Category Archives: Exhibitions

Mobile technology: past, present and future

This blog post is writted by Chloe Vince, volunteer for Information Age. Information Age is a brand new communications gallery opening in 2014. 

“Joel, I’m calling you from a ‘real’ cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone.”

These words, spoken by Martin Cooper – a senior engineer at Motorola, to Joel Engel – a competing developer at the company Bell Labs, began the first ever conversation to be had on a mobile telephone.

It was 40 years ago that Martin Cooper, who has since become known as the father of the mobile telephone, made that call on a Motorola DynaTAC – a device 9 inches tall, 5 inches deep and weighing 28 ounces – truly a ‘brick’. However, it was still not until what has become known as the ‘digital decade’ between 1993 and 2003 that the mobile phones really took off commercially.

The Motorola 8800X ‘block phone’ launched in 1993 at the beginning of the ‘digital decade,’ (Source; Science Museum)

Since then the mobile phone has advanced significantly – not least of all in size and design. Using mobile telephones as a means of calling your friends seems to have become inconsequential with the use of mobile internet, maps, text messaging, music and access to various other applications on-the-go. Which leaves me wondering – where next? How can mobile phone technology developer even further in the next forty years?

The Motorola StarTAC mobile phone launched in 1996 was the first ever ‘clamshell’ design phone, and was one of the first mobile phones to succeed commercially – selling around 60 million. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Motorola StarTAC was the first ever ‘clamshell’ design phone. Launched in 1996, it was one of the first mobile phones to succeed commercially. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

Several communication companies, such as Telstra are currently trialling the use of mobile phones alongside health monitors, for example heart rate monitors attached discreetly to elderly patients, to transmit real-time health data to your GP enabling them to respond quickly to any abnormal activity. This technology would also have the potential to screen for major illness every time it takes a reading. Can you imagine how many lives could be saved rather than waiting five years between health screenings? Not to mention the time and money saved from reduced face-to-face check-ups and appointments.

But let’s take a step back for a moment – is this all good news? Mobile phone companies already have access to a lot of your personal information – most call and text message records are retained for at least a year and GPS services allow mobile networks to trace where your phone is used. Do you want mobile phone companies to have access to our health data too? Or do you think the potential health benefits outweigh the possible privacy risks?

With so much progress being made since that first telephone call in 1973, the future of mobile phone technology seems limitless. What do you think the future holds?

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.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Science Museum enters the Information Age

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer for Information Age, a new communications technology gallery opening in September 2014.

Last night the Science Museum announced exciting details about a new £16m communications gallery, Information Age, which will open in September 2014.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph. Image credit: Science Museum / Universal Design Studio

The gallery will be a celebration of information and communication technologies. We’re already working on cutting edge interactive displays and participatory experiences that will reveal the stories behind how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Hundreds of unique objects from the Science Museum’s collections will go on display, many of which have never been seen before. They will include the BBC’s first radio transmitter 2LO, the BESM-6, the only Russian supercomputer in a museum collection in the West, and a full sized communications satellite.

Laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 proved to be a tricky challenge to overcome. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

In Information Age we tell some of the dramatic stories behind the growth of the worldwide telegraph network in the 19th century and the influence of mobile phones on our lives today. Visitors can uncover stories about the birth of British broadcasting and learn about pioneering achievements in the development of the telephone. The role of satellites in global communications and the birth of the World Wide Web will also be explored in the new gallery.

Not only are we working hard behind the scenes of the Museum, we’ve also been working with lots of other organisations to develop the gallery. For our mobile phone display, we have a great selection of objects collected in Cameroon – look out for a blog post all about that coming soon! We’ve been working with Cameroonian communities in both Cameroon and the UK to decide how these stories are displayed.

We’ve also interviewed women who worked on the manual telephone exchange at Enfield in North London. Their stories have been selected by young women from the same area to be included in the gallery.

