Category Archives: Quirky

From blazing skies to bogus shamrock: Giants’ Shoulders 57

Today we’re hosting The Giants’ Shoulders, a monthly event providing a taster of some of the best history of science the blogosphere has offered this month.

News of a meteor breaking up over Russia and the close approach of an asteroid inspired many bloggers including Rupert Baker at the Royal Society Repository, Darin Hayton, Lisa Smith at the Sloane Letters Blog and Greg Good at Geocosmohistory. On the Board of Longitude Project blog, Alexi Baker surveyed how attitudes to inanimate objects such as meteorites have been affected by changing beliefs and the status of the person or technology mediating them.

An exploding meteor, 23 November 1895, by Charles Prichard Butler (Science Museum).

As the horse meat scandal rumbled on, Mary Karmelek uncovered some 19th century Scientific American articles advocating dining on Dobbin. Historians at the University of Manchester provided the Crufts dog show judges with a precedent: a pointer called Major. More exotic creatures featured in My Albion, which traced the development of illuminations of the bonnacon and elephant, and National Geographic, where Brian Switek explored how crocodiles and tortoises were recruited in 19th century studies of Chirotherium tracks.

Several bloggers, including Teal Matrz at the Royal Society and David Bressan at Scientific American, tied in with International Women’s Day. While women have a much greater presence in the sciences than they did at the time of this Nature article uncovered by John Ptak, Christie Aschwanden and Ann Finkbeiner argued that profile authors need to stop defining female scientists by their gender.

Anniversaries abounded. Frank James celebrated the bicentenary of Michael Faraday’s appointment to the Royal Institution. For the bicentenary of John Snow’s birth, the Wellcome Trust displayed his famous cholera map, while the Guardian recreated it for today’s London and Richard Barnett at the Sick City Project revealed the man behind the hero myths. There was more myth-busting at Genotopia, skewering some of the stories that have been built up in the 60 years since the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Myth in the Museum: the famous double helix model on display in our Making the Modern World gallery is a post-1953 reconstruction using the original components. (Science Museum)

Finally, for St. Patrick’s Day, a quick roundup of some blogs on subjects with Irish links. On The H Word Rebekah Higgitt explored Jonathan Swift’s satirical attacks on the Royal Society and Isaac Newton, while Collette Kinsella highlighted the often-overlooked John Tyndall.  Unfortunately for the 17 March souvenir trade, Mary Mulvihill revealed on Ingenious Ireland that there’s no such thing as shamrock.

Next month’s Giants’ Shoulders will be hosted by Mike Finn and Jen Wallis at Asylum Science Blog on 16 April. In the meantime, you’ll find links to plenty more blogs I didn’t have space to mention at Whewell’s Ghost or on Twitter.

Don’t try this at home

Everyone, at some point in their lives, will ‘accidently’ ingest something that, well, they really shouldn’t have.  At best, the event might provide an amusing story to tell your friends, at worst the consequences can be serious enough to make the news.

Of course, the deliberate ingestion of foreign bodies into the human body can be symptomatic of serious mental health issues.  A compulsive urge that can result in real physical harm.

Hidden within our medical collections are examples of objects which have found their way into the body, ‘accidently’ or otherwise. Here we shall concentrate on the more benign examples.

spoon

A swallowed spoon (Stewart Emmens 2012)

There is something almost reassuring about the adaptability and robustness of the human digestive system as the spoon above caused “no pain or uneasiness” and “passed without discomfort” despite its month long gastric odyssey.  Its smooth contours probably helped.

Tie pin

Glass and metal tie pin (Science Museum)

Rather more worrying is when sharp points and edges are involved.  Fortunately, this tie pin’s disappearance was short-lived but some 94 years ago it prompted an urgent trip to London’s Charing Cross Hospital.

halfpenny

A troublesome coin (Science Museum)

Childhood curiosity is behind several of the swallowed items in our collection.  Like the pin, the halfpenny above caused another anxious hospital visit.  On this occasion, the wannabe piggy bank – a hapless toddler – eventually needed surgery to have the coin removed.

But while most of our subjects at least seem to have been aware that something was amiss, there are exceptions.  Back in 1863, the smoker who almost swallowed this two inch section of hard clay pipe was apparently oblivious to its presence. 

clay pipe

Section of clay pipe (Stewart Emmens 2012)

Finally, a favourite of mine.  It should be noted that not all of our misplaced items took the oral route.  I will spare readers gorier examples, highlighting instead this particular object which suggests that while certain behaviours have changed much over the last century, others have stayed very much the same…

boot button

An Edwardian boot button – a temptation too hard to resist? (Science Museum)

History Carnival 116

Something a bit different from Stories from the Stores today – we’re hosting the History Carnival, and bringing you a roundup of last month’s blogs on history (and a few other links we just found interesting). Don’t worry – in true STFS style, we’re still illustrating it with objects and images from the Science Museum’s collections!

