Category Archives: Quirky

The world of… forks!

At lunchtime today, I was faced with one of those trivial, yet rather frustrating aspects of convenience food. 

Shunning those tasty looking crisps in favour of a healthy leaf salad, I queued and then paid – only to find that the post-checkout cutlery bin contained nothing but very small plastic spoons. Not a fork in sight. 

But before I get all Jeremy Clarkson, once back at the Museum a good old metal one was unearthed and the minor salad-based trauma was over. Still wish I’d gone for the crisps though…

Of course, this lunch-saving fork wasn’t actually part of our collections. And yet, there are actually quite a few that are. Especially in the more eclectic corners of the medical collections. Here’s a selection of some our more unusual… forks!

Grindall's combined knife and fork

Vice-Admiral Grindall's combined knife and fork, c1795-1820 (Science Museum)

This first one’s a bit of a cheat really. It’s a combined knife and fork developed for Sir Richard Grindall (1751-1820), a Vice-Admiral in the British Navy. 

Grindall lost his arm in a military action in 1795 and subsequently used this type of combined cutlery. Curiously, his more famous seafaring contemporary Admiral Nelson used a similar device after losing his arm a couple of years after Grindall. Designs of his so-called Nelson knife are still available today.

Artificial arm

Artificial arm with fork attachment, early 20th century (Science Museum)

Our second fork builds on this theme. When attached to the palm of this artificial arm it can be used in the conventional way and then removed at the end of the meal.

Group of forks

Group of forks, c1775-1825 (Science Museum)

Take a close look at this final group of forks. The design seems to wilfully compromise its very purpose as the prongs are almost too short to be of use. But they are poignant reminders of a hidden past.

These unusual forks were provided at mealtimes for inmates of a ‘lunatic asylum’ at the turn of the 19th century. The intention being that any potential harm to self, or others, would be limited by the shortness of the prongs.

Lil’ Ol’ St Nick

Whether its Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, we have quite a fixed  image (soft-drink company influenced?) in our heads of what the man delivering presents down the chimney should look like. But could this be what the original ‘Santa’ really looked like…?

Wooden statue of St Nicholas, France, 1801-1900 (Image credit: Science Museum)

This rather charming tabbarded fellow in our collections is Saint Nicholas. He looks distinctly un-santa-esque because he was in fact the Bishop of Myra (now south-west Turkey) during the third century. Pictured with three children, it’s not surprising to find that Nicholas became the patron saint of young people. During his lifetime, he had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Because of the many miracles attributed to him, he was also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker - (imagine Santa with a superhero cape!).

But where does the Santa connection fit in? In the Netherlands (and other European countries), the evening before Saint Nicholas’s feast day (on 6 December) is the primary occasion for gift-giving – which in Dutch is Sinterklaas (like saying Saint Nicholas really quickly!).

Turns out that Lil’ Ol’ St Nick is also the patron saint of sailors, unmarried women, apothecaries, perfumers and pawnbrokers. Well with all that to deal with at least now we know what else Santa gets up to for the rest of the year

The 12 days of Christmas (well sort of)…Part 4

Here’s the final installment of our festive 4-parter – the 12 days of Christmas re-worked with items from our collections. Check out part 1, part 2 and part 3 as well.

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

10 Lords a-Leaping

You won’t be surprised to learn that there is a large amount of memorabilia in the collection relating to famous Lords.

Lord Nuffield, also known as William Morris is best remembered for work in car manufacturing. He was also a philanthropist and donated some of the first iron lungs to many British hospitals in the 1950s.

Iron lung donated by Lord Nuffield to Memorial Hospital Darlington (A683097, Science Museum, London)

Iron lungs were used in the treatment of polio and patients could be encapsulated from anything from a few hours to the rest of their life.

For some other Lord memorabilia, how about Lord Nelson’s fatal wound, a  mobility chair invented by Lord Snowdon, or some invaluable advice from Lord Kitchener. How many others can you find lurking in the museum’s collection?

11 Pipers Piping

It’s not very often you find a piper in the collection but this collecting box features the famous Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Pied Piper collecting box for polio (1994-70, Science Museum, London)

The legend of the Pied Piper was famous for luring rats from Hamelin. Rats carry a number of diseases including TB, E.coli as well as being transporters for the bubonic plague. During bouts of plague, amulets would circulate offering protection from the dreaded disease.

