Category Archives: Quirky

Transforming the everyday

I recently wrote about how even the most mundane of objects can be transformed by the associations they have with people or events. 

But I’m also intrigued by how the unremarkable can be transformed in other ways. For example, through the powers they are said to possess or by physical transformation into something new. 

Flint nodules

Flint nodules from North-East England, c.1908-1916 (Science Museum)

These are nodules of flint, a common mineral found across Britain. They look a bit like feet or legs and it’s this resemblance that makes them special. All three are charms. Carried in the hope that a health problem would be transferred from the owner’s limb to the limb-like stone.

Toothache charms

English toothache charms, c.1871-1916 (Science Museum)

Such ideas about disease transference are common to folk medicine and some other mundane objects supposedly imbued with such powers are shown above. Stones, animal teeth and a ‘tooth-like’ cluster of hazelnuts all employed by those suffering toothache.

Other objects in the collections have been transformed through physical, rather than spiritual, means. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Key and spoon

Key and spoon (Science Museum)

The makeshift key on the left was secretly cut by a inmate at the Brighton County Borough Asylum after they had pilfered a standard canteen spoon like the one on the right. It’s not known how successful this escape attempt proved to be.

Artificial leg

Artificial leg made in Blyth, Northumberland in 1903 (Science Museum)

Unlike the ‘spoon-key’ some transformed objects do retain an echo of their former use. This tiny artificial limb was repurposed from a chair leg in 1903 by the father of a three-year-old boy who’d lost his right leg. 

We don’t know the name of the wearer, but the dents and scratches on this object poignantly suggest that the mere loss of a leg didn’t slow this particular toddler down.

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)

From Planck to pigeon poo

The European Space Agency has just released the first all-sky map from the Planck satellite. The centre of the map is dominated by purple swirls from the dust around our Galaxy, but Planck’s main business is to look closely at the blobby structures visible in the map’s outer regions. These ’blobs’ show temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. Irregularities in the CMB became the seeds of today’s galaxies.

Planck's all sky survey (ESA, HFI and LFI consortia)

The fluctuations in the background radiation were first mapped by NASA’s COBE satellite, launched in 1989. An instrument on board also measured the CMB’s spectrum. FIRAS’s moving mirrors created interference patterns in a radiation beam, enabling the precise spectrum to be reconstructed. To the delight of scientists, the results perfectly matched the predictions of Big Bang theory.

This prototype mirror mechanism for the FIRAS instrument is on display in Cosmos & Culture (Science Museum).

The FIRAS prototype is on loan to us from the kind folks at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.  NASM’s display about the 1964 discovery of the microwave background features one of my favourite objects in any museum, anywhere. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson initially thought that an annoying background hiss from their radio antenna was caused by pigeon droppings, and used this trap to try and capture the pesky critters. It turned out they’d accidentally found what other scientists had been looking for – the Big Bang’s echo.

A quacking tale

Recently, my colleague David mentioned that we’re planning a major history of science gallery as part of our master plan. It’s got us thinking about some of our favourite objects in the collections. Here’s one of my all-time tops:

'The First Years' plastic duck, c.1992

Yes, it’s a toy duck. But not just any old toy duck. It’s part of a consignment of plastic toys lost from a container ship in the North Pacific during high storms on January 10, 1992. Around 29,000 toys spilled from the container and have been making a swim for it ever since, to the shores of Alaska, surviving ice in the Bering Straits, and heading into the North Atlantic.

Oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham have enlisted the help of beachcombers worldwide to track where the toys wash up. By following the mighty ducks and their floating friends, they can refine their models of ocean surface currents. It’s a great illustration of how scientists can come up with imaginative solutions to problems, and a charming example of members of the public working in tandem with scientists. Oceanographers track all sorts of flotsam – there’s also a flotilla of trainers bobbing about out there - but the storytelling potential of rubber duckies floating around the world’s biggest bathtub makes this case particularly appealing. You can find out more about Curtis and the ducks in his book.

The yellow ducks were accompanied by blue turtles, green frogs and red beavers who've since faded to white (Science Museum).

