Category Archives: Puns

A glass act

Today in 1839, John Herschel made the first photograph on glass. The plate, with the image now faded almost beyond recognition, is in the care of our colleagues at the National Media Museum.

The first photograph on glass, 1839, is kept in a commemorative case (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

The image was of the 40ft telescope built by John’s father William, something of  a tourist attraction due to its size. By the time this photograph was taken only the telescope support frame remained, with the tube already removed – the structure had begun to rot after years of disuse and John set about dismantling the telescope for the safety of his small children.

This is one of only 25 prints made from the original photograph (Science Museum).

A few years later, Herschel discovered the cyanotype or blueprinting process. His friend Anna Atkins used this process to make the first book with photographic illustrations, Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins's cyanotype of a British Fern, 1853 (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

In 1867 another female pioneer of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron, made this extraordinary portrait of the ageing Herschel, who had been a longstanding supporter of her work.

Herschel at 75, by Julia Margaret Cameron (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed by now that I tend to bang on about the Herschel family a lot (like here, or here). It’s rather hard not to, as various members were hugely influential across a wide range of the sciences. And I haven’t even started on the younger members of the family yet … more blogs to follow, no doubt!

Back from holiday, slightly flushed

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

Dundas aqueduct, Kennet & Avon canal (David Rooney)

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bazalgette (Science Museum / Science & Society)

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

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

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

Station clock meets its Waterloo

No sooner do I write a blog about the symbolism of Waterloo’s station clock than it gets taken out of service for a refurbishment!

Waterloo station clock under repair, London, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

The concourse underneath the Waterloo clock has become an iconic meeting-place, a focal point amidst the hurry of the station, as shown in Terence Cuneo’s dramatic painting:

Waterloo station, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Now, for a few weeks, time stands still for the station’s passengers.

Waiting under the Waterloo station clock, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

Railways run on time. In the early days, time was a life-saver – literally – as trains used the tracks on a time-share arrangement. The wrong time on the guard’s watch could kill.

Railway guard's watch and railway timetable, 19th century (NRM / Science & Society)

Nowadays, the railways get their time from a constellation of US military satellites (the same ones that tell you where to go while driving), or through a radio signal broadcast from Anthorn, a remote spit of land on the Cumbria coast.

The Cumbrian signal is Britain’s official national time signal. It’s called MSF and it’s run for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory by VT Communications, part of a firm that used to be called Vosper Thornycroft. I’ve mentioned them before. They’ve a long history of shipbuilding.

And they’ve just merged with Babcock, a company that started life making marine steam boilers. The MSF time signal and its predecessors began as an Admiralty service for British naval officers to check their chronometers at sea.

Transport and time – two stories intertwined. But I recommend you take your own watch to Waterloo for the next few weeks…

Gone fission

A few months ago, I showed you two ship models on show in our maritime galleries, both called Savannah.

The 1818 version was the first steamship to cross an ocean (even though she did so mostly under sail power)…

Model of Paddle Ship 'Savannah', 1818 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

…while her 1959 namesake was the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship.

Model of Nuclear Ship 'Savannah', 1959 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The first nuclear ship was a naval submarine, USS Nautilus, launched in 1954, with British equivalents following a few years later, such as HMS Resolution.

Model of HMS 'Resolution' nuclear submarine, 1966 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The latest British nuclear boat, HMS Astute, is due to be handed over to the Royal Navy this year, with a nuclear reactor the size of a domestic dustbin and enough fuel to last for 25 years.

But warships and merchant craft are totally different beasts, not least crewing levels and maintenance infrastructure. The 1950s Savannah traded successfully for a while, but the economic conditions back then weren’t conducive to nuclear ships.

Now, though, the maritime industry is looking for ways to reduce emissions and fuel costs.

Nuclear might be one answer, and Lloyd’s Register (an organisation that sets standards and manages risk in the shipping industry) has recently been carrying out fresh research into nuclear-powered merchant ships.

There are plenty of problems to solve, but technically, it’s a mature industry. Savannah proved the concept of nuclear merchant ships in the 1960s. Only time will tell whether the industry is ready to return to them fifty years on.

It’s an interesting time to be a marine engineer…

Waiting for the balls to drop

All this talk recently about coastal navigation aids got me hunting through our pictorial collection, and I thought you might like to see this railway poster I found:

'Invest in a holiday at Deal', 1910s (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Tsk tsk. I can’t imagine what Trinity House would have said about that. The woman’s clearly obscuring part of that buoy. Think of the risk to shipping! It’s an accident waiting to happen…

Deal, on the Kent coast, was an important port, a strategic site for shipping, and an ideal spot to erect a time ball to allow ships to check their chronometers as they passed through the English Channel. You can see the ball and its tower in this (rather more restrained) poster:

'Deal and Walmer', 1952 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

The Deal time ball is still there, and when I visited a few years ago, it was still in operation, although the mechanism’s not original. It used to be triggered by an electrical signal from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, which has the original time ball, put up in 1833.