Amulet for protection against plague, Bavaria, 1690-1710 (A666092, Science Museum, London)

12 Drummers Drumming

Drums feature in a number of scientific and medical apparatus for recording data. This drum was used to diagnose an eye condition called optic nystagmus. This causes involuntary movements of the eye, usually from side to side. By rotating the drum an ophthalmologist can assess how the eyes work in unison and separately.

Drum for diagnosing eye conditions, (A662690, Science Museum, London)

We hope you’ve enjoyed our slightly odd interpretation of the 12 days of Christmas – it has certainly made us look at our objects in an entirely new light. Have a very merry Christmas!

The 12 days of Christmas (well sort of)…Part 3

Here’s the third installment of our festive 4-parter – the 12 days of Christmas re-worked with items from our collections. Check out part 1 and part 2 as well.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

7 Swans a-Swimming

Protected by the queen, swans hold a special place in British hearts. In the history of medicine, swan-necked retorts helped one man, Louis Pasteur, develop his germ theory.

Copy of Pasteur's swan-necked flask, (A63395, Science Museum, London)

Pasteur used swan-necked flasks during his experiments on fermentation. The flask was open to the air but the S-shape of the neck prevented any micro-organisms coming into contact with the broth inside, leaving the yeast water inside clear. This series of experiments proved that fermentation was not caused by spontaneous generation but micro-organisms in the air.

8 Maids a-Milking

From terra sigillata to help mothers’ express milk to feeding cups and breast pumps and more recently, genetically modified milk, milk has a rich history in our collections. For an alternative look at milk in the Wellcome collection try the book The Phantom Museum.

Proteins from genetically modified milk, (1999-22 Pt1, Science Museum, London)

Equally milkmaids have their own place in medical history. Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had cowpox seemed never to contract smallpox. In a risky experiment he took pus from Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid with cowpox and introduced it into James Phipps’ body. When James was later exposed to smallpox, he did not contract the disease.

Sarah Nelmes' hand from Jenner's book on vaccination (Wellcome Images)

 9 Ladies Dancing

Over the Christmas period, every lady knows that a comfortable pair of shoes are essential, especially for dancing. Famous ladies’ shoes can be found in the Wellcome collection including Florence Nightingale’s moccasins and Queen Victoria’s slippers.

Queen Victoria's slippers (A135559, Science Museum, London)

Crafted in white satin, these shoes are the equivalent to a UK size 3. Showing the feet was considered inappropriate, so women squeezed into shoes to make their feet appear more elegant. Shoes like this could have been worn for dancing, so maybe Queen Victoria elegantly waltzed around the ballroom in this pair.

The 12 days of Christmas (well sort of)…Part 2

Here’s the second installment of our festive 4-parter – the 12 days of Christmas re-worked with items from our collections. Beware it gets a little dark in part 2…

Four Calling Birds

Canary cage

Canary cage carried by coal miners, c1951 (Science Museum)

‘Calling’ is actually a variation on ‘colly’ or ‘collie’, which are derived from colliery. These words are associated with soot or coal dust, so we’re really looking at four blackbirds. Not that they would be of much use in a colliery. The most valuable bird for miners was the canary. 

Ultra-sensitive to dangerous gases like methane, canaries were carried underground in small cages and watched closely for any signs of distress that might indicate danger. Cages were often simple wooden affairs, so this example represented the height of canary comfort. The use of these tiny yellow birds in British mines only ended in 1986

Five Gold Rings!

Memento mori ring

Gold memento mori ring, 1700s (Science Museum)

Wearing a gold ring has symbolised many things. A mark of social standing and wealth, an indicator of marital status, even absolute power over the free peoples of Middle Earth… 

It’s also been a symbol of death, grieving and remembrance – a form of memento mori. Worn to commemorate a loved one, but also to remind the wearer of their own mortality. Such rings were particularly popular in Europe from the mid-1600s to the early 1900s.  The example above is in memory of Augusta Bruce. Her story is lost to time, but the design on the ring (the inscription ‘Nipt in the bud’ against a white background) suggest that sadly her life was a short one.

Six Geese a Laying!

Artificial nose

Metal artificial nose, c.1600s (Science Museum)

Geese have long been a favourite choice for the traditional Christmas meal. But for several centuries a very different kind of ‘goose’ was popular in parts of south London. The so-called ‘Winchester Geese’ were prostitutes working in Southwark, an area once regulated through the Bishop of Winchester

It was a dangerous occupation. Being ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ meant catching the deadly disease syphilis, with ‘goose bumps’ slang for the symptoms. In its latter stages, syphilis can lead to the disintegration and loss of the nose – a state that this metal replacement did its crude best to conceal.

