Category Archives: Road transport

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.

Bridging moats, scaling walls and surfing the book-wheel

Last week, I showed you our 1930s mobile library from Erith. This got me thinking about libraries and the wonders they contain.

Our own library has the most extraordinary collection of literature. If you like anything at all, you’ll find riches beyond compare at the Science Museum Library – and it’s all free to see.

Our Ingenious website is great for finding highlights. For instance, here’s Agostino Ramelli, a sixteenth-century Italian engineer:

Agostino Ramelli, 1588 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ramelli wrote a highly influential book called (in translation) The various and ingenious machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli, full of incredible machines and fabulous gadgetry.

Faced with a tricky moat? Try the portable moat-bridge…

Floating bridge, 1588 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

High wall on the other side? You may prefer the combined moat-bridge and wall-scaler…

Machine for bridging a moat and scaling walls, 1588 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But if all this looks too much like hard work, Ramelli had just the device:

Machine for studying several books at once, 1588 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Incapacitated by gout? Surf the book-wheel. All your reading needs met without having to move from your chair. Priceless!

If you want to see Ramelli’s book in the flesh, you can make an appointment to see an original copy at our Swindon library, or there’s a 1970s translation in London (check it hasn’t been borrowed before making a special journey).

And if you want to chat to our librarians and archivists in anything above a whisper, they’ll be exhibiting at the Who Do You Think You Are? show at London’s Olympia, the country’s biggest family history event, from 26 to 28 February. Well worth a visit!

Cook-ing the books

This is Rory Cook. He’s the Science Museum’s Corporate Information and Enquiries Officer:

Rory Cook, Science Museum Corporate Information and Enquiries Officer

If you contact the Science Museum looking for information about our business or collections, it’s quite likely Rory will deal with your request. He’s also the chap who keeps grateful staff like me me provided with historic files when we’re doing our research.

Rory was delighted to discover this lovely old vehicle in our transport collections:

Ford mobile library, 1933 (Science Museum)

Nice old van, but not just any old van. It’s the second-oldest mobile library in Britain, built for Erith Council in 1933. Why was Rory delighted? He grew up in Bexleyheath, just down the road from Erith. This van is part of his local history – and it’s his job to look after its very own historic records. Neat!

It’s based on a Ford van, specially adapted to house the library assistant and shelving for 2,000 books. The Central Library’s porter acted as driver in the separate cab:

Driver's cab of Erith mobile library, 1933 (Science Museum)

In its first year, staff issued 58,798 books to 1658 borrowers, noting that ‘the area served is populated by middle and working-class people, and the service provided appears to be popular with all, particularly children.’

Where would we be without libraries? The great Victorian push to build free public libraries for the masses must rank as one of the finest achievements of the modern age, yet in the global digital world it’s sometimes easy to forget what’s on our doorstep.

So if it’s a while since you last went to your own public library, why not pay a visit? If your local library is North Heath, you might just bump into Rory…

Puppy power, or wheelbarrows made easy

Just a quick one adding to my last post on human-powered transport. I found this great pic in our image archive of a sail-assisted wheelbarrow from China. It makes perfect sense, so long as the wind tends to blow in one direction most of the time.

Sail-assisted wheelbarrow, 18th century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Sail-assisted wheelbarrow, 18th century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Until the nineteenth century, all freight not transported by muscle was sent on its way by wind, but since the development of steam power, we’ve tended to turn our back on this free resource. Now, in an effort to reduce fuel use at sea, one option might be wind-assisted ships, where a steerable sail can top up the power provided by the diesel engines. More on this another time.

In the meantime, here’s another wheelbarrow with a very different sort of power source:

Puppies in a wheelbarrow, May 1978 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

Oh, come off it! You’d need a heart of flint not to think that’s cute. It’s not all container ships and crankshafts here at Stories From The Stores, you know…

Piggybacks, tuk-tuks and armchair tourists

This is a sedan chair. Cute, no? These human-powered contraptions were all the rage in eighteenth-century Britain, part of a class of vehicle used worldwide. A pair of porters carried the chair by the poles, as the passenger inside looked on, wishing, I suspect, that she could have afforded a carriage.

Sedan chair, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Sedan chair, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It can’t have been a comfortable ride, surely. I suppose it was the polite version of a piggyback. But I’ve never travelled by sedan chair. Perhaps somebody can put me right. This one’s on show in Making the Modern World, and we’ve also got a Bolivian hospital sedan chair in our medical galleries.

The wheeled version is known as the rickshaw, which was originally human-hauled (or pushed) and is now often pedalled. Central London is full of these contraptions, although there’s a Bill with Parliament at the moment to control their use (I think I’ll walk, thanks).

A logical development was to motorize the rickshaw. Here’s an ‘Autoriksha’ by the Indian auto firm Bajaj, at our Wroughton store.

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

Bajaj 'Autoriksha', 1982 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Autorickshaws (known as autos, tuk-tuks and many other variants) are used around the world, particularly in Asia and some American and African countries. With even the smallest motor comes mobility – which can unlock prosperity.

