Surgery behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine blogs on a rather special surgery performed at the Palace.   

One of the amazing things about working at the Science Museum is the number of extraordinary people you get to meet who give a unique insight into our collections. A few days ago I made a trip to the South Coast to interview Sarah Minter – a retired nurse and spritely 96 year old. Not only has she lived through some incredible changes within medicine during her career, she played a vital role in a high-profile operation performed on this table displayed in our Health Matters Gallery – more than 60 years ago.

Adjustable operating table by the Genito Urinary Manufacturing Co., London, 1950s. At the time this operating table was the latest model for chest surgery – multiple attachments helped to better position the patient during surgery. Image credit: Science Museum.

In September 1951, Sarah – then Senior Theatre Sister at Westminster Hospital – was about to go on holiday when Clement Price-Thomas (later Sir) a renowned Chest Surgeon came into her office. After carefully closing the door, he informed her that he had to perform a major chest operation on King George VI – and at the Palace’s insistence the operation would take place at Buckingham Palace. Sarah was tasked with coordinating the equipment and nursing team that would be needed for the operation. Cancelling her holiday, Sarah set to work. Absolute secrecy was essential.

Sarah Minter and her fellow nursing team being thanked by Westminster’s Matron Lavina Young in 1951 for their role in the King’s operation. Sarah started training as a Probationer Nurse at Westminster Hospital in 1939, on a salary of £20.00 paid quarterly. Her responsibilities gradually expanded until she became Divisional Nursing Officer in the 1960s. She retired in 1977.

From sterilising to lighting apparatus - Sarah selected what equipment she could from Westminster’s surgical theatres including the operating table, in order to create a replica theatre inside the Palace. Part of the challenge was to ensure enough of the right surgical equipment remained at the hospital so that operations could continue uninterrupted by what was happening at the Palace.  

Crowds awaiting news of King George VI’s operation outside Buckingham Palace, 1951. The King’s operation began around 10am on the 23rd September 1951. Sarah recalled the thrill of looking out at the crowds from a window in the Palace, as a press notice about the operation was posted to the gates. Image Credit: BBC.

King George VI recovered from the surgery but died later in February 1952. The operating table went back to the hospital into normal usage. Sarah received a signed photograph of the King and Queen thanking her for her part in the procedure. Her name is listed with the members of the surgical team on a stained glass window commemorating King George VI in the chapel of Westminster Hospital.

Speaking with Sarah, I gained a real sense of the professionalism shown by nurses like her and an insight into the conditions in which she was working and the operation which took place. Whilst proud of her part in such notable surgery, it was medical advances Sarah recalled – such as the first dialysis machine used at Westminster Hospital or the shift from being a voluntary to an NHS Hospital – that made more of an impact on her and the patients she cared for.

Information Age team begin the one year countdown

Charlotte Connelly is a content developer on Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opening in September 2014.

This week over in the Information Age team we passed an exciting marker. Instead of counting the time to the gallery opening in years, for the first time we’ve slipped into counting in weeks and months. It seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done so far, and some of the interesting things we still have to look forward to.

Where we’ve come from

The early days of the project were all about research. We spent time rummaging in the museum stores for great objects we could include, visiting other museums, immersing ourselves in archives and doing interviews with knowledgeable folks about communication and information technology.

Where we found gaps in our collection we came up with plans to fill the gaps, growing our collections and expertise as we went. One of those gaps was a decided lack of mobile phone technologies from developing countries – a massive oversight if you’re trying to tell a story about the impact of mobiles in the world today. Our solution was to embark on an ambitious collecting project in Cameroon, which I’ve written about here.

We collected objects and interviews on a research trip to Cameroon to find out more about the impact of mobile phones in Africa (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

We also set about improving our knowledge of the collections already in the museum, and spent long hours looking at objects and reading through the files we keep on them.

We made some exciting finds rummaging through the museum’s archives (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

As our knowledge about the technology and collections grew so did our ideas about we could include in the gallery. We developed a list of 21 compelling stories about how communication and information technologies have affected our lives over the last 200 years. Our next challenge was working out the best ways to tell those stories. We have been working with a lot of different people to help us, from individuals offering their telegrams for inclusion in Information Age and volunteers helping with our research, to larger organisations like the British Vintage Wireless Society and the Samaritans.

Members of the British Vintage Wireless Society in the museum’s stores (Source: Science Museum)

Where are we now?

