Category Archives: Women in science

We have also sound-houses…

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet…”

Daphne Oram, founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, returned time and again to this quotation from Francis Bacon’s 17th century fantasy, The New Atlantis.

Now, with help from our friends at Goldsmiths College, we have been able to acquire the machine that was fed by these fantasies, “The Oramics Machine”, as she called it.

Input device for Oramics machine, before conservation (credit: Tim Boon)

Listen! That’s Daphne herself showing off just some of the sounds that this extraordinary beast could produce.  

Oramics Machine sound generator cabinet (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

People like to say that things are unique. This one really is - there was only ever one. Daphne operated it by painting on the ten synchronised strips of 35mm film that used to run across the top of the machine. Via light-dependent transistors this produced voltages that controlled the sound generators in the white cabinet. These too were based on hand-painted waveforms:

Two waveform slides hand-painted by Daphne Oram, from her Oramics Machine (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

We have big plans for this unique machine.

We can report that it has been very carefully conserved by our experts and it’s going to go on display in the Museum later this year, surrounded by other gems from the Museum’s music and sound collections.

Nick Street has posted a video of the machine’s arrival in this country: Oramics by Nick Street. If you’d like to hear more about the project, keep an eye on this blog or e-mail us at:

Women of substance

Continuing our Women’s History Month theme, today we’re celebrating International Women’s Day. As the theme for 2011 is ‘equal access to education, training and science and technology’, it seems like a good day to celebrate Kathleen Lonsdale, who in 1945 became the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, along with microbiologist Marjory Stephenson (only 285 years after the men).

Kathleen Lonsdale in 1957 (Science Museum).

Lonsdale was a pioneer in the field of X-ray crystallography, in which scientists fire X-rays at crystals and study how they are scattered. This enables them to infer how atoms are arranged inside the crystal.

Lonsdale's models of the structure of ice, 1955 (Science Museum)

In the early days, it was an arduous process. Capturing X-rays on film could result in burns to the fingers. Calculating the atomic layout from the X-ray patterns had to be done manually, involving hours of slogging. Things got somewhat easier with the advent of scientific computing. The Pegasus computer on display in our Computing gallery (the world’s oldest working electronic computer) was used by Lonsdale’s group at University College London.

Pegasus speeded up crystallographers' calculations (Science Museum).

Lonsdale faced the additional challenge of being a woman in a man’s world, and for a time struggled to combine scientific work with raising a family. Her mentor William Henry Bragg arranged for a grant to help support her at home so that she could carry out her world-class research. Lonsdale said that to succeed as a woman scientist one must be a first-class organiser, work twice the usual hours, and learn to concentrate in any available moment of time.

In the early-to-mid 20th century, the field of X-ray crystallography was unusual in having a number of high-profile women scientists, including Lonsdale, Helen Megaw, Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray photograph of DNA was infamously used by Crick and Watson in determining the double helix structure, and Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin. Hodgkin always resisted being singled out as a ‘woman scientist’, but cannot have been impressed with the Daily Mail’s headline announcing her award: ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel Prize’.

Dorothy Hodgkin in the 1940s (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Things are easier for women in the sciences today but a 2010 report suggests that, in the UK at least, the picture’s still not so rosy – despite an increase in females studying science, technology and medicine, women still only make up 12% of the workforce. And women are noticeably absent as the famous faces of science. There’s still some way to go before the likes of Lonsdale become the norm rather than the inspirational exceptions.

Women in History month

March is National Women’s History Month. To coincide with the centenary of the Nobel Prizes, it seems an ideal time to look at the achievements of Marie Curie (1897-1934).

Marie and Pierre Curie with their daughter, Iréne (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

Marie Curie was the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes - one in 1903 with her husband Pierre and the another in 1911 for Chemistry for her work on radioactivity.

Glass flask used by Marie Curie ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Like many of the objects Marie Curie used in her work, this flask has slight traces of radioactivity and needs to be stored and handled carefully.

Certificate signed by Marie Curie, 1926 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

This certificate specifies radium content signed by Marie Curie in her role as director of the Institute de Radium. Radium became used for cancer treatments and you can read about the ‘radium bomb’ courtesy of my colleague Katie.

Marie Curie also provided radioactive samples to other researchers including Sir William Crookes. Crookes invented a device for visualising radium and its decay – a spinthariscope using the radium Marie Curie provided.

Crookes' experimental spinthariscopes, c. 1902 (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

And it didn’t end there. Marie Curie’s daughter Iréne Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) followed in her mother’s footsteps. Iréne worked with her husband Frédéric Joliot (1900-1958) on producing artificial radioactivity.

