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First Time Out…second time around

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine at the Science Museum, writes about the collaborative museums project, First Time Out

A while ago the Science Museum took part in a project called First Time Out – where museums put on display a ‘treasure’ from their stored collections that had never before been seen in public. Well we’re giving it a go again – but this time the project is larger than ever. Ten museums, from all over England, have paired up to swap objects from their collections, with the Science Museum partnering with the Discovery Museum in Newcastle (a great day out – go visit!).

We’ve chosen a rather splendid set of ten ivory mathematical puzzles that was made in China and exported to Britain in the mid-late 1800s.

Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 - tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes – according to problems posed by a picture book.
Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 – tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes.

 In July, all the museums are swapping objects with their partners. We’re very excited about the early light-bulb and light switch that will be heading down from the Discovery Museum.

Newcastle was a hotbed of activity during the development of electric lighting, with pioneers such as Joseph Swan based there. (Image courtesy of Discovery Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne).

It’s strange to think on the 4th July all ten objects will be hitting the road, crossing paths up and down the country, until they reach their temporary new home. And there’s some seriously amazing objects that have been uncovered. The bone model guillotine from Peterborough Museum, and the Natural History Museum’s tattooed dolphin skull are pretty remarkable.

Previously lurking in Peterborough Museum’s store is this model guillotine made from animal bone by prisoners of the Napoleanic Wars. (Credit: Photo John Moore, Vivacity Culture and Leisure)

I think it’s useful for museums to draw attention to material in store – both to explore the strangeness and explain the significance of holding material in storage for perpetuity, as well as to highlight the particular riches to be found behind the scenes.  Objects of course convey multiple meanings. Museums as well aren’t homogenous, so perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the project are the different perspectives each partner brings to the same object.

From a personal point of view, it’s been great working on First Time Out. Part of the fun was in selecting potential object candidates to be displayed, it was a great opportunity to look beyond the usual artefacts I work with (medical stuff) and explore collections I don’t usually get my hands on such as maths or astronomy colletions pictured here within Blythe House. (Credit: Laura Porter)

First Time Out opens with home objects on display from 6th June. You can see the Discovery Museum’s objects on display in the Museum from 5th July – until the beginning of August.

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.

‘For mica’ forever!

This blog was written by Helen Peavitt, Curator of Domestic Technology

Formica is 100 this year. Best known as the laminate associated with the 1950s and 60s colour explosion in surface coverings, what’s probably less well known is that it was originally an insulation material for the electrical industry. Formica literally stands for ‘for mica’, as it was developed as a synthetic plastic substitute for expensive mineral mica. It was made by binding layers of cloth or paper together with a phenolic resin (originally Bakelite). Engineer Dan O’Conor filed for a patent for it in February 1913 and by May the Formica Products Company (set up by O’Conor and Harold Faber) was already taking orders. 

Dark brown Formica was a success, buoyed up by its use for radio casings in the 1920s and 30s, giving the colour, feel and finish familiar to any collector of vintage radio sets. Soon it was furnishing interiors with the glossy, smooth, jet, brown and black style associated with the Deco 1930s. 


Formica swatch, 1960-1975 ( Science Museum, London )

Used wherever a tough, easy to clean surface was required, Formica was increasingly popular: found in public buildings, paneling the state rooms aboard the Cunard Queen Mary and the walls of Second World War prefab military barracks, used to toughen wooden airplane propellers and, with the growth of youth and café culture after the Second World War, on café tables and kitchen counters everywhere.

