Category Archives: Uncategorized

In pursuit of power

This article was written by Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering 

1712 was a red letter year for humankind: for the first time, rather than just relying on wind, water, or muscles, a new energy source became available: the steam engine.

Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth took the earlier, and rather ineffective, steam pump by Thomas Savery, christened by him the ‘Miner’s Friend’, and expanded it up into a truly practical industrial machine that harnessed the power of the atmosphere. The first of Newcomen’s engines was erected near Dudley Castle in the Midlands, in 1712. Here, then, was the beginning of our mineral energy-intensive age.  

Thomas Barney’s 1719 engraving of the Newcomen engine erected near Dudley Castle ( Science Museum, London )

As the Science Museum expanded in the early twentieth century, the central role of steam meeting our energy needs placed the engine collection centre-stage: the first things visitors still see entering the museum are engines by James Watt, and other engineers.

The thing was, the museum long had a gap in its collections: there was no Newcomen-type engine to display. Curator HW Dickinson was asked to make good the deficiency. By the end of 1914, and mindful that agents for Henry Ford’s museum at Detroit were also snooping around, he had surveyed all the candidate engines.

The one chosen was that from Pentrich Colliery, Derbyshire. It was built by Francis Thompson in 1791, and used the original working cycle pioneered by Newcomen, although the engine was physically altered (and relocated) during its working life.

The Pentrich engine just before it was dismantled and shipped to the Science Museum ( Science Museum, London )

Dickinson oversaw the purchase, dismantling and re-erection of the 105 tons of iron, stone and timber comprising the engine and large portions of its engine house inside the Science Museum . It remains there today, symbolising the substitution of mineral for organic energy which Britain’s industrial revolution depended upon.


For an alternative view of the Newcomen engine why not check out the Science Museum’s Climate Changing Stories.

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.

Coronation collecting

After the heady celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee, which memorabilia are you going to hold on to? When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952 and was crowned the year after a whole host of memorabilia was available. We have a range of coronation day items celebrating the crowning of the current monarch as well as monarchs across Europe.


Acrylic pill box, 1953 ( Science Museum, London )

Both the mug and pill box are part of the museum’s Plastics and Modern Materials collections as examples of acrylic and urea formalyde. The pill box carries the royal coat of arms. Urea formaldehyde was first patented in the 1920s and was used for a wide range of things for electrical fittings and lampshades.   

Coronation day mug, 1953 ( Science Museum, London )

By far the quirkiest item relating to the Queen’s coronation in the collections is a decorative neon light bulb with the filament twisted in to the letters ‘E R’ for Elizabeth Regina and surmounted by a crown. The light bulb was collected in 2001 with as a commemorative piece to celebrate the Golden Jubilee 10 years ago.

Decorative light bulb 1952-1953 ( Science Museum, London )

For other coronations we have to rely on medals and prints of the time, but for King Ludwig II of Bavaria we have the magnificent meerschaum cigar holder complete with a carriage and six horses. Monarch of Bavaria until his death, Ludwig had a passion for building fairytale-like castles, but was also a significant patron of the arts.

Cigar holder representing the coronation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Munich, Germany, 1864-1867 ( Science Museum, London )

For more on the Queen’s Jubilee why not check out the Science and Society Picture Library’s own tribute here or At Home with the Queen at the Museum of London.



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.

Booming Fifties, Swinging Sixties. Exploring the British post-war popular culture of science

What was the popular culture of science like in Britain, in the fifties and sixties? The Science Museum has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to start exploring this question.

Sputnik 1 satellite, 1957

The 1950s and 1960s were years of technological expansion. In 1957, the space race started, with the USSR’s successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. In 1969, the USA put humans on the Moon. In 1954 the European organisation for nuclear research, CERN, which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, was established. And throughout the two decades, civil uses of nuclear energy were being developed.

 These decades of post-war reconstruction, of decolonization and independence, were also when the world population began to boom. Industrial agricultural technologies, such as pesticides and nitrogen based synthetic fertilizers, started to spread outside industrialized nations, as part of what was called the Green Revolution.

