Category Archives: Transport

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?

Last chance to ride the Rocket!

If you’re stuck for something to do this weekend, don’t miss the rare chance to ride a steam train in Hyde Park.

A fully-working reproduction of our 1829 Stephenson’s Rocket is steaming up and down a specially-laid track in Kensington Gardens, just by the Albert Memorial, offering passengers the chance to experience the earliest days of railways.

Engineers installing track for 'Rocket' rides, 26 March 2010 (David Rooney)

The reproduction was built in 1979 and, like today, ran up and down a track in Kensington Gardens. Lots of people I’ve spoken to this Easter have fond memories of the 1979 run…

Reproduction of Stephenson's 'Rocket' being packed away, 1979 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

That was 31 years ago; to put it into perspective, that’s almost exactly how long the original Rocket was in use before going on display in South Kensington in 1862. It’s amazing how much can change in three short decades…

Rocket’s last London ride will be on Sunday afternoon, so if this sounds like your sort of thing, don’t delay. Adults ride for a fiver with children travelling half-price, and everyone gets a souvenir goody-bag.

Then visit the Science Museum nearby (for free) to see the real thing in Making the Modern World.

Stephenson's 'Rocket', 1829 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Our sister museum, the National Railway Museum in York, is in charge of the repro Rocket, and has another replica on show in its Great Hall, made in 1935 by the Robert Stephenson company.

Sectioned replica of Stephenson's 'Rocket', 1935 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ride the reproduction in Kensington Gardens - then see the original at the Science Museum – then head for the National Railway Museum to see what it looks like inside! It’s a rocket-propelled steam dream this Easter…

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.

Under Azura skies

I was in Southampton last week to give a talk, and while I was there, I dropped by the Southampton Maritime Museum to find out all about the area’s history as a passenger port.

Outside, I was faced with a view that brought Southampton’s maritime past right up to the present. A couple of hours earlier, P&O’s latest cruise ship, Azura, had docked nearby, ready for its inaugural cruise.

P&O cruise ship 'Azura' at Southampton, 7 April 2010 (David Rooney)

P&O was founded in 1840 as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, operating freight and mail services to Europe and Egypt. They later expanded to passengers. This print from our pictorial collection shows P&O’s 1880s chairman, Sir Thomas Sutherland:

Sir Thomas Sutherland, P&O chairman, c.1887 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By the twentieth century, travel on grand liners was an established luxury, with shipping lines competing to be biggest, fastest, or both.

Cunard‘s 1938 Queen Elizabeth, for instance, was the largest passenger ship ever built at the time. We’ve a large model in our Shipping gallery, and this archive photo shows the launch:

Launch of the 'Queen Elizabeth', 1938 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

The development of civil aviation posed a great challenge to maritime travel and, as I mentioned in a previous post, once pressurised airliners after 1945 made long-distance flying comfortable, days were numbered for regular liner services.

But the market for cruising seems more buoyant than ever, with new ships like Azura offering ever more luxury, facilities and destinations. When visiting maritime towns, it’s clear that Britain is still in love with the sea!

'Azura' looms over Southampton port, 7 April 2010 (David Rooney)

More on my Southampton excursion next time…

Modelling for the Science Museum

I recently mentioned our Stephenson’s Rocket reproduction steam train rides in Hyde Park this Easter. Have you had a go yet, if you’re close by? I can tell you first-hand that it’s great fun!

Once you’ve experienced the live reproduction, you’ll naturally want to see the real thing in our Making the Modern World gallery. We’ve had Stephenson’s Rocket on show here in the Science Museum non-stop since 1862, apart from a couple of excursions to York and Japan. It’s fascinating to compare it with the reproduction.

As well as the other historic railway items in our gallery which I listed last time, you may want to spend some time in our absorbing walkway of models – a rich panorama of technology in miniature, with over 100 models on show - from fire engines to space rockets, boilers to babies.

This model of a French express locomotive is generally considered to be one of the finest loco models of its period in existence:

Model railway locomotive, 1855 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This model Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, made for us in 1911, was described by The Auto magazine as ‘one of the most beautiful models ever produced … well worthy of a place amongst the best work in our National Museum’:

Model of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, 1911 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

And if paddle-steamers float your boat, here’s a very rare contemporary model of the 1830 steamship Albion:

Model of a coastal paddle-steamer, c.1830 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is just the tip of a quite exquisite iceberg. Do call by if you can – the museum’s free to enter and we’re open 10 to 6 every day. It’s a modeller’s paradise!

