Category Archives: Road transport

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.

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.

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.’

Bank Holiday Mondays

What would you do on your perfect bank holiday Monday? Well I don’t know about you guys, but as a kid I always dreamt about owning a Lotus and going for drive in the country.

Lotus Elan

Lotus Elan (Wikipedia)

The Lotus Elan was originally conceived by Ron Hickman, the director of Lotus Engineering, in 1963. It was a deeply covetable sport car available in two models – one with fixed position head lights and the other with drop-heads.

If the Lotus Elan is the dream, the reality of the bank holiday tends to be a little different – DIY. My dad was a builder and I remember him getting a Black and Decker workmate one Christmas.  He used that thing almost to destruction and I learnt a few carpentry skills on it as well.

I think mum liked it as well as it saved our chairs from being used as saw horses.

This is exactly what motivated the inventor of the workmate, the very same Ron Hickman who came up with the Lotus Elan, after he sawed into a Windsor chair! We have an early version right here in our collection. I can’t explain the excitement when I saw it for the first time and the flashbacks it triggered.

Work Bench

Folding joiner's work bench, c 1969 (Science Museum)

I love the fact that the designer of a high-end sport car also invented such a critical aid for the everyday man.

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.

Momentous motoring meeting in Manchester

It was on this day in 1904 that two men met at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, sparking a revolution in motoring. Charles Rolls met Henry Royce.

Charles Rolls (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Henry Royce (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls and Royce agreed to form a partnership, and by the end of the year they had made the first Rolls-Royce car. Rolls kept photographs of his products in a pair of albums, now in our Library and Archives at Wroughton.

You should go and see them in the flesh if you can, but to whet your appetite, here are some pictures of the first car, built in Manchester, on a trip to Dartmoor:

Rolls-Royce motor car, Dartmoor, 1904 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls-Royce motor car, Dartmoor, 1904 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls-Royce motor car, Dartmoor, 1904 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Lovely, huh? 

As well as the photo albums, we’ve also got a 1905 Rolls-Royce in the Science Museum’s transport collection, believed to have been used by Royce himself (read the full story here).

I’ve talked about it before, so if you want to know more, check out this previous post. And if you want to see the car itself, it’s now, very appropriately, on loan to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester.

Take off, take your bike, and take the train

Last time, I talked about early cycling, and today’s attempts to recreate the glamour of the past. Most of the time, though, cycling is just a practical, cheap and straightforward way to get around.

What makes it more flexible is the ability to mix modes – to combine cycling with rail travel, car or boat. Jimmy Savile made the point usefully in this 1982 BR poster:

'Ride it by rail' poster, 1982 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

That family looks like it’s off on holiday, but commuters can benefit from mixed-mode journeys too, and this is where the folding bike comes in very handy (as most commuter trains don’t allow full-sized bikes at peak times).

The Folding Society is a great source of information for anyone thinking of buying a folder, as there are many excellent examples available. One popular make is Brompton, whose work we have on show at the museum.

Brompton L3 bicycle, made 2000 (David Rooney)

Last week, I took a look round Brompton’s west-London factory. Its location rather reinforces my point about mixed-mode journeys, hemmed in as it is by the M4 elevated motorway and a triangle of roads and railway lines.

M4 elevated motorway, 19 April 2010 (David Rooney)

Inside, the factory is a hive of activity as the bespoke cycles are manufactured, assembled, tested and shipped.

Brompton bicycle factory, 19 April 2010 (David Rooney)

Outside, I returned to the nearby Underground station and made my way back to work. Cities are great places for getting around, and the beauty is in the flexibility.

On foot, by car, on the roads or by rail, we switch from one mode to the other depending on what works best – and more often than not it’s quicker by bike!

The Tweed Run

As I’ve mentioned before, back in the Victorian age, the ‘ordinary’ bicycle, or penny-farthing, was the state of the art in cycle technology – and the height of fashion for brave men and women:

Lady and gentleman riding 'ordinary' cycles, 1874 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As with most fashions, this one seems to have come around again. Earlier this month, 400 cyclists dressed in Edwardian and Victorian garb converged on London to take part in the twelve-mile 2010 Tweed Run.

I couldn’t make it myself, but judging by the many pictures on the web, these YouTube videos, and this Guardian write-up, it looks like a super time was had!

Whilst some chose to go retro in outfit alone, others took part on vintage machines too, including quite a few ordinaries.

The Science Museum has a splendid collection of about 150 bicycles, from the earliest days to the present. As we wait for next year’s Tweed Run, I thought you might like to see a few more of our historic machines…

Bayliss-Thomas ordinary bicycle, 1879 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Windsor 'ordinary' bicycle, 1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Singer 'Xtraordinary' bicycle, c.1884 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These cycles, along with most of the rest of the collection, are in our store in Wiltshire. You can write to my Wroughton colleagues for an appointment if you want to study any of them, or if you want to see early cycles in historic context, come to the Science Museum and see the highlights.

Now, where did I put my plus-fours