Richard Dimbleby from the BBC Panorama programme during a live broadcast from the Science Museum, on 14 May 1962, for the exhibition of the US Mercury Capsule, Friendship 7. (credit: Science Museum)

The project, compares how space exploration, nuclear physics, agro-chemistry, and the history of science were put on display in exhibitions at the Science Museum, and on television in BBC programmes. We are looking at how the Museum’s displays and television programmes were organised – what was shown, how it was shown, what decisions led to elements being included and others left out. For example the American Mercury space capsule Friendship 7 was displayed at the Science Museum in May 1962, and it was shown on Panorama, in the same week. Did the two media – museum and television – take the same approach to it? Or were they subtly different? Our project is finding out.

If you remember a visit to the Science Museum during the fifties or sixties, for instance to see the space capsule Freedom 7 in 1965, please feel free to send us an email at

The Intermedial Science project has been made possible by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The addictive history of medicine: Opium, the poor child’s nurse

The Ebers papyrus tells us the Ancient Egyptians had an interesting way to deal with noisy crying babies: just give them a draft of opium. This practice was still very much use in the Victorian era, when it gained notoriety for the dangers the use of children’s opiates posed to general health.

Opium - The Poor Child's Nurse

"The Poor Child's Nurse" from an 1849 issue of British humour magazine Punch. Source: HarpWeek.

We know in this era opium was readily used as a cure for a bad cough, or aches and pains, but it is less well known that opium was also given to children, and even babies. Restless or teething babies and small infants would be given concoctions such as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which contained morphine (an opium derivative). There were at least ten brands of mixtures aimed at children and infants including Atkinson’s Royal Infants’ Preservative, and Street’s Infants Quietness. The most famous preparation of children’s opiates was Godfrey’s Cordial, which was a mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices.

Advertisment for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

A glamourised and seemingly tranquil card advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Source: University of Buffalo.

Medical Officers during this period were convinced that opium was a major cause of infantile death, with the use of opium becoming widespread amongst working class families. Opium was often described as the ‘Poor Child’s Nurse’, due to its ability to stop hungry babies from crying. Attitudes towards the administering of opium to children were often casual, with preparations such as laudanum and paregoric stating recommended doses for children and infants on the labels of bottles.

Bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric with dosages for children

The label on the back of this bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric states dosages for infants as young as five days old. Source: University of Buffalo.

One Manchester druggist even admitted to selling between five and six gallons of “quietness” every week. That’s around 24 pints! Opium caused infant mortality through starvation rather than overdose; as one doctor stated that infants ‘kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished”. The scale of infant mortality at the time was not fully known, as coroners often recorded the cause as ‘starvation’. Lozenges or pastilles containing opium were often displayed within pharmacy shop cabinets in rows, very much like a candy shop.

Jar for 'Licorice & Chlorodyne' Pastilles

Rows of jars for pastilles with various ingredients, including one for 'Liquorice & Chlorodyne', on display in the Gibson & Son Pharmacy at the Science Museum, Lower Wellcome Gallery. Source: Science Museum.

 This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.

The Closure of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

This artice was written by Ellie West-Thomas, Research Assistant for Electronic Music  

Fourteen years ago the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who created innovative music and techniques that made it one of the most significant influences on electronic music today, closed its doors for the last time. Maida Vale Studios, the home to the workshop, was a place once filled by people brimming with ideas that changed the course of Electronic Music.

The Workshop was set up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for “radiophonic” sounds from a group of producers and studio managers at the BBC, including Daphne Oram.

For some time there had been much interest in producing innovative music and sounds to go with the pioneering programming of the era. Much of The Radiophonic Workshop’s early work was in effects for radio, in particular experimental drama and “radiophonic poems”.

New sounds were created using recordings of everyday sounds such as voices, bells or even gravel as the raw materials for “radiophonic” manipulations. In these manipulations, audio tape could be played back at different speeds (altering a sound’s pitch), reversed, cut and joined, or processed using reverb or equalisation.

Sounds being made at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Science Museum)

Perhaps the most significant recording in Radiophonic Workshop history came in 1963 when they were approached by composer Ron Grainer to record a theme tune for an upcoming BBC television series called Doctor Who. Presented with the task of “realising” Grainer’s score, complete with its descriptions of “sweeps”, “swoops”, “wind clouds” and “wind bubbles”, it has become one of television’s most recognisable themes. Delia Derbyshire created it by using a plucked string, 12 oscillators and a lot of tape manipulation.