Our Curator of Communication, John Liffen, looking at a section of the Enfield exchange when it was installed in the Enfield Museum (Source: Hilary Geoghegan)

Watch this space to discover more about Information Age as the team will be writing regular blog posts about their work on the gallery to keep you up to date. Add your comments below to tell us what you would like to find out about.

Experiencing the Science Museum

This blog post was written by Emily to share her thoughts on her placement at the Science Museum

I came to the Science Museum for a two week work experience placement and was surprised at how much there was going on! Going to a museum for a school trip, or even for a day out with my family, I’m used to seeing people in the Learning department, working at the café and in the shop but being behind the scenes, I discovered there was much more then meets the eye…

Emily with Helen Sharman’s space suit ( Science Museum, London )

Walking into the building on day one, the first thing I noticed was that staff had a separate entrance with their own receptionist – there must be a lot of people working here. Then, on my quick look around the museum, half of it was looking at the galleries and exhibitions, but the other was walking around all the hidden away offices, conservation rooms and more. There was so much going on and it was all immensely interesting. Working in the Collections Office, I was opened to the opportunity to do a wide variety of tasks and experiences: Going to interesting meetings, contributing to website creations, visiting Blythe House, and doing things that actually made a difference around the museum.

Computers at Blythe House

 I’m quite a shy person. Usually, I find it very difficult to talk to people I don’t know or have never met and I become extremely passive. Working at the museum, however, with everyone being so friendly, I felt very comfortable in the work place very quickly. I was even shocked at myself at how I could so easily talk to people I had only just met and I think that being so warmly welcomed was a big contribution to that.

There were some stressful bits of work; guiding a group of people from one place to another, although a simple job, it had to be executed smoothly, and being a naturally worried person, it was quite a big thing for me to do. None the less, it was completed successfully so I was rather proud of my self. This was, after all, work experience, and it was good for me to see some of the less relaxed parts of a full time job.

Pharmacy jars at Blythe House

But, of course, this experience couldn’t be complete without a tour of Blythe House, a store for objects, and a wind down with a milkshake, IMAX film and Learning show. I enjoyed working at the museum and will undoubtedly miss my time here. But, I will leave with a fully enriching experience and I cannot thank everyone who made it such a nice time for me, enough.

 Join us soon for a second blog post by Emily on her favourite art piece at the Science Museum.

 

 

Magnesium ammonium phosphate model by Kathleen Lonsdale, c. 1966. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

X-ray crystallography at 100

In 1913, following the discovery that crystals produce patterns when subjected to X-ray bombardment, father-and-son team William and Lawrence Bragg formalised the laws of X-ray crystallography. In 1915 they won a Nobel Prize for their work – Lawrence, at 25, remaining to this day the youngest winner. To celebrate the centenary of X-ray crystallography, the Science Museum has just opened Hidden Structures, a new display of molecular models made using the technique.

Why water boils at a 100°C and methane at -161°C; why blood is red and grass is green; how sunlight makes plants grow and how living organisms have been able to evolve into ever complex forms – the answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis. - Max Perutz

Since it was first developed, X-ray crystallography has been the preeminent method of analysis of molecular structure, leading to a profound understanding of the way various substances are built. The spectacular patterns revealed by the technique and the necessity of constructing large-scale molecular models has resulted in some of the Science Museum’s most striking objects.

By far the most famous result of X-ray crystallography is the structure of DNA, discovered by Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The context of this vital work is not usually talked about – the Science Museum’s display shows that proteins, viruses and other molecules were being intensively studied in the years after World War II. And the timing isn’t a coincidence: some scientists who considered the atomic bomb to be an abuse of physics turned to molecular biology, as a way of working with the fundamental physical structure but for a benign purpose.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about X-ray crystallography is that it has played an important part in the story of modern design. At the 1951 Festival of Britain – an even famed for its colourful and innovative look – one of the main visual motifs was atomic structure. We hope we’ve captured something of the spirit of 1951 in this display of important and intriguing models.