Slaughter, Shakespeare and squibs

November’s remembered for gunpowder treason and plot, for which Guy Fawkes suffered a traitor’s execution: hung, drawn and quartered. As Kathleen McIlvenna points out at the Royal Armouries blog, the more merciful swift beheading was reserved for the rich. Fawkes remains an iconic figure: Sheila O’Connell at the British Museum explores allusions from Macbeth to Occupy. The BM’s Shakespeare: Staging the World Exhibition, which has just closed, featured the lantern Fawkes was carrying on that fateful night (well, maybe) – you can see it on permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. And of course, the fifth of November is commemorated with fireworks. OxfordWords explores the origins of damp squibs, Catherine wheels and Roman candles,  while Rupert Baker showcases the Royal Society’s copy of John Babington’s Pyrotechnia and the Whipple Library Books blog explores John Bate’s The Mysteries of Nature and Art. Here’s another illustration from the Science Museum Library’s copy:

Fireworks on a rope between two trees, John Bate, 1635 (Science Museum).

 Furry faces and health reforms

In recent years, November’s also become associated with male facial hair, to raise awareness of men’s health. Curators, librarians and archivists worldwide haven’t been able to resist raiding their catalogues for moustachioed splendour: here are some bristles from Essex Record Office, Artinfo, Penn Museum and Europeana.

For some more impressive facial hair, here’s Edwin  Chadwick. As Vanessa Heggie shows on the H-Word, his sanitary reforms addressed the spread of disease, but not the suffering of workhouse inmates. Meanwhile, at the Quack Doctor, Caroline Rance describes how William T Davison aimed to provide wider access to patented medicines.

Edwin Chadwick (Wellcome Library, London)

American adventures

This November also saw the US Presidential Elections. While the Smithsonian’s curators have been busy collecting on the campaign trail, bloggers have been turning to past elections and presidents: JD Thomas at Accessible Archives compares voting rights across states in 1838, while at Victorian Commons James Owen charts how 19th century British MPs viewed proceedings across the Pond. We’ve seen two sides to Abraham Lincoln: the wartime President exerting his authority over General McClellan at the History Tavern and the grieving father sitting by his son’s body at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Meanwhile, Michael Kramer notes that though it’s tempting to try and use timelines to understand the narrative arc of folk music in the US, in reality history is much more messy

Abraham Lincoln, c.1840 (Science Museum)

And finally…

It seems appropriate for a History Carnival blog to close with two posts exploring how the web is changing the practice of historians. At the H-Word, Becky Higgitt celebrates 50 years of the British Journal for the History of Science (you can read past editors’ picks here) at a time when many are questioning how academic publications will adapt to an increasingly digital, open-access world. Meanwhile, Mia Ridge is looking for participants into her study of how online resources have (or haven’t) affected how scholars work.

Next month’s History Carnival is at The Recipes Project – see you there!

 

Unpacking bags of Science: The Voices of Science

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

The Science Museum’s collections embody stories about the people that created, used or manufactured them. By looking closely at our objects, we can unpack a wealth of information about them.

Gramophone records containing scientific lectures (Science Museum)

Preserved in leather and aluminium casing, these gramophone records have on them lectures by three leading scientists of the 20thcentury: Archibald Vivian Hill (1886-1977), Sir Charles Lovatt Evans(1884-1968) and Yngve Zotterman (1892-1982). All three worked at University College London for part of their careers.  Each scientist focused on a different aspect of physiology. Hill was interested in biophysics, Lovatt Evans in the chemistry of the body and Zotterman on nerve conduction and the sensory functions of the skin including tickling.   

Hill's lectures ( Science Museum, London )

The record was made by Columbia Graphophone Co Ltd for the International Educational Society of Petty France in Westminster, London. Hill’s lecture on ‘The Muscle and Its Energy’ was number 65 in a series that included lessons on Latin.  Although they may not resemble a conventional tool bag, they were the tools of the trade used by scientists at the time. For example, scientists used gramophones to record their lectures whilst teachers, students and researchers  used them to help them teach or learn about science.

These objects were donated to the Science Museum's collections by the Department of Physiology at University College London. (Science Museum)

By looking at objects we soon discover the tales of the people related to them. So, what can objects tell us about our ancestors? After all, objects become so much more meaningful when they are personal to us by relating to our families.  In this series of blog posts we will be exploring the lives of our ancestors by looking at a series of (tool) bags from the Science Museum’s collections.

 

If the shoe fits…

This post was written by Amy Charlton, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

Pedoscope (Science Museum)

Where do you think you might find this object? Known in  Britain by the trade name ‘Pedoscope’, this was a familiar object in shoe-shops of the mid 20th century. The machine produced an X-ray of the customer’s foot inside a shoe to ensure shoes fitted accurately, which both increased the wear-time of the shoe and with that, the reputation of the shoe shop.