Glass tube used in the discovery of artificial radioactivity (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

The second generation husband and wife team won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery.

A glass act

Today in 1839, John Herschel made the first photograph on glass. The plate, with the image now faded almost beyond recognition, is in the care of our colleagues at the National Media Museum.

The first photograph on glass, 1839, is kept in a commemorative case (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

The image was of the 40ft telescope built by John’s father William, something of  a tourist attraction due to its size. By the time this photograph was taken only the telescope support frame remained, with the tube already removed – the structure had begun to rot after years of disuse and John set about dismantling the telescope for the safety of his small children.

This is one of only 25 prints made from the original photograph (Science Museum).

A few years later, Herschel discovered the cyanotype or blueprinting process. His friend Anna Atkins used this process to make the first book with photographic illustrations, Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins's cyanotype of a British Fern, 1853 (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

In 1867 another female pioneer of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron, made this extraordinary portrait of the ageing Herschel, who had been a longstanding supporter of her work.

Herschel at 75, by Julia Margaret Cameron (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed by now that I tend to bang on about the Herschel family a lot (like here, or here). It’s rather hard not to, as various members were hugely influential across a wide range of the sciences. And I haven’t even started on the younger members of the family yet … more blogs to follow, no doubt!

The Lady with the Lamp

On the 13th of this month was the centenary of Florence Nightingale’s death.

Florence Nightingale (A661274/1, Science Museum, London)

The Lady with the Lamp came to fame during the Crimean War by improving the standards of cleanliness and hygiene in hospital wards. Nightingale was believed to have dramatically reduced the death rates of soldiers from 40% to 2% in just two years. Recently, historians have suggested that the increase in survival rates was mainly due to improved sewage and ventilation systems, not just improved nursing standards.

Nightingale did do much to put nursing on a modern professional footing setting out not only hygiene practices but also moral and social conduct for nurses. A nurse must not be ”no gossip, no vain talker; she should never answer questions about the sick.”  The Nightingale Nursing School was set up in 1860 as part of St Thomas’ Hospital in London and it is still in existence today – now known as Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Nightingale nurse figurine, 1963 (1984-1733, Science Museum, London)

Florence’s legacy not only lives on through training but also through objects in the Science Museum’s collections. Henry Wellcome collected a number of items belonging to Florence Nightingale such as her whistle, tea caddy, moccasins, parasol and shawl.

These objects are part of a number of famous person’s belongings - or relics as many people call them - that Wellcome acquired. If you visit the Wellcome Library take a look at the names that adorn the walkway around the seating area you’ll find that Florence is the only woman represented.

Florence Nightingale's shawl (A87224, Science Museum, London)

This shawl is now on show at the Florence Nightingale Museum where you can also see many other treasures relating to her life and work. The Wellcome Library also has an astonishing array of her papers.

For she’s a jolly good Fellow

On Tuesday I attended our annual ‘Fellows of the Science Museum’ reception, in which we recognise the contributions of leading scientists and educators. This year we were particularly celebrating female scientists, with a speech from new Fellow Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn in 1968. (Science Museum)

In 1967, Jocelyn was a PhD student at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge. Her job was to analyse data from one of the telescopes for the characteristic twinkling of quasars. One day she noticed a ‘bit of scruff’ on the telescope’s charts and, rather than dismiss it as interference, decided to investigate further. It turned out to be a pulsed signal, always coming from the same patch of sky and repeating at regular intervals. For a short time, the Cambridge team had to consider the possibility that it was a signal from an alien civilisation – they jokingly dubbed it LGM-1, for Little Green Men.

The signal from the first pulsar appeared on the cover of Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' LP. (Science Museum)

Jocelyn and her supervisor Antony Hewish (who’s also a Science Museum Fellow) soon detected signals from other parts of the sky and realised they had found a new class of cosmic object – a rapidly-spinning dense star. They are called pulsars and over 1800 are now known. 

Part of Jocelyn’s telescope is on display in Cosmos & Culture. It might take you a while to spot it, as it doesn’t look anything like your average telescope:

The pulsar array is now retired. During use, sheep kept the 4 acres of grass neatly trimmed. (Alison Boyle)

Jocelyn was recently the subject of the BBC’s Beautiful Minds.  Beauty is the theme of next Wednesday’s Science Museum Lates, and Jocelyn will be there talking about her work and inspirations. Hope to see you there!

Sweet Caroline

Great to see Caroline Herschel making the Royal Society‘s list of influential female scientists. Although she’s often been overshadowed by her brother William, her own contribution to astronomy was immense.

In 1772, Caroline escaped a life of domestic servitude in Hanover to join her brother in Bath. William had forged a successful musical career and needed someone to keep house. Caroline, with her fine soprano voice, joined him in many performances.