I’ll return to the theme of light vehicles in future. In the meantime, here’s a great sedan-chair nostalgia-fest created by two British railway companies in 1946, tempting tourists to historic Bath…

Historic Bath poster, 1946 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Historic Bath' poster, 1946 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

You can imagine the conversation. “You’ll never guess who I ‘ad in the back of me sedan chair the other day, guv…”

Shaking bones and perilous penny-farthings

It’s 125 years since bicycles took the form that we know today. Then, cycling meant mobility in a world before mass motoring. Now, eyes are turning to cycling as part of a solution to urban congestion.

Transport for London is planning a turn-up-and-ride cycle hire scheme for the capital, going live this summer. One problem might be theft of the bikes. TfL’s response? “The bicycles will stand out as Cycle Hire bicycles. That way we hope people will think twice about stealing or damaging them.” You can see what they mean on the BBC website here.

Cyclists have long striven for lightweight and comfortable machines. New frame designs, gear arrangements, pneumatic tyres and suspension all helped in the development of the form we know today.

The ‘boneshaker’ was the first bike design with pedal drive to become popular. It was developed in France in the 1860s and widely taken up around the world:

Boneshaker bicycle, c.1869 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Boneshaker' bicycle, c.1869 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The ‘ordinary’ or ‘penny farthing’ was used from 1870 to 1890. The idea of the big front wheel was to increase speed - but it also made it dangerous and hard to ride:

Ordinary bicycle, c.1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Ordinary' bicycle, c.1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Then the ‘safety’ bicycle was introduced in 1885. The diamond frame with chain drive to the back wheel was much easier and safer to ride, and turned the bike into a universal mode of transport:

Safety bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Safety' bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve examples of all three types in our Making the Modern World gallery, if you fancy a trip out this weekend…

Ding ding!

I heard a really interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 on Monday evening that lifted the lid on the murky and frustrating world of British transport politics. You can listen again here for a few days.

It looked at the work of John Prescott‘s transport ministry in the late 1990s, which developed a ten-year transport plan for Britain called, inventively, ‘Transport 2010′. Those ten years have come and gone and 2010 has arrived, so how far did we come?

Not far enough, said the programme. Politics has a way of scuppering grand plans, and Prescott and others reckoned transport plans suffered more than most, as they’re easier (politically) to cut when the financial going gets tough.

One part of the plan was to make big investments in public transport, such as buses. As I don’t drive, I end up spending quite a lot of time on buses, whether they get invested in or not. I think it’s probably fair to say they’ve got better in London (where I live) over the last ten years. But never have I felt like this:

One way to pleasure - by motor-bus, 1921 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'One way to pleasure - by motor-bus', 1921 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

I’ll leave you to think up your own response to that caption… I’ve got a bus to catch.

Walking in a winter wonderland

As we navigate our way through the festive season, and possibly eat and drink a little more than is wise, it is always worth remembering the most basic transportation device of all: Shank’s pony, or going for a walk.

Maybe you’re a sporty type like these two, full of energy and ready to bound out of the house for a good stride across the countryside…

Hiking railway poster, c.1930s (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Hiking' railway poster, c.1930s (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

You can even keep count of your paces as you march along using a pedometer…

Pedometer, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Pedometer, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But if that’s not sporty enough for you, you could always try wing-walking…

Mr Hearns wing-walking on an Avro 504K biplane, 1932 (Simmons Aerofilms / Science & Society)

Mr Hearns wing-walking on an Avro 504K biplane, 1932 (Simmons Aerofilms / Science & Society)

This fearless chap is wing-walking on an Avro 504K biplane. You can see one of these aircraft suspended from the ceiling of our Making the Modern World gallery, but I wouldn’t try climbing onto the wing if I were you…

Winter weather. It’s snow joke.

On Christmas Day, I showed you one of the sleighs in our transport collection. Sorry about the singing, by the way. I hope it was in tune.

Sleighs were very important vehicles in heavy snow in many parts of the world, and continued to be used long after motor cars became popular. We’ve got a handful of sleighs and sledges in our stores, including two push-sleighs at opposite ends of the glamour spectrum:

Push sledge for a child, date unknown (Science Museum)

Push sledge for a child, date unknown (Science Museum)

Ornamental Dutch push-sleigh (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ornamental Dutch push-sleigh (Science Museum / Science & Society)

That Dutch sleigh is quite a beauty, isn’t it. What a way to travel! However, maybe you want a bit more speed, a bit more power. Well, rail travel isn’t out of the question. Last time I was at our store in West London, I enountered this great Victorian model of an ice locomotive designed for use in Russia:

Model of an ice locomotive (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Model of an ice locomotive (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Sometimes, though, it’s time to wheel out the serious kit. If you’re planning a Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this Tucker Sno-Cat might be just the job:

Tucker Sno-Cat tracked vehicle, 1955 (Science Museum)

Tucker Sno-Cat tracked vehicle, 1955 (Science Museum)

If cold-weather transport is up your street, I haven’t found much written about the history of snow and ice transport, but I did come across ‘Snow travel and transport’, by Walter Lorch (The Gawsworth Series, 1977). It’s got lots of great pictures and information, and I’m sure you could find a second-hand copy on that book website named after a big river in South America…

Sleighs, of the single-horsepower roofless variety

Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, o’er the fields we go, laughing all the way!

Bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright, oh, what fun it is to sing a sleighing song tonight!

One-horse open sleigh, Science Museum collection, c.1880s (Science Museum)

One-horse open sleigh, Science Museum collection, c.1880s (Science Museum)

[All together now:] Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh,

jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!