Category Archives: Quirky

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

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

There’s more to the relationship between fire and music than simply bad metaphors and innuendos, as I learnt this week at Blythe House. In a dark corner of the Science Museum’s storage facility sits a small, awkward-looking wooden box with intriguing glass pipes sprouting out of it. However, this unassuming little object just so happens to be one of the world’s last remaining pyrophones, an instrument which, as the name suggests, combines fire and sound!

Pyrophone, 1869. (Science Museum, London)

 Patented by the Strasbourg-born musician and scientist Fréderic Kastner in 1873, the pyrophone was a musical instrument in which flames encased in pipes similar to those of a traditional organ were used to produce musical notes. Kaster took advantage of Dr B Higgins’ 1777 discovery that a hydrogen flame positioned at the lower end of glass tube could produce a note and combined this with his musical knowledge (his father was the composer Georges Kastner) in order to produce a “Fire Organ”, as the instrument was also known.  This name perhaps suits the device better than pyrophone, as it did in fact function much like any other organ, with the size and shape of the pipes regulating the note’s pitch and a keyboard acting as the musical interface. The only real difference is that the pyrophone’s notes were produced not by air pressure, but through a quirk of combustion first discovered by Higgins.

Poster advertising the Orchestral Fire Organ, Electric Singing Chandelier Lustre and Electric Singing Candelabra. (Science Museum, London)

 Sadly, the pyrophone and its cousins the Electrical Singing Lustre and the Electrical Singing Candelabra, did not set the musical world alight (with excitement). Both Hector Berlioz and Cesar Franck visited Kastner in order to try the pyrophone, and Charles Gounod considered using it in a production of Jeanne d’Arc, but in general the public’s reaction to the instrument was somewhat underwhelming. The only composer to actually write any music specifically for the instrument was Theodore Lack who wrote several pieces, including an arrangement of God Save the Queen that was later performed publicly. Kastner wrote a book about his instrument and The Times also paid the pyrophone some attention, but the instrument’s success was limited.


"Le Pyrophone, flammes chantantes" by Frédérique Kastner, 4th edition, 1876 (Science Museum, London)

To discover more about the pyrophone, its bizarre conection with the Red Cross and how it found its way into the Science Museum you’ll have to tune into the second part of The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone next week.

A star-crossed birthday for Dickens

Today, people around the world are celebrating Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday. Hopefully they’ll enjoy themselves more than Dickens himself did on a youthful birthday outing:

‘Slow torture’ … ‘it was awful’ … ‘very alarming’ … ‘I thought if this were a birthday it were better never to have been born’.

Is Dickens recalling that terrible birthday? (National Media Museum)

Dickens looked back on this beleaguered birthday in an All the Year Round article of 1863. The subject of his ire was an astronomical lecture, a popular entertainment of the time. The young Dickens was unimpressed with the ageing and shabby demonstration instrument, ‘at least one thousand stars and twenty five comets behind the age’, with poor likenesses of the celestial bodies and malfunctioning light effects. The lecturer also droned on, tapping away at the model ‘like a wearisome woodpecker’.

Dickens might have had better luck with Mr Bartley’s lectures. Bartley was a comedian for most of the year, but turned his talents to astronomy when the comedy shows stopped for Lent.

Would Mr Bartley have entertained Dickens? (Science Museum)

19th century astronomical shows were often spectacular theatrical events – perhaps why Dickens was so disappointed with the shabby and outdated performance he encountered. Lecturers travelled the country, advertising their wares with increasingly outlandish names for their demonstration instruments.  Audiences might encounter the Eidouranion in Rochester, or be dazzled by the Dioastrodoxon in Wakefield.

You can find out more about scientific showbiz in Richard Altick’s The Shows of London, or Iwan Rhys Morus’s When Physics Became King. Or why not sample the Science Museum’s present-day versions? I wonder what Dickens would have made of them…



Oh… how lovely… that’s just what I wanted!

Christmas is upon us and once again we will express our affection for friends and family through the giving and receiving of gifts. What could be more pleasurable? 

Happy Christmas!

For me?... (© Photographic Advertising/NMeM / Science & Society)

Unfortunately, for every perfect gift there will also be something boring or ill-fitting… or both. And for every sure-fire liquid gift for fun-loving Uncle Joseph, there’s the annual agony of finding something for your Gran. Really, what does she need at her age?

But even the most desperately clichéd of standby Christmas gifts can sometimes be given an intriguing twist. Let’s take a stroll around our galleries and object stores and see what variations can be found.