Caroline sang at this performance of Handel's Messiah conducted by William. (Science Museum)

However, she soon discovered that what William really wanted was someone to indulge his passion for astronomy. ‘Almost every room turned into a workshop’, she noted, as their house bore the marks of William’s telescope-building.

William’s perfectionism paid off with the discovery of Uranus in 1781, and he was appointed King’s Astronomer to George III. Caroline received a salary as his assistant, making her the first professional female astronomer.

This 1800 letter from George III awards Caroline an annual salary of £50. It's on display in Cosmos & Culture. (Science Museum)

The Herschels moved to Slough, near the King at Windsor. Caroline had mixed feelings about this, as it meant giving up her musical career. But she threw herself into astronomical work. As well as assisting William, she discovered several comets and compiled catalogues of stars and nebulae.

Caroline discovered eight comets with her 'comet sweeper' telescope. (Science Museum)

Caroline also left an important legacy for historians of science. Her memoirs give an insight into the work of the Herschels and their counterparts, and also tell a lively human story. She describes having to force morsels of food into William’s mouth while he obsessively polished telescope mirrors for hours on end, and recounts a painful incident where she became impaled on the 40ft telescope.

William built this 7ft telescope for his sister. It's on display in Making the Modern World. (Science Museum)

If you want to find out more about Caroline I heartily recommend The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, or her own words in the autobiographies, edited by Michael Hoskin. Or you could visit the Herschels’ house in Bath, now a wonderful museum.

Chocks away!

Yesterday, I visited the former Croydon Airport as part of my London Open House perambulations. Croydon was home to London’s first proper airport, with the purpose-designed terminal building opening in 1928. It’s now a visitor centre and business park.

Detail of Airport House, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Detail of Airport House, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Increasing aircraft size, number of flights, and worries over proximity to a fast-growing London (sound familiar?) meant that Croydon’s days were numbered as an international airport after the Second World War, and the last flight left exactly fifty years ago, in September 1959. Heathrow took over.

In its day, though, Croydon Airport saw much pioneering flying. One of its most celebrated departures took place in 1930, two years after the terminal opened for business, as Amy Johnson took off to become the first woman to fly solo to Australia.

To get a true sense of her remarkable achievement (and those of every other flying pioneer of the early days), it is well worth seeing her aircraft, ‘Jason’, on show in our Flight gallery:

Amy Johnsons Gipsy Moth aircraft (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Amy Johnson's Gipsy Moth aircraft (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Such a small aircraft – such a long journey. Remember Johnson – and the diminutive Jason – next time you fly a Boeing 747 round the world. Alternatively, you could always remember the event by dining in Amy Johnson’s Restaurant and Bar, at the historic Aerodrome Hotel right next to the airport terminal…

Aerodrome Hotel, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Aerodrome Hotel, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Amelia Earhart on time wastage

Last time I was recalling Louis Blériot’s historic crossing of the Channel a century ago. That got me thinking about other memorable sea crossings.

Ninety years ago, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown were the first people to cross the Atlantic by air, non-stop. Their Vickers ‘Vimy’ craft, pictured here, is on show in our Flight gallery:

Alcock & Brown's Vickers 'Vimy' aeroplane, 1919

The first solo crossing was by Charles Lindbergh eight years later.

Then there was a flight of the Friendship in June 1928 which carried Amelia Earhart, who thereby became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air (she made the first female solo crossing four years later).

I picked up Earhart’s autobiographical account of her crossing. She was an accomplished aviator, and in her sparkling account she speaks eloquently of the state of flying in America in the 1920s – and the role of women in flight.

It’s a great read, and one passage made me think about the choices we make today about transport, time and distance.

She wrote, “Nothing, perhaps, is more appealing than the sense of quick accomplishment – of getting somewhere, sooner. Aviation means an approach to the elimination of time wastage, and seems to point the way to further increase in the world’s leisure”.

Time and motion. The shrinking of the world. This was the period of the Efficiency Movement, waging war on waste. But now, perhaps, it’s time to rethink some of Earhart’s ideas. Sometimes, slow is good, and doesn’t mean wasted time.

Could we fly less by taking trains and ships more? I’ll return to this theme in future.

For Amelia Earhart, time ran out in July 1937 in a Lockheed Electra airliner, as she attempted to circumnavigate the world. The plane went missing over the Pacific Ocean and neither it nor Earhart have been seen since. You can see an Electra up close in the Science Museum’s ‘Making the Modern World’ gallery. Here it is at our Wroughton (Wiltshire) site before it went on display in London:

Lockheed Electra 10A aircraft at Science Museum Wroughton