Cafe table with laminated Formica top, unsigned, British, 1955-1965 ( Science Museum, London )

Formica’s popularity was challenged in the 1970s, in part by a growing preference for ‘honest’ real-wood finishes and historic designs. By the 1980s however, new ColorCore – Formica with solid colour all the way through – became popular with influential architects, designers and jewellery makers including Wendy Ramshaw

c 1950s advertisement with a formica kitchen ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Formica is currently in vogue. One reason for this is its ability to constantly reinvent itself, mimicking wood, stone and just about any colour and pattern. Finishes in the 2013 catalogue reflect current cultural preoccupations and colour trends. Retro-style designs include ‘Citrus halftone’ (released for Formica’s 100th anniversary ) and the enduringly popular Charcoal Boomerang, designed by Brooks Stevens as ‘Skylark’ for the optimistic 1950s and updated by industrial designer Raymond Loewy a few years later. Both indicate Formica’s ability to move with the times and, in its 100th year, celebrate its origins and heritage.

Unpacking bags of Science: Diamonds in the rough

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts where we have been exploring the lives of our ancestors by looking at a collection of tool bags from the Science Museum’s collections. This time we will be looking at the mining industry. We might think we’re fairly familiar with the tools of the mining trade, with the Davy lamp and pickaxe especially being mining icons. But do you know what kind of instruments mining engineers would use?


Mineralogical test kit (Science Museum)

Mining engineers played (and still play)  an important role in the consultation of almost every stage of a mining operation. They first analysed the potential of a mineral deposit, and then determined the profitability of a mine.

When the minerals had been successfully extracted, this mineralogical test kit was used to perform a mineralogical analysis in order to identify mineral species and understand their characteristics and properties. In order for a substance to be classified as a mineral it had to pass a series of tests, and this kit contains the tools needed for mineral testing, including a blowpipe, tweezers and chemicals.

The flame test indicated the identity of the substance being tested by the colour of the flame it produced. For example, a potassium compound burns with a lilac flame. Blowing through the blowpipe over a candle providing a heat source produced a tiny area of intense heat on a charcoal block, and created the right conditions for separating metals from their ores. After the process of mineralogical testing had taken place, this Tutton’s goniometer for cutting, grinding and polishing minerals may have been used. It was manufactured by Troughton and Simms, London c. 1894, and designed by Mr. A.E. Tutton.


Tutton’s goniometer (Science Museum)


150 Years of the London Underground

Construction of the Metropolitan District Railway, Bayswater, London, c 1867 ( Science Museum / SSPL )

This blog post was written by Pippa Murray

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground – arguably one of London’s most iconic landmarks. Of course back in 1863, when the first tube line opened, the map looked remarkably different from the one we know today with only the metropolitan line running between Paddington and then onto Farringdon Street (a stretch measuring only six kilometers). Yet as the network of tunnels evolved throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th the construction of the underground system was considered one of the great engineering feats of modern times with the world’s only steam-driven underground railway and the first electrified underground railway. As well as having profound effects on the ability of the Londoners to move around the city quickly, cheaply and alleviating the level of congestion on London roads.




As you can see in some of these images the construction work utilised the ‘cut and cover’ technique where the pavement of the street is removed, a hole for the subway and stations is dug, and then the street is restored. 

Model of Drum digger tunnelling machine, c 1970 used to excavate the Victoria line ( © National Railway Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )


Naturally since the Metropolitan line was built technology has evolved and one of the newer lines to be built using more sophisticated tools was the Victoria line. This line took 20 years from the initial planning stages to opening in stages between 1968-1971, and was considered one of the most complex tunnel engineering of its time and. instead of the cut and cover approach, diggers like the Drum digger tunnelling machine (pictured above) were used to excavate deep down underneath some of the capitals major landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and government departments. It took approximately 2500 miners to excavate an estimated one million tons of earth and along the way a whole deluge of debris was uncovered from fossilised marine molluscs to human bones from an old plague pit.

So whilst commuters continue to moan and groan about the tube on their way to work this morning I think today of all days we all should celebrate
the London Underground and recognize it as a world class feat of engineering.

© Richard Bosomworth / SSPL


Music by Muzak

This article was written by Ellie West-Thomas, An Electronic Music Volunteer.

As Christmas draws closer, how many of you have found yourselves in a shopping centre listening to the dulcet sounds of an instrumental version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’?

