Category Archives: Road transport

The war in the air

Some time ago, I told you about Louis Brennan’s remarkable gyroscopic monorail car. His 1907 model is at the National Railway Museum in York. Brennan used it to convey somewhat reluctant family members across his garden on a stretched wire.

Louis Brennan's gyrocar prototype (Science Museum)

Louis Brennan's gyrocar prototype (Science Museum)

He went on to make a full-sized version, capable of carrying ten tons…

Louis Brennans gyroscopic monorail car, c.1910 (Science Museum)

Louis Brennan's gyroscopic monorail car, c.1910 (Science Museum)

… which was displayed in 1910 at the Japan-British Exhibition at London’s White City.

Japan-British Exhibition catalogue, 1910 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Japan-British Exhibition catalogue, 1910 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By then, his invention had become well-known. H. G. Wells, in his 1908 book ‘The War in the Air’, describes a remarkable near-future in which Brennan’s monorail was used to connect countries and span seas. Here’s Wells’s vision:

Presently the English Channel was bridged, 1908 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Presently the English Channel was bridged', 1908 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Wells wrote, ’Brennan sprang his gyroscopic mono-rail car upon the Royal Society. It was the leading sensation of the 1907 soiree … the great inventor expounded his discovery, and sent his obedient little model of the trains of the future up gradients, round curves and across a sagging wire.’

It seems certain Wells had seen Brennan’s device in the flesh. He went on, ‘It ran along its single rail, on its single wheels, simple and sufficient; it stopped, reversed, stood still, balancing perfectly. It maintained its astounding equilibrium amidst a thunder of applause.’

Yet Wells hit on the human factor that would prevent the gyrocar ever taking off. ‘The audience dispersed at last, discussing how far they would enjoy crossing an abyss on a wire cable. “Suppose the gyroscope stopped!”‘

The War in the Air is a remarkable book. More about it – and gyroscopic monorails – in future posts.

Go just as you are on your Ner-a-car

Perhaps the Skootamota I talked about last time looked a bit rudimentary to your sophisticated, yet jaded, twenty-first-century eyes. Perhaps you’d like more comfort, more protection from the nasty winter weather. If that’s the case, let me present to you the Ner-a-car.

Ner-a-car motorcycle, 1925 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ner-a-car motorcycle, 1925 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was designed in America after the First World War by Carl Neracher, and was a motorbike built for comfort – just like a car, in fact. The name was a rather forced play on that of its designer, and the fact that it was ‘nearly a car’ (geddit?). If the Skootamota was simple and stripped-down, the Ner-a-car was by contrast the height of two-wheeled luxury.

Built in Britain by Sheffield Simplex, the Ner-a-car was noted for being exceptionally stable. Some said you could ride it ‘hands-off’ (see this Classic Bike Guide feature). It was a lovely ride, but seemed perhaps too unusual for 1920s roads. The firm stopped making them in about 1926, and few survive (ours is in store at Wroughton).

One advertisement stated that ‘you need have no fear of skidding or soiled clothing, nor wear special overalls.’ For this reason, it was ‘equally suitable for both sexes’. With its weather-protection (owing to the huge mudguards) it was quite a hit amongst doctors and midwives who needed to look presentable in all weathers. Their predecessors, such as the woman in this Thomas Rowlandson caricature, would have killed for a Ner-a-car, I’ll bet…

A midwife going to a labour, Thomas Rowlandson, 1811 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'A midwife going to a labour', Thomas Rowlandson, 1811 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ninety years of the Skootamota

Think push-along scooters are just for kids? Try mounting a 125cc engine on the back wheel, and think again!

A few posts ago, I talked about Brooklands, the world’s first purpose-built motor-racing circuit. In its day, it was a thrill-seeker’s dream, but ordinary folk could go along for a test-drive too. Ninety years ago, you might just have caught a glimpse of one of these little beauties powering up the banking:

ABC Skootamota scooter, c.1920 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

ABC 'Skootamota' scooter, c.1920 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The ABC ‘Skootamota’ was one of the earliest motor scooters (as the name suggests). Introduced in 1919, the lightweight and extremely simple Skootamota was cheap, reliable and easy to store.  We got ours in 1948 from a Lt. Cdr. Eve. Our curator took this lovely atmospheric shot of the vehicle when he went to inspect it at Eve’s house.

ABC Skootamota pictured in 1948 (Science Museum)

ABC 'Skootamota' pictured in 1948 (Science Museum)

The designer, Granville Bradshaw, invited writers from Motor Cycling magazine to join him on the 1919 Brooklands test-ride. The journalists were highly impressed, both with the scooter’s cruising speed (15 – 20 miles per hour), and its ability to climb the Brooklands Test Hill, with its 1-in-4 gradient.