The sound of the TARDIS materialising and dematerialising was made in an even less conventional way. It was created by running keys along the rusty bass strings of a broken piano, with the recording slowed down to make an even lower sound. It may not sound like it but look back at some old Who and see if you can hear those keys. Why not try it yourself – grab your house keys and take them to some rusty strings of a piano.

On display in The Oramics to Electronica Exhibition are some of the objects used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create sounds. Here is an example.

A Lampshade used by Delia Derbyshire (Credit: Science Museum)

This lamp shade was used by Delia Derbyshire as a sound source for ‘Blue Veils & Golden Sands’ in 1967.

For a more contemporary performance, here’s a link to Coldcut who performed classic compositions at the Electric Proms in 2008, in an evening which was devoted to the Workshop . 


The addictive history of medicine: Opium, the ancient drug of choice

Here’s our next installment in the addictive history of medicine…

Medicinal preparations of opium are usually associated with the Victorians, but their origins are much more ancient. References to poppy juice are mentioned on 7th century BC medical tablets from the Assyrian civilizations, and the Sumerians called the poppy the ‘plant of joy’. The Greeks used poppy preparations widely in their medicine, although most famously in the mixture called Theriac or Mithrate which was invented in the 1st century AD. The concoction which had up to 64 ingredients including opium, cinnamon, myrrh, honey and ‘viper’s flesh’ was used to treat poisonous snake bites among other complaints. Theriac was widely traded as far as China, and arrived in England in the 14th century where it was called ‘Venice Treacle’ for its sticky and sweet consistency. It became known almost immediately as a cure for the Black Death, and parents rubbed the stuff on their children to keep them safe. Much like smelling sweet spices kept in ‘pomanders’, this technique probably did not work very well against the highly infectious plague.

French polychrome faience storage jar for theriac

French pharmacy storage jar for storing theriac. This jar dates from between 1725-1775, and was made by the Hustin Factory in Bordeaux. Credit: Science Museum.

Opium was widely used in Englandby the 14th century for its ability to induce sleep. William Shakespeare famously wrote in his play Othello:

‘Not poppy, nor mandragore,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep,

Which thou ow’dst yesterday.’

Laudanum, a mixture of opium, water and alcohol, eventually became the most widely used preparation of opium, and the most abundant in the Science Museum’s collections. The term was first coined in the 16th century by the Italian botanist Paracelsus, who called his own pill-like laudanum preparation ‘the stone of immortality’. The drug was made famous by the English physician John Sydenham in 1660. Sydenham’s liquid laudanum, opium combined with sherry, instantly became popular as a cure-all for pain and other complaints. As Sydenham himself said of the drug, ‘Medicine would be a cripple without it…’


Glass dispensing bottle for Sydenham's Laudanum

19th Century glass dispensing bottle for Sydenham's Laudanum, possibly German. Credit: Science Museum.


In early medicine, opium was an indispensable tool in the doctor’s and surgeon’s arsenal, used to treat insomnia, pains, diarrhoea and even cholera. In the Science Museum’s collections of medicine chests, you can find a small bottle of some opium mixture, usually laudanum, in almost every one. It is worth remembering that unlike today, most people in earlier times would probably never have seen a doctor in their life. They often had to rely on drugs like opium for pain relief instead of proper medical care. As you can imagine, pain-relief and addiction went hand-in-hand.

 This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.



Making rules for family historians


This article was written by Bruce Eadie, intern on the Family History project.

Front of nineteenth century trade card for Dring & Fage. The Science Museum Library and Archives at Wroughton (Archive ref: D&F 5/8)

You wouldn’t happen to be called Bushby would you? Well, down at the Science Museum we know something about your great-great grandfather that you might like to know.

 With the huge and growing popularity of genealogy, the Science Museum is keen to make its collections and archives available to family historians. Many family historians begin by hearing family stories told by older relatives, by leafing through photograph albums and then progress to the more accessible public records: national censuses, army records, wills, immigration records. Some may even be lucky enough to own a treasured object of a forebear, like a watch or a family bible.