The customer placed their foot over an X-ray tube contained within the wooden base of the Pedoscope. From this, a beam of X-rays passed through the foot and cast an image onto a fluorescent screen above. The screen could be observed via three viewing points – one for the shoe-fitter, one for the customer, and one for a third party (usually the guardian of a child being fitted). The accommodation for three viewing points may seem a little extravagant, but it may be an indication of the popularity of the Pedoscope and the interest the public had in the machine.

 The entertainment value was unprecedented but there was a darker side to the Pedoscope. Think about how careful we are with X-rays today to avoid the health risks associated with radiation. As early as 1950, the British Medical Journal wrote of the risk of direct radiation for customers, and the dangers facing shoe-fitters from scattered radiation. Trade literature issued by The Pedoscope Company called these concerns ‘fantasy’.

"Service, expected appreciated" advert (Science Museum)

One of the primary concerns was that no record was kept of the number of exposures a person received, so there was no way of regulating this. Consequently, in 1958 the Home Office necessitated that the following notice be mounted on each machine near the viewing point: ‘Repeated exposure to X-rays may be harmful. It is unwise for customers to have more than twelve shoe-fitting exposures a year.’ In the same year, the Medical Research Council published this statement: ‘We hope that the use of X-rays in shoe-fitting will be abandoned except when prescribed for orthopaedic reasons.’

Despite the awareness of the health risks of the Pedoscope, it was not until the 1970s that the Pedoscope faded from view. Perhaps this is telling of the unparalleled entertainment value that this innovative (yet precarious) use of modern science and technology had upon the public at the time.

 

 

Spectacular spectacles

The second installment of Miranda Bud’s blogs… 

The majority of people will need to wear some form of glasses at some point of their lives, and I am no exception. I was fascinated therefore to discover the treasure trove of old spectacles frames and lenses hidden away in the basement of Blythe.

The most striking thing about the majority of these spectacles was their size. The glasses have tiny lenses which I can imagine were quite difficult to see through. The one pair I have chosen to focus on is a pair with double folding blue lenses which gave extra protection to the eyes.

(Turn pin spectacles with tinted, double folding lenses, France, 1790-1850. Credit: Science Museum)

The lenses on these steel wire spectacles protect the front and sides of the eye. They are tinted blue to protect from the sun. The spectacle arms are pivoted at the temple and can rotate 360 degrees. They are known as turnpin spectacles. These types of glasses where very popular  during the late 1700s and early 1800s, and even the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven owned a pair of round frame turnpin glasses.

(Round Turnpin Glasses similar to those worn by composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: The College of Optometrists)

Obviously everyone had to have their own prescription, but back in the 19th century testing eyesight was a little different to how it is today.  In 1928 Henry Wellcome bought a set of 12 trial lenses and a pair of trial frames at auction, the lenses look as though as they would have been used to test a patient’s eyesight. However, the unusual shape of the lenses indicate they were used to test patients with severe sight problems.

(Set of 12 trial lenses and a pair of trial frames, Europe, 1880-1920. Credit: Science Museum)

Over the years glasses have evolved somewhat, moving from pince-nez and monocles to the more modern thick rimmed ‘hipster’ glasses. It is fascinating to see the progression and to see how some styles seem to keep coming back, while others thankfully have gone for good.

(Hipster Glasses. Credit: Bossip.com)

 

Burglars beware….

This blog was writter by Jared Keller, a part-time Explainer.

With so many visitors flying in from abroad, security has been a hot-button issue in the capital all summer. So much so that we here at the Science Museum thought we should offer our expertise and services to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. So we’re proud to offer this  – a 1930s “Burgot” Burglar and Fire Alarm.

 

Burgot Burglar and Fire Alarm, c. 1939 ( Science Museum / Science & Society )

This wonder of mechanical ingenuity combines a gramophone, rotary telephone, and closed electric circuit into one of the world’s first automated burglar/fire alarms. If tripped, this machine would mechanically dial an emergency number, and play a (quite posh) pre-recorded message alerting the authorities to the situation – a video of which can be seen here (fast forward to 7:20).

Similar devices were also widely deployed as silent alarms in banks and other high security buildings. The unit was placed in a back room and connected to a foot trigger underneath the front desk. That way a clerk could alert the authorities even while the burglars thought they had the situation under control. The illustrations imagining the scenes are courtesy of Matteo Farinella, Neuroscience PhD at UCL, and science comic extraordinaire!

