Category Archives: Aviation

“The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls”

From November 1782, James Watt and his friends were excited by the Montgolfier brothers’ experiments with hot air balloons.

Watt wrote to Dr Joseph Black in 1783 that “The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls at present”.

In August 1783 the Frenchman J A C Charles and two brothers called Robert substituted hydrogen, or“inflammable air”, for hot air. Alarmed locals pitchforked their balloon where it landed.

Pitchforking the alien © Science Museum / Science & Society

In December Charles and one Robert brother set off on their first manned flight, using hydrogen made by passing steam over hot iron.

Launch site of hydrogen balloon December 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

They went up

The balloon rising Dec 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

And up

The balloon rose further Science Museum / Science & Society

And up even more.

The balloon rose even further Science Museum / Science & Society

Before touching ground again on the property of an interested landowner who was intrigued by his sudden visitors arriving in such a novel manner.

First touch down Science Museum / Science & Society

Robert  hopped out to explain what they were up to, whereupon the balloon took off again with Charles still aboard. This time he was taken so high he had an almost religious experience (probably along the lines of “I swear if I get down from up here in one piece, I’ll never do it again”).  

The balloon and its pilot were loaded on to a wagon and returned to Paris, closing a dramatic chapter in the early history of aeronautics.

Triumphant return to Paris © Science Museum / Science & Society

Watt’s partner Matthew Boulton experimented with thin copper, along the way managing to make one of his test balloons explode in mid air. 

It wasn’t really their thing, and Watt wrote to another friend in October 1794

“Mr Boulton did idle a great deal of his time in playing with some small balloons some time ago but I hope he is now cured of the balloonomania” .

From Vulcan to UAV

The Farnborough Air Show is a biennial jamboree that’s actually more market place than show. It’s where you come to buy aircraft or satellites or spare parts or just about anything you might need if your business is about flying high. 

Crowds watching Vulcan XH558 landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Crowds watching Avro Vulcan XH558 landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 2010 (Doug Millard)

But this year I abandoned the trade halls to watch the Avro Vulcan XH558 bomber take off – its Olympus engines howling like no other jet, and then land, having thrilled the crowds with a beautiful, graceful and yes – awesome flying display – the only Vulcan that is airworthy. 

Vulcan XH558 soars overhead at Farnborough, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Vulcan XH558 soars overhead at Farnborough, 2010 (Doug Millard)

I got talking to Michael Trotter, Business Development Manager of the ‘Vulcan to the Sky’ Trust whose volunteers had made XH558 airworthy once more. He was interested in the Science Museum’s Blue Steel stand-off bomb – as carried by Vulcans during the Cold War. 

Blue Steel

Trial Version of Blue Steel now in the Science Museum's Collections (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I was thinking of this the other day while reading an RAF Defence Studies booklet on UAVs – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. According to its historical preamble the Blue Steel – which separated from the aircraft before accelerating to its target – would be classed as a form of UAV – after all, it was unmanned. But UAVs usually return to their owners – which the nuclear-tipped Blue Steel certainly wasn’t designed to do. 

Phoenix UAV shortly after launch, ca. 1990 (BAe Systems)

Phoenix UAV shortly after launch, ca. 1990 (BAe Systems)

The Phoenix UAV was designed to return – by parachute – having reconnoitred the battlefield, and the Museum recently acquired one to add to its small squadron of historic UAVs. 

The paper I was reading predicted an ever-increasing use of UAVs in the years to come. There were certainly plenty on static display at the Farnborough market place this year: 

Global Hawk, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Global Hawk, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Fire Scout,2010 (Doug Millard)

Fire Scout,2010 (Doug Millard)

Phantom Ray, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Phantom Ray, 2010 (Doug Millard)

 I wonder whether today’s market is likely to be tomorrow’s show?

How we got the planes in: part two

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how we got the aircraft into our Flight gallery, in response to a Twitter question. I said I’d been to our photo archive to see if we had any pictures of the 1960s aircraft installation, and I turned up lots of great images.

Well, the scans have just arrived, so for those interested in how to get a Supermarine S6B world-speed-record-breaking aeroplane into a third-floor gallery in central London in 1961, here goes…

Supermarine S6B in mid-lift (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B in the air (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B perched on a ledge (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B ready to go in (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B on final approach (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B has landed! The wings go on later (Science Museum)

And their suits are all still pristine!

How did we get the planes in?

Last week one of our visitors asked us a question via Twitter while looking round our third-floor Flight gallery:

Help me settle a debate @sciencemuseum, how did you get the planes in the flight exhibit into the building?

Good question. First opened in 1963, the gallery was refurbished in the 1990s when a couple of new planes (including our Hawker jump-jet and a Hawker Siddeley executive jet) were added.