Parts 3 and 4 to follow…

The 12 days of Christmas (well sort of)… Part 1

It’s that time of year again – time to bellow “five go-oold rings” at the top of your voice. We’ve put together a Christmas cracker of a treat for you with our own alternative version of the Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

A partridge in a pear tree

Well – a sauce container shaped like a partridge at any rate. A rather fetching centrepiece for the festive dinner table maybe? Certainly another weird and wonderful object collected by Henry Wellcome in the early twentieth century. Frankly any beau of mine giving me a partridge (alive or in ceramic form) would quickly be crossed off my festive shopping list…

Sauce boat in the form of a partridge, decorated with polychrome majolica, Italian, 1840-1900 (Image Credit: Katie Maggs, Science Museum)

Two Turtle Doves

Although it sounds like a freakish genetic experiment to cross-breed a reptile and a bird, the Turtle Dove is actually a rather glamorous cousin of the pigeon.

In its place we have a rather lovely hidden treasure from our Blythe House store - a mother-of-pearl charm shaped as a dove. And if peace on earth isn’t enough, here’s an equally splendid beaded turtle amulet to wish you good health (this amulet may contain a piece of umbilical cord – check out the link to find out why!).

A mother-of-pearl dove, French, 1880-1935 (Image credit: Katie Maggs, Science Museum)

Turtle shaped amulet, North America, 1880-1920 (Image Credit: Science Museum)

Three French Hens

These hens might not be French (or technically hens as i think these are male chucks, and ok – there’s only two rather than three in the picture…) - BUT they are Nobel Prize wining poultry. Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) bred this pair of Sebright Bantams in order to investigate the genetic inheritance of plumage and inadvertently discovered the role played by chromosomes in heredity.

Sebright bantam, United States, 1914-1924
Sebright bantams, United States, 1914-1924

Hope you’ve enjoyed part 1 of our festive foray into the collections – check back for the next 3 installments, and have a very Merry Christmas!

We’re all mugs for a royal wedding…

Oh we all love a royal wedding. With memorabilia manufacturers wasting no time to issue commemorative souvenirs featuring Prince William and his future missus, Kate Middleton, it’s an opportune moment to examine a few monarchical mementoes from our own collections…

Mugs to celebrate the marriage of Charles, HRH Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, were presented to child patients at the Lord Mayor Treloar Orthopaedic Hospital, Alton, England.

Charles and Diana commemorative mug, 1981. Credit: Science Museum, London

I’m rather a fan of this royal silhouette vase (Can you see it? Can you see it?!!!), created as part of an illusions exhibition for display in the Millennium Dome. Though not wedding ware, the original vase made by Kaiser Porcelain, celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee of 1977.

Can you guess who it is yet? The vase's shape creates an optical illusion, showing the profiles of the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

If that isn’t ostentatious enough for you, check out this extravagant cigar holder, celebrating the coronation of the Bavarian king, Ludwig II in 1864.  With a penchant for building fairytale-like castles, Ludwig became known variously as The Swan King, the Fairy Tale King and latterly ‘Mad King Ludwig’.

Cigar holder representing the coronation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Munich, Germany, 1864-1867

Clearly, ornate meerschaum pipes (a versatile clay-like material) were the royal souvenir fad of the day. Here’s another from the 1880s, this time picturing the coronation (or possibly wedding) of Frederick III, Emperor of Germany, and his consort Victoria.  Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the ornate pipe to mark Will and Kate’s nuptial celebrations?

Nothing more tasteful than commemorating a royal celebration with a giant ornate pipe. Credit: Science Museum, London

Finally, whilst nowadays there’s no pressure to produce an heir, Kate might still want to check out our Royal Births game for some tips…

Time travel – for the hard of hearing?

In the last few days, an awful lot of web space has been devoted to the lady ‘time traveller’ filmed in 1928, who appears to be chatting away on a mobile. 

Of course back then, the film crew were focusing on a Charlie Chaplin premiere, rather than splits in the space-time continuum. But through the eyes of those living in 2010, where mobile phones are omnipresent, the first reaction of many is to reach a fantastical conclusion.

Alternative readings of this silent clip have quickly appeared. The most popular being that she’s using a hearing device – possibly a Siemens carbon amplifier.  The hand position looks right… but who’s she talking to?

Ardente hearing aid

Ardente carbon hearing aid (Science Museum)

Keeping with carbon hearing aid theme, could she be wearing a device like the one above – one of several designs in our collections. Many include palm-sized microphone units, often attached to a cord around the wearer’s neck.  She could be adjusting the volume by talking into it.