“While we never dreamed for a moment that it would make the slightest headway on the very stiff gradients, much to our surprise the Scooter proved itself capable of going about two-thirds of the way up the slope, and it was only on the steepest portion that it was brought to rest!”

If you think the seat looks a bit, well, rudimentary, that’s because it was only there for long-distance riding. Most of the time, riders would stand on the platform. At a flat-out speed of 25mph, it would have been quite a ride!

Getting in a lorry trouble

It’s all going on in the world of lorries this week. A haulage firm is trying to introduce a ‘super-lorry’ that’s 30 feet longer than a conventional articulated truck. Latest news is that the police have blocked it, but it’s a fast-changing story which I’ll be watching with interest. You can see footage of the double-articulated device on the BBC website here.

I’ll keep my own thoughts on this 83-foot monster to myself. Instead, check out the world of heavy haulage, Victorian-style. These steam traction engines were the big beasts of burden at the turn of the century, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck behind this convoy on a narrow country road, as they were built for power, not speed:

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1890s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1890s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These machines were huge. When things went wrong, they went very wrong:

Overturned steam traction engine, c.1910 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

Overturned steam traction engine, c.1910 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

You can still see steam traction engines at steam rallies and the like, and we’ve got an Aveling and Porter beauty in our Making the Modern World gallery here at the Science Museum:

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1873 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Aveling and Porter steam traction engine, 1873 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The late, great, Fred Dibnah ran an Aveling and Porter engine. His BBC2 series based on the engine, ‘Fred Dibnah ‘s Made in Britain’, was terrific.

Brooklands revived

I saw a splendid programme on BBC2 the other day. In his series, ‘Toy Stories’, James May is playing with old toys like Airfix and Meccano in an epic way. Last week, he revived the famous Brooklands motor racing circuit, opened in 1907 and closed in 1939.

Motor racing at Brooklands, 1927 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

Motor racing at Brooklands, 1927 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

Malcolm Campbell (see my previous posts) was a regular racer at Brooklands:

Malcolm Campbell racing at Brooklands (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Malcolm Campbell racing at Brooklands (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

It wasn’t just cars. Britain’s aviation industry arguably started here with the pioneering work of A. V. Roe and others. Roe’s company went on to make Avro aircraft elsewhere, including the famous ‘Vulcan’ bomber…

Avro Vulcan radar test model, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Avro Vulcan radar test model, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

…and our Vickers ‘Vimy’, used by Alcock and Brown in their first flight across the Atlantic, was built at Brooklands:

Vickers Vimy at Brooklands, 1919 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Vickers 'Vimy' at Brooklands, 1919 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

After the war, the site became a huge aircraft factory for Vickers and then British Aerospace (lots of Concorde was made here), and the old racing circuit was carved up, chopped off, built on and generally made into a non-circuit. Explore it on Google Maps.

How did May revive such a relic? With the aid of hundreds of  helpers, he laid three miles of Scalextric track round the route of the old circuit (flying over fences and factories, diving under roads and ditches, floating across ponds and cutting across housing estates) and, once built, pitted two tiny cars against each other in a nail-biting race to the finish. Top stuff!

You can watch it on BBC iPlayer here, and you can find out more at the excellent Brooklands museum website.

Steam success!

Did any of you catch the BBC2 programme last week on the recent steam car speed record? I only managed to see a bit of it, but it looked great. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer for a couple more days here.

These guys have built a car powered by a steam turbine and, at 140mph, it’s broken the world speed record for steam cars originally set in 1906 at an impressive 128mph.

I blogged about it a while ago here, so rather than repeating what I said there about our lovely steam cars, let me instead show you the first ever steam turbine used to power a vessel – Turbinia, built in 1894. The turbine’s on show in our Shipping gallery. More on that another time, when I’m back at my desk…

Marine steam turbine from Turbinia, 1894 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Marine steam turbine from Turbinia, 1894 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Magic carpet for the multitude

The short posts continue, as I’m out and about for a few days. Last week I filmed a short TV piece about our Ford ‘Model T’ car. It’s one of our centenary icons, but I’m gutted to say it didn’t win our public poll on which was the most important. It seems the x-ray machine was more significant, so well done (through gritted teeth) to my colleagues in the medicine department…

Ford Model T car, 1916 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ford Model T car, 1916 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

I dare say I’ll change my tune next time I break something and need an x-ray, but I think it’s fair to say the Ford Model T was a hugely important product – not just in transport history but in manufacturing, labour relations, marketing and pretty much any aspect of modern industrial life you care to mention.

Henry Ford on a tractor, 1908 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Henry Ford on a tractor, 1908 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Henry Ford changed the way we make things, sell things, buy things, want things and feel about things. When the Model T was first introduced in 1908, few people could afford a practical, reasonably powerful, robust car that could seat a family. By the time the seminal vehicle finally stopped rolling off the production line in 1927, over 15 million had been sold. Ford sold a dream, and a lot of people bought it.