HS.125 executive jet, 1965 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

To get the aircraft into the gallery, we took some windows out, built a platform out above the service road that runs alongside the building, and craned the aircraft up and inside. Most were dismantled before transportation – the wings were removed, for instance – and then they were rebuilt inside the gallery before being hung up.

We’ve got planes in other galleries, too. If you made it to the Making the Modern World gallery during your visit, you’ll have found a gorgeous Lockheed ‘Electra’ airliner swooping down on you, as well as an Avro 504K biplane, a Rolls-Royce vertical-take-off test rig and a Short SC 1 aircraft.

Short SC 1 aircraft and Rolls-Royce test rig, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As this gallery is on the ground floor, life was a bit easier. The aircraft were brought in to the gallery on low-loaders, reassembled on the gallery floor, then hung up by a team of rigging contractors. This was done before the smaller exhibits were installed, but it was still a real 3D jigsaw for the project managers to work it out.

Lockheed 'Electra' airliner (Science Museum / Science & Society)

I’ve found some lovely photos of the early-1960s aircraft installation. I’m getting them scanned, and I’ll post them here in a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

Deadly predators in Tate Britain

I visited Tate Britain last weekend to see a pair of fighter planes newly on show in the gallery’s central halls.

Sea Harrier jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

Created by British artist Fiona BannerHarrier and Jaguar sees a Sea Harrier suspended like a ‘captured bird’, according to the gallery, with a Jaguar nearby ‘belly up on the floor, its posture suggestive of a submissive animal’. It’s an arresting display.

Jaguar jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

There’s nothing else. Just the two jets, one stripped bare, flipped over and defenceless, the other hanging menacingly as if about to strike, both captured within the spare, classical surroundings of the art gallery.

Sea Harrier jet (detail) in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

I loved the simplicity of the show. With nothing to look at but the exhibits, I was soon lost in thought about what they meant, about the journey they’d made from manufacture, through use, to disposal and, ultimately, this display.

And, as with all experiences like this, it made me want to look at familiar things with fresh eyes. On show in the Science Museum’s Flight gallery is the first prototype that ultimately led to the Harrier, the Hawker P.1127, which first flew (half a century ago!) in October 1960.

Hawker P.1127 prototype jump-jet, 1960 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s a beautiful and terrifying craft, as Banner’s display brought home to me so strongly. A single jet engine with four swivelling nozzles enables the aircraft to take off vertically, hover, and fly forwards or backwards in a ballet of jet-powered precision – yet it’s a machine designed to kill.

Tough stuff – see both displays if you can.

Going for broker

Many seventeen-year-olds become very familiar with the world of insurance as they pick up the keys for their first hot hatch…

VW Golf, 1975 (David Rooney)

Few of us think about the system that sits behind our insurance policies, but everything in the transport world plays its part in a network of brokers, underwriters, syndicates and financiers – from passenger jets to fleets of reps, container ships to communication satellites.

Intelsat 6 communication satellite, 1989 (NASA / Science & Society)

Transport pioneers have long needed the services of insurers. One item in our archive is a 1907 insurance policy from Lloyd’s, ‘on the life of Charles C. Turner from the time of leaving earth at Crystal Palace in a balloon’.

Turner made it to Sweden and survived, which must have been a relief back in the Lloyd’s underwriting room at the Royal Exchange, London

Royal Exchange, London, c.1905 (NMeM / RPS / Science & Society)

A few days ago, our space curator Doug Millard organised a staff trip to meet a group of space technology insurers at Lloyd’s. Part of the visit included a tour of the remarkable building itself, designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 1986.

Lloyd's building, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building is amazing! The services hang on the outside, leaving the interior a vast volume uninterrupted by service ducts and lift-shafts.

Lloyd's underwriting room, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building’s scale befits the world of global risk-taking. But the work itself – brokers seeking insurance for their clients, meeting underwriters who’ll back the risk – is carried out face-to-face, as in the seventeenth-century coffee shop of Edward Lloyd, where the business started.

Back in 1907, Charles Turner’s broker sat with a Lloyd’s underwriter at a desk just like these in a building not far away…

Britain’s greatest machines?

Did anyone catch ‘Britain’s Greatest Machines’ on Five last Thursday? Chris Barrie is presenting a series looking at the evolution of engineering in Britain, directed by science documentarist Martin Gorst.

Much of what was talked about in the first episode, covering the 1910s, is represented (as you might expect) in the Science Museum’s collections. Back then we’d just become a fledgling museum in our own right and we were hungry to collect the very latest machines and inventions.

In the show, you see a Morgan three-wheeled cycle-car. At our store in Wroughton we’ve got this rather lovely 1914 model…

Morgan cycle-car, 1914 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Chris Barrie watched a replica of the Vickers ‘Vimy’ that crossed the Atlantic in 1919 with John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. See the original in our Flight gallery…

Vickers 'Vimy', 1919 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

And in our Making the Modern World gallery you can see a First-World-War Vickers machine gun like the one in the programme, alongside a model of a British Mark IV tank from 1917.

