Category Archives: Exploration

60 years of conquering Mount Everest

Dr Helen Peavitt, curator of Consumer Technology, writes about the technology behind sixty years of conquering Mount Everest.

At 11.30am, on this day (29th May) in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people in the world to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were part of the expedition team led by John Hunt. Despite the relative ‘ease’ with which the summit is climbed today by increasing numbers of people, the magnitude of the 1953 achievement cannot be underestimated. The mountain still maintains its mystique and reasserts its perilous nature during each climbing season, with an average of one death for every ten successful attempts on the summit.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks. Credit © DEA / BERSEZIO / Universal Images Group / Science & Society Picture Library

The infamous character of the Himalayan peak began in 1852, when George Everest’s Great Trigonometrical Survey of India established peak ‘b’ as the survey team first called it as the highest mountain in the world. Straddling Nepal and Tibet – both secretive, inaccessible countries at the time – it was perhaps inevitable that it would enter the imagination of many by providing another unknown, uncharted territory to explore. After the Tibetan government opened up the country to the British in the 1920s, attempts on the mountain’s summit from the north side by a rash of British-led teams began. The successful 1953 party scaled the mountain from the south side.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b'.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b’. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The Science Museum holds a number of artefacts from some of the more well-known attempts on the summit. These reveal both the very private and the public nature of climbing the mountain. Although Hilary himself commented: ‘Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it’, much of the equipment developed for the 1953 expedition used cutting-edge technology. For example, the Pye wireless equipment used, including the walkie talkie in the image below, was specially adapted by Pye for the extremes of weather and temperature experienced on the mountain. This enabled the team to receive broadcasts from the world outside and to communicate with camps up to two miles away.

Pye radio set used on the successful 1953 expedition.

Some of the Pye radio equipment used on the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

An oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shows how even the air we take for granted has to be supplied for most climbing teams at such high altitude. The oxygen levels above 8,000m in the mountain’s Death Zone, are so low that the body uses its store of oxygen up faster than it can be replenished by breathing.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Many of the other Everest-related objects in our collections are more personal items of clothing. There are butter-soft silk gloves and a pair of special lightweight double clinker nailed climbing boots from the 1933 expedition; and a fibre jacket from a 1978 climb – the first successful ascent without bottled oxygen.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Whilst these objects are all in the Museum’s stores, a lurid waterproof jacket and trousers by Karrimor, using Gore-Tex was worn by Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest on the 40th Anniversary Expedition in 1993; is on show in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

There’s also a pair of Indian puttees belonging to Dr Tom Longstaff from the 1922 expedition – the first which set off with the expressed purpose of reaching the summit. Longstaff advised against the expedition’s third attempt on the summit during which seven were killed by an avalanche. Many of these objects form poignant and intimate reminders of the very personal nature of climbing the most famous mountain in the world.

Viewing Venus

UK astronomy enthusiasts are in for a serious case of Venus envy next week, as the planet transits the Sun. People in other parts of the world will have a good view, but while the 2004 transit was seen across the UK, this year’s – the last until 2117 – mostly happens after nightfall in these parts. Only the final stages will be visible at sunrise on 6 June, but that’s not stopping intrepid observers, who will be hoping that Britain’s infamous summer weather proves kind. Here’s a map of events if you would like to join in.

Venus starts its journey across the Sun's face in 2004 (Jamie Cooper / Science and Society).

Or, if an early rise doesn’t appeal, why not concentrate on past transits instead? There are recorded observations for six transits from 1639 onwards (here’s a map of where some took place) and it’s a rich history of ambitious voyages, international collaboration and competition, precision instrumentation and personal sacrifice.

The most famous transit expedition is that of Captain James Cook, who sailed to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit – although the main aim of his voyage was to claim the Southern Lands for the British Crown. From today, there’s a small display on the transit at the rear of our Exploring Space gallery, featuring one of the astronomical quadrants made for the Royal Society’s 1769 expeditions. These were used to establish the observers’ locations and help check timings, so that measurements from around the globe could be correlated in an attempt to establish the Earth-Sun distance.

Astronomical quadrant made by John Bird for the Royal Society (Science Museum).

We can’t say for sure that this instrument was the one used by Cook – his account of the voyage states that the quadrant was taken and dismantled by the Tahitians, and had to be hastily repaired; this one bears no obvious signs of mending. We do know that one of the clocks made for timing the transits, now on display in our Making the Modern World gallery, accompanied Cook on his third South Sea voyage in 1776.

Regulator clock made by John Shelton for the Royal Society (Science Museum).

Although less celebrated today, the two 19th century transits (1874 and 1882) also saw major expeditions, and were widely reported in the public sphere. This image shows the set up for the New Zealand station of Britain’s 1874 expeditions. It’s not clear if it was taken there,  or at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where the equipment and observing huts were assembled and tested prior to departure.

British Transit of Venus expedition to New Zealand, 1874 (Science Museum).

In the 21st century, there is no longer an imperative to mount large-scale co-ordinated expeditions, as the Earth-Sun distance is readily measured by other means. But it’s still an opportunity for interesting science: the Hubble telescope is going to use the Moon as a mirror to observe the Venusian atmosphere, contributing to the search for extrasolar planets. It’s also a great chance for people around the world to take part in amateur observations, which can be done without expensive equipment.

You can read more about previous transit expeditions in recently-published books by Andrea Wulf and Nick Lomb. And if you are going to try and see the transit for yourself, here’s how to do it safely. Hopefully you’ll have more luck than Guillaume le Gentil, the most desperately unfortunate transit-chaser ever. Happy viewing!


The Addictive History of Medicine: Explorer Beware: Hazardous chemicals in Captain Scott’s Antarctic Medicine Chest

Many museums and organisations have been celebrating the centenary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. But have you ever wondered what kind of medicine Scott and his party brought with them to the ends of the earth? Here at the Science Museum we know because we have one Scott’s original aluminium medicine chests. The chest, dated to 1910, was carried by Scott and his party when they set out for the pole in November 1911. This chest was originally kept at the Lower Glacier Depot on the way to the Pole, however it was picked up when Scott’s second in command Lieutenant Edward Evans began his return journey to the Cape. It was only recovered in 1912 when a search party set out to find Scott and his comrades, whose bodies were discovered 11 miles out from the One Ton Depot.

Aluminium medicine chest brought by Captain Scott to the Lower Glacier Depot c. 1910 (Credit: Science Museum).

This medicine chest can tell us about the kind of drugs indispensible to Scott and his comrades. Plastic bottles containing Paregoric Elixir (Camphorated Tincture of Opium) and Aromatic Powder tablets (chalk and opium) are to be found within this chest. Opium was a useful sedative and pain reliever. Additional phials of hypodermic tablets of cocaine and morphine would have been administered by injection in cases of extreme trauma.

Hazardous Substances from the medicine chest made by Burroughs Wellcome and Co. c. 1910 (Credit: Science Museum)

The chest contains other hazardous chemicals such as strychnine, belladonna, arsenic, and mercury – medicines that would have been used as irritants to bring on a sweat; a common nineteenth century remedy for fever.


Scott and his party at the South Pole, c.1912 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Although it is worth considering how modern medicines may have aided early explorers, we know that even the most efficacious of drugs could not have helped Scott or his team survive the Antarctic storms.

Written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers

A cup of tea, some cakes and a biscuit please…

Many objects in our collections weren’t really meant to survive the long-term. Food stuffs are such an example. While food packaging is commonly found in museum collections, food itself is rarer. And if uneaten during their pre-museum life, these objects remain vulnerable. Destructive pests like the Biscuit beetle are so named for a reason.

Within our stores are a number of foody objects, collected for a variety of reasons and which have so far eluded the appetites of both the two-legged and the six-legged.

Tea brick

Concentrated goodness from China, early 20th century (Science Museum)

This ‘brick’, for example, is not decorative masonry but a slab of compressed tea. A lump could be chipped off when you fancied a brew. Finely ground then forced into block moulds, tea bricks were a convenient form for trading. Once common in Central and Eastern Asia, they were often used as currency.

Cakes and newspaper cutting

Cakes and related newspaper cutting, mid 19th century (Science Museum)

These curious little cakes above are from much nearer home. Produced in the Kent village of Biddenden, they commemorate conjoined twins Maria and Eliza Chulkhurst, the ‘Biddenden Maids’.  There are doubts about when exactly they lived, but they were certainly well known ‘curiosities’ in their lifetimes. They were also philanthropists whose legacy included the Easter-time distribution of food to the local poor. These gifts eventually included the cakes stamped with their likeness which remain popular tourist souvenirs today.

Ship's biscuit

'Hard tack', baked in England c1875 (Science Museum)

This biscuit was also a souvenir – but one with unfortunate associations. It belonged to a member of an ill-fated Arctic Expedition of 1875, commanded by George Nares. The venture was cut short by scurvy, from which several crewmen died. Such biscuits (aka ‘hard tack’) are symbolic of the impoverished ship’s diet that precipitated the illness. And yet, ironically, this expedition had a good supply of lime juice, but it had been rendered useless by distilling it in copper vessels, thereby destroying the vitamin C.

The biscuit is stamped with a ‘D’, perhaps indicating it was from the lead ship HMS Discovery. While our records say the biscuit once belonged to a ‘ship’s carpenter’. A crew list indicates the likely suspects who pocketed this unappetising snack – one that even the biscuit beetles have so far declined.

Mundane remains?

Reading Trilce’s recent post, I was reminded of objects from Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition within our vast medical collections. Simple items and anonymous fragments, easily overlooked on their storeroom shelves. But they are reminders of one of the most obvious, yet magical things about museum collections – even the most mundane looking objects can be transformed through association.

Razor from Franklin Expedition

Razor from the Franklin Expedition (Science Museum)

This razor belonged to a member of Franklin’s team. Physically, it’s virtually indistinguishable from others in our collections. But by association, this simple and very personal object becomes infused with some of the enigma and poignancy of the doomed expedition. This got me thinking about other examples.

Marwood's penknife

Combined penknife and corkscrew, c.1875 (Science Museum / Science and Society)

Resembling a basic Swiss Army Knife, this other handy little tool was catalogued as a “relic of W Marwood”. Who was he? A country gent? A local doctor perhaps? No, “W Marwood” is William Marwood, shoe-maker… and executioner. The inventor of the ‘long drop’ technique of hanging, he oversaw 176 deaths in a nine year career. Presented with this information, a rather prosaic object somehow gains in power and presence.

But there are also humdrum objects that flirt with the possibility of such added cachet. Victims of historical uncertainty.

Cotton lint dressing

Cotton dressing, 19th century (Science Museum / Science and Society)

This cotton dressing was “possibly” owned by Joseph Lister. But possibly not. Was it the property of one of the leading figures of modern medicine or is it just a piece of cloth of unknown origin? We’re never likely to know for sure.

Not that everyday objects need associations with the famous – or infamous – to make them stand out from the crowd. An interesting back story can help. For example, things don’t get much more mundane than a humble button, but occasionally one can have such an exciting adventure that it too is saved for posterity…

Button with label

A very special button..... (Science Museum)

Polar exploration

In my previous post I mentioned Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to the Canadian Arctic, on which the HM ships Erebus and Terror tragically disappeared with all 129 men on board after the summer of 1845.

While we wait and see what Canada’s renewed rescue efforts might discover about Franklin’s last journey, I think there are some items from his more successful voyages in the Science Museum’s stores that deserve a closer look.

Variation compass and magnetometer, by Henry Barrow & Co. (Adrian Whicher / Science Museum)

One such object is a variation compass and magnetometer, which would have helped determine a true course in relation to the magnetic and geographic norths (which do not coincide, as you may know), as well as measuring the intensity of the earth’s magnetic forces at different points at sea. Apparently used by Franklin on some of his Arctic voyages, it was later also used by others looking for the man among the ice! 

To complete my imaginary trek from pole to pole, I also found a Robinson dip circle taken to the other extreme of the globe by Sir James Clark Ross, on board HMS Terror, of all vessels.

A dip circle by Robinson, c.1830. (Alison Boyle / Science Museum)

After a string of successful expeditions up north, Ross set off on a magnetic survey mission to circumnavigate Antarctica between 1839 and 1843.

The magnetic needle of the dip circle, resting on the pivot at the centre of its case, would align itself to the Earth’s magnetic field, so the angle it made with the horizontal plane could be read off the graduated frame – this was of particular interest in polar regions, where the downward pull is the greatest, and where navigation with other instruments proved more difficult.

And to think that all this mileage is now under one roof…

Northward Ho!

I’ve been rummaging through the Science Museum’s collections looking for objects related to terrestrial magnetism and scientific expeditions.

I smiled when I came across the musical scores for “Northward Ho! or Baffled not Beaten” in a popular song catalogue from 1875 - it really brought home just how much Arctic exploration captured people’s imaginations in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Sheet music cover of "Northward Ho!" (Alison Boyle / Science Museum)

Commander John P. Cheyne of the Royal Navy, who penned the words for this dashing tune, was himself an Arctic officer. He took part in several voyages to the north, including Sir James Clark Ross’s 1848-9 search for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition of 1845.

Franklin had been searching for the North-West Passage, when he and his crew suddenly vanished. Over the next fifteen years or so several expeditions were launched to find the missing hero, but only a few ominous clues about the men’s fate were ever found.

Sir John Franklin, 1824. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Still, to Cheyne and others Franklin’s name would stand next to those of other revered explorers like Sir John Ross (James Clark Ross’s uncle*, as it happens) and Sir William Parry.

Lyrics from 'Northward Ho!" (Alison Boyle / Science Museum)

The cover print of the song shows three hot-air balloons, Enterprise, Resolute, and Discovery, preparing for flight in the Arctic. Balloons had been proposed as a method of reaching the North Pole as early as the 1870s as they could avoid some of the hardships and dangers of a journey by sledge or on foot, and could also provide useful platforms for making scientific measurements at higher altitudes.

Expeditions may have been a question of sport and glory, but they were also intended to gather accurate scientific data on a large number of natural phenomena, including the Earth’s magnetic field. Investigating terrestrial magnetism made a lot of sense in the nineteenth century, since the required equipment could improve the efficiency of navigation across the oceans.

'Proposed Method of Reaching the North Pole by Balloons', c 1880s. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Some brave explorers, like Franklin, didn’t make it back from the unchartered northern territories. But the lucky ones returned with the magnetic instruments that had made their voyages possible. Many of them are now in the Museum’s store rooms. More about these soon…

*[Edited on 15/09/10]