All young children love jigsaws, don’t they? The teetering piles of puzzle boxes in many a loft may suggest otherwise, but while the novelty lasts, you could combine fun with more pragmatic outcomes – such as future job suitability. 

Form board

Just six pieces to go!... (© Science Museum / Science & Society

For more than 30 years, this colourful puzzle was used to help recruit staff at a confectionary works. So when little Alexandra joyfully completes it in record time, she’ll have the added reassurance that a career in chocolate packing is there for the taking.

Cufflinks! Gifts that are surely unwrapped, stared at incoherently, then quietly tucked away in a drawer… forever!  But surely even the most reluctant shirt wearer couldn’t resist these?

Cuff links

The fasteners of doom!... (© Science Museum / Science & Society)

For what doesn’t say “I love you” more than gold cufflinks, by Fabergé, bearing images of two strains of plague-causing bacteria?

Among more informal clothing gift standbys are, of course, the knitted woolly jumper with inappropriately bold design. 


Shorn was the sheep...(© Science Museum / Science & Society)

But when that jumper is knitted from the first fleece of Dolly the sheep (aka the first mammal cloned from an adult cell), all lapses in taste can be forgiven.

Finally, cosmetics, ‘well-being’ products and general ‘smelly stuff’ must constitute a significant proportion of gifts that ultimately remain unused and destined only to clog up bathroom cabinets for years to come. What people really want are the basics.


Two high-fat treats...(© Science Museum / Science & Society)

Who wouldn’t be happy to unwrap a colourful jar of badger fat on Christmas morning? A year long supply of (alleged) medicinal curing and great for the skin too! Here shown with a handy container of similarly efficacious horse fat – two pots you really will want to take into the shower.

Merry Christmas!

Noisy books

Recently, one of my colleagues sent me this link to a small synthesizer hidden in a book.

The synthesiser is a bought piece of equipment, but it’s designed to be hacked and modified by whoever uses it and this particular owner probably had a good reason to keep it hidden. Or he just thought it would be fun to stick a synth in an old book.

Either way, this quirky instrument instantly reminded me of one of the objects in our collection: the Shozyg, invented and built by electro-acoustic musician Hugh Davies.

Shozyg by Hugh Davies (© Science Museum, London)

It is one of many electronic instruments designed by Hugh and made with unconventional materials. He called these instruments Shozygs. This is one of the first Shozygs Hugh made and, like the tiny synthesiser, it is also hidden in a book. It is built into a volume of the New World Library Knowledge Encyclopaedia covering words starting with the letters Sho- to Zyg-, to be precise. It inspired Hugh to come up with the quirky name Shozyg for this instrument and those that were to follow.

I’m not an expert when it comes to identifying electronic parts, but a surprising number of them seem strangely familiar to me when I look at the Shozyg. Squares of foam that could have been part of a sofa, blades of a fretsaw, a spring that looks very similar to the kind you find inside some pens.

Like so many other instruments I came across when working on our exhibition about the history of electronic music, it doesn’t look much like an instrument at all.

Inside the Shozyg (© Science Museum, London)

This made me wonder, what would the Shozyg have sounded like? After a bit of digging around I found this video of Hugh playing the Shozyg before it became part of the Science Museum’s collection.

After Hugh passed away, many of his instruments were given to the Science Museum by his widow. Sound recordings of his work can be found in the British Library.

Some of the Hugh Davies Collection is currently on display in our exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music. I particularly like his toolbox. It reminds us that so many electronic musicians, past and present, use their creativity not only to play existing instruments, but also to imagine new ones. Whether you call it hacking or making do with what you’ve got, it’s certainly inspiring.

Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music can be found on the second floor of the Science Museum until December 2012.

Hugh Davies' toolbox (© Science Museum, London)

Marvellous moustaches

It’s November, which means that some of your friends may sprout some dubious facial hair over the next few weeks.

Yes, it’s that time of year again when thousands of blokes bid goodbye to their razors and grow a moustache to raise awareness for men’s health issues. For anyone unsure which style to adopt, there’s plenty of inspiration to be found in the Science Museum.

The most famous scientific moustache is of course Albert Einstein’s, which has spawned some truly terrifying memorabilia (none of which, I hasten to add, carry a Science Museum endorsement).

Einstein tries to work out the equation for the perfect moustache curvature (AP / Science & Society).

