Category Archives: Uncategorized

How to clear your calendar (the extreme way).

The 29th of February, a Leap day, is coming up again. On this mysterious date 20- year- olds celebrate their fifth birthdays and so on. What has this got to do with this beautiful armilliary sphere , on display in The Science Museum, London?


Armiliary sphere by Sisson (credit: Science Museum)

The sphere was made in 1731 for Prince Frederick , son of George II,  who died before his father, hence he never came to the throne. Both he and Princess Augusta, were interested in what we would now call science. They commissioned this instrument, which shows the planets circling the Sun, from Jonathan Sisson, a leading London instrument maker. The ‘horizon ring’, the horizontal ring  round the instrument, is engraved with the days of the year and the signs of the zodiac.

However, the first day of spring, or first point of Aries, is not marked as the 21st of March but the 10th. The  equinoxes, when the days are the same length as the nights, had been moving backwards ever since Julius Caesar set the calendar in 46BC. This was because the 29th of February, coming every 4 years, was too frequent. In 1752 , in the reign of George II, the UK moved to the new calendar, when the 29th Feb was not quite every four years. In a stroke we lost 11 days-the 3rd to the 13th of September.  The painting by Hogarth ”An Election Entertainment’ has suggested there may have been riots over this loss, but there is no evidence.

 In some ways the UK was a conservative country and we were slow to make the change to the new calendar. In the 21st century precision timing rules our seasons.

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.

Reel to reel

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Ferrograph reel to reel tape recorder model 4A, c. 1960 (Science Museum, London)

Tape-players and tape-recorders were perhaps the most important instruments for many of electronic music’s pioneers, and for the staff of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in particular. With few electronic instruments existing, early sonic explorers were forced to adapt and abuse existing technologies, and practices such as tape-splicing soon became vital tools in the search for new sounds. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically for most musicians and electronic instruments and equipment have become ever more accessible and affordable. Or at least, this has been the situation in Western Europe. Many other areas of the globe have not always had such luxuries.

Latvian DJ Mr Tape during a 1991 DJ set

For dance music fans in the USSR of the early 1990s, records and decks were prohibitively expensive, if you could even find them. In Latvia several inventive young DJs turned to reel to reel tape players in order to make their own home-brew techno and house music. Modified tape-players were combined with Western dance and hip-hop songs recorded onto tape from the radio or smuggled records to create black-market dance music. The end results were some of the most inspiring examples of against-all-odds creative ingenuity seen since Daphne Oram and co. first tape-spliced.

Call the Midwife

Like most curators, I’m always on the look-out for interesting stories and things that capture public interest. So it won’t be much of a surprise to find I’ve been watching and reading Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. Call the Midwife chronicles the work of the author as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s.

As you would expect we have a large collection of objects relating to midwifery and obstetrics. The piece of kit that caught my eye during the TV serialisation of the book is the foetal stethoscope.

Foetal stethoscope, 1870-1920 ( Science Museum, London )

Used to listen for a foetal heartbeat, this piece of equipment is a far cry from the electronic heartbeat monitoring that is sometimes used in hospitals today. Thank you to Charlotte Walker for pointing out that the Pinard stethoscope is still in use today. 

Electronic foetal monitoring system, 1980 ( Science Museum, London )

But how could midwives prepare themselves for the different birthing scenarios might arise? Obstetrical phantoms were one way and hands-on experience the other.

Obstetric phantom, Italy, 1701-1800 ( Science Museum, London )

When presented with a difficult birth, midwives dealing with home births in the 1950s often called in for the local doctor, but everything was done either through sound, touch or sight.

With the introduction of the ultrasound scanner, foetuses could be seen before birth. Originally ultrasound had been used for detecting submarines and checking for metal fatigue, before being adapted for medical use by Professor Ian Donald  in the late 1950s.

Ultrasound scanner, Scotland, 1961 ( Science Museum, London )

For women today, there is a wide variety of choices when it comes to childbirth – home delivery, water births or hospitals. There is also a choice for women as to what equipment is used. What would you collect now, to show the experience of childbirth today in 50 years time?

