Category Archives: Transport

Putting a piece of Cameroon in the Science Museum

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer on Information Age, a new exhibition opening in 2014. She works on stories about mobile phones, radio and television. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp are conservators based at the Science Museum’s stores at Wroughton.

This week I’ve headed up to Manchester to talk about a tiny part of Information Age at the biggest ever history of science conference. Together with some other people from the Information Age team I’m running a special session about communications technology in Africa, with a special focus on Cameroon.

Last year a small group of us were lucky enough to go to Cameroon on a field trip to collect a range of objects for the museum that show how mobile phones have affected peoples’ lives. Just like in Britain, the mobile phone means that people organise themselves differently now that they’re constantly connected.

But, in Cameroon telecommunication technology used to be very expensive and difficult to access for most people, and now many more people can own and use a mobile phone making communication much easier. Although we collected lots of different kinds of mobile phone technologies I want to tell you about just one of objects we collected.

Emmanuel’s call box in Bamenda, Cameroon (Source: Science Museum / Sjoerd Epe Sijsma)

Emmanuel Bongsunu lives and works in Bamenda, in the English speaking part of Cameroon. He set up his first call box business in the late 1990s, very soon after mobile phones were introduced into the country. His call box tells the story of how the business evolved over time. In the picture you can see the original part of the call box – the small yellow box at the front that he would have sat behind, probably under an umbrella. As the business grew so too did his call box until eventually it was big enough to stand in, and even had its own electricity supply. When we spoke to Emmanuel he offered to sell us his call box as it would allow him to get a brand new one made to meet his needs today. It was such a great example that we couldn’t resist – even though getting such a big object back to the UK was going to be tricky.

A local carpenter helped us by building enormous crates to put our objects in, and his team also helped us to dismantle this large item. It was difficult to watch it being taken to pieces, and I made endless notes and labelled each part carefully so we would know how to put it back together afterwards.

Our crates ready to be taken to the port and shipped to the UK (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

A few weeks ago I travelled to our stores at Wroughton to work with two of the Science Museum’s conservation team to finally bring the call box back to life. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp have written about the part they played in reconstructing this rather dilapidated object. Here’s what they had to say:

When this item first arrived at Wroughton we froze it to eliminate any unwanted pest activity, after that it arrived in the conservation laboratory in its disassembled state. We decided to give the object a relatively light clean and to make only necessary repairs to the structure to allow it to be put back together in a stable condition.  Running repairs and rough edges were all part of the object’s history and we wanted to preserve this, making it look too clean or new would not give a true impression of its working life, or the piecemeal way in which it had been constructed.

We did a light surface clean to remove some insect debris and thick soiling that had built up during transportation. Original nails also had to be removed where they were sticking out from the timbers as they were usually bent and corroded and would get in the way of the reassembly, as well posing as a safety hazard to the team. We used modern fixings in the re-build instead, as this involved putting the timbers under less stress and also means in the future it will be obvious which bits are the original object, and which bits we added. Anything we added to the object has been carefully recorded.

Esther and Diana working on reconstructing Emmanuel’s call box (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

Some timbers had to be repaired for the structural integrity of the object; in these cases the damage had been caused entirely through the deconstruction process.  The work included ‘consolidating’ the feet of the object to prevent any of the original wood being lost and to protect them during transport to the gallery. Working on the roof was quite challenging, and we built a special support so that it could be worked on upside-down. We haven’t put the roof back on yet because it’ll be easier to transport it back to London in two pieces ready for the display.

Keep your eyes peeled for future posts about how we’re working with Cameroonians based in London to decide together how the various objects we brought back should be displayed.

“Love to Soph”, hidden Morse messages from the SS Great Eastern

Jennifer Bainbridge, Conservator on the new Information Age gallery, writes about the conservation of Morse code tapes from the SS Great Eastern, 1865, a ship which undertook the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable. John Liffen, Curator of Communication, provides details of transcription.

As one of the conservators working on the new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014, I handle, document and carry out treatments on objects destined for display.  Working so closely with artifacts means I am often in the lucky position of discovering new quirks or secrets, as I was recently reminded when undertaking conservation of some Morse code tapes from the S.S Great Eastern voyage of 1865.