 The Science Museum may be able to help extend your knowledge further. At Wroughton near Swindon, the Science Museum holds the historic archives of many British companies both great and small: the civil engineering company Pearson; the tyre-maker Dunlop; coach builders Hooper and Co. These company archives are full of names that might include that of a family member.

 That’s where the Bushbys come in. On a recent trip to Wroughton, I was looking through the archive of Dring & Fage or as the company would have it “The HOUSE of DRING & FAGE at the sign of the Half Moon and Dagger in Blackfriars – the oldest makers of Hydometers and Scientific Instruments inEngland”.


Back of nineteenth century trade card for Dring & Fage. The Science Museum Library and Archives at Wroughton (Archive ref: D&F 5/8)

Amongst the mass of papers and trade cards was the apprenticeship indenture of one Charles Bushby of Albany Place, Neate Street, Camberwell in the County of Surrey. As the document – signed by Charles’ father Thomas and dated 31 March 1877 – went on to say, Charles was indentured as an apprentice to Alfred Jones master rule maker at Dring & Fage.

Apprenticeship indenture of Charles Bushby. The Science Museum Library and Archives at Wroughton (Archive ref: D&F 2/2)

So if you are the great-great grandson or daughter of the young and hopeful Charles Bushby, who started out in his profession that March day in 1877 then you could come to the Science Museum in London and see the extensive collection of slide rules, gauging rods, circular rules and weird and wonderful objects like the “Ewart cattle guage with ivory slide” which were all beautifully crafted at Dring & Fage by men like the young Charles Bushby under the watchful eye of master Alfred Jones.

Detail of timetable or rent rule made by Dring and Fage. The Science Museum, London. Rent rules, such as this example made by Dring and Fage of Tooley Street, London, were used by dock companies to calculate the number of days for storage charges. (Object No. 1954-305)

And, by the way, you don’t need to be called Bushby to find objects and documents that relate to your family history down at theScienceMuseum. If you are interested in researching your family history through the Science Museum’s Archives or Collections, visit the Library & Archive webpage or contact us via


Stubbed out!….the decline of the smoker.

Smoking poster

Poster by The Central Council for Health Education, 1960s (Health Education Authority / Science Museum)

Fifty year ago today, the Royal College of Physicians published a report on the effects of smoking which clearly linked the habit to cancer, bronchitis and other health problems.  Although it came several years after the ground-breaking research by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill which first raised the issue, it was this report which really marked a major shift in British attitudes towards smoking.  Change was not instantaneous, but in 1965 cigarette advertising had been banned on TV and by 1971 health warnings appeared on cigarette packaging for the first time.

In time, smoking would be progressively marginalised – banned from public transport, places of work and finally from enclosed public places such as bars, restaurants and pubs.  Truly a spectacular fall from grace.   As a major area of public health, smoking is of great interest to us and its many facets are well represented in our collections.  Here are an eclectic group of objects associated with smoking’s ‘better’ days.

Cigarette Ad

Magazine advertisement, 1952 (British American Tobacco (BAT) / Science Museum)

He may have been one of England’s players, but this was surely not the secret of Stanley Matthews’s success.  In this advertisement from 1952, Stanley swears by the cigarette that’s “kind to your throat”. 


Ashtray from the Grouch Club, c.2005-2007 (Science Museum)

Ashtrays are one of the most potent symbols of communal, public smoking.  This example was said to be the last branded ashtray from London’s famous Groucho Club – the others having been ‘pocketed’ in the run up to the 2007 ban.

Smoking sign

Sign from the Frenchay Hospital Bristol, c.1960-1975 (Science Museum)

Signage can also hint at the changing status of smoking.  This sign tells of a time when it was felt necessary to gently remind visiting smokers of the appropriateness of their surroundings.

Arcade game

Arcade game, c.1930s (Science Museum)

Finally, rather than pay out in coins, this arcade game rewarded the lucky winner with a cigarette.  A prize indeed for all those 11 year olds who presumably could access it along with everyone else!  And there were certainly winners.  The flat, dry remnants of chewing gum all along the underside of the game evoke visions of happy punters, swapping one habit for a rather more dangerous one.