These toys are part of the first wave to be washed ashore – large numbers landed in Sitka, Alaska, ten months after the spill. We acquired these toys in 2005, following a response to posts we put on Sitka community websites under the heading ’Science Museum, London, looking for a duck!’  We decided they should travel to the Museum in a box, by air, rather than swimming for it…

The goodness of wood

I stumbled across an old Monty Python sketch the other day that plays with words pleasing to the ear (‘woody’) or displeasing (‘tinny’). I chortled (nice woody word) but then started thinking about wood and science - we don’t often associate the two and we’re culturally conditioned to associate wood with words like ‘old’:

Roe Triplane at Lea Marshes, 1909

Roe Triplane at Lea Marshes, 1909 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

and ‘amateur’;

Man Sawing Wood, 1997

Man Sawing Wood, 1997 (Science Museum/Science & society)

But appearances can be deceptive as the Mosquito aircraft demonstrated. It may have resembled its alloy contemporaries of World War 2 but its sleek exterior cloaked a strong, lightweight structure of balsa, birch and spruce.

And the very obviously metallic masts and aerials of Rugby Radio Station, long standing landmark twixt the A5 and M1, relied on a hidden, cathedral of wood – the Linden or Lime Wood-supporting structure for the transmitter’s tuning coil assembly.

Rugby Radio Station’s Very Low Frequency Tuning Coil Assembly, 2004

Rugby Radio Station’s Very Low Frequency Tuning Coil Assembly, 2004, (Science Museum).

And lest we think of the space age as an era of quintessentially expensive and exotic materials we should remember that Apollo astronauts needed cork to get to the Moon (it lined the boost protective cover that protected their command module and windows should the launch escape system be used),

Apollo Launch Escape System, 1968

Apollo Launch Escape System, 1968 (NASA)

and that China’s Fanhui Shei Weixing reconnaissance satellite had oak in its heat shield to help it ablate (burn away and dissipate the heat of atmospheric re-entry).

In space, no one can hear country music

If ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’, as the publicity for the film Alien says, then certainly no one can hear Country music. Except, that is, if they are in a spaceship.

Apollo Ten, 1969 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Outer space is a vacuum and – like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 crew – you can travel through it in a private capsule of sound. Each of the astronauts was allowed to take one tape on the mission, and Country music was the preference of two of them. Cowboy music. Music for opening-up a new frontier.

During the Apollo concert, July 2009 (Gaetan Lee)

Last year, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the moon landings, the Science Museum, with new music promoters Sound & Music, staged the first live performances of Apollo, the score to Al Reinert’s film For All Mankind. The arrangement was by Wujun Lee, and performed by Icebreaker with BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar – and that’s where the Country music comes in. Brian Eno - who created the music with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois – was very tickled by the astronaut’s choice, and so incorporated slide guitar into the sound.

BJ Cole (BJ Cole)

Apollo 10 Command Module, 1969

Apollo 10 Command Module, 1969 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Afterwards, excited punters paused in our Making the Modern World looking with renewed interest at our Apollo 10 capsule.

Now the Apollo concerts have broken free of the Science Museum’s gravity and have begun to appear in new orbits. Last weekend saw new performances at the Brighton Festival. Apollo will be performed at Camp Bestival (30 July) and Aldeburgh (23 Aug), before going on tour throughout the UK in the autumn.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? I ask with the new ‘United Kingdom Space Agency’ in mind. The ‘muscular’ new space agency was launched with a new punchy logo but, I fear, a rather weak name. We might shorten it to something pronounced UK-SAR or perhaps to a simple abbreviation reading YOO-KAY-ESS-AY.

Back in the 60s a fair chunk of UK space research was carried out at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE – pronounced AR-AY-EE) in Farnborough, Hampshire.

The Science Museum has many examples of the Establishment’s experimental work, which extended well beyond space endeavours like the Skylark rocket:

Skylark rocket launch

Skylark rocket launch (Science & Society)

To aviation research including the Concorde project and high altitude suiting:

Upper half of partial-pressure suit, ca. 1954

Upper half of partial-pressure suit, ca. 1954 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And on to breakthrough technologies, like the strengthening of carbon fibre:

Oven for making carbon fibre, ca. mid 1960s

Oven for making carbon fibre, ca. mid 1960s (Science Museum/Science & Society)

But back to the RAE name itself, which substituted ‘Air’ with ‘Aerospace’ in 1988 then, as rationalisation and privatisation beckoned, ditched the whole caboodle in favour of DRA (Defence Research Agency), DERA (Defence Evaluation Research Agency) and finally to the present post-privatisation forms of QinetiQ – the company – and DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) – a government agency… which brings us back to UKSA.

On April 1st 2010 UKSA takes over from BNSC (British National Space Centre) which had been coordinating the UK’s various space activities for over 25 years. Some say it was doomed because it lacked a dedicated budget or executive powers, but I suspect the main reason it was finally killed off was its lack of vowels: BNSC - try making a memorable acronym out of that…

Whereas NASA – whoa! Consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel, guaranteed to stick in the mind. That’s really how America got to the Moon – by perfecting the art of abbreviating and acronyming. They made a science of it.

Will UKSA achieve the same? Best ask how the following got on with the same letters: United Kingdom Sailing Academy; United Kingdom Skateboarding Academy and United Kingdom & Irish Samba Association … and there’s plenty more where these came from.

Monster soup

Curatorial work can be pretty desk-bound, so opportunities to get your hands dirty are not to be missed. I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to venture into London’s Victorian sewers. Hey – we’ve all got to dream…

Off on a jolly in the London sewers

Off on a jolly in the London sewers

Back in the 1800′s London’s sanitation was terrible, as this satirical engraving of ”Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water”, illustrates:

'Monster Soup', 1828.

'Monster Soup', 1828. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was a public health disaster, that claimed numerous lives. London’s sewage system, although it’s still being modernised, is essentially a Victorian construction engineered by Joseph Bazalgette to deal with the daily excretions of millions of Londoners.

Built with the slightest of gradients, the sewers flow from west to east London where a number of pumping stations raise up the contents again, before allowing it to travel onwards. One of these is Abbey Mills Pumping Station, near Stratford, which draws up the flow 40 feet into the raised Northern Outfall sewer – my glamorous destination for the day.

Bazalgette's Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Stratford, London, 1868.

Bazalgette's Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Stratford, London, 1868. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

From the outside, the Northern Outfall looks like a disused railway embankment. It bridges roads. It forms a cycle path.

Once clad in disposable bodysuit, gloves, waders and hardhat, we entered via a painfully vertical ladder. The first surprise was the smell – or rather the lack of it. A slight ammonia whiff, but not that unpleasant.

Me and my fellow travellers were accompanied by guides, similarly clad but armed with beeping gas monitors. Their torches exposing a world of arched brickwork, sluice gates and rounded tunnels disappearing off into the gloom. And yes, the opaque watery soup flecked with brown that we were wading through. But closer inspection of the shingly mud banked against the walls revealed unexpected things – a toy car, a metal spoon, part of a mobile phone. Evidence that the sewers also deal with what goes down London’s street drains.

Apart from some alarming collections of ‘matter’ trapped in brick crevices and around ladder rungs, it looks pretty good up there – considering its age. And, after an extended wander and one near tumble (it happens – trip to A & E advisable), we surfaced. Impressed with Bazalgette’s monumental handiwork, we headed for a more low key public health experience – the long hot shower.

Finding Pluto

Eighty years ago today, a young American astronomer discovered tiny Pluto. Clyde Tombaugh was searching for a predicted ‘Planet X’ that might explain oddities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.

Tombaugh spent months painstakingly photographing the same sections of sky and studying the images with a blink comparator. On 18 Feburary 1930, he noticed that on photographs taken a few nights apart that January, one ‘star’ had moved, indicating that it was actually a nearby object moving against the fixed background of distant stars. Further observations confirmed the discovery, which was announced to the world that March.

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows. (Image: Science Museum)

Despite the fanfare, Pluto turned out not to be Planet X – Tombaugh had just been looking in the right place at the right time. Subsequent observations revealed that Pluto was too small to match the predictions. Eventually, revised calculations of Netpune and Uranus’s orbits removed the need for Planet X altogether.

Things got worse for Pluto by the 2000s, with astronomers discovering a slew of similarly-sized bodies beyond Neptune. Either our Solar System had a lot more planets than anyone had realised, or it was time to rethink what counts as a planet. On 24 August 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted on a new definition, demoting Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’.

‘Save Pluto’ campaigns were quick to follow. This bumper sticker was one of the first products to go on sale.

For ... (Image: Science Museum)

However, it didn’t take very long for someone to come up with a response:

... and against. (Image: Science Museum)

The IAU’s definition of ‘planet’ remains controversial, so there may be hope for Pluto yet. Because it’s so faraway and faint we still know very little about it, but a spacecraft called New Horizons is due to fly by in 2015. It’s carrying some of Tombaugh’s ashes.

You can see the bumper stickers and the photograph in Cosmos & Culture, while a detector for New Horizons is on display in Exploring Space.

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…