With a year to go we’ve selected all the objects that will go into the Information Age gallery, and worked out what the showcases will look. The Museum’s conservation team have been beavering away on preparing the objects for display, and the collections information team have been arranging loans and getting all the paperwork sorted for the new objects we’ve acquired, like a replica of the first ever computer mouse.

Things have started happening in the gallery space too. The space is now empty (we captured this stunning laser scan of the old gallery), waiting for the new Information Age gallery structure to be built. We’re even expecting our first objects to be installed soon (mostly the very big ones that require quite a large hole being made in the wall!)

The empty gallery leaves us with a formidable amount of space to fill. (Source: Science Museum)

In April 2013 we officially launched the project, and invited some of our supporters to see the work we’d been doing. Suddenly we were faced with lots of expectant faces, and it made the whole project feel much more real somehow.

We got some of our objects out to show off to supporters at the Information Age launch (Source: Science Museum)

What comes next?

Those of us working on the content of the gallery have already started writing the labels that accompany the object. We’re also getting started on all the digital things – things like interactive screens in the gallery, and the pages for the website, plus one or two surprises that we’ll announce later.

Some of the audience research team testing a prototype of one of our interactive displays. (Source: Sophie Keyse / Science Museum)

The building work and show cases will soon start to progress quickly, and behind the scenes the conservation team will be slowly but surely working through the list of objects that need preparing for display. It won’t be long before we’re starting to install objects in their final positions, ready for the exciting moment when we open our doors.

Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opens in September 2014.

A glimpse of Dalton’s life and work

To celebrate John Dalton’s birthday, Archivist Cecilia Cassingham delves into the Science Museum Library and Archives for a glimpse of Dalton’s life and work.  

Thermometers, barometers and atoms. The daily weather, and how his body worked. Our archives provide fascinating glimpses and insights into John Dalton and his work, which was based on careful and rigorous observation.

John Dalton, English chemist, 1814.

John Dalton, English chemist, 1814. Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

We see this in Dalton’s daily habit of recording meteorological data – for which he was also well known – and we have two of his journals, dating between 1803 and 1827. Dalton records daily weather data, including barometric pressure and general remarks such as “raining most of the day”. On his birthday, 6 September 1803, the weather was “fine and sunny”. Should you want to know more about rain in Manchester in the 1800s, the Meteorological Register is the thing to read!

Dalton's Meteorological Register, Manchester, 1816 – 1827

Dalton’s Meteorological Register, Manchester, 1816 – 1827

Of particular fascination is Dalton’s colour blindness and life as such a diligent observer. This booklet of coloured silk threads, was used by John Dalton to test his own colour blindness, includes columns for recording impressions of vision in daylight and by candle light.

Booklet of coloured silk threads, c 1825-1844. Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Booklet of coloured silk threads, c 1825-1844. Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Finally, in a fascinating letter in the collection, from Dalton to his cousin George Bewley of Whitehaven, on the 9 th of 4 mo 1790, that is, the 9th April 1790, Dalton expresses his desire to “quit his present profession as teacher and enter upon some other…”. He asks his cousin’s advice about his plans: “I wish to enter upon the study of physics and science”. In the same letter, he describes his experiment on himself “to determine a near as might be the quantity of matter discharged from the body by insensible perspiration …evacuations solid, liquid, perspiration…” – so that from this we are even given an idea about what he ate and drank : loaf bread, cheese, oat bread, meal, meat, potatoes; beer, boiled milk and tea.

Putting theory into practice – our university placement at the Science Museum

Belinda Li and Jessica Martin are Museum Studies interns working on the Information Age gallery.

Belinda explores Making the Modern World

Hi! I’m Belinda. I’m currently studying for a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. This is our sixth week out of our eight week placement.

The purpose of the placement is to give us professional experience in the museums sector. We are working on the Information Age gallery that is scheduled to be opened in September 2014. This experience has shown me how many people are required to accomplish all the different jobs to complete this overall project in time and how complex the planning process must be for an exhibition and a project of this size. This gallery has been years in the making.

I have specifically been working on the development of a digital in-gallery activity for school groups visiting the museum. I have been researching different aspects of this activity to present to the team. The activity for this new gallery has drawn on many of the topics I have been researching over the last few years at university and has been a very interesting project to work on. It is allowing me to translate theory into real world practice.

