Category Archives: Water transport

“Love to Soph”, hidden Morse messages from the SS Great Eastern

Jennifer Bainbridge, Conservator on the new Information Age gallery, writes about the conservation of Morse code tapes from the SS Great Eastern, 1865, a ship which undertook the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable. John Liffen, Curator of Communication, provides details of transcription.

As one of the conservators working on the new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014, I handle, document and carry out treatments on objects destined for display.  Working so closely with artifacts means I am often in the lucky position of discovering new quirks or secrets, as I was recently reminded when undertaking conservation of some Morse code tapes from the S.S Great Eastern voyage of 1865.

Morse code tapes before treatment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Looking at the tapes on a shelf in our Telecommunications Store, sitting alongside larger and grander objects, they appeared deceptively small and manageable, while at the same time they held the promise of untold stories.  Curator of Communication, John Liffen, informed me that within living memory at the museum the tapes had never been unravelled and no transcription of the message existed. It was now my job to enable this task! Firstly, I had to determine the object’s condition. Wound round an old paper envelope core the tapes were overlapping as they were coiled round and round.

While providing a compact means of storage, the tapes looked under stress.  They were, however strong enough for unravelling to take place.  The unwinding was quite a slow process as it turned out there were nine tapes wound together, with some being very lengthy.

You can see why the tapes were wrapped around an old envelope, they’re a little unwieldy when unwrapped. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

Once unravelled, the tapes were lightly cleaned with Smoke Sponge, a natural vulcanised rubber which gently picked up dust and dirt.  The tapes then needed to be humidified to relax the bends and creases caused by having been rolled.  Direct moisture causes cockling of paper and potential running of inks, so instead the paper was rested on a one-way permeable membrane to allow vapour, rather than water though.  Once lying flat the tears were repaired using heat set tissue, activated with a heated spatula.

With the tape repaired John then stepped in to commence the transcription. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

The main problem encountered at the transcription stage was that the dots and dashes inked on the tape can at times be ambiguous, with a dot often looking like a dash and vice versa.  As John says,

“To a twenty-first century researcher much of the Morse on the tapes translates as random letters. However, in places recognisable words can be read. On piece 1, the phrases ‘still in Vienna have red red’ and ‘none from Paris’ can be seen. Piece 6 was indecipherable, but when the tape was inverted the phrase ‘concludes lead iron cable’ was found within a string of Morse letters. This is more promising as part of a possible message. Most intriguingly, on piece 4 can be found ‘love to Sophbin’. Presumably ‘Sophie’ is the intended word but the Morse clearly shows a ‘b’ after the letter h. Whoever Sophie was, how did she come to be on board the Great Eastern during its cable-laying voyage?”.

Dr Gillespie’s nautical absence

musket ball

The fatal shot (Science Museum, London)

At around 1.15 pm, on 21st October 1805, a small projectile (shown in the above engraving), fired at a range of about 50ft, passed into Admiral Horatio Nelson’s left shoulder and, ricocheting against bone, tore a path through his upper body before passing into his lower back.  The musket ball took with it fragments of the his coat and its epaulette which remained attached after it came to rest.

Nelson died a few hours later as the Battle of Trafalgar drew to a close, and after prolonged preservation, in first brandy and then distilled wine, and after much public procession and fanfare, his body was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 9th January 1806.


The invitation (Science Museum, London)

Here is an invitation to the funeral from our collections.  The recipient was Dr Leonard Gillespie, “Physician to Lord Nelson”.  Indeed Gillespie had actually been assigned to the post of Physician-General to the Fleet by Nelson whilst abroad HMS Victory – the ship he was officially attached to.  But while Nelson was attended by the Victory’s surgeon William Beatty on that fatal day, where was Gillespie?


Dr Gillespie's tourniquet, carried on HMS Victory (Science Museum, London)

Dr Gillespie had overseen an enlightened approach to on-board health, which just prior to Trafalgar he described as “unexampled perhaps in any squadron heretofore employed on a foreign station”.  He had also written an influential pamphlet on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen, which put particular emphasis on a good diet, but in October 1805 Gillespie himself was not a well man.  As Nelson was taking that fatal shot, Gillespie was ashore, laid low with gout!

While scurvy is the dietary complaint traditionally associated with life at sea in the early 1800s, gout was not uncommon.  Linked in part to diets rich in meat, seafood and alcohol, the naval officer class was prone to the condition.  Although Gillespie missed his masters final moments, his gouty absence was no cause for shame.  Indeed, according to William Beatty, it was only through “abstaining for the space of nearly two years from animal food, and wine and all other fermented drink; confining his diet to vegetables, and commonly milk and water” that Nelson overcame his own bout…of gout.