However, Einstein’s bristles are roundly trumped by Henry Wellcome, whose extraordinary collections are housed by the Museum. Follow the growth and decline of his moustache in this online exhibit from our friends at the Wellcome Library.

Henry Wellcome's hirsute splendour (Wellcome Library, London)

Even these marvels pale into insignificance beside 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe, although only the very ambitious would attempt to emulate his legendary silver nose.

Tycho Brahe's facial hair features prominently in this engraving of 1586 (Science Museum).

Such hirsute frivolity won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the clean-shaven should spare a thought for the 634 men of the South Eastern Railway Company who in November 1877 signed this petition asking for a ban on ‘taches to be lifted ‘believing and being advised that the wearing of Moustaches is a protection against the inclemency of the weather’.

More moustaches, please - an 1877 petition (National Railway Museum).

Some of the Science Museum team will be growing moustaches for the month, so watch out for hairy guys when you visit the galleries!

Napoleonic wares

Working in a museum presents all sorts of opportunities you never thought possible. But I imagine few curators have uttered the sentence: “I’m just off to Holland to pick up Napoleon’s toothbrush.” This is exactly my task next week. It’s been on loan to the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden and is normally on display at the Wellcome Collection.

Napoleon's toothbrush, 1790-1821 ( Science Museum, London )

Regular readers of this blog will know we like an anniversary and it just so happens that Napoleon died on 5th May 1821, 190 years ago today. Perhaps a spooky coincidence but it set me on the hunt for more Napoleon memorabilia.

Leave from a wreath sent by Napoleon, 1814-1815 ( Science Museum, London )

It may not look like much but this piece of leaf is reputedly from a wreath Napoleon sent to his supporters to hint at which season he would try and escape Elba – the island off the coast of Italy, he was exiled to in 1814. After successfully escaping Elba, he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic.

Keen to build an empire, Napoleon set about conquering Europe through the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815). But with the immortal words of Abba, we know how that ended.

Pair of muzzle loading flintlock pistols belonging to Napoleon (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

The official cause of Napoleon’s death while on St Helena is recorded as stomach cancer. But theories about arsenic poisoning have circulated for many years. Tests carried out on samples of his hair showed that Napoleon was exposed to high levels of the toxic element throughout his life. 

Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena.

Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena, 1815-1821 (Science Museum)

His first resting place was in St Helena, although Napoleon’s remains were later returned to Paris in 1840 and interred at Les Invalides in 1861.

Napoleon's tomb on St Helena ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

The world of… spoons!

Back in January, I posted about some unusual variations of one of our favourite pieces of cutlery – the fork. I guess it was inevitable that I’d be tempted to move on, delving further into obscure corners of our collections. 

While trying to avoid ‘me and my spoon’ type territory, let’s take a random peek into… the world of spoons.

Soapstone spoon

Spoon from Ancient Egypt (Science Museum, Science & Society)

Made of soapstone, this small spoon is in the form of a diving girl sporting either a typical Ancient Egyptian braided hairstyle or a short headdress. It could date from as early as 1575 BCE. Described as an ointment spoon, it was possibly used for scooping up and measuring out drugs or cosmetics.        

Bronze spoons

Bronze 'gold-takers' spoons (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Precious materials were also carried by these spoons. Made of bronze, they were used alongside an ancient set of measuring scales, dating from as early as the 1400s. They were carried by local Ashanti gold traders, in Ghana – formerly known by its appropriate colonial name, The Gold Coast.

Spoon handle

One of the engraved silver spoon handles (Science Museum)

My third example is a pair of silver spoons, notable for their inscriptions rather than their appearance. Made in London in 1740, they were engraved the following year to commemorate two individuals, perhaps siblings, known only by their initials ‘G M’ and ‘I M’ who had survived smallpox. They were presented by the similarly cryptic ‘E P’. 

Smallpox was a deadly disease. Pre-dating Edward Jenner’s vaccine by several decades, these grateful survivors were most likely left with numerous – and permanent – reminders of their near miss.

Polio vaccine poster

Vaccination awareness poster, c1960s (Science Museum, Science & Society)

Fortunately, another once widespread disease polio, looks like it will soon join smallpox in being eradicated through human intervention. This leads to my final spoon, which is a bit of a cheat.  Today, children are likely to have their polio vaccine squeezed directly into their mouths from a plastic vial or via an injection. But, I remember a far more pleasant experience. One day at school, they gave us all a sugar cube. 

Because as Mary Poppins continues to tell us, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down… in a most delightful way”.

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.