In addition to being able to see the true inner workings behind the museum, I have also had the chance to participate in some other amazing activities around the museum this summer. I have been scanned in 3D for 3D summer and gotten to wander around different parts of the museum to do research. This has been an incredible experience, which has given me chances to do and see things that I never thought I would but has also given me real world grounding in the museum sector. I have enjoyed it immensely.

Jessica in front of the Apollo 10 capsule

Hey y’all, I’m Jessica. Like Belinda, I am also finishing up my Master’s in Museum Studies. I can’t really believe that I only have two weeks left of the placement to go; time has gone by crazy fast here at the Science Museum.

I am working on two projects for the Information Age team. Firstly, I have been looking at the structure and content of the Information Age collections website. This has involved researching the collections websites of other museums, and trying to decide which features make collections interesting, and engaging for visitors as they browse through the objects. This can be something as simple as making sure that the on-line collections are easy to find.

Secondly, I have been working with a team of volunteers, trying to pull together a wish list for an object handling programme for the gallery. For this, we have been looking into what makes an object engaging, not just from an academic perspective, but also from a tactile one. We have visited the Science Museum store at Blythe House and we have gone on field trips to other museums with object handling programmes. This Friday, we are headed out to the London Transport Museum and the British Museum so that we can learn from their volunteers about the dos and don’ts of object handling.

Belinda and Jessica visiting Blythe House with a volunteer.

The Science Museum has been great. Seeing David Attenborough (and making my siblings jealous) has definitely been one of the highlights of my stay, and taking part in a silent disco being held in the Exploring Space gallery counts among one of the more surreal experience of my life. I have learned so much here about how a museum functions behind the scenes. Something is happening all the time, whether it’s the organisation of a conference, staff training or a staff picnic, there is always stuff going on.

We would just like to say thanks to Jen Kavanagh, our supervisor, the rest of the Information Age Office and to the Science Museum, for the opportunities and experiences we have been given. Thanks!

The pride and passion of Mr Babbage

Cate Watson, Content Developer takes a look at the pride and passion of Charles Babbage.

Designing the Difference and Analytical engines was a monumental task, demanding dedication and extreme attention to detail. Both engines were made up of thousands of parts that required near identical manufacturing – pushing Victorian technology to its limits. And Babbage was determined to make the machines operate without any possibility of errors.

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage was very certain his engines would work. His passion for his machines kept him going despite numerous setbacks such as losing funding and the lack of acclaim or understanding of his inventions. Babbage continued designing engines until he died, absolutely sure that one day his work would be appreciated.

Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

And he was right. Nearly 150 years after Babbage’s death, our modern technological society can fully appreciate his genius in inventing the Analytical engine – a machine that embodies all the major principles of our computers – and the potential it had to change society.

Babbage passionately believed in his inventions and the importance of science. This uncompromising certainty made him highly critical of those who didn’t live up to his high standards. He published a scornful, sarcastic attack against the unscientific practices of the Royal Society. It was so shocking that Babbage’s friend John Herschel told him he would have given him a ‘good slap in the face’ for writing it if he had been within reach.

Babbage's Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage acted according to his scientific principles and succeeded in alienating the Royal Society – which had previously persuaded the Government to fund the Difference Engine. Babbage tried demanding more money from the Prime Minister, failed and lost all hope of further support.

Babbage’s uncompromising personality contributed to his failure to build his machines. Yet it was his unswerving dedication to science that made him continue to work beyond hope of realisation and produce the engine plans you can see on show in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.

100 years of stainless steel

Steph Millard in the exhibitions team looks back over 100 years of stainless steel, first cast in August 1913 by Harry Brearley. 

Today’s journey into work sets me thinking. Looking at the queue of cars ahead with their stainless steel exhaust systems I repeatedly glance at my wristwatch – with its stainless steel back – to check I won’t be late. To my right, the Canary Wharf tower – with its 370,000 square feet of stainless steel cladding – glints majestically in the early morning sunshine.

Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, 2007.  © Science Museum/SSPL

Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, 2007

Stainless steel impacts on our lives in so many different ways. But what exactly is it and who invented it? Well, as luck would have it, an important milestone is about to be celebrated. One hundred years ago, in August 1913, an Englishman named Harry Brearley reported that he had cast an ingot of low-carbon steel that could resist attack from a variety of acids including lemon juice and vinegar. He called it ‘rustless steel’.