As for Gillespie, he outlived Nelson by nearly three decades, dying at 83 after a long retirement in Paris.  However, in a curious postscript, ‘Dr Leonard Gillespie’ emerged a century later in a very different context.  Firstly in books, then on cinema and TV screens, as the elderly mentor to the titular young medic in the hugely successful Dr Kildare.  In this clip Gillespie (played by Lionel Barrymore) is the one pooh-poohing the idea of  ‘socialised medicine’.  Hmmmm.


The doble and the seagull

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit. Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

This is the last of my short series of posts about displays from the former British Small Craft exhibition at the Science Museum, which is now being moved to storage after a remarkable 50 years on show.

The doble model and the seagull, peter-boats and dobles showcase (Image: Science Museum)

Apart from sounding like the name of a real good old-fashioned pub, or the beginning of a joke, the above title can also be associated with this scene of a chap leaning over the hull of a Medway doble while a little seagull perches on a mooring post nearby.  This 1:4 scale model was part of the peter-boats and dobles showcase.

The doble and seagull from a different angle. (Image: James Fenner)

This little boat type was used to catch sprats with netting, and each doble was fitted with a wet-well (a well of river water built into the hull to keep the catch fresh).  They were very popular with River Medway fisherman.

Our model was purchased by the museum from a pair of gentleman who had bought it from a boat-builders in Strood (across the river from Rochester) in 1934. In the later 1960s when the model was put in a landscape setting of its own as part of the new Shipping Gallery, it turned out there were some problems of scale when it came to the inclusion of both a human figure and a seagull:

Detail of the troublesome model seagull (Image: Science Museum)

In this display showing small craft of the Thames estuary there is a realistic setting for the Medway doble model and as the scale of this model is very different to that of the other two [models in the case], a scale human figure & a sea gull are included. I might add that there was some argument about the size of a sea gull and the Museum illustrator ended up in the Natural History Museum with a stuffed sea gull to measure.’ (Bathe, Assistant Keeper, 1961)

This model and display has a particular significance for me because I’m originally from Rochester in Kent and know the River Medway very well. I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts on the British Small Craft exhibits – I am certainly enjoying researching them. Thanks for reading.

Oar-some boats!

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit.  Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

I recently told you about the tiny gun-punt model that was on show in the British Small Craft exhibit at  the Science Museum, now closed to make way for a major new gallery on communications. Today, I’ve got three models from the sea boats display to show you: the cutter, gig and lifeboat.

The sea boat models (cutter, gig and lifeboat) formerly shown on the mezzanine of the Shipping Gallery (Image: Science Museum)

The cutter model represents the general utility boat used by the Navy and carried on their warships at the beginning of twentieth century. The label explains that it is clincher-built (overlapping plank construction) and ‘is very much heavier, both in design and construction than a gig.’

Detail of the cutter (Image: Science Museum)

It goes on to say that it was pulled by 12 oars, six aside with each oar equalling one man.  But if you look closely at the model you see that it actually has seven rowlocks down each side making 14 in total, not 12.  This model, along with the gig, was lent to the museum by a Lieutenant Colonel H Wyllie in 1934.

Detail of the gig (Image: Science Museum)

In comparison, the gig (as a boat type) was lightly built using the carvel building method (plank edges fused together side-by-side) creating fine lines for speed. This model represents a captain’s gig used in the Navy at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Because it was a more elegant and lightly built craft it needed fewer men to pull it along, hence the six visible metal rowlocks – three on each side.

Detail of the ship’s lifeboat and the ‘davits’ (Image: Science Museum)

This model of a ship’s lifeboat is shown ‘on davits of a quadrant type, patented by Mr A. Welin in 1900’ as the accompanying label explains.  Axel Welin was a Swedish inventor and industrialist who founded his own engineering firm, the Welin Davit & Engineering Company Ltd.  The model shows his quadrant design for the davits – with the horizontal mechanism movement – which meant that a life boat like this could be lowered quickly and safely over the side of a ship in an evacuation.

 I’ve one more British Small Craft story to share with you – watch out for my final post.

Gun-ho with a punt!

I’m James Fenner, a PhD student at the Science Museum researching the models, figures and displays in the former British Small Craft Exhibit.  Now that the gallery has closed (after nearly 50 years) I thought I should share with you some of its highlights.