Brois Jardine is Curator of History of Science at the Science Museum. Hidden Structures, a new display case celebrating the centenary of X-ray crystallography, opens today until the end of 2013.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

The multiple lives of Alan Turing

February is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month, and this year the focus is on mathematics, science and engineering. Here, David Rooney, curator of the Science Museum’s award-winning Codebreaker exhibition, discusses mathematician Alan Turing’s contributions to science and society.

Alan Turing’s life had many facets. He is perhaps most widely known today for his wartime codebreaking exploits at Bletchley Park, where he devised processes and technologies to crack German ‘Enigma’ messages on an industrial scale. The intelligence uncovered at Bletchley was central to Britain’s war effort and may have shortened the conflict by up to two years. Winston Churchill described the site’s cryptanalysts as his ‘golden geese that never cackled’.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

Turing’s first major contribution to science had been a paper written in 1936, when he was just 24, on an abstruse theoretical problem in the philosophy of mathematics. ‘On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ attacked German mathematician David Hilbert’s so-called ‘decision problem’, which sought a formal underpinning of mathematics. Turing’s paper was a philosophical bombshell which destroyed the consistency of the subject.

This work brought Turing to the attention of a small group of mathematicians and philosophers, but it was its theoretical description of a ‘universal computing machine’, capable of carrying out any computable task, which was later seen as the conceptual basis of today’s stored-program computers. For Turing, his 1936 universal machines were simply thought experiments, but for others they signalled the future of computing. Turing himself wrote one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, later realised as the ‘Pilot ACE’, on display in the exhibition.

The first demonstration of the pilot ACE at NPL, December, 1950.

Alongside his work in cryptanalysis and computing, Turing is also widely remembered for his work on machine intelligence after he left wartime Bletchley Park. The ‘Turing test’, sketched out in his seminal 1950 paper ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, has become a popular trope in artificial intelligence. It was Turing’s response to a philosophical stumbling block. First he asked, ‘Can machines think?’ He then proposed that this, itself, could never be known. Instead, if a machine could appear to be intelligent in a guessing game, then it could be assumed to be intelligent.

The relationship between thought and matter was a common theme throughout Turing’s life. As a teenager at Sherborne School, Dorset, he became closely attracted to a fellow student, Christopher Morcom, who was a year older. Morcom was, if anything, even brighter than Turing, and more devoted to mathematics and science. The pair became close friends, although Turing’s love of Morcom was unrequited.

Meeting Morcom was a watershed in Turing’s life, acting as an emotional catalyst that converted the previously ill-focused, undisciplined but undoubtedly clever boy into a young man constantly attempting to improve himself. Morcom died, aged 18, from tuberculosis, and the rest of Turing’s life seemed to be an attempt to keep Morcom alive and make him proud.

If Morcom’s friendship and death was material in Turing’s intellectual development, it can also be seen as a focus for the complex ideas about intelligence and the mind that Turing developed towards the end of his own life. Writing to Morcom’s mother soon after her bereavement, Turing said, ‘when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body’. Even in his 1950 paper on machine intelligence Turing showed great interest in paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and psychokinesis that were at the fringes of scientific respectability even then.

Turing’s science remained resolutely off the mainstream. Having broken codes for the nation and conceived new paradigms in mathematics, computing and intelligence, he produced final work that was so avant-garde that it was virtually abandoned after his death in 1954, only to be picked up again relatively recently. Morphogenesis – the development of pattern and form in living things – occupied his thoughts for the last four years of his life as he ran computer simulations of the mathematics and chemistry of life itself.

The intercept control room in hut 6 at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, the British forces’ intelligence centre during WWII. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

At Cambridge University, where he studied in the 1930s, and at wartime Bletchley Park, Turing’s homosexuality was relatively tolerated. But in post-war Britain a new morality was rapidly emerging. Britain’s future rested on repopulating the country with young men to replace the millions slaughtered at war. Homosexual people – men and women – were increasingly characterised as deviant and harmful to the fitness of the race, and their presence in society became a matter of national concern.