Be Mine Anti-Valentine

Valentine’s Day is like herpes: just when you think its gone for good, it  rears its ugly head once more (and perhaps it’s no coincidence its initials are the same as Veneral Disease?). Are you cringing from all the cutesy declarations of love? Avoiding all aphrodisiacs (including heart-shaped vegetables – no seriously they exist!)? Well here’s some suggestions from our collections of what not to give the love of your life on VD day…

1. Cosmetic Enhancement.

Cosmetic devices from the 1700s, England. (Image credit: Science Museum)

Breast pads to enhance cleavage, cork discs to plump out hollow cheeks, and a multitude of beauty spots to hide smallpox scars – whilst this cosmetic kit might have gone down a storm in the 1700s, as a surprise Valentine’s gift today it might leave your beau wondering why you’re focusing on their flaws just a tad too much.

To be fair – cosmetic enhancement isn’t always unromantic. Some people (and not even in the distant past!) would give their loved ones the gift of new dentures – which meant having all your teeth removed first. Ahhh there’s nothing that says “I love you” like serious dental work.

2.  A Chastity Belt.

Iron chastity belt, Europe, 1501-1600. Ah the heart detail on this chastity belt says it all. (Image credit: Science Museum)

Hmm me’thinks in this day and age a chastity belt screams trust issues. Whilst seemingly medieval - the majority of chastity belts and the stories that surround them appear to be the product of over-active 19th Century imaginations. So whilst your intention may be to present this padlocked token of love to your chosen lady to help her demonstrate her devotion – it’ll  definitely leave her thinking that you’re stuck in the Dark Ages.

3. Gonorrhoea Pants.

‘Gonorrhoea’ lingerie used in TV 'Essential Wear' ad campaign, London, England, 2007 (Image credit: Science Museum)

Whilst lingerie is usually the order on Valentine’s Day, this lacy little number probably won’t help you get into someone’s knickers. (Still – they could prove handy if you need to pass on a not so subtle message about what you inadvertently picked up there…).

4. A Heart Resuscitator.

Defibrillator, London, England, 1970-1980. (Image credit: Science Museum)

A heart-felt gift (groan!) of one of these would sure cause a shock (bigger groan!). That is assuming you don’t need an ECG to check that your loved one  is still sending you heart signals…

Developed in the 1950s, defibrillators deliver electric shocks to the chest. It’s used when the electrical signals in a person’s heart ventricles become chaotic – causing their heart to stop beating effectively.  Sadly, I don’t think it can be applied to heart-ache caused by erratic relationships.

5.  Scold’s Bridle.

A scold's bridle, Germany, 1550-1800. One of the more disturbing items in the collection. (Image Credit: Science Museum)

Used up until the early 1800s, Scold’s bridles were used as a punishments for women considered to be spending too much time gossiping or quarrelling – as wearing the mask prevented speech.  As a gift with the phone bill in mind – probably a no no.

Still, might come in handy if nagging for a decent Valentine gift gets too much?

A tale of two brothers

Following the release of The King’s Speech with Colin Firth, it inspired me to look into the two brothers of the film, Edward VIII and George VI using the Science Museum’s collections as my pool of reference. I was pleasantly surprised with the things I found.

X-ray of Edward VIII's left hand, 1931 (2004-264, Science Museum, London)

Following a visit to an orthopaedic hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, the then future Edward VIII, had his hand x-rayed. It was a way of showing off a technology that by the 1930s was in every hospital in Britain. It was also a souvenir of his visit to the hospital maybe, to open a new wing or ward.

Taking X-rays of royalty for fun rather than medical purposes is one thing but can you imagine the pressure of operating on the reigning monarch? That’s precisely what Clement Price-Thomas from the Westminster Hospital was called to do for George VI on 23 September 1951 at Buckingham Palace.

George VI's operating table (1985-410/1, Science Museum, London)

The table was loaned to the Palace for the operation and afterwards went back into general use, with patients having no idea who they had shared an operating table with.

Edward VIII was also a donor to the Science Museum’s collections, donating a number of royal carriages in 1936.

Bath chair owned by Queen Victoria, 1893 (1936-599, © Science Museum / Science & Society)

This example was used by Queen Victoria in her advanced years. Unlike normal bath chairs, this example was pulled by a pony, led by a footman. If you want to see this chair in the flesh, it is currently on display at the National Trust Carriage Collection in Arlington Court.

Snippets of the two brothers’ lives can be seen on Science and Society Prints including their everyday lives, coronations and funerals.