 With a Burgot Alarm, bank clerks could silently signal the police and then confidently wait for help to arrive (Credit: Matteo Farinella)

A journalist for the Spokane Daily Chronicle took special joy in one particular use of the Burgot when he wrote,

“armed robbers that enter a bank and ‘cover’ the cashiers with revolvers preparatory to gathering up the money, may find that they are not as secure from attack as the submissive men in front of them would indicate”.

Though it may appear rather quaint and low-tech to our twenty-first century eyes, an article in The Age reported that similar devices accounted for 67 arrests in Yorkshire in 1955 alone!

 

Police answering a call from a Burgot Alarm ( Credit: Matteo Farinella )

And lest you think this wonderful device could be outsmarted by simply cutting the power to the premises, the developers of the Burgot alarm system even had the foresight to wire in each device with its own power source hidden deep within the building. As the 1938 issue of Gramophone Magazine waxed,

“even as the burglar fondly imagines he has cut all communications with the outside world, the treacherous voice of our mechanical informer is summoning swift retribution. Who would be a burglar?”

Indeed. With things like the Burgot around, who would be a burglar?!

Re-’cycling’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Coronation collecting

After the heady celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee, which memorabilia are you going to hold on to? When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952 and was crowned the year after a whole host of memorabilia was available. We have a range of coronation day items celebrating the crowning of the current monarch as well as monarchs across Europe.

 

Acrylic pill box, 1953 ( Science Museum, London )

Both the mug and pill box are part of the museum’s Plastics and Modern Materials collections as examples of acrylic and urea formalyde. The pill box carries the royal coat of arms. Urea formaldehyde was first patented in the 1920s and was used for a wide range of things for electrical fittings and lampshades.   

Coronation day mug, 1953 ( Science Museum, London )

By far the quirkiest item relating to the Queen’s coronation in the collections is a decorative neon light bulb with the filament twisted in to the letters ‘E R’ for Elizabeth Regina and surmounted by a crown. The light bulb was collected in 2001 with as a commemorative piece to celebrate the Golden Jubilee 10 years ago.

Decorative light bulb 1952-1953 ( Science Museum, London )

For other coronations we have to rely on medals and prints of the time, but for King Ludwig II of Bavaria we have the magnificent meerschaum cigar holder complete with a carriage and six horses. Monarch of Bavaria until his death, Ludwig had a passion for building fairytale-like castles, but was also a significant patron of the arts.

Cigar holder representing the coronation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Munich, Germany, 1864-1867 ( Science Museum, London )

For more on the Queen’s Jubilee why not check out the Science and Society Picture Library’s own tribute here or At Home with the Queen at the Museum of London.

 

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone (Part Two)

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Last week we looked at a curious fire-powered organ invented by Strasbourg’s Fréderic Kastner in 1873. For part one of The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone click here.

Pyrophone, 1869. (Science Museum, London)

The instrument wasn’t a great success, but Kastner’s family connections brought it a certain amount of acknowledgement.  While he “was not a distinguished physicist …he had a rich and influential mother who, it has been said, encouraged him in the development of the pyrophone in order to provide him with an occupation that would keep him out of mischief”. Amongst Mme Kastner’s acquaintances was Henry Dunant, the Swiss social activist who had founded the Red Cross, inspired the Geneva Convention and who would later become the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. While down on his luck in the mid-1870s, Dunant accepted a 50,000 Franc commission from Kastner’s mother to take the pyrophone abroad and use his eloquence, persuasive skills and social connections to promote the instrument. Dunant managed to secure the chance to demonstrate the pyrophone at the Royal Society of Arts on the 17th of February 1875, where he demonstrated the instrument with Lack’s God Save the Queen after introducing it with a flowery speech:  “The sound of the pyrophone may truly be said to resemble the sound of the human voice… like a human and impassioned whisper, as an eco of the inward vibration of the soul, something mysterious and indefinable, besides, in general, possessing a character of melancholy, which seems characteristic of all natural harmonies”.

Bronze medal to commemorate J. H. Dunant (front) 1908-1920 (Science Museum, London)

 

Even with Dunant’s help the pyrophone was not a great success, and the promotional tour soon faltered. The instrument itself had also started malfunctioning and so Dunant donated it to South Kensington Museum, the original incarnation of the Science Museum. Dunant moved on to other projects and Kastner sadly died an early death in 1882. Since then the pyrophone has grown in fame a small amount and has even been exhibited and played occasionally. However, in recent years the original instrument has simply been sitting in the Science Museum’s stores, patiently awaiting its chance for a shot at the Christmas Number One. Occasional attempts to recreate or redsign the pyrophone and similar “fire organs” have been made, but none of them quite match the elegance of Kastner’s petite slice of 19th Century insanity. Peckham’s Experiment 1 have made some interesting artworks using similar ideas.

And what’s more they have even provided some good sound and video files, so you can even hear Monsieur Kastner’s instrument in action! Sort of.