The Cold War intensified these concerns, as gay people were assumed to be at risk of blackmail, endangering the security of the nation. Turing held some of the nation’s most secret knowledge in his head.

Alan Turing and colleagues working on the Ferranti Mark I Computer in 1950. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In 1952, following an unlawful sexual relationship, Turing was tried and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ under the anti-homosexuality legislation of the day. He was stripped of his security clearance and his post-war consultancy to Bletchley Park’s successor, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), ended. He was offered a choice of imprisonment or a one-year course of hormone treatment to suppress his libido, and he took the latter. It was chemical castration.

Turing appeared to recover well from the sentence after its effects subsided, but by then he was under police surveillance and it is likely that his actions had become of grave concern to the security services. On 7 June 1954 he ingested a large amount of cyanide solution at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire and was found dead the next day by his housekeeper. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide, opining that Turing’s ‘mind had become unbalanced’. Turing did not leave a suicide note, and the full circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

For further information visit Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy at the Science Museum, which runs until summer 2013.

 

The greatest inventions since (manufactured) bread?

After learning about the manufacturing process of bread during a bread baking course Pippa Murray got to thinking about what other mass produced products used in our day to day lives have evolved in order to save us time…

Traditionally bread making is a lengthy process. Hours of kneading, proving and baking produce just one meagre loaf. It’s no wonder that so many of us choose to buy a loaf from the shops instead of making it ourselves! The invention of the Chorleywood bread process in 1961 transformed bread  into a product that could be manufactured on mass and distributed to stores nationwide.

This got me thinking what other inventions that have had a similar time saving affect on our lives. Below are a just a smattering of these, often overlooked, household products that can be found in the Making Modern World gallery at the Science Museum.

Microwave oven, 1968 ( Science Museum, London )

The microwave oven was invented by accident after the Second World War when a self-taught engineer named Percy Spencer was building radar equipment in a lab for Raytheon. While he had been building magnetrons,  he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket started to melt. He realised that microwaves can be directed at food to heat it up rapidly. The conventional microwave oven hit the market in 1967 quickly followed a succession of tantalising microwavable meals.

Sunbeam Ironmaster Model X21 electric dry iron, 1955 ( Science Museum, London )

The humble electric steam iron is not the most exciting of objects (or chores) but arguably one of the most important, popular and widely used domestic electric appliances. The electric iron was invented in 1882 by Henry W. Seeley but it was only until 1938, when the Steam-O-Matic electric steam iron was released did the object become popular, leading the way to more widespread use of the electric steam iron during the 1940s and 1950s.

This model above is one of the earlier Goblin "Teasmade", Model D.25B, 1966, first model made at Leatherhead Works ( Science Museum, London )

And my personal favourite the Teasmade, a multi faceted alarm clock come tea/coffee maker. Designed in 1902 by Albert E Richardson who decided to combine an alarm clock with a small kettle so that the user awoke to a freshly poured cup of tea. Several years later Teasmade trademarked it and developed the product seen above. A great invention but how many of us have them on our bedside tables?

Oar-some boats!

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit.  Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

I recently told you about the tiny gun-punt model that was on show in the British Small Craft exhibit at  the Science Museum, now closed to make way for a major new gallery on communications. Today, I’ve got three models from the sea boats display to show you: the cutter, gig and lifeboat.

The sea boat models (cutter, gig and lifeboat) formerly shown on the mezzanine of the Shipping Gallery (Image: Science Museum)

The cutter model represents the general utility boat used by the Navy and carried on their warships at the beginning of twentieth century. The label explains that it is clincher-built (overlapping plank construction) and ‘is very much heavier, both in design and construction than a gig.’

Detail of the cutter (Image: Science Museum)

It goes on to say that it was pulled by 12 oars, six aside with each oar equalling one man.  But if you look closely at the model you see that it actually has seven rowlocks down each side making 14 in total, not 12.  This model, along with the gig, was lent to the museum by a Lieutenant Colonel H Wyllie in 1934.