British Mark IV tank, France, c.1918 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

There are lots more than I can fit in here so why not watch the first episode on Demand Five here and then pop down to the Museum to see what you spot.

And if you want to find out more about the story of the Museum, we’ve just launched a new book, Science For The Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum. A remarkable institution – and an extraordinary century of machines.

Taking the Night Ferry

Well, it’s Wednesday morning and it looks like we might soon be able to stop sheltering from the sky.

With air travel still a problem as airlines attempt to return to schedule, fresh attention has been turning to the sea. The Royal Navy brought home some travellers on a warship, and demand for ferries has been high.

For passengers between the UK and France or Belgium, the Eurostar rail service has been a possibility (if you can get a ticket). Back in 1936, when the Channel Tunnel was a distant dream, a new train ferry service linking London and Paris was considered state of the art:

'The New Train Ferry Boats' poster, 1936 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Passengers boarded trains at London Victoria and disembarked at Paris Gare du Nord, fresh from a night’s sleep (give or take a carriage swap or two at Dover and Dunkirk, depending on the depth of their pockets).

The ‘Night Ferry’, as it was known, continued until 1980, when competition from airlines had got too great. Thirty years on, though, is it time to reconsider this slower, but perhaps surer, form of travel?

'Night Ferry' poster, 1959 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Air travel is a wonderful invention, in my view, but it’s not without challenges, and one big problem comes from relying on it to the exclusion of other forms of transport.

This week’s been a bit of a wake-up call. It’s forced us to remember that we’re a maritime nation, and whatever happens in the air, the ferries keep on sailing. We shouldn’t forget that fact once the ash cloud disperses, because who knows what might happen next?

Volcanic effects

What a spectacularly unexpected week it’s been for transport. I don’t suppose many of us imagined seeing this kind of warning notice on the Underground…

London Underground notice warning of volcanic ash, 15 April 2010 (David Rooney)

As I write this at the weekend, the volcano is still erupting, and pretty much all UK flights have been grounded since Thursday afternoon.

It’s dangerous to attempt to fly through the ash cloud, as news reports have explained. The ash contains glass which can melt and then harden inside jet engines, causing them to shut down. Airlines are now carrying out test flights to assess the potential for damage.

Seeing this huge Rolls-Royce RB211 engine in the Science Museum’s Flight gallery gives an idea of the size and complexity of modern jet engines, which are masterpieces of precision engineering.

Rolls-Royce RB211 jet engine, 1970 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But, as we’ve all been reminded this week, the power of the jet engine is nothing in the face of violent nature.

Scientists have been studying volcanoes and their effects for centuries, with scientific explorers in the eighteenth century making some strikingly beautiful images of volcanic eruptions and their aftermath.

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 1779 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These etchings of a 1779 eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius by Peter Fabris, from William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, demonstrate the sheer force involved.

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 1779 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Our copy of Campi Phlegraei is housed at the Science Museum Library and Archives at Wroughton. All the images have been scanned for our Ingenious website – see them here – or why not make an appointment to see them in the flesh?

Flying boats at Southampton

I talked last time about my recent trip to Southampton. While in town, I popped into the wonderful Solent Sky aviation museum.

Solent Sky aviation museum, Southampton (David Rooney)

Whilst much of our aircraft collection is on show in London, and our Wroughton site houses some of the bigger craft, we also have a number of aeroplanes (and other transport artefacts) on loan to other museums.

Solent Sky is home to our Short flying boat. Built in 1943 as a military-specification ‘Sunderland’, it was later converted to the civilian ‘Sandringham’ version, which involved new engines, removal of guns, bigger windows and the installation of seats and galley.

Short 'Sandringham' flying boat, 1943 (David Rooney)

Things have changed somewhat in passenger air travel since then – I wouldn’t like to see this sign under the window of a Jumbo Jet!

Sign under passenger windows in Short 'Sandringham' (David Rooney)

It had a long and fruitful career, under a variety of names including ’Beachcomber’ and ‘Southern Cross’, until its last flight in 1981. It had flown a total of 19,500 hours – a record for its type.

'Beachcomber' (David Rooney)

Soon after, with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Science Museum purchased it and plans were made for a new aviation museum in Southampton to house it. In 1984, Solent Sky opened its doors.

It’s a terrific place. Visitors can enter the passenger cabins and flight deck of the Sandringham and, as someone who’s only flown in modern passenger jets, it was a real eye-opener to imagine flying in this 1940s airliner.

There’s tons to see at Solent Sky. The volunteer guides were really welcoming, the exhibits are superb and they’ve a substantial library and archive for those wanting to delve deeper.