Morse code tapes before treatment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Looking at the tapes on a shelf in our Telecommunications Store, sitting alongside larger and grander objects, they appeared deceptively small and manageable, while at the same time they held the promise of untold stories.  Curator of Communication, John Liffen, informed me that within living memory at the museum the tapes had never been unravelled and no transcription of the message existed. It was now my job to enable this task! Firstly, I had to determine the object’s condition. Wound round an old paper envelope core the tapes were overlapping as they were coiled round and round.

While providing a compact means of storage, the tapes looked under stress.  They were, however strong enough for unravelling to take place.  The unwinding was quite a slow process as it turned out there were nine tapes wound together, with some being very lengthy.

You can see why the tapes were wrapped around an old envelope, they’re a little unwieldy when unwrapped. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

Once unravelled, the tapes were lightly cleaned with Smoke Sponge, a natural vulcanised rubber which gently picked up dust and dirt.  The tapes then needed to be humidified to relax the bends and creases caused by having been rolled.  Direct moisture causes cockling of paper and potential running of inks, so instead the paper was rested on a one-way permeable membrane to allow vapour, rather than water though.  Once lying flat the tears were repaired using heat set tissue, activated with a heated spatula.

With the tape repaired John then stepped in to commence the transcription. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

The main problem encountered at the transcription stage was that the dots and dashes inked on the tape can at times be ambiguous, with a dot often looking like a dash and vice versa.  As John says,

“To a twenty-first century researcher much of the Morse on the tapes translates as random letters. However, in places recognisable words can be read. On piece 1, the phrases ‘still in Vienna have red red’ and ‘none from Paris’ can be seen. Piece 6 was indecipherable, but when the tape was inverted the phrase ‘concludes lead iron cable’ was found within a string of Morse letters. This is more promising as part of a possible message. Most intriguingly, on piece 4 can be found ‘love to Sophbin’. Presumably ‘Sophie’ is the intended word but the Morse clearly shows a ‘b’ after the letter h. Whoever Sophie was, how did she come to be on board the Great Eastern during its cable-laying voyage?”.

The man behind the motor – William Morris and the iron lung

March marks the 100th anniversary of the first cars made by William Morris (1877-1963). The first was a Morris-Oxford Light Car. William Morris began making and repairing bicycles in his work and gradually went onto to hiring and repairing cars before making his own. Although his business was disrupted by the First World War, Morris went on to dominate the British car industry and was made a baron in 1934 and 4 years later Viscount for his services to car manufacturing. He would become known as Viscount Nuffield.

Morris Minor MM, 1950 ( Science Museum, London )

You may be wondering why a medical curator is writing about car manufacturing? Well to us medical folk, Lord Nuffield is more well known for providing hospitals across the UK and what was then the British Empire with iron lungs. Over 5,000 iron lungs were donated and we are lucky enough to have one in the collection, that was donated to the Memorial Hospital in Darlington.

Both-type iron lung donated to the Memorial Hospital Darlington, c.1950s ( Science Museum, London )

During the late 1940s and 1950s, polio was cutting its way across the UK and the rest of the world. The vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were still years away. Polio can and did affect people, especially children, in different ways. As an infectious disease affecting the central nervous system, some people would experience temporary or permanent paralysis of the the limbs, or of the chest muscles. For the latter, the only treatment option was an iron lung. Few hospitals were able to afford the £1000 each machine cost.

Nuffield began his mission to spread iron lungs across the world in 1938 after hearing a plea for a iron lung on the radio and offered a part of his factory to manufacture them. At the time, the Both iron lung that Nuffield begin to make was not seen as the best model on the market and he was for his “wasteful benevolence.” Nuffield went on to maufacture 700 of the Both-type iron lungs machines in his workshops. In total Nuffield donated over 5000 iron lungs. One is on display at his former home, Nuffield Place. If you look closely at our iron lung, many of the parts, look at those they were modelled on car parts.

Handle of the Both-type iron lung ( Science Museum, London )

Today, the Nuffield name lives on in the many other medical institutions and posts that William Morris endowed including Nuffield Department of Surigcal Sciences and the Nuffield College at the University of Oxford and the Nuffield Foundation. So the next time you see a Morris car, think about the man behind the motor.