Compact ear trumpet

Compact ear trumpet (Science Museum)

Or maybe it’s something more old-fashioned like this small, flat ear trumpet. It is British, but typical of compact ‘mobile-sized’ models in very common use just a few years earlier. The ear-piece turns in at 90 degrees to the body with the device held alongside the cheek. 

Unless identified as a long-gone great aunt, we’re unlikely to find out precisely what she was doing. 

She’s definitely talking though. Did the cameras make her nervous? Or is she manoeuvering around for a better signal – oblivious to the total lack of service providers and phone masts?

Maybe she was just talking to herself. A lot of people do. But with all respect to the lady in question, when it comes to time travellers I kind of hope they’ll look as out of place and time – and as cool – as the mystery guy in shades who turned up on a Canadian Museum site a few years back.

Now, where did he come from?

Happy Halloween

The witching hour is fast approaching and ghouls, ghosts and monsters are coming out to play – but I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything quite like this.

'Merman', 1801-1900 (A104048, Science Museum, London)

I’m not sure what scares me the most about the chimera we lovingly call the ‘merman’ – the strange stitching together of bird, fish and monkey, or the rather creepy pose or the way the eyes follow you around a room.

The merman is more reminiscent of an animal version of Frankenstein than a museum object. These manufactured monsters often formed part of a gentleman’s cabinet of curiosity.  For others, they were simply forms of entertainment and bafflement.

But Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without a nod to our blood-sucking friends and I don’t mean vampires. May I introduce Hirudo medicinalis.

Pharmacist holding a bowl of leeches, 23 January 1935 (© NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Leeches have been a weapon in the treatment of disease for centuries. They were used for bloodletting as a way of balancing the humours. The use of leeches in Europe peaked between 1830 and 1850, with demand far outstripping supply. Some pharmacists and doctors were using them right up until the 1930s and 1940s.

But how do you catch and store these blood suckers? In the 18th and 19th century, finding leeches was often women’s work. The leeches attached themselves to the legs and feet of the women who plucked them off and stored them in the little barrels of water. Not a pleasant job I imagine.

'Leech finders', 1814 (1989-753/6, Science Museum London)

Storing these creatures is another matter. A range of containers were developed from cages, boxestubes, jars and even houses.

Pharmacy leech jar, England, 1830-1870 (A637617, Science Museum, London)

Today, leeches are still used especially in cases of surgical reconstructions to aid and restore blood flow. I wonder if this will make you change your mind about some of the creatures you may meet tonight!

Great Men and gruesome mementos

A few weeks ago, Stewart talked about relics in our collections – often mundane objects that have gained mystique through association with famous historical characters. Recently, I got a close-up look at what’s possibly the ultimate scientific museum relic: Galileo’s body parts.

The middle finger of Galileo’s right hand has been on display at Florence’s history of science museum for many years. The museum’s recently been refurbished and (in what’s possibly a cunning marketing tool to entice visitors from the Uffizi around the corner) renamed the Museo Galileo. A gallery which contains the only surviving instruments made by Galileo himself has the finger in pride of place – and also another finger, thumb and tooth that were recently found.

Galileo's fingers on display (Alison Boyle).

The display stands, made in the 18th and 19th centuries, reinforce the idea of saintly reliquaries. It’s questionable whether these remains can tell us much about Galileo and his work – certainly less than studying the instruments he made, or his books and papers in the Museo’s archives. But during my visit they were by far the most popular objects in the gallery.

There’s an enduring fascination with the relics of ‘Great Men’.

Several apple trees around the country are claimed to be descended from Newton’s inspiration for the laws of gravitation, despite the story being almost certainly apocryphal: he only related the tale of watching an apple drop a few years before his death (possibly with a view to furthering his posthumous fame) and the story only gained wider currency centuries later.

It’s now unstoppable – a fragment of ‘that tree’ has even been taken into space. But if you prefer something a bit closer to the man himself, a number of Newton’s death masks survive.

An engraving based on Newton's death mask (Science Museum).

Almost anything associated with Einstein is highly collectible – his brain, removed during autopsy, had its own adventure, including a road trip across the US in the boot of a rental car. You can read more about the strange story of Einstein’s brain on our Ingenious website, or in Carolyn Abrahams’ book Possessing Genius.

We seem to crave such relics of genius – and the more gruesome the better.

Could studying Einstein's brain ever reveal his reasoning? (Associated Press / Science & Society)