‘Department Store by Grace Golden’ ( © The National Archives / Science & Society Picture Library )

Whether we notice it or not, music is always around us. Music by Muzak is a company who scientifically produced to create background music for shopping centres, offices and even lifts. It has been scientifically proven that music effects you and whatever you are doing, however continuous music would very quickly lose its effectiveness as the mind pushed it further back in to the sub-conscious. The solution with Muzak is that a Muzak programme is never repeated, it is designed to be heard not listened to.

The history of Muzak in the UK started in September 1959 but its potential was born in the minds of two English scientists in 1934 who themselves have been influenced by the use made of music by the ancient Egyptians in increasing the efficiency of their labour force while building the Pyramids.  

Music by Muzak Promotional Folder (Credit: Ellie West-Thomas)











This music service is designed to increase sales and employee productivity, attract the right customers, impact dwell time, create a competitive advantage, differentiate your brand and build loyalty. Muzak is specially orchestrated and recorded for the time, the place and the activity. To be of constructive use, music must give a pleasant emotional stimulus without demanding attention. The scientists behind Muzak believe that the average worker goes through a cycle of efficiency each day. The time when the worker is most efficient is in the morning and after lunch. Muzak’s functional music programmes are designed so that when the worker is at their least efficient it should bring them back up to a good level of efficiency. To represent this discovery we are currently acquiring the ‘Muzak Promotional Folder’.

The science is true in essence, for example when you have a louder, heavier piece of music on in the car then you tend to drive a bit faster compared to someone who is listening to softer music like a classical piece. 

Now have a think about what kind of music you would want to listen to in such an environment, different people may want to hear different things whilst doing certain tasks. So if you were Muzak adding to your extensive archive library what music would you have and what for?

Don’t try this at home

Everyone, at some point in their lives, will ‘accidently’ ingest something that, well, they really shouldn’t have.  At best, the event might provide an amusing story to tell your friends, at worst the consequences can be serious enough to make the news.

Of course, the deliberate ingestion of foreign bodies into the human body can be symptomatic of serious mental health issues.  A compulsive urge that can result in real physical harm.

Hidden within our medical collections are examples of objects which have found their way into the body, ‘accidently’ or otherwise. Here we shall concentrate on the more benign examples.


A swallowed spoon (Stewart Emmens 2012)

There is something almost reassuring about the adaptability and robustness of the human digestive system as the spoon above caused “no pain or uneasiness” and “passed without discomfort” despite its month long gastric odyssey.  Its smooth contours probably helped.

Tie pin

Glass and metal tie pin (Science Museum)

Rather more worrying is when sharp points and edges are involved.  Fortunately, this tie pin’s disappearance was short-lived but some 94 years ago it prompted an urgent trip to London’s Charing Cross Hospital.


A troublesome coin (Science Museum)

Childhood curiosity is behind several of the swallowed items in our collection.  Like the pin, the halfpenny above caused another anxious hospital visit.  On this occasion, the wannabe piggy bank – a hapless toddler – eventually needed surgery to have the coin removed.

But while most of our subjects at least seem to have been aware that something was amiss, there are exceptions.  Back in 1863, the smoker who almost swallowed this two inch section of hard clay pipe was apparently oblivious to its presence. 

clay pipe

Section of clay pipe (Stewart Emmens 2012)

Finally, a favourite of mine.  It should be noted that not all of our misplaced items took the oral route.  I will spare readers gorier examples, highlighting instead this particular object which suggests that while certain behaviours have changed much over the last century, others have stayed very much the same…

boot button

An Edwardian boot button – a temptation too hard to resist? (Science Museum)

Unpacking bags of Science: A snapshot in time

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

These days most of us have a camera the size of our mobile phone. We can effortlessly take pictures of anything and everything, but what role did photography play in the lives of our ancestors?  In this second of a series of blog posts, we will continue to explore the lives of our ancestors by looking at bags from the Science Museum’s collections.

Our ancestors’ photographs tend to look very formal. The family members are often positioned according to age, sex, height and importance. These photographic records may tell us tales about those in front of the camera, but what do we actually know about the people behind it?