Horsing around on Easter Monday

Some of us might have consumed rather too much chocolate this weekend. A walk is a good idea, but if even the gentlest of exercise makes you shudder, why not let beasts of burden take the strain? 

This child had the right idea: get a lift from a pair of prize-winning horses…

Prize-winning horses, 1933 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

They had taken part in the 1933 Easter Monday Van Horse Parade through London’s Regent’s Park. This parade, which at its height attracted over 1,200 animals, was founded in 1904 and has taken place every Easter since then, except for wartime postponements. Nowadays, it’s been amalgamated with the even older Cart Horse Parade to form the Harness Horse Parade.

Horses and other working animals have played a simply huge role in our history. In times of war, vast numbers suffered and many paid the ultimate price. A few years ago, the Animals in War Memorial was unveiled in London’s Hyde Park. It’s deeply moving and a stark reminder of the sheer scale of animal use just a few decades ago.

Things weren’t much easier for working animals in peacetime London. I’ll come back to horse transport another day.

Cheap trips this Easter

Many of you will doubtless have plans to get away this Easter (weather permitting). If you’re off, I hope you have a great break.

Back in the 1920s, more and more people were getting paid time off, and leisure recreation was booming. Railway companies offered special cheap tickets for the Easter getaway. This 1928 poster, from Manchester’s Victoria Station, advertised excursions to destinations across the country.

Easter cheap tickets railway poster, 1928 (NRM / Science & Society)

Sightseers could visit a wide range of resorts, from the rural idyll of Lake Windermere

Lake Windermere, poster (NRM / Science & Society)

to the racy delights of Blackpool.

Blackpool, poster, 1960 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Looking at the weather forecast today, though, I suspect the beach break may not be the best option in 2010… Happy Easter!

Station clock meets its Waterloo

No sooner do I write a blog about the symbolism of Waterloo’s station clock than it gets taken out of service for a refurbishment!

Waterloo station clock under repair, London, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

The concourse underneath the Waterloo clock has become an iconic meeting-place, a focal point amidst the hurry of the station, as shown in Terence Cuneo’s dramatic painting:

Waterloo station, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Now, for a few weeks, time stands still for the station’s passengers.

Waiting under the Waterloo station clock, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

Railways run on time. In the early days, time was a life-saver – literally – as trains used the tracks on a time-share arrangement. The wrong time on the guard’s watch could kill.

Railway guard's watch and railway timetable, 19th century (NRM / Science & Society)

Nowadays, the railways get their time from a constellation of US military satellites (the same ones that tell you where to go while driving), or through a radio signal broadcast from Anthorn, a remote spit of land on the Cumbria coast.

The Cumbrian signal is Britain’s official national time signal. It’s called MSF and it’s run for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory by VT Communications, part of a firm that used to be called Vosper Thornycroft. I’ve mentioned them before. They’ve a long history of shipbuilding.

And they’ve just merged with Babcock, a company that started life making marine steam boilers. The MSF time signal and its predecessors began as an Admiralty service for British naval officers to check their chronometers at sea.

Transport and time – two stories intertwined. But I recommend you take your own watch to Waterloo for the next few weeks…

Is this the end of the auto?

An article in the Guardian last week reported that the tens of thousands of autorickshaws on the streets of India’s capital city, New Delhi, might be phased out, replaced (perhaps) by electric vehicles.

I mentioned autorickshaws a while ago. We have a very nice example, by major Indian maker Bajaj, in our store at Wroughton

Bajaj autorickshaw, 1982 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These vehicles have a long history, being based on motor scooters introduced by makers such as Piaggio in the 1940s and 50s. This scene on our Making the Modern World learning website has more.

The scooter’s integrated motor and drive train, linked directly to the back wheel, lent itself readily to conversion into the stretched three-wheel autorickshaw, with this early Piaggio ‘Vespa’, on show in our Making the Modern World gallery, showing the simplicity of the design:

Piaggio 'Vespa', 1948 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Autorickshaws fill an important gap in the urban vehicle mix, between two-wheelers (nimble, but not ideal for carrying goods) and small cars or vans (better carrying-capacity but bigger, heavier and thirstier). Autorickshaws can haul a surprising amount, but without the footprint of bigger vehicles.

These small, simple motorized three-wheelers, often simply called ’autos’, give mobility to countless people, as well as offering earning opportunities to some of the world’s poor.

Any withdrawal would have to be phased over a long period, as currently there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative. It will be interesting to see how the Delhi situation develops.