Category Archives: Road transport

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!

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.

Steam train in Kensington Gardens

Exciting news for transport enthusiasts. As part of its Easter events programme, the Science Museum will be offering rides on a full-size working reproduction of its world-famous steam locomotive, Stephenson’s Rocket, on a specially-laid track in Kensington Gardens, near the museum.

Reproduction of Stephenson's 'Rocket', 1979 (NRM / Science & Society)

The original Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson in 1829, is on permanent display in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. It marked a turning point in locomotive design:

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

Modifications over its working life dramatically changed Rocket‘s appearance. Nearby is a model as it originally looked:

Model of Stephenson's 'Rocket', 1909 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Michael Bailey and John Glithero’s book on Rocket is superb.

You can also see Puffing Billy, the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the world, built in about 1814 by William Hedley to haul coal from Wylam Colliery to the nearby river:

Hedley's 'Puffing Billy', c.1814 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Also in the gallery are two remarkable models. The first was built by Richard Trevithick in 1797 to test ideas that led to the world’s first steam railway locomotive, which he built in 1804:

Trevithick's test model, 1797 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The second model, on the gallery’s upper walkway, was built in 1812 by Puffing Billy‘s William Hedley to test the adhesion of smooth wheels on rails:

Hedley's adhesion model, 1812 (NRM / Science & Society)

Our reproduction Rocket rides will be running daily from 31 March to 18 April. Adult tickets cost a fiver, with kids going half-price. Everyone gets a souvenir goody bag, and admission to the museum itself to see the historic machines is free.

Building the Rotherhithe Tunnel

In my last post I told you about my weekend of London tunnel visits, culminating in an exceedingly rare chance to walk through Brunel’s Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping.

Well, to help acclimatise to the underground world of Rotherhithe, my friends and I had spent the morning in training, by walking through the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, 2010 (David Rooney)

Unlike its 1840s counterpart a shade further west, built for pedestrians and taken over by the railway, the Rotherhithe Tunnel, opened in 1908, was originally for horse-drawn traffic but soon overrun with motor vehicles. But pedestrians have always been allowed through.

In the Rotherhithe Tunnel, 2010 (David Rooney)

To be honest, our walk was pretty hard work. The pavements are narrow, the vehicles many, the air fume-laden and the noise infernal. We really had to keep our wits about us. But it was well worth it, just to experience another historic Thames tunnel.

And historic it really is. When I got home, I looked to see what our collections hold on the tunnel, and what I discovered blew me away. Buried in our stores is a set of 56 original photographic prints depicting the construction of the tunnel.

Here’s a tiny taster of what I found:

Construction of the Rotherhithe Tunnel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Construction of the Rotherhithe Tunnel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Construction of the Rotherhithe Tunnel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

How’s that for a bit of London history! If you want to see all 56 in all their glory, go to our picture library website and type ‘Rotherhithe Tunnel’ into the search box. And keep these remarkable pictures in mind next time you’re stuck in traffic down the Rotherhithe Tunnel…

Fancy fairs, dawdling dandies and multifarious trumpery in the Thames Tunnel

I loved our public health curator’s recent post about his expedition to sniff out London’s underground sewerage system. While Stewart was nosing around the drains, I spent last weekend in some rather less odorous tunnels.

Oldest first. I’ve mentioned the Brunel Thames Tunnel before. It was the first tunnel under a river, now forming part of the East London railway, and in advance of the line reopening in May, officials led two days of walking tours through this historic construction. I managed to grab tickets.

Detail of Thames Tunnel wall, 13 March 2010 (David Rooney)

It’s a railway now, but it started out as a pedestrian arcade linking Rotherhithe and Wapping, and was itself the subject of many depictions and souvenirs, being portrayed as the ideal spot for Victorians to promenade, perambulate and generally show off.

'A correct view of the Thames Tunnel' (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Annual ’fancy fairs’ offered ‘fancy glass blowing’, ‘a ball room 150 feet long’ and ‘the mysterious lady’ (don’t ask). On any normal day, visitors could expect to see each little connecting alcove thronged with women selling ‘multifarious trumpery’.

Souvenir medal of the Thames Tunnel, 1843 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve lots more of this trumpery in our collections, much of which is now listed online. But the underground mall was a financial flop, and by the 1860s the tunnel was taken over by the East London Railway.

The trains will soon be running again, but as I dawdled along on foot, it wasn’t hard to imagine just how remarkable this tunnel must have been in 1850s London – and to realise how much we take for granted the remarkable world beneath our feet.

More about my underground weekend coming up…

A bicycle made for four

I was in Cambridge last week for a couple of meetings. It’s a glorious city. The buildings reek of history and tradition, the streets are filled with bright folk lost in dreamy thought and the river carries its languorous cargo of students and tourists in pole-driven punts, as depicted in this poster from the NRM collection:

'St John's, Cambridge' railway poster (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

And then there’s the bicycles. Cambridge is teeming with them, and whilst I’m all for cycle-friendly streets, I need eyes in the back of my head when I want to cross the road…

Most Cambridge bikes are pretty ordinary, but occasionally something special appears. Here’s a great picture of the ‘Cambridge Duad’ in 1895:

'The Cambridge Duad', Cambridge University, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Look closely at the eighteen-year-old at the front. He’s Charles Rolls, keen cyclist and founder (with Henry Royce) of Rolls-Royce.