The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone (Part Two)

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Last week we looked at a curious fire-powered organ invented by Strasbourg’s Fréderic Kastner in 1873. For part one of The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone click here.

Pyrophone, 1869. (Science Museum, London)

The instrument wasn’t a great success, but Kastner’s family connections brought it a certain amount of acknowledgement.  While he “was not a distinguished physicist …he had a rich and influential mother who, it has been said, encouraged him in the development of the pyrophone in order to provide him with an occupation that would keep him out of mischief”. Amongst Mme Kastner’s acquaintances was Henry Dunant, the Swiss social activist who had founded the Red Cross, inspired the Geneva Convention and who would later become the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. While down on his luck in the mid-1870s, Dunant accepted a 50,000 Franc commission from Kastner’s mother to take the pyrophone abroad and use his eloquence, persuasive skills and social connections to promote the instrument. Dunant managed to secure the chance to demonstrate the pyrophone at the Royal Society of Arts on the 17th of February 1875, where he demonstrated the instrument with Lack’s God Save the Queen after introducing it with a flowery speech:  “The sound of the pyrophone may truly be said to resemble the sound of the human voice… like a human and impassioned whisper, as an eco of the inward vibration of the soul, something mysterious and indefinable, besides, in general, possessing a character of melancholy, which seems characteristic of all natural harmonies”.

Bronze medal to commemorate J. H. Dunant (front) 1908-1920 (Science Museum, London)


Even with Dunant’s help the pyrophone was not a great success, and the promotional tour soon faltered. The instrument itself had also started malfunctioning and so Dunant donated it to South Kensington Museum, the original incarnation of the Science Museum. Dunant moved on to other projects and Kastner sadly died an early death in 1882. Since then the pyrophone has grown in fame a small amount and has even been exhibited and played occasionally. However, in recent years the original instrument has simply been sitting in the Science Museum’s stores, patiently awaiting its chance for a shot at the Christmas Number One. Occasional attempts to recreate or redsign the pyrophone and similar “fire organs” have been made, but none of them quite match the elegance of Kastner’s petite slice of 19th Century insanity. Peckham’s Experiment 1 have made some interesting artworks using similar ideas.

And what’s more they have even provided some good sound and video files, so you can even hear Monsieur Kastner’s instrument in action! Sort of.

New Year Honours List

Happy 2012 to everyone! The New Year Honours List has been announced and some will be starting off 2012 with new titles or new letters after their names. A number of scientists and medical researchers were honoured this year. Unsurprisingly the Science Museum’s medical collection has its fair share of sirs and dames as well as OBEs and Orders of Merit.

Artificial leg, Poland, 1940 ( Science Museum, London )

Arthur Weston made a number of artificial prostheses while imprisoned in Stalag VIIIB/344 (Lamsdorf) during the Second World War. This is just one example made from salvaged materials. Weston later became an OBE (Officer of the British Empire).

Sir James Reid's medicine chest ( Science Museum, London )

Sir James Reid (1849-1923) was personal physician to Queen Victoria. For his services he was knighted in 1895 and would also attend to the health of King Edward VII and King George V. He was also a trusted confidant and recommended that Joseph Lister become a peer.

Dr Mary Scharlieb's gown, hood, mortar board, 1888 ( Science Museum, London )

Dr Mary Scharlieb (1845-1930) was a pioneering female physician and awarded a knighthood in 1926 for her work in medicine and services to public causes. She served on the royal commission on venereal diseases from 1913 to 1916 and was one of the first female magistrates.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-94) was awarded the prestigious and exclusive Order of Merit in 1965 to add to her 1964 Nobel Prize for ”her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”. The Order of Merit is a group of 24 individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science. Hodgkin was only the second woman to be part of the exclusive group - the first was Florence Nightingale.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945 ( Science Museum, London )

I wonder what 2012 holds for science and medicine and just who will be honoured in 12 months time…

Numbering objects

Have you ever noticed on exhibition labels, the small, sometimes non-sensical number that follows the blurb about an object? These numbers are vital to help us find out what the object is and locate it on our database. With a collection of over 200,000 objects, on three different sites and around 95% in storage we certainly need all the help we can get.