Dr Gillespie’s nautical absence

musket ball

The fatal shot (Science Museum, London)

At around 1.15 pm, on 21st October 1805, a small projectile (shown in the above engraving), fired at a range of about 50ft, passed into Admiral Horatio Nelson’s left shoulder and, ricocheting against bone, tore a path through his upper body before passing into his lower back.  The musket ball took with it fragments of the his coat and its epaulette which remained attached after it came to rest.

Nelson died a few hours later as the Battle of Trafalgar drew to a close, and after prolonged preservation, in first brandy and then distilled wine, and after much public procession and fanfare, his body was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 9th January 1806.

invitation

The invitation (Science Museum, London)

Here is an invitation to the funeral from our collections.  The recipient was Dr Leonard Gillespie, “Physician to Lord Nelson”.  Indeed Gillespie had actually been assigned to the post of Physician-General to the Fleet by Nelson whilst abroad HMS Victory – the ship he was officially attached to.  But while Nelson was attended by the Victory’s surgeon William Beatty on that fatal day, where was Gillespie?

tourniquet

Dr Gillespie's tourniquet, carried on HMS Victory (Science Museum, London)

Dr Gillespie had overseen an enlightened approach to on-board health, which just prior to Trafalgar he described as “unexampled perhaps in any squadron heretofore employed on a foreign station”.  He had also written an influential pamphlet on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen, which put particular emphasis on a good diet, but in October 1805 Gillespie himself was not a well man.  As Nelson was taking that fatal shot, Gillespie was ashore, laid low with gout!

While scurvy is the dietary complaint traditionally associated with life at sea in the early 1800s, gout was not uncommon.  Linked in part to diets rich in meat, seafood and alcohol, the naval officer class was prone to the condition.  Although Gillespie missed his masters final moments, his gouty absence was no cause for shame.  Indeed, according to William Beatty, it was only through “abstaining for the space of nearly two years from animal food, and wine and all other fermented drink; confining his diet to vegetables, and commonly milk and water” that Nelson overcame his own bout…of gout.

As for Gillespie, he outlived Nelson by nearly three decades, dying at 83 after a long retirement in Paris.  However, in a curious postscript, ‘Dr Leonard Gillespie’ emerged a century later in a very different context.  Firstly in books, then on cinema and TV screens, as the elderly mentor to the titular young medic in the hugely successful Dr Kildare.  In this clip Gillespie (played by Lionel Barrymore) is the one pooh-poohing the idea of  ‘socialised medicine’.  Hmmmm.

 

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.

Oar-some boats!

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.

I recently told you about the tiny gun-punt model that was on show in the British Small Craft exhibit at  the Science Museum, now closed to make way for a major new gallery on communications. Today, I’ve got three models from the sea boats display to show you: the cutter, gig and lifeboat.

The sea boat models (cutter, gig and lifeboat) formerly shown on the mezzanine of the Shipping Gallery (Image: Science Museum)

The cutter model represents the general utility boat used by the Navy and carried on their warships at the beginning of twentieth century. The label explains that it is clincher-built (overlapping plank construction) and ‘is very much heavier, both in design and construction than a gig.’

Detail of the cutter (Image: Science Museum)

It goes on to say that it was pulled by 12 oars, six aside with each oar equalling one man.  But if you look closely at the model you see that it actually has seven rowlocks down each side making 14 in total, not 12.  This model, along with the gig, was lent to the museum by a Lieutenant Colonel H Wyllie in 1934.

Detail of the gig (Image: Science Museum)

In comparison, the gig (as a boat type) was lightly built using the carvel building method (plank edges fused together side-by-side) creating fine lines for speed. This model represents a captain’s gig used in the Navy at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Because it was a more elegant and lightly built craft it needed fewer men to pull it along, hence the six visible metal rowlocks – three on each side.

Detail of the ship’s lifeboat and the ‘davits’ (Image: Science Museum)

This model of a ship’s lifeboat is shown ‘on davits of a quadrant type, patented by Mr A. Welin in 1900’ as the accompanying label explains.  Axel Welin was a Swedish inventor and industrialist who founded his own engineering firm, the Welin Davit & Engineering Company Ltd.  The model shows his quadrant design for the davits – with the horizontal mechanism movement – which meant that a life boat like this could be lowered quickly and safely over the side of a ship in an evacuation.

 I’ve one more British Small Craft story to share with you – watch out for my final post.

Gun-ho with a punt!

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.