More on maritime time signals another day…

Up and atom

If you’re planning to attend Monday’s Centenary talk on the Large Hadron Collider, you can spot a few of its distant ancestors as you pass through the Making the Modern World gallery en route to hear Brian Cox speak.

Looming large on the left of the central walkway is the cascade generator from John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton’s million-volt accelerator. This generated 1.25 million volts to accelerate protons and smash them into atomic nuclei, breaking the nuclei apart. During the Second World War this apparatus was used to study uranium and plutonium, contributing to the Manhattan Project.

Detail of the cascade generator (Image: Science Museum)

Detail of the cascade generator (Image: Science Museum)

The million-volt accelerator is a souped-up version of the appartus that Cockcroft and Walton used to split the atom in 1932, the first time this had been done in a controlled situation. This work, which earned them a Nobel Prize, provided the first experimental proof of Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. You can see this accelerator in miniature on the gallery’s model walkway (parts of the real thing are at our Wroughton store).

Model of Cockcroft and Waltons laboratory - spot the scientist in the shielded cabin to the right. (Image: Science Museum)

Model of Cockcroft and Walton's laboratory - spot the scientist in the shielded cabin to the right. (Image: Science Museum)

As you can tell from the size of the person in the model, this equipment was large and unweildy. Meanwhile in America, Ernest Lawrence and his student M. Stanley Livingston had been working on ways of repeatedly passing particles through the same accelerating voltage, to get a bigger overall effect. Lawrence proposed using magnets to whirl charged particles around in an ever-increasing spiral, so that they could keep crossing the same voltage gap  (his patent diagram helps explain it). The cyclotron, as the device came to be known, could split atoms in equipment that fitted on a laboratory bench.

In 1931, Livingston passed the magic million-volt mark with an 11-inch cyclotron, which prompted an excited telegram from the lab to Lawrence: “Dr Livingston has asked me to advise you that he has obtained 1,100,000 volt protons. He also suggsted that I add ‘Whoopee!”.  You can see an early example of this whoopee-inducing device in the bench case opposite Cockcroft and Walton’s cascade generator. Shortly after Cockcroft and Walton, Lawrence also succeeded in splitting the atom, and the invention of the cyclotron earned him a Nobel gong too.

Early cyclotron designed by Lawrence, 1932

Early 11-inch cyclotron designed by Lawrence, 1932

These early atom-splitters ushered in the age of Big Science, with particle accelerators getting bigger and bigger as physicists continued their quest to probe ever-higher energies. And as I’ve mentioned previously, the Large Hadron Collider is the biggest of big. Hope you enjoy the big ideas in Professor Cox’s talk!

Winter weather. It’s snow joke.

On Christmas Day, I showed you one of the sleighs in our transport collection. Sorry about the singing, by the way. I hope it was in tune.

Sleighs were very important vehicles in heavy snow in many parts of the world, and continued to be used long after motor cars became popular. We’ve got a handful of sleighs and sledges in our stores, including two push-sleighs at opposite ends of the glamour spectrum:

Push sledge for a child, date unknown (Science Museum)

Push sledge for a child, date unknown (Science Museum)

Ornamental Dutch push-sleigh (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ornamental Dutch push-sleigh (Science Museum / Science & Society)

That Dutch sleigh is quite a beauty, isn’t it. What a way to travel! However, maybe you want a bit more speed, a bit more power. Well, rail travel isn’t out of the question. Last time I was at our store in West London, I enountered this great Victorian model of an ice locomotive designed for use in Russia:

Model of an ice locomotive (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Model of an ice locomotive (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Sometimes, though, it’s time to wheel out the serious kit. If you’re planning a Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this Tucker Sno-Cat might be just the job:

Tucker Sno-Cat tracked vehicle, 1955 (Science Museum)

Tucker Sno-Cat tracked vehicle, 1955 (Science Museum)

If cold-weather transport is up your street, I haven’t found much written about the history of snow and ice transport, but I did come across ‘Snow travel and transport’, by Walter Lorch (The Gawsworth Series, 1977). It’s got lots of great pictures and information, and I’m sure you could find a second-hand copy on that book website named after a big river in South America…

This blog has gravity

Picture the scene. Two men are lurking at a London station, waiting for the Glasgow train. The train arrives and a third man disembarks, wheeling a suitcase. The three exchange some quick words of identification, the Londoners give the man from Glasgow an envelope of papers and he hands over the suitcase. The Londoners jump into a taxi with the suitcase … which contains a 23kg sapphire.