Blythe House storage ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

When objects arrive at the museum they are  assigned a temporary number. Many different systems have been used over the years using an assortment of numbers and letters. Once all of the paperwork has been done and dusted and the object is formally acquired it gets its own unique number. An example is the best way to demonstrate.

Tomograph, 1950-1959 ( Science Museum, London )

This tomograph is 1998-15 – it was acquired in 1998 and was the 15th object that year to be acquired.

All new acquisitions are now photographed on arrival, so there is a permanent record which can be used for reference later on or for use in exhibitions or catalogues. With our digitisation projects such as Ingenious and Brought to Life we are trying to get as much of our collections photographed so we can share the brilliant stuff that is in our stores.

The whole collections database is now available online.

Before the digital age, all acquisition records were paper based. The earliest inventory number in the Science Museum’s collections is 1857-3 – a 1:4 model of James Nasmyth’s direct-action steam hammer. Information was catalogued on Form 100 cards that looked like this:

Form 100 for James Nasmyth’s model of a steam action hammer

Form 100 for James Nasmyth’s model of a steam action hammer

From time to time, objects do get de-accessioned and go through a rigorous process to ensure the objects go to good homes. Each object is debated, condition checked and when approved its transferred, sometimes to another museum. Most recently a series of tractors were transferred to Bassetlaw Museum in Nottinghamshire.

A tractor that has recently been transferred to Bassetlow Museum

A tractor that has recently been transferred to Bassetlow Museum

Thanks to Chris Jones for inspiring this post!

Caroline Matthews – a medical woman of mystery

In the Wellcome medical collections, there are lots of relics relating to famous people, some of which have featured on this blog. Many of them are from the great men of medicine and science, Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, as well as military and naval men, Nelson, Napoleon and Wellington.

In the Wellcome Library, only one woman’s name made the inscription in the Reading Room: Florence Nightingale.

Reading Room, Wellcome Library ( Wellcome Images )

Not so with the collections though. During one visit to the stores I came across a curious item: Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews. Intrigued, I started searching through Wellcome Images.

Caroline Matthews ( Wellcome Images )

So just who was Dr Caroline Matthews (1878-1927)?

After graduating from Edinburgh Medical College for Women in 1903, Dr Matthews spent most of her time on the continent. We are fortunate enough to have some of her medals for her services during the Messina Earthquake in Italy, 1908 and with the Italian Red Cross.

During the Balkan War of 1912-13, she was war correspondent for the Sphere, and held the rank of surgeon in the Montenegro army and was also awarded a medal for her services.

Some of Dr Caroline Mathews' medals

Some of Dr Caroline Mathews' medals ( Science Museum / Selina Hurley )

Dr Matthews wrote Experiences of a Woman Doctor in Serbia, published by Mills and Boon in 1916, in the middle of the First World War or the ‘Great Upheaval’ as Caroline called it.

The book recounts her journeys through Serbia with the Scottish Women’s Unit, her time as a Prisoner of War and her journey back to London in 1915. Quite possibly my favourite part of the book is her account of stocking up on supplies, with her “English RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) ‘Tabloid’ case on which to rely.”  Tabloid was the brand name of Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. Maybe she carried her supplies in the haversack, now sitting in the Science Museum stores?

Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews

Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews ( Science Museum / Selina Hurley )

I’ve been trying to work out why this material is in the collection. It was acquired from a private collection, just five months after her death. I feel a part 2 to this blog coming along…..

Edward Jenner, his chair… and his hair

The future of the remaining sample strains of the smallpox virus has been the subject of much speculation recently. Discussed at this month’s World Health Assembly, the dilemma of what best to do with these outstanding stocks has raised contrasting concerns. A waste of public money and scientific resource or a defensive tool against the global terrorist threat?  