Here he is again that year, this time on a more conventional two-seat tandem:

Rolls and Legard riding a tandem, Cambridge University, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These wonderful pictures are from an album put together by Rolls that’s now in our Library and Archives collection, available to view by appointment at our Swindon site.

Half a century on, the technology seems barely to have changed. We’ve a handful of tandems in our historic bikes collection, including this lightweight touring model by Rensch from 1948:

Tandem bicycle, 1948 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

For Charles Rolls, though, history was to be cut tragically short. Besides his cycling and motoring, he was also a pioneering aviator. In 1910, at an air tournament at Bournemouth, Rolls was killed performing a complex aerial manoeuvre. He was just 32.

Trafalgar Square, Morecambe?

Last time, I related the sad story of the demise of HMS Trafalgar, who had her nuclear reactor shut down a few weeks ago prior to retirement.

In 1993, Trafalgar was affiliated with the north-west town of Lancaster, just across Morecambe Bay from Barrow-in-Furness where many naval submarines are built. Now the boat has been decommissioned, the affiliation has come to an end, and the tip of Morecambe’s Stone Jetty is to be renamed ‘Trafalgar Point’ in the boat’s honour.

Apparently, council officials had considered naming a plaza, rather than a jetty, but realised that there was already a rather more famous Trafalgar Square. This leads me neatly to some wonderfully atmospheric photos of the London landmark in the collection of the National Media Museum:

Trafalgar Square, c.1890 (NMeM / Science & Society)

London’s Trafalgar Square has been a traffic hot-spot for more than a century…

'Held Up, Trafalgar Square', 1923 (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

…although the air quality has certainly improved since the early days.

Hansom cab in Trafalgar Square, c.1898 (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Trafalgar Square is often at the heart of demonstrations, marches and rallies. One event, held in the square in Easter 1966, was captured in another of the NMeM’s photographs: a march by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

CND Easter March, Trafalgar Square, 1966 (NMeM / Tony Ray-Jones / Science & Society)

Fifteen years later, the nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarine Trafalgar was launched…

The photographic collections of the National Media Museum (part of the National Museum of Science and Industry) are truly remarkable. You can explore some of their holdings here if you can’t visit in person.

White-hot jet-powered jaguars

Imagine the following pub conversation:

‘What are you driving these days?’

‘Actually, I’ve just taken delivery of my Jaguar Jet-Car. Just doing my bit for the environment…’

It’s not as outlandish as it seems. Jet cars have been around for a while and we’ve got the terrific Rover ‘Jet 1′ from 1948 on show at the Science Museum:

Rover 'Jet 1', 1948 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The problem back then was that the jet engine (or gas turbine) was used to spin a shaft coupled directly to the car’s wheels, and jet engines aren’t too good at the rapid changes of speed demanded in a car.

Sixty years on, the idea’s back – but this time in a wholly new form. An automotive engineer I met at a transport industry event told me about research now being funded by the Technology Strategy Board on a jet-powered car.

The new approach, being led by Jaguar Land Rover, is to develop micro jet engines coupled to electrical generators, charging batteries that drive electric motors.

The concept is the same as hybrid cars such as the Toyota ‘Prius, but with a gas turbine rather than a conventional piston engine keeping the batteries charged. The trick, presumably, will be to balance a complex set of variables: power, weight, fuel consumption, size, cost and mechanical simplicity.

There’s also the cultural meaning of the jet engine, a potent symbol since the 1940s of British defiant modernism, an icon of Harold Wilson‘s white heat of technology.

Whittle jet engine, 1941 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Let’s be honest. Jets are cool – they excite people – and if we’re to grapple successfully with environmental problems, we must remember people make technology choices for lots of reasons, not all of them rational. Something worth talking about down the pub, perhaps.

Riding the hydrogen highway

This BBC News story landed in my inbox the other day, thanks to Peter at our Wiltshire site, near Swindon. It’s about government plans to designate the M4 motorway, between Wales and London via Swindon, as a ‘hydrogen highway’.

'To York' poster showing highwayman Dick Turpin, 1934 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Putting aside my mental image of an explosive Dick Turpin, I find it’s all about refuelling. Alternatives to petrol and diesel vehicles are being developed, but each needs a different type of energy source, and the infrastructure isn’t there to provide it.

The ‘hydrogen highway’ plan is to create multi-fuel filling stations along the M4 to jump-start the process.

Ford 'Comuta' electric car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Electric vehicles are one key area for development. I’ve spoken about them quite a bit already. Their range is small and they take ages to recharge, but at least there’s already a nationwide electricity grid.

Biofuels like biodiesel are another option, and some can use existing delivery pipelines.

The real problem comes with compressed gases such as hydrogen, used in fuel cell vehicles to generate electricity. It’s distinctly tricky to store, transport and use.

DAF 44 experimental fuel cell car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

An even bigger problem is making it in the first place. It’s mostly made from non-renewable natural gas, or by splitting water using electricity. Where does that electricity come from? Burning coal, mostly.

Delivering coal to Didcot power station, 1973 (NRM / Science & Society)

It’s a complex business. I recently finished reading Stewart Brand‘s latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, in which he dissects the complicated world of climate and environment. I urge you to read it.