The river and sea boats showcase, British Small Craft display (Image: Science Museum)

This little model doesn’t look like much but it represents a small boat that packs a punch!  At 1:24 scale, the model represents a canoe-like craft with a flat bottom and a maximum width of the hull just forward of the middle section.  This extra width was necessary to accommodate the eight-foot gun mounted to the hull which essentially acted as a gigantic one-shot shotgun.  As the accompanying label says, ‘this type of craft … is employed on shallow waterways for stalking and shooting wild fowl.’

A close up of the gun-punt model on display. (Image: James Fenner).

Essentially, what you would do is paddle up quietly to your quarry (a flock of wildfowl) in a marsh or river, under the camouflage of the reeds, lying prone.  The gun would be primed and ready for action, with the two-inch barrel rammed full of a pound of shot and charge. You would tap the side of the hull; the flock would fly up startled and … BOOM! You’d open fire.  If you were lucky you could hit as many as 50 birds in one go. 

The recoil was so powerful and violent it sent the boat backwards for several yards. This meant that the gun had to be fixed to the hull which, in turn, meant you had to manoeuvre the punt to aim again.  Unfortunately, as well as the risk of missing altogether there was the added problem that you had to take the vessel back to shore to reload.

More on the British Small Craft displays in a future post.

Steaming through the centuries

Mention ‘steam engine’ to most people and they immediately think of railway engines. Yet long before railways, stationary steam engines helped power the Industrial Revolution – the years between 1760 and 1830 when Britain became the world’s first industrial nation. 

Our standard of living, plus the environmental and energy supply issues which threaten us today, grew out of the Industrial Revolution.

'Old Bess' ( Peter Turvey)

One of the oldest surviving engines from that time is now in the Science Museum, ‘Old Bess’ built in 1777 by Boulton & Watt. 

Removed from its original site in Boulton’s Soho Manufactory Birmingham, after it stopped work in 1848, the only way we can now show visitors what ‘Old Bess’ looked like when in use is via a model or a computer animation

However there are a still a few preserved stationary engines on their original sites which can be seen working on special occasions.

The most amazing survival is the 1812 Boulton & Watt engine at Crofton Pumping Station in Wiltshire.

Built well before the oldest working standard gauge steam railway locomotive in the UK, Furness Railway No. 20 of 1863, it is the oldest surviving working stationary steam engine still on its original site.   

Though replaced by electric pumps in 1958, it is kept in working order by a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.

Beam of the 1812 Boulton & Watt Engine at Crofton Pumping Station ( Peter Turvey )

The pumping station is open to the public during the summer months, and the engine run on ‘steaming weekends’ when it can be seen still doing the job for which it was built, raising water into the summit level of the Kennet  and Avon Canal.

Nowhere else can visitors experience such a complete example of Georgian steam power in action.  2012 marks this wonderful old engine’s bicentenary, and with special events this summer Crofton should be well worth a visit.

A cup of tea, some cakes and a biscuit please…

Many objects in our collections weren’t really meant to survive the long-term. Food stuffs are such an example. While food packaging is commonly found in museum collections, food itself is rarer. And if uneaten during their pre-museum life, these objects remain vulnerable. Destructive pests like the Biscuit beetle are so named for a reason.

Within our stores are a number of foody objects, collected for a variety of reasons and which have so far eluded the appetites of both the two-legged and the six-legged.

Tea brick

Concentrated goodness from China, early 20th century (Science Museum)

This ‘brick’, for example, is not decorative masonry but a slab of compressed tea. A lump could be chipped off when you fancied a brew. Finely ground then forced into block moulds, tea bricks were a convenient form for trading. Once common in Central and Eastern Asia, they were often used as currency.

Cakes and newspaper cutting

Cakes and related newspaper cutting, mid 19th century (Science Museum)

These curious little cakes above are from much nearer home. Produced in the Kent village of Biddenden, they commemorate conjoined twins Maria and Eliza Chulkhurst, the ‘Biddenden Maids’.  There are doubts about when exactly they lived, but they were certainly well known ‘curiosities’ in their lifetimes. They were also philanthropists whose legacy included the Easter-time distribution of food to the local poor. These gifts eventually included the cakes stamped with their likeness which remain popular tourist souvenirs today.