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But rather than focus on the possible death of smallpox, I’d like to take a look at the death of one of its greatest enemies, Edward Jenner. The English country doctor who introduced the vaccine for smallpox at the end of the 18th century, died on the 26th January 1823. 

There is much Jenner-related material in our collections, but alongside objects associated with his life-saving work is a small group of objects linked to his death – and burial.

Jenner's chair

A final resting place... (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This rather garish padded affair, with wheels, is the chair that he died in. The cause of death being recorded as apoplexy – what we would now refer to as a stroke. Physically incapacitated, he had finally succumbed aged 73, seated in his country house in Gloucestershire. 

Now a museum, the site is almost as famed for its alleged ‘spectral events’ than its connections with the pioneering doctor.  

Jenner's hair

Hair sample (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These hair clippings were taken from Jenner’s head shortly after his death. This was quite a common practice, with the hair often being integrated into brooches and other ornate mourning jewellery. We actually have several samples, which does raise concerns about the dignity of his natural coiffure at the time of internment.

Cloth fragment

Cloth fragment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Finally, and most curiously, is this tiny fragment of black cloth, held within a glass topped container. Inside, a hand-written note proclaims it is “A piece of cloth taken from Dr. Jenner’s coffin, March 23rd 1854”. 

This date is more than three decades after Jenner’s death, but it is the day before the burial of his son Robert. It can only be assumed that somebody couldn’t resist gathering a souvenir when re-visiting the Jenner family vault.

Living Medical Traditions

Our fifth floor gallery, The Science and Art of Medicine, touches on issues as emotive as abortion and third world health – so it is no surprise that it has been the subject of comment over the years.

A recent blog post and subsequent comments on Twitter have breathed life into an old debate about the presence of content relating to living medical traditions in the gallery.

First some basic scene setting for those who haven’t visited the gallery – it is made up of three sections – 2 large areas called Modern Medicine and Before Modern Medicine and a smaller area called Living Medical Traditions which was updated in 2006. Within this section there is a small area devoted to ‘Personal Stories’ which show how people choose to use medical treatments from different traditions.

Personal stories explanatory text

Explanatory text from the gallery

On this subject we have an official statement from the Museum:

In our ‘Living Medical Traditions’ section of the Science and Art of Medicine Gallery we take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present. For example, we include the use of acupuncture but do not say that acupuncture ‘works’. We consider that these ‘alternative’ medical practices are of considerable cultural significance. We also recognise that some may consider the inclusion of these practices in the Science Museum controversial.

As with all Science Museum galleries independent experts were consulted when developing this gallery. In this instance advice was sought from leading academics in the history of non-western medical traditions as well as practitioners and users of these traditions. We maintained editorial control throughout and resisted equating local medical practices with the western medical tradition.

And now some comments from a curator who worked on the exhibit:

In the Personal Stories section of ‘Living Medical Traditions’ we chose to present the patient / practitioner perspective and describe their experiences. With this approach, we felt it would be clear that it was the patients and practitioners who had confidence in the efficacy of these other traditions, rather than the Science Museum. We certainly did not feel that by displaying such things in the Museum we were endorsing them. For example, another controversial exhibit – the Euthanasia Machine – is on display on our ground floor, but by displaying it we are not advocating assisted suicide. We appreciate that our visitors will have their own views.

In the same way that the gallery presents the medicine that the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Renaissance physicians and so on and so on believed in and practised, we are doing a similar thing for TCM, Ayurveda etc which happen to still be practised today.

On the specific subject of homeopathy, we felt that the approach was very careful in explaining that the belief was with the users, but not us.

There’s a snapshot of the display here.

One final, rather cheeky point – critics of homeopathy are keen to point out that ‘Anecdotes are not data’. Quite right – and on that note we’d would love to encourage people who haven’t actually visited the gallery to come and see it for themselves. It’s free and if it stimulates this kind of debate then it can’t be all bad…