Detail of the gig (Image: Science Museum)

In comparison, the gig (as a boat type) was lightly built using the carvel building method (plank edges fused together side-by-side) creating fine lines for speed. This model represents a captain’s gig used in the Navy at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Because it was a more elegant and lightly built craft it needed fewer men to pull it along, hence the six visible metal rowlocks – three on each side.

Detail of the ship’s lifeboat and the ‘davits’ (Image: Science Museum)

This model of a ship’s lifeboat is shown ‘on davits of a quadrant type, patented by Mr A. Welin in 1900’ as the accompanying label explains.  Axel Welin was a Swedish inventor and industrialist who founded his own engineering firm, the Welin Davit & Engineering Company Ltd.  The model shows his quadrant design for the davits – with the horizontal mechanism movement – which meant that a life boat like this could be lowered quickly and safely over the side of a ship in an evacuation.

 I’ve one more British Small Craft story to share with you – watch out for my final post.

Champagne scientists: collecting the Higgs

Champagne corks have been popping at CERN today, with news that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has glimpsed the elusive Higgs boson, or at least something that looks very like it. We’re hoping that one or two of the champagne bottles will find their way into the Science Museum’s collections. Bottles of bubbly might seem a rather strange addition to a museum physics collection, but they’re one way for us to capture news like this morning’s for posterity: ironically, sometimes ephemera are the best way of keeping a long-term material record.

Just in case: champagne on standby for some big Higgs news (Source: Aidan Randle-Conde's blog at quantumdiaries.org)

The latest addition to our collections comes courtesy of a press conference run by the  Science and Technology Facilities Council in London this morning, simultaneously with CERN. After a scramble for a printer and some hasty autograph-hunting, we now have a copy of the UK’s Higgs press release signed by this morning’s panel: STFC chief John Womersley, and Jim Virdee and Jon Butterworth who spoke on behalf of CMS and ATLAS, the two giant LHC detectors that have seen the Higgs.

This morning's press release (Image: Alison Boyle)

 The document will find its way into our Archives for safe keeping and might get an outing fairly soon as part of our major new exhibition on the LHC to open in Autumn 2013. And this week, you can keep up to date with the Higgs hunt via our Antenna Science News gallery. There’ll be a special news exhibition on display from tomorrow, and on Friday the Museum’s very own LHC physicist Harry Cliff will be discussing the news and its implications at a lunchtime event. Keep an eye out for more details on our homepage!

Steaming through the centuries

Mention ‘steam engine’ to most people and they immediately think of railway engines. Yet long before railways, stationary steam engines helped power the Industrial Revolution – the years between 1760 and 1830 when Britain became the world’s first industrial nation. 

Our standard of living, plus the environmental and energy supply issues which threaten us today, grew out of the Industrial Revolution.

'Old Bess' ( Peter Turvey)

One of the oldest surviving engines from that time is now in the Science Museum, ‘Old Bess’ built in 1777 by Boulton & Watt. 

Removed from its original site in Boulton’s Soho Manufactory Birmingham, after it stopped work in 1848, the only way we can now show visitors what ‘Old Bess’ looked like when in use is via a model or a computer animation

However there are a still a few preserved stationary engines on their original sites which can be seen working on special occasions.

The most amazing survival is the 1812 Boulton & Watt engine at Crofton Pumping Station in Wiltshire.

Built well before the oldest working standard gauge steam railway locomotive in the UK, Furness Railway No. 20 of 1863, it is the oldest surviving working stationary steam engine still on its original site.   

Though replaced by electric pumps in 1958, it is kept in working order by a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.

Beam of the 1812 Boulton & Watt Engine at Crofton Pumping Station ( Peter Turvey )

The pumping station is open to the public during the summer months, and the engine run on ‘steaming weekends’ when it can be seen still doing the job for which it was built, raising water into the summit level of the Kennet  and Avon Canal.

Nowhere else can visitors experience such a complete example of Georgian steam power in action.  2012 marks this wonderful old engine’s bicentenary, and with special events this summer Crofton should be well worth a visit.