Harry Brearley, 1871–1948.  © Science Museum/SSPL

Harry Brearley, 1871–1948. Image © Science Museum/SSPL

At the time, Brearley had been helping an arms manufacturer overcome the problem of gun barrel erosion caused by the release of gases when the weapon is fired. His genius lay in the fact that he could foresee the commercial application of his new material within the cutlery industry. After initial scepticism, manufacturers in his home town of Sheffield were also able to recognise the potential.

An early stainless steel knife made by Butler of Sheffield, c. 1915.

An early stainless steel knife made by Butler of Sheffield, c. 1915. © Science Museum/SSPL

The essential ingredient of any stainless steel is chromium, which combines with oxygen in the air to form a strong, invisible film – a protective coating on the surface of the metal that continually self-repairs whenever scratched or grazed. But Brearley was by no means the first person to investigate the addition of chromium to steel. In the century before his discovery metallurgists from across Europe and North America were also experimenting with iron-chromium alloys.

Since then stainless steel – in all its various forms – has gone on to find a home in the widest range of applications, as a walk around the Science Museum’s galleries will testify. Within our Challenge of Materials gallery visitors can admire a wedding dress made of stainless steel wire – the brainchild of British designer Jeff Banks – whilst in the Exploring Space gallery our J2 rocket engine can remind us that between 1967 and 1973 NASA used stainless steel in all 13 of its Saturn V rockets.

Stainless steel wedding dress, 1995. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Stainless steel wedding dress, 1995. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Smaller, but equally intriguing, is the stainless steel dropper on display in The Science and Art of Medicine gallery, which instils oils through the nose as part of an Ayurvedic detox therapy to cure head ailments such as migraine and sinusitis.

Stainless steel nasal dropper on display in our medical galleries, USA, 2004–05. © Science Museum/SSPL

Stainless steel nasal dropper on display in our medical galleries, USA, 2004–05. © Science Museum/SSPL

As we celebrate Brearley’s role in the history of metallurgy why not come along to the Science Museum and see how many different examples of stainless steel you can discover?

One box, one volunteer – the subject was early wireless, what would I find?

Geoff Chapman is a volunteer working on Information Age, a new gallery about communication and information opening in 2014.

Hi, I’m Geoff and I’m a volunteer in the team developing the Information Age gallery. I’ve been investigating the early days of experimental wireless communication prompted by a box of mainly 1910’s and 1920’s letters, documents and photographs.

The box is not much larger than two DAB digital radios but its contents told several tales (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum).

Early radio amateurs were also known as experimenters, and in the UK they were issued with licences for experimental purposes. In April 1913 the Postmaster General announced that the number of these licences had increased to almost 2000. There were several photographs in the box of early experimenters with their radio transmitting and receiving equipment.

Amateurs were often pictured with wall displays of cards showing call signs (a kind of official ID for radio operators) from other experimenters proving that communication was made (Source: Science Museum).

In the box I’ve found evidence of friction between an on-ship based wireless station and William Rathbone an early experimenter based near Liverpool. Inside the box was a licence he was issued on 23 August 1913 – 100 years ago this month! From the papers I discovered a behind the scenes attempt to save the career of the on-ship radio operator who caused interference but whose “youthful high spirits” inspired others to step in and help. Even the ship radio operator’s mother was involved. There were other intriguing things in the box too: there was a letter written by wireless pioneer Oliver Lodge to William Rathbone, and William Rathbone’s original licence with its red seal, there were also details of 1920’s conferences and of celebration dinners.

I’ve found evidence of an early example of citizen science. Experimenters sought to understand how weather, moon phase, barometric readings and more affected reception. Reports from around the world were sent by post to London based early experimenter Hugh Ryan and published monthly, in effect a post and paper magazine blog called Experimental Wireless and Wireless Engineer. It would have publicised when wireless communication was good and bad, and when records were broken such as the longest distance communication by an experimenter, claimed in one letter as between Hanoi, Vietnam and Orleans, France.

In the box I also found evidence of early experimenter Hugh Ryan “pushing the boundaries” both with a demonstration of music and speech transmission (the use of such apparatus for amusement is “irregular” wrote a GPO official), and with trans-oceanic communication. Cards from Hugh Ryan state “The first British amateur to communicate with America”.

Look out for my next blog post, with more on amateur radio operator William Rathbone, he saved the career of an on-board ship radio operator who caused interference but had an inspiring personality.

