivating.

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Image: SSPL

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Credit: SSPL

Producing a display like this is a team effort, with many departments helping to turn hours spent researching and rummaging through stores into a display for visitors. The workshops team were up at the crack of dawn to build and install the display and the conservation team were involved from the start to ensure the objects would be safely displayed. Finally, after months of writing and rewriting text, the ribbon was cut and my first showcase was opened.

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man and Polymath

Sue Mossman explores the life of Alexander Parks, inventor of early plastics, on his 200th birthday.

Alexander Parkes was born in Birmingham on 29th December 1813. In his early career he described himself as an artist, and only later a chemist. He might also have described himself as a metallurgist.

A decorative metalworker by training, Parkes was to turn his sharp intelligence towards a variety of old and new materials in the burgeoning industrial world of mid-19th-century Britain. His life was an active one – he was granted over 66 patents. He also found time to father 17 children with two wives, his second wife being the friend of his eldest daughter.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Parkes had a varied and successful career in metallurgy, working on a number of processes, including the desilverising of lead – known as the Parkes process. While employed at Elkington, Mason and Company in Birmingham, he developed a process for electroplating works of art and later fragile natural objects. The epitome of this technique was a silver-plated spider’s web presented to Prince Albert.

Parkes is perhaps best known for the eponymous Parkesine – the first form of celluloid – an early semi-synthetic plastic based on gun cotton. He took out his first related patent in 1855. Parkes later won a bronze medal for excellence of product in the International Exhibition of 1862 and later a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1867.

Objects made from Parkesine, c 1860.

Objects made from Parkesine, c 1860.

Henry Bessemer, of steel production fame, was a colleague of Parkes. Indeed Bessemer topped the list of the investors in the Parkesine Company set up in 1866, although the company failed in 1868 – probably because of issues associated with quality and flammability. Parkes, though a prolific inventor, was no businessman. We might see him as a victim of an agile but perhaps too busy mind, and of a strong moral conscience. When he developed a potentially lucrative explosive powder, he refused to sell it to the British, French or Russian governments.

In a letter written on 7 March 1881, Parkes rather plaintively remarked that: ‘In answer to the American Inquiry “Who Invented Celluloid” … I do wish the World to know who the inventor really was, for it is a poor reward after all I have done to be denied the merit of the invention.’

Celluloid, the direct descendant of Parkesine, became a great commercial success, used to make a range of decorative goods, often imitating the more expensive ivory, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. Perhaps its most enduring legacy was its application in cinematic film. Parkes had foreseen the use of Parkesine film as a replacement for glass photographic negatives as early as 1856. Even he would have been amazed by the development of celluloid film and the birth of the Hollywood film industry.

Parkesine is a fragile material, subject to degradation by light, so is seldom put on display. But from December 2013 to mid 2014 a selection of objects made from this beautiful and rare semi-synthetic plastic can be seen at the Science Museum, together with other items associated with the life and works of Alexander Parkes.

Sparks fly in west London

Curator of Communications John Liffen blogs on recreating early ‘wireless telegraphy’ ahead of the opening of Information Age, a new gallery exploring communication technologies.

Radio operators on board ship used to be nicknamed ‘Sparks’ – and with good reason. In the earliest days of ‘wireless telegraphy’ the radio waves were created by a continuous train of high-voltage sparks. The phenomenon can be observed whenever you switch a light on or off if a radio set is switched on nearby. At the moment the switch connects or breaks the mains circuit, sparks are created which send out pulses of radio waves which will be heard as a momentary crackle through the set’s loudspeaker.

On board ship, generating equipment continuously charged up capacitors which spontaneously discharged at high voltage across a spark gap. The radio operator used a morse key (a simple on/off switch) to interrupt the sparks in the form of morse code. The resulting coded radio wave ‘oscillations’ could be heard by other ships within a radius of a hundred miles or so. This was the method of transmission in use at the time of the Titanic disaster in April 1912. Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, the operators on the Titanic, sent out their distress signals in this way which were picked up through the headphones of operators on board other ships with range.

The Titanic, seen shortly before she sailed on her last voyage (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Titanic, seen shortly before she sailed on her last voyage (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

In the 1920s the use of spark transmission was phased out as more efficient transmitters using thermionic valves or ‘tubes’ were introduced. These could be tuned to a much more precise frequency so were less wasteful of the radio-frequency spectrum than spark transmitters. Today almost nobody will have heard the sound of a radio message sent by spark.

Sparks flash across the spark gap (source: Science Museum / John Liffen)

Sparks flash across the spark gap (source: Science Museum / John Liffen)

Consequently when we decided to feature the Titanic disaster in our new Information Age gallery, we felt we should re-create some of the morse distress messages so they could be heard by visitors much as they had been in 1912.

In order to do so we had to find a specialist radio historian with a suitable spark transmitter. One such individual is Dr Tony Constable, the founding Chairman of the British Vintage Wireless Society. Recently I visited his home in west London.

He had set up a suitable induction coil, Hertz-type spark gap and morse key in his living room, set to work at the lowest possible power so as to avoid, as far as possible, interference on neighbours’ radios.

Tony Constable keys in a message. The spark transmitter is on the right (Source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony Constable keys in a message. The spark transmitter is on the right (Source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Together we worked out a couple of messages, adapted from the original transcripts. This from the Titanic:

SOS SOS SOS CQD CQD CQD TITANIC STRUCK ICEBERG

and this from the rescue ship Carpathia:

TITANIC CALLS CQD HIS SIGNALS BLURRED AND END ABRUPTLY

CQD was the original morse distress signal. It had been replaced by SOS before 1912 but at that time both were still used by some operators.

Tony Constable at the morse key (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony Constable at the morse key (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony placed an vintage Bush transistor radio on the other side of the same room and de-tuned it on medium wave away from any programmes so that it just gave out a hiss. The morse signals were clearly audible as a harsh buzzing, incidentally demonstrating the un-tuned nature of spark transmission.

How the signals were received: Bush transistor radio on left, digital recorder on right (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

How the signals were received: Bush transistor radio on left, digital recorder on right (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

As you can hear, the recordings were very successful. A word of warning, though. The equipment, though simple, uses very high voltages and must be handled with extreme care. We don’t recommend you try this particular experiment yourself.

Discover more about the history of communication technologies in our new Information Age gallery, opening in 2014.  

Information Age team begin the one year countdown

Charlotte Connelly is a content developer on Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opening in September 2014.

This week over in the Information Age team we passed an exciting marker. Instead of counting the time to the gallery opening in years, for the first time we’ve slipped into counting in weeks and months. It seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done so far, and some of the interesting things we still have to look forward to.

Where we’ve come from

The early days of the project were all about research. We spent time rummaging in the museum stores for great objects we could include, visiting other museums, immersing ourselves in archives and doing interviews with knowledgeable folks about communication and information technology.

Where we found gaps in our collection we came up with plans to fill the gaps, growing our collections and expertise as we went. One of those gaps was a decided lack of mobile phone technologies from developing countries – a massive oversight if you’re trying to tell a story about the impact of mobiles in the world today. Our solution was to embark on an ambitious collecting project in Cameroon, which I’ve written about here.

We collected objects and interviews on a research trip to Cameroon to find out more about the impact of mobile phones in Africa (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

We also set about improving our knowledge of the collections already in the museum, and spent long hours looking at objects and reading through the files we keep on them.

We made some exciting finds rummaging through the museum’s archives (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

As our knowledge about the technology and collections grew so did our ideas about we could include in the gallery. We developed a list of 21 compelling stories about how communication and information technologies have affected our lives over the last 200 years. Our next challenge was working out the best ways to tell those stories. We have been working with a lot of different people to help us, from individuals offering their telegrams for inclusion in Information Age and volunteers helping with our research, to larger organisations like the British Vintage Wireless Society and the Samaritans.

Members of the British Vintage Wireless Society in the museum’s stores (Source: Science Museum)

Where are we now?

With a year to go we’ve selected all the objects that will go into the Information Age gallery, and worked out what the showcases will look. The Museum’s conservation team have been beavering away on preparing the objects for display, and the collections information team have been arranging loans and getting all the paperwork sorted for the new objects we’ve acquired, like a replica of the first ever computer mouse.

Things have started happening in the gallery space too. The space is now empty (we captured this stunning laser scan of the old gallery), waiting for the new Information Age gallery structure to be built. We’re even expecting our first objects to be installed soon (mostly the very big ones that require quite a large hole being made in the wall!)

The empty gallery leaves us with a formidable amount of space to fill. (Source: Science Museum)

In April 2013 we officially launched the project, and invited some of our supporters to see the work we’d been doing. Suddenly we were faced with lots of expectant faces, and it made the whole project feel much more real somehow.

We got some of our objects out to show off to supporters at the Information Age launch (Source: Science Museum)

What comes next?

Those of us working on the content of the gallery have already started writing the labels that accompany the object. We’re also getting started on all the digital things – things like interactive screens in the gallery, and the pages for the website, plus one or two surprises that we’ll announce later.

Some of the audience research team testing a prototype of one of our interactive displays. (Source: Sophie Keyse / Science Museum)

The building work and show cases will soon start to progress quickly, and behind the scenes the conservation team will be slowly but surely working through the list of objects that need preparing for display. It won’t be long before we’re starting to install objects in their final positions, ready for the exciting moment when we open our doors.

Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opens in September 2014.

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?

Message received: telegram collecting across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new communications gallery opening in 2014. Jen has been working on a project to collect and photograph old telegrams.  

Long before we could send a text message, email our contacts, use a landline telephone, or hear the news on the radio, we communicated important information and messages of goodwill via telegrams. This amazing system was introduced as early the 1830s, and continued to be used in the UK until its end in 1982.

For a lot of people, sending or receiving a telegram was predominantly confined to matters of urgency, such as notifying the illness or death of relatives. As such, the telegram came to be associated with bad news, and was often dreaded by the receiver. But as other forms of communication became more mainstream and efficient, telegrams became more of a novelty, being used to send messages of congratulations for weddings and births, and have since been kept as keepsakes.

To support the development of a section of the Information Age gallery that’s all about telegraphy, the team thought that it would be great to have a selection of telegrams on display. However, with few telegrams in our collection, the challenge was set to identify examples which show the range of messages sent over the telegram’s long history, and which could be displayed in the new gallery. To overcome this, we invited members of the public to share their telegrams and the stories behind them with us.

Community collector volunteers Alastair and Maja scanning some telegrams. (Source: Science Museum)

To ensure that we collected stories from across the UK, we invited partner museums to work with us, allowing them to also acquire telegrams for their own collections, and to make new connections within their local communities. To help with the search, each museum recruited community collector volunteers who spread the word, identified potential donors and organised collecting days at their local museums. These events took place throughout July, with dozens of fantastic telegrams being collected. Digital scans of these telegrams, along with supporting images and the stories behind the messages will go on display in Information Age, as well as few physical paper telegrams too.

The project has been a great trial for working with volunteers to collect material, and to ensure that the Museum reaches beyond its London base. We will be running sessions with all of the community collectors in the next few weeks to hear their views on the project and to share our lessons learned with each other.

The partner museums who took part are The Cardiff Story, National Museums Scotland, The Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum. Massive thanks to them all for their support and hard work throughout the project.

Examples of some of the great telegrams shared by the public. (Source: Science Museum)

Beyond the mouse – the future of computer interfaces

Chloe Vince, volunteer on the Information Age project takes a look at the humble computer mouse, Douglas Englebart’s best-known contribution to modern computing.

Since its invention in 1963, the computer mouse has become an iconic image of personal computing. It was designed and developed by visionary engineer Douglas Engelbart who recently passed away on 4th July 2013 at the age of 88.

This early version of the computer mouse bears very little resemblance to those that we use today – it began as simply a wooden shell encasing a circuit board attached to two wheels which allowed movement across a surface. It was the wire that extended from the wooden shell and connected it to the computer that gave it is resemblance to its namesake – christening it a ‘mouse.’

A replica of the first ever computer mouse designed by Douglas Engelbart invented in 1963 and patented in 1970 (Source: SRI International)

Whilst the function of the mouse has remained the same since this initial model, the design has become much more streamlined. In 1972 computer engineer Bill English replaced the wheels for a ball, allowing the mouse to move in any direction. However this design soon encountered problems when dirt accumulated on the ball and restricted its use and as a result, in 1981 the mouse underwent another redesign.

It was then that engineers at technology company Xerox developed the first optical mouse, which worked by using focused beams of light to detect the movement of the mouse relative the surface it was on. In successive years, the combination of reduced cost in equipment and the progression in optical technology provided us with the optical computer mice that are used widely today.

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

While computer mice have retained their popularity with desktop computers and laptops, more intuitive computer interface technologies started becoming favoured on tablet computers and smart phones.

In the early 1990’s, the stylus pen began to be used widely, particularly with smart phones and message pads. Shortly after, the pen was lost and multi-touch screens became the most popular means to interact with these devices. These screens can detect two or more points of contact on an interface so users can rotate, pinch and zoom in on graphics – something you may be used to doing on your mobile phone.

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

This technology is so effortless to use it is difficult to think of how this interaction can become any easier – but what if you didn’t have to do anything at all? What if all you had to do was think about what you wanted your computer to do?

Computer tablets and smart phones used today mostly use a combination of multi-touch screens and voice recognition software. (Source: Flickr user ‘Exacq’ under creative commons license)

This month, scientists at the University of Washington have published findings showing that patients who had a thin layer of electrodes placed in their brain were able to move a cursor on a computer screen by demand by just thinking about it. Although in the early stages, this technology has the potential for users to communicate with computers using only their thoughts to control the commands on the screen.

While the idea of computers interpreting our thoughts may seem like a daunting prospect for most, patients suffering with severe forms of paralysis could find this research to be a life-line, allowing them to communicate with people via computers for the first time.

At the moment it is unknown whether this technology will be taken further commercially. Do you think it has the potential to be used at home or work to improve our lives? Or do you think this could take our relationship with computer technology too far?

A replica of Englebart’s mouse prototype will be on display in the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014.

The Turing Tour on Twitter

Curator David Rooney is preparing to take our Twitter followers on a rather unique tour.

Last June, we opened our Codebreaker exhibition, which reveals the life and legacy of a truly remarkable man, Alan Turing. The opening coincided with Turing’s 100th birthday, and over the last 12 months it has been a pleasure to read your comments and welcome so many of you to our exhibition.

To anticipate Turing’s birthday this year, I’ll be giving a live tour of the exhibition via Twitter on Tuesday 18th June between 18.00-18.30 BST. You can join in by following #TuringTour and tweeting your questions to @sciencemuseum.

After the tour, from 18.30-19.00 BST, I will be answering your questions about Turing and our exhibition on Twitter. Send your questions to @sciencemuseum or leave them in the comments below. You’ll need to be on Twitter to see my answers as I’ll be replying through the @sciencemuseum twitter account.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

I hope you can join me for our #TuringTour next week to discover more about the life and legacy of this extraordinary man.