The river and sea boats showcase, British Small Craft display (Image: Science Museum)

This little model doesn’t look like much but it represents a small boat that packs a punch!  At 1:24 scale, the model represents a canoe-like craft with a flat bottom and a maximum width of the hull just forward of the middle section.  This extra width was necessary to accommodate the eight-foot gun mounted to the hull which essentially acted as a gigantic one-shot shotgun.  As the accompanying label says, ‘this type of craft … is employed on shallow waterways for stalking and shooting wild fowl.’

A close up of the gun-punt model on display. (Image: James Fenner).

Essentially, what you would do is paddle up quietly to your quarry (a flock of wildfowl) in a marsh or river, under the camouflage of the reeds, lying prone.  The gun would be primed and ready for action, with the two-inch barrel rammed full of a pound of shot and charge. You would tap the side of the hull; the flock would fly up startled and … BOOM! You’d open fire.  If you were lucky you could hit as many as 50 birds in one go. 

The recoil was so powerful and violent it sent the boat backwards for several yards. This meant that the gun had to be fixed to the hull which, in turn, meant you had to manoeuvre the punt to aim again.  Unfortunately, as well as the risk of missing altogether there was the added problem that you had to take the vessel back to shore to reload.

More on the British Small Craft displays in a future post.

Steaming through the centuries

Mention ‘steam engine’ to most people and they immediately think of railway engines. Yet long before railways, stationary steam engines helped power the Industrial Revolution – the years between 1760 and 1830 when Britain became the world’s first industrial nation. 

Our standard of living, plus the environmental and energy supply issues which threaten us today, grew out of the Industrial Revolution.

'Old Bess' ( Peter Turvey)

One of the oldest surviving engines from that time is now in the Science Museum, ‘Old Bess’ built in 1777 by Boulton & Watt. 

Removed from its original site in Boulton’s Soho Manufactory Birmingham, after it stopped work in 1848, the only way we can now show visitors what ‘Old Bess’ looked like when in use is via a model or a computer animation

However there are a still a few preserved stationary engines on their original sites which can be seen working on special occasions.

The most amazing survival is the 1812 Boulton & Watt engine at Crofton Pumping Station in Wiltshire.

Built well before the oldest working standard gauge steam railway locomotive in the UK, Furness Railway No. 20 of 1863, it is the oldest surviving working stationary steam engine still on its original site.   

Though replaced by electric pumps in 1958, it is kept in working order by a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.

Beam of the 1812 Boulton & Watt Engine at Crofton Pumping Station ( Peter Turvey )

The pumping station is open to the public during the summer months, and the engine run on ‘steaming weekends’ when it can be seen still doing the job for which it was built, raising water into the summit level of the Kennet  and Avon Canal.

Nowhere else can visitors experience such a complete example of Georgian steam power in action.  2012 marks this wonderful old engine’s bicentenary, and with special events this summer Crofton should be well worth a visit.

An interesting post about boring machines (for making tunnels)

Whenever I go to London by train I see the civil engineering works outside Paddington Station for the new Crossrail link. There is a big hole ready to take the giant German-made tunnelling machines which will soon start work boring the Crossrail  tunnels under London.

These amazing pieces of engineering are often scrapped after their job is done. They are far too large to fit in any museum, so we have a model of the similar machines used to bore the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s. 

However, at our Large Object store at Wroughton in Wiltshire we have one of their very much smaller ancestors, the Whitaker Tunnelling machine.

The Whittaker Tunnelling Machine (Credit: Peter Turvey)

Ours was built about 1922 and used for early Channel Tunnel exploratory work.

Like modern machines it has a revolving ‘cutter head’ at the front to chew through soil or soft rock, and is gradually inched forward as the tunnel is excavated.

Whitaker Tunnelling Machine - Cutting Head (Credit: Peter Turvey)

How it came to the Museum is a fascinating story. Abandoned for nearly 70 years outside the short tunnel it excavated near Dover, the machine was rescued in the 1990s, restored, and presented to us.

Yet there is a sombre side side to its history – the Whitaker Tunnelling machine was originally developed to drive tunnels under the German lines during the First World War, so that so that huge caches of explosives could be fired under them to break the stalemate on the Western Front.

The forthcoming anniversary of that destructive conflict reminds us how conflict is often a driver for technological change for good or ill.

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.