Early compact and portable camera in its bag ca. 1885. (National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

This camera was made by George Hare, who was born in York around 1828 (d.1913). It doesn’t use film, but a separate glass plate for each negative. To adjust the focus the photographer had to change the distance between the lens and the glass plate by extending or collapsing the bellows. This camera design was advertised at the time as ‘the best and most compact camera ever invented.’

Originally, George Hare was a cabinet maker trained by his father. After setting up his London-based cabinet business, George switched to camera manufacturing. From 1876 until his death, Hare’s company address remained at 26 Calthorpe Street, London.

The camera unpacked from its leather bag ( © National Museum of Photography, Film & Television / Science & Society Picture Library )

Despite his camera manufacturing business doing well his son (and apprentice) James “Jimmy” Hare (1856-1946) thought it could be doing better. Jimmy believed that his father should start making smaller hand-held cameras, which were just becoming technologically feasible. Photographic film was first patented by George Eastman in 1884, and made popular with his Kodak camera of 1888. Along with shortened exposure times and the mechanical shutter, this changed the nature of photography.

Photographers could leave their studios and record events instead of carefully arranged scenes. And this was exactly what Jimmy was interested in. Jimmy left the camera manufacturing industry to become a free-lance photographer, and later became one of the world’s leading photojournalist during five major wars, from the Spanish-American war to the First World War. So in a way the lives of George and Jimmy are part of a bigger story about the technological advancement and rising popularity of photography. How are the lives of your ancestors intertwined with the history of science, technology, engineering and medicine?

Circuit Bending Podcast Part Two

 Phew..! Finally the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the resolution to last week’s incredibly dramatic cliff-hanger ending! Here’s the second part of our interview with electronic musician, circuit bender and all-round nice guy Andy Wheddon:

Click here to listen to the podcast. 

Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

Collecting synthetic biology – an iGEM of an idea

Collecting stuff is generally the bit I like most about my job. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit over excited about the new acquisitions we’ve made related to synthetic biology – from no other than Tom Knight widely described as the “father” of the discipline.

Synthetic biology is research that combines biology and engineering. Sounds like genetic engineering by another name? Well yes, but it goes much further. It looks to create new biological functions not found in nature, designing them according to engineering principles.  Some see the field as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Biofilm made by the UT Austin / UCSF team for the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition. From drugs to biofuels the potential applications are huge. (Image: WikiCommons)

Now like a lot of biotech, synthetic biology isn’t particularly easy to collect or represent through objects – as it’s the biology that’s interesting and most of the ‘stuff’ used in research is entirely indistinguishable from other biological equipment e.g. micropipettes and microwells.  

What we’ve acquired are a number of iGEM kits – hardware consisting of standardised biological components known as BioBricks™ . Students competing in iGEM are sent these kits to engineer new applications. Check out some of the former winner’s projects: Arsenic Biodetector, Bactoblood, E. Chromi.

Biological lego – parts that have particular functions and can be readily assembled. The kits document a fascinating ten year period in the discipline of synthetic biology – starting from this basic aliquot kit sent out when iGEM first launched c.2002. (Image: Science Museum)

The origin of these objects and the idea for BioBricks™ is rather curious. They didn’t emerge from biology – but from computer science. Tom Knight was a senior researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Tom became interested in the potential for using biochemistry to overcome the impending limitations of computer transistors.

Knight Lab: Tom set up a biology lab in his computer science department and began to explore whether simple biological systems could be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. That led to setting up iGEM.

From aliquots to paper based DNA to microwells – the kits show the technological change and sheer complexity of distributing biological components to teams competing around the globe.

In 2008 - the kits trialled paper embedded DNA via these folders - but it didn't quite work out. The kits do, however, represent an important ethic - that of open-sourcing in science. Students collaborate and contribute to adding new biological parts. (Image: Science Museum)

Suggestions for other synthetic biology stuff we could collect gratefully received!