Message received: telegram collecting across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new communications gallery opening in 2014. Jen has been working on a project to collect and photograph old telegrams.  

Long before we could send a text message, email our contacts, use a landline telephone, or hear the news on the radio, we communicated important information and messages of goodwill via telegrams. This amazing system was introduced as early the 1830s, and continued to be used in the UK until its end in 1982.

For a lot of people, sending or receiving a telegram was predominantly confined to matters of urgency, such as notifying the illness or death of relatives. As such, the telegram came to be associated with bad news, and was often dreaded by the receiver. But as other forms of communication became more mainstream and efficient, telegrams became more of a novelty, being used to send messages of congratulations for weddings and births, and have since been kept as keepsakes.

To support the development of a section of the Information Age gallery that’s all about telegraphy, the team thought that it would be great to have a selection of telegrams on display. However, with few telegrams in our collection, the challenge was set to identify examples which show the range of messages sent over the telegram’s long history, and which could be displayed in the new gallery. To overcome this, we invited members of the public to share their telegrams and the stories behind them with us.

Community collector volunteers Alastair and Maja scanning some telegrams. (Source: Science Museum)

To ensure that we collected stories from across the UK, we invited partner museums to work with us, allowing them to also acquire telegrams for their own collections, and to make new connections within their local communities. To help with the search, each museum recruited community collector volunteers who spread the word, identified potential donors and organised collecting days at their local museums. These events took place throughout July, with dozens of fantastic telegrams being collected. Digital scans of these telegrams, along with supporting images and the stories behind the messages will go on display in Information Age, as well as few physical paper telegrams too.

The project has been a great trial for working with volunteers to collect material, and to ensure that the Museum reaches beyond its London base. We will be running sessions with all of the community collectors in the next few weeks to hear their views on the project and to share our lessons learned with each other.

The partner museums who took part are The Cardiff Story, National Museums Scotland, The Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum. Massive thanks to them all for their support and hard work throughout the project.

Examples of some of the great telegrams shared by the public. (Source: Science Museum)

The Clock of the Long Now

The Science Museum’s curator of time, David Rooney, reflects on the ‘Clock of the Long Now’, a prototype of which is on show in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. David will be talking about clocks, speed and slowness at this month’s Science Museum Lates.

‘Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multitasking. All are on the increase’. This analysis of society at the end of the twentieth century was written in 1998 by Stewart Brand (born 1938), writer, inventor and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Brand, together with computer designer Danny Hillis (born 1956) and other prominent fin de siècle thinkers, had become increasingly concerned that the year 2000 had come to be seen as a temporal mental barrier to the future. Brand explained: ‘Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries’.

Hillis’s proposal was to build ‘both a mechanism and a myth’, a monumental-scale mechanical clock capable of telling time for 10,000 years—if it was maintained properly. Such a clock would prompt conversations about ‘deep time’, perhaps becoming a public icon for time in the same way that photographs of earth from space taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968 have become icons for a fragile planet in boundless space (It was partly due to Brand’s agitation that NASA released earlier satellite-based photographs of earth to the public in 1966).

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission.

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. Credit: NASA / SSPL

In 1996, Brand and Hillis formed a board of like-minded friends. Calling themselves ‘The Long Now Foundation’, the organization’s title sprang from a suggestion by musician and composer Brian Eno that ‘The Long Now’ could be seen as an important extension of human temporal horizons.

In this scheme, ‘now’ was seen as the present moment plus or minus a day, and ‘nowadays’ extended the time horizon to a decade or so forward and backward. However, the ‘long now’ would dramatically extend this ‘time envelope’. Since settled farming began in about 8000 BCE, the futurist Peter Schwartz proposed that the ‘long now’ should mean the present day plus or minus 10,000 years—‘about as long as the history of human technology’, explained Hillis.

The design principles established for the clock laid down strict parameters for its construction. With occasional maintenance, it was thought that the clock should reasonably be expected to display the correct time for 10,000 years. It was designed to be maintainable with Bronze Age technology. The plan was also that it should be possible to determine the operational principles of the clock by close inspection, to improve the clock over time and to build working models of the clock from table-top to monumental size using the same design.

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

In 1997, a small team of expert engineers, mechanics and designers based in San Francisco, led by Alexander Rose, set about constructing a prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, as the project became known. Driven by the power of two falling weights, which are wound every few days, the torsional (twisting) pendulum beats twice per minