Category Archives: Transport

A tale of two brothers

Following the release of The King’s Speech with Colin Firth, it inspired me to look into the two brothers of the film, Edward VIII and George VI using the Science Museum’s collections as my pool of reference. I was pleasantly surprised with the things I found.

X-ray of Edward VIII's left hand, 1931 (2004-264, Science Museum, London)

Following a visit to an orthopaedic hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, the then future Edward VIII, had his hand x-rayed. It was a way of showing off a technology that by the 1930s was in every hospital in Britain. It was also a souvenir of his visit to the hospital maybe, to open a new wing or ward.

Taking X-rays of royalty for fun rather than medical purposes is one thing but can you imagine the pressure of operating on the reigning monarch? That’s precisely what Clement Price-Thomas from the Westminster Hospital was called to do for George VI on 23 September 1951 at Buckingham Palace.

George VI's operating table (1985-410/1, Science Museum, London)

The table was loaned to the Palace for the operation and afterwards went back into general use, with patients having no idea who they had shared an operating table with.

Edward VIII was also a donor to the Science Museum’s collections, donating a number of royal carriages in 1936.

Bath chair owned by Queen Victoria, 1893 (1936-599, © Science Museum / Science & Society)

This example was used by Queen Victoria in her advanced years. Unlike normal bath chairs, this example was pulled by a pony, led by a footman. If you want to see this chair in the flesh, it is currently on display at the National Trust Carriage Collection in Arlington Court.

Snippets of the two brothers’ lives can be seen on Science and Society Prints including their everyday lives, coronations and funerals.

“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.

Taxi driver

I was working at our large-object store at Wroughton the other day, looking at some of the vehicles in our transport collection. One of them is a really lovely Renault taxi from 1910:

Renault taxi, 1910 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ain’t it just a peach? Anyway, on the train back from Wroughton I was reading a 1930s book by Herbert Hodge, called It’s Draughty In Front: the Autobiography of a London Taxidriver. I was amazed to find that in 1915, aged fifteen, Hodge got a job in a taxi garage that ran Renaults just like the one I’d just seen.

In the book, he provides a terrific first-hand description of the cars and what they were like to run.

“When the drivers arrived I was expected to start their engines for them – a heart-bursting job in those days, especially with war-time petrol… I soon acquired the knack, learning to ‘dope’ the cylinders with petrol, and heat the plugs on the gas-ring, and all the other dodges necessary for those ancient engines.”

He went on:

“The most difficult knack to learn was the sharp pull to start the Renaults. The first time I got it, I gave such an almighty jerk, I brought the open bonnet down on my head. But I started the engine.”

I love finding these first-hand accounts of what new technology was really like, especially relating to stuff we’ve got in our collections. I feel genuinely closer to our Renault taxi having read Hodge’s words, and next time I visit Wroughton, I’ll be all over that car, imagining Hodge struggling to start the engine back in 1915.

Hodge was a very interesting character in other ways. More on that another time…

FM: No Static At All

Our car is still fitted with a cassette player. Albums from long ago (Steely Dan and Beatles are current favourites) provide regular entertainment on journeys and are also enjoyed by the younger members of the family. I suppose we should have moved over to a CD player or something more exotic still, but somehow it seems unnecessary while the cassettes hold out (now 25 years old plus and still working fine!)

8-Track audio tape

8-Track tapes like this one dominated the American in-car market between the 1960s and 1980s but were then killed off by the improved audio quality of the handy cassette. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I suppose the same can now be said of the car’s FM radio, given government Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s announcement last week that the digital radio switch-over will happen, but only when a vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

He went on to highlight in-car radio as one of the biggest challenges facing the digital switch-over. This because of the difficulty in receiving digital signals while moving at speed. Once again, why bother to spend money on new technology when the old still works just fine.  He threw down the gauntlet to the car manufacturers to work towards some solutions.

But, although we choose perhaps to forget it, this tendency to delay novelty in favour of that which already works is by no means uncommon.

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Take another domestic technology – the electric iron: it’s changed little over at least 70 years. Neither, by and large, has the basic form of the bicycle, now well into its second century of pedalling.

Rover 'Safety' Bicycle, 1885
Rover ‘Safety’ Bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And at the other end of the cost spectrum – we still use rockets adapted from 1950s inter continental ballistic missiles to launch satellites and probes into space – they exist, we know lots about them, they do the job – why fix things that aren’t bust?

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009 (NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall, Tom Farrar)

So novelty is no guarantee of successful innovation. Maybe Steely Dan had something to say about it in one of the songs we were listening to in the car: ‘FM – No Static at All.’

Cruising for scientists

I commute to work most days by fast catamaran. It’s a delightful way to travel, and lets me see London from a different perspective.

Cruise ship at Tower Bridge, 7 June 2010 (David Rooney)

Right now there are lots of big cruise ships using the River Thames as a stopping-off point. One popular mooring location is a spot beside HMS Belfast, near Tower Bridge. Earlier this week, I spotted a ship there called Alexander von Humboldt:

The Alexander von Humboldt (detail) (David Rooney)

Humboldt was a German scientific explorer of the eighteenth century. He became famous for his journal describing his voyages to Latin America from 1799 to 1804 (available online at the Humboldt Digital Library).

There’s an English-language selection from his journal available, which is an exquisite read. It’s fresh to this day.

As with many ‘celebrities’, he was immortalised in art and material culture, and we’ve a fair bit of Humboldtian stuff in our collections, from portraits of him as a dashing young explorer to busts of him as a grand old man of science.

Alexander von Humboldt c.1806 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Celebrity’s a funny thing. For those who make it, their name can live on seemingly forever (even if on the side of a cruise ship). Yet many who carry out life-changing work remain obscure, their stories little told.

We’re working on a major new history of science gallery here at the Science Museum, which we hope will open in 2014. Right now we’re grappling with new ways to tell stories about the people and stuff of science, and we’ll be talking about our work as we do it, so watch this space (and others). Sadly, though, my idea of a curatorial team cruise on the Alexander von Humboldt  has been rejected. Curses.

Back from holiday, slightly flushed

I’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life…

Dundas aqueduct, Kennet & Avon canal (David Rooney)

Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals

Model water closet, c.1900 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to a great movement for the widespread supply of clean water and the provision of effective sewerage in every home.

Civil engineering dealt with the big stuff – pipelines, pumping stations and vast networks of sewers. People like Joseph Bazalgette are now well-known for their work in building Victorian London’s sewer system.

Our health curator, Stewart Emmens, has discussed this at length in his sewage blogpost and his hygiene blogpost, and our Making the Modern World website expands the story.

Joseph Bazalgette (Science Museum / Science & Society)

No less important was the new breed of sanitary engineer which grew up, designing the types of lavatories, basins and pipework that are so common today as to be almost invisible, although in the early days training in its operation was needed:

Hygiene demonstration cabinet, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But please don’t get me wrong. I’m just as appreciative of the engineers who enabled my rented canal boat to be fitted with that chemical toilet I mentioned. I shudder to think what the alternatives might have been…