Category Archives: Research

Electricity! Galvanizer and destroyer

This blog post was written by Johanna Stevens-Yule

Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta both made names for themselves with their pioneering work on electricity—however; electricity would prove to be the destructive force to the majority of their actual instruments.

Here at the Science Museum we find ourselves in the position of owning Galvani’s very own electrostatic machine, but this so very easily might not have been the case. Unlike several other pieces of Galvani’s equipment, it escaped being destroyed in an 1899 fire.

 

By rotating the disc on the electrostatic machine it was possible to create an electrical charge. Galvani, an Italian physician working in the eighteenth century, experimented on nerve stimulation, mainly in frogs, using this electrostatic machine. Galvani used the electrostatic machine along with other equipment to help develop his theory that electricity ran through the nerves in animals’ bodies.

During these famous experiments Galvani would typically shock nerve fibres and muscles in frogs’ legs with static electricity and observe the effects. From this Galvani concluded that electricity must flow through animals’ bodies to cause a contraction along the muscles and termed this ‘animal electricity’.

Galvani died in 1798. About a century later, the electrostatic machine, along with about 30 other items of Galvani’s experimental equipment, ended up in the hands of Professor Giuseppe Fabbi of Bologna (Galvani’s hometown). Fabbi loaned a small selection of these objects to the Esposizione Voltiana in Como (Volta’s hometown) commemorating both Galvani and Volta (but mostly Volta) for their work in electricity.

The exhibition proved to be a massive success; however, disaster struck on the 8th June 1899. In a rather ironic twist the fusing of an electric wire caused a fire to break out, burning down the entire building, taking the Galvani andVolta material with it.

A postcard displaying the exhibition in Como—or what was left it after the fire! (Image courtesy of Associazione Iubilantes)

Fortunately for us, Fabbi, a patriotic son of Bologna, decided not to loan Galvani’s most important apparatus, like the electrostatic machine, to the exhibition in Como. Instead he kept it for his own collection which he later sold on, meaning the machine is still in existence today and is now part of the Science Museum’s Galvani collection. These objects are traces of the work conducted by one of the great pioneers of electrical experimentation, and will be featured in a temporary exhibition opening in September 2013 on the history of electrical stimulation of the nerves and brain.

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!

 

Collecting synthetic biology – an iGEM of an idea

Collecting stuff is generally the bit I like most about my job. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit over excited about the new acquisitions we’ve made related to synthetic biology – from no other than Tom Knight widely described as the “father” of the discipline.

Synthetic biology is research that combines biology and engineering. Sounds like genetic engineering by another name? Well yes, but it goes much further. It looks to create new biological functions not found in nature, designing them according to engineering principles.  Some see the field as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Biofilm made by the UT Austin / UCSF team for the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition. From drugs to biofuels the potential applications are huge. (Image: WikiCommons)

Now like a lot of biotech, synthetic biology isn’t particularly easy to collect or represent through objects – as it’s the biology that’s interesting and most of the ‘stuff’ used in research is entirely indistinguishable from other biological equipment e.g. micropipettes and microwells.  

What we’ve acquired are a number of iGEM kits – hardware consisting of standardised biological components known as BioBricks™ . Students competing in iGEM are sent these kits to engineer new applications. Check out some of the former winner’s projects: Arsenic Biodetector, Bactoblood, E. Chromi.

Biological lego – parts that have particular functions and can be readily assembled. The kits document a fascinating ten year period in the discipline of synthetic biology – starting from this basic aliquot kit sent out when iGEM first launched c.2002. (Image: Science Museum)

The origin of these objects and the idea for BioBricks™ is rather curious. They didn’t emerge from biology – but from computer science. Tom Knight was a senior researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Tom became interested in the potential for using biochemistry to overcome the impending limitations of computer transistors.

Knight Lab: Tom set up a biology lab in his computer science department and began to explore whether simple biological systems could be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. That led to setting up iGEM.

From aliquots to paper based DNA to microwells – the kits show the technological change and sheer complexity of distributing biological components to teams competing around the globe.

In 2008 - the kits trialled paper embedded DNA via these folders - but it didn't quite work out. The kits do, however, represent an important ethic - that of open-sourcing in science. Students collaborate and contribute to adding new biological parts. (Image: Science Museum)

Suggestions for other synthetic biology stuff we could collect gratefully received!

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.

 

The Secret of Life

The third and final installment of Miranda Bud’s blogs… 

The Watson and Crick discovery of the DNA double helix is an iconic image of our scientific age. It is considered the milestone of contemporary genetics and is such an integrated part of our society that saying “it’s in my DNA” is a commonly used phrase by many people.

Working with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin they unlocked the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. It led to countless advances, solved a mystery which had troubled scientists for decades and it was what produced Francis Crick’s famous statement in the Eagle pub on the 28th February 1953 that he and Watson had “found the secret of life”.

(The four Collaborators on the DNA model. Credit: ba-education.com)

Since then a lot more research has been done to unravel the secrets of DNA and to decode the human genome. What surprised me though was that DNA structure is not something merely left to the scientific world…

In 1993 Bijan, an American fashion designer, brought out ‘DNA’ perfume, with the caption “DNA…it’s the reason you have your father’s eyes, your mother’s smile”. This highlights the link between art and science that exists and which is becoming more visible, as more and more artists and designers take their inspiration from molecular biology.

(Bottle of 'DNA' eau de parfum, United States, 1993. Credit: Science Museum)

From my time at the Science Museum I have seen more than anything how science can be related to all aspects of life. From fashion to fission, science helps build a picture of the world around us and tries to give us reasons for why we live the way we do.

I loved seeing a different side to the museum, one most members of the public don’t get to experience. Blythe and Wroughton with their huge stores allow you to see not just science, but history as well. There are so many objects each with a unique story, and I only regret that I have only managed to discover but a few of those stories in my short time here.

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)

 

The doble and the seagull

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit. Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

This is the last of my short series of posts about displays from the former British Small Craft exhibition at the Science Museum, which is now being moved to storage after a remarkable 50 years on show.

The doble model and the seagull, peter-boats and dobles showcase (Image: Science Museum)

Apart from sounding like the name of a real good old-fashioned pub, or the beginning of a joke, the above title can also be associated with this scene of a chap leaning over the hull of a Medway doble while a little seagull perches on a mooring post nearby.  This 1:4 scale model was part of the peter-boats and dobles showcase.

The doble and seagull from a different angle. (Image: James Fenner)

This little boat type was used to catch sprats with netting, and each doble was fitted with a wet-well (a well of river water built into the hull to keep the catch fresh).  They were very popular with River Medway fisherman.

Our model was purchased by the museum from a pair of gentleman who had bought it from a boat-builders in Strood (across the river from Rochester) in 1934. In the later 1960s when the model was put in a landscape setting of its own as part of the new Shipping Gallery, it turned out there were some problems of scale when it came to the inclusion of both a human figure and a seagull:

Detail of the troublesome model seagull (Image: Science Museum)

In this display showing small craft of the Thames estuary there is a realistic setting for the Medway doble model and as the scale of this model is very different to that of the other two [models in the case], a scale human figure & a sea gull are included. I might add that there was some argument about the size of a sea gull and the Museum illustrator ended up in the Natural History Museum with a stuffed sea gull to measure.’ (Bathe, Assistant Keeper, 1961)

This model and display has a particular significance for me because I’m originally from Rochester in Kent and know the River Medway very well. I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts on the British Small Craft exhibits – I am certainly enjoying researching them. Thanks for reading.