No, it’s not a scene from the latest Bond movie. The man on the Glasgow train was astronomer Martin Hendry and the others were my colleagues Doug and Chris. Martin’s department loaned us the sapphire for display, and rather than send our van the whole way to Glasgow and back we kept our carbon footprint down by arranging to  meet when Martin had to be in London anyway. Martin was back in London last weekend, and here he is with the sapphire in the Cosmos & Culture gallery.

Martin checks were taking care of his sapphire

Martin checks we're taking care of his sapphire

‘What sapphire?’ you might ask. If you were expecting something blue and multifaceted, look again. It’s the round clear object on the front shelf. It’s pure synthetic sapphire and it’s a test mass for an experiment called GEO600, which is using laser beams to try and detect gravitational waves, tiny ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein. To find out more about these types of experiment work, check out this video on our YouTube channel

Martin joined us to give a talk as part of our Cosmic Explorers Day event, which was supported by the Royal Astronomical Society as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 celebrations.  The day looked at how we make sense of space (or try to) and the enduring influence of Albert Einstein. But Einstein’s influence has spread far beyond astronomy – here’s a fun example from our collections.

An unusual use of Einsteins image (Credit: Science Museum)

An unusual use of Einstein's image (Credit: Science Museum)

Why use an image of a German-Swiss-American theoretical physicist to sell an Australian shoe spray?  Well, Einstein did have sweaty feet (which, along with varicose veins, got him out of doing Swiss national service) and famously never wore socks, but the packaging makes no reference to this. The famous image of the white-haired scientist seems to have been used to reinforce the makers’ claim that the spray is ‘scientifically proven’ to eliminate shoe odours, showing how Einstein has become the face of science for many. Martin evidently approves – look at his Tshirt – although we are sure he has very fragrant feet!

Getting in a lorry trouble

It’s all going on in the world of lorries this week. A haulage firm is trying to introduce a ‘super-lorry’ that’s 30 feet longer than a conventional articulated truck. Latest news is that the police have blocked it, but it’s a fast-changing story which I’ll be watching with interest. You can see footage of the double-articulated device on the BBC website here.

I’ll keep my own thoughts on this 83-foot monster to myself. Instead, check out the world of heavy haulage, Victorian-style. These steam traction engines were the big beasts of burden at the turn of the century, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck behind this convoy on a narrow country road, as they were built for power, not speed:

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1890s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1890s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These machines were huge. When things went wrong, they went very wrong:

Overturned steam traction engine, c.1910 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

Overturned steam traction engine, c.1910 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

You can still see steam traction engines at steam rallies and the like, and we’ve got an Aveling and Porter beauty in our Making the Modern World gallery here at the Science Museum:

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1873 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1873 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The late, great, Fred Dibnah ran an Aveling and Porter engine. His BBC2 series based on the engine, ‘Fred Dibnah ‘s Made in Britain’, was terrific.

Hello buoys!

I mentioned before how much I love Blythe House, our storehouse in west London. This is where we keep the things that aren’t on display in the Science Museum or out at Wroughton. There’s some great stuff tucked away. For instance, these model buoys have always caught me eye - a set designed to teach people what the different colours and shapes mean. Philip Treacy, eat your heart out:

Model buoys in Science Museum collection (David Rooney)

Model buoys in Science Museum collection (David Rooney)

 Nearby are these motor car spark plugs. Pink – and pretty as a picture:

Spark plugs (David Rooney)

Spark plugs (David Rooney)

You like spark plugs? We have lots of spark plugs:

Spark plugs (David Rooney)

Spark plugs (David Rooney)

Finally, as I wandered round the room, these handsome little fellows peered out from another shelf (where they live, in perpetual readiness to travel, next to a display unit of, yes, spark plugs). Very dapper:

Model of Stagg road-rail steam carriage (David Rooney)

Model of Stagg road-rail steam carriage (David Rooney)

Here’s the thing. If you are the sort of person who likes stuff like model buoys, pink spark plugs and well-dressed diminutive Victorian gentlemen, you’ll probably love visiting Blythe House. Normally it’s closed to the public, but we have a membership scheme (as most museums do) and members get invited to occasional Blythe House tours.

It’s my turn on Thursday 12 November at 6.30pm, and you’ve still time to join the scheme if you fancy coming along. You’d be supporting our work (thank you) and there are lots of benefits besides the tours. You can join online here. And if you’re very good, I might even show you my carburettors…