I’ve just finished reading Robert Casey’s excellent ‘The Model T – a Centennial History’. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Fifty years of the motorway

Just short posts this week, as I’m mostly out and about.

The first proper motorway in Britain opened fifty years ago this month – the M1. It’s hard to imagine life without motorways – those snaking ribbons of tarmac, the service stations, the blue-and-white signs and the seemingly endless congestion. Do we love them today? Probably not, if asked, but back in 1959, the M1 was magical. People queued up to see the modern way to travel…

Schoolchildren at the newly-opened M1, 1959 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

Schoolchildren at the newly-opened M1, 1959 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

Part of the magic must have been the sense of space, of an endless future unfolding. Or, less lyrically, the fact that the M1 was empty…

View from a car on the M1, 1960 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

View from a car on the M1, 1960 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

Of course, that didn’t last. As the motorways spread, and filled up, they became less magical, more mundane. When the Transport Research Laboratory took a core sample of the M1 in the 1980s for tests, we’d already fallen out of love. The core came to us in the 1990s, and I bet it had been used as a doorstop before we picked it up…

Core sample of M1 motorway, 1980s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Core sample of M1 motorway, 1980s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s on show in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, tucked away between a speed camera and a lawnmower. Important, but everyday. How quickly the lustre of modernity fades…

If you’re interested in our relationship with our roads, I can heartily recommend Joe Moran’s excellent new book, ‘On Roads’. A cracking read.

Remembering the spirit of ecstasy

Following my two recent posts about the merchant navy war memorial in London, my thoughts (like so many people) turned again this week to our war dead. At a moving Armistice Day ceremony this week, the Science Museum’s director laid a poppy wreath at our own modest memorial commemorating Science Museum staff killed in the two world wars:

Science Museum war memorial (David Rooney)

Science Museum war memorial (David Rooney)

We must keep memories alive by telling stories, so here’s one that follows from my recent post on Rolls-Royce cars. 

In 1915, the steamship Persia was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. Two passengers on board were Eleanor Thornton and the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu. Montagu was an avid early motorist, and Eleanor was his secretary. The pair were also lovers. He survived the sinking, but Eleanor was killed, along with hundreds of other passengers.

You may not have heard her name, but you’re probably already familiar with Eleanor Thornton. She was the model for the famous Rolls-Royce bonnet mascot, ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’. See countless pictures of the famous figure here.

Montagu originally commissioned a sculpture of Eleanor as a one-off mascot for his Rolls-Royce ‘Silver Ghost’. This figure was known as ‘The Whisper’, and formed the basis for Rolls-Royce’s own version that became the Spirit of Ecstasy.

As we remember our war dead this November, spare a thought for Eleanor Thornton next time you see the Spirit of Ecstasy adorning a Rolls-Royce…

In our collections we have our own Silver Ghost (at Wroughton), like Montagu’s, and a wonderful 1898 Daimler given to us by Montagu himself in 1925. It’s now (very appropriately) on loan to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu- Montagu’s family home.

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, 1909 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls-Royce 'Silver Ghost', 1909 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Daimler motor car, 1898 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Daimler motor car, 1898 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The speed king and the Rolls-Royce

In a previous couple of posts I introduced Malcolm Campbell, who broke land and water speed records in the 1920s and 30s using vehicles named ‘Blue Bird’. One of his successful record-breaking attempts took place in February 1931 when he topped 245 miles per hour. Here’s our model of his car:

Model of Malcolm Campbells 1931 record-breaking car (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Model of Malcolm Campbell's 1931 record-breaking car (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Later that year, he decided to go for a ride in a somewhat slower car – a 1905 Rolls-Royce numbered AX148. This venerable old motor, with a top speed of 30mph, was one of the first Rolls-Royce cars ever made, and in November 1931 Campbell took the driving seat for its entry in the London to Brighton run.

Rolls-Royce 10hp motor car, 1905 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Rolls-Royce 10hp motor car, 1905 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These ten-horse-power motor cars were made between 1904 and 1906 by the manufacturing company of Henry Royce, who had recently joined forces with Charles Rolls to make cars under the brand ‘Rolls-Royce’. A motoring legend was born.

To start with, AX148 was used by Royce himself, as early sales were slow (and he needed a runabout). Its first buyer was a chap called Paris Singer (son of sewing-machine magnate Isaac Singer) who bought it in 1906. It was his second; he’d been Royce’s first ever customer back in 1904. Clearly he liked these cars! We’ve one of his father’s original machines on show:

Original Isaac Singer sewing machine, 1853 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Original Isaac Singer sewing machine, 1853 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

After a couple of changes of ownership, AX148 was bought back by Rolls-Royce in 1935 and presented to the Science Museum. It’s now one of only four of these pioneering cars thought to survive, and the only one in public hands. We’ve lent it to the wonderful Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester – go see it if you can!