Ship's biscuit

'Hard tack', baked in England c1875 (Science Museum)

This biscuit was also a souvenir – but one with unfortunate associations. It belonged to a member of an ill-fated Arctic Expedition of 1875, commanded by George Nares. The venture was cut short by scurvy, from which several crewmen died. Such biscuits (aka ‘hard tack’) are symbolic of the impoverished ship’s diet that precipitated the illness. And yet, ironically, this expedition had a good supply of lime juice, but it had been rendered useless by distilling it in copper vessels, thereby destroying the vitamin C.

The biscuit is stamped with a ‘D’, perhaps indicating it was from the lead ship HMS Discovery. While our records say the biscuit once belonged to a ‘ship’s carpenter’. A crew list indicates the likely suspects who pocketed this unappetising snack – one that even the biscuit beetles have so far declined.

Cruising for scientists

I commute to work most days by fast catamaran. It’s a delightful way to travel, and lets me see London from a different perspective.

Cruise ship at Tower Bridge, 7 June 2010 (David Rooney)

Right now there are lots of big cruise ships using the River Thames as a stopping-off point. One popular mooring location is a spot beside HMS Belfast, near Tower Bridge. Earlier this week, I spotted a ship there called Alexander von Humboldt:

The Alexander von Humboldt (detail) (David Rooney)

Humboldt was a German scientific explorer of the eighteenth century. He became famous for his journal describing his voyages to Latin America from 1799 to 1804 (available online at the Humboldt Digital Library).

There’s an English-language selection from his journal available, which is an exquisite read. It’s fresh to this day.

As with many ‘celebrities’, he was immortalised in art and material culture, and we’ve a fair bit of Humboldtian stuff in our collections, from portraits of him as a dashing young explorer to busts of him as a grand old man of science.

Alexander von Humboldt c.1806 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Celebrity’s a funny thing. For those who make it, their name can live on seemingly forever (even if on the side of a cruise ship). Yet many who carry out life-changing work remain obscure, their stories little told.

We’re working on a major new history of science gallery here at the Science Museum, which we hope will open in 2014. Right now we’re grappling with new ways to tell stories about the people and stuff of science, and we’ll be talking about our work as we do it, so watch this space (and others). Sadly, though, my idea of a curatorial team cruise on the Alexander von Humboldt  has been rejected. Curses.

Back from holiday, slightly flushed

I’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life…

Dundas aqueduct, Kennet & Avon canal (David Rooney)

Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals

Model water closet, c.1900 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to a great movement for the widespread supply of clean water and the provision of effective sewerage in every home.

Civil engineering dealt with the big stuff – pipelines, pumping stations and vast networks of sewers. People like Joseph Bazalgette are now well-known for their work in building Victorian London’s sewer system.

Our health curator, Stewart Emmens, has discussed this at length in his sewage blogpost and his hygiene blogpost, and our Making the Modern World website expands the story.

Joseph Bazalgette (Science Museum / Science & Society)

No less important was the new breed of sanitary engineer which grew up, designing the types of lavatories, basins and pipework that are so common today as to be almost invisible, although in the early days training in its operation was needed:

Hygiene demonstration cabinet, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But please don’t get me wrong. I’m just as appreciative of the engineers who enabled my rented canal boat to be fitted with that chemical toilet I mentioned. I shudder to think what the alternatives might have been…

Messing about in boats

As you read this, I’m away on a short break, taking my first holiday on a canal boat with some friends.

Canals can tell us a great deal about our history and our national identity. This scene, on show in the ‘British small craft’ display in our shipping gallery, contrasts the old and the new on Britain’s inland waterways in the 1960s:

Canal boats display, Science Museum (David Rooney)

A working barge features in the foreground, while a (then) modern canal cruiser sits behind.

This shift of use, from haulage to leisure, is a fascinating story in Britain’s marine history, and the rest of the display similarly sheds light on how we felt about our coastal identity back in the 60s, and how it sat in wider culture.

British Transport Films cameraman filming canal boat, 1950 (NRM / BTF / Science & Society)

We’ve got a really interesting vacancy at the moment. If you’re thinking of starting a PhD, we’ve got funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to pay for a doctoral student to study our British small craft display.

You can find out more about the project, being run jointly between the University of Nottingham’s geography department and ourselves, here.

If you’re interested, please contact Professor David Matless at Nottingham for an informal discussion. Closing date for applications is Friday 4 June, with interviews being held at the Science Museum on Thursday 17 June.

Meanwhile, if I haven’t accidentally fallen in the Kennet & Avon canal, I’ll be back in London next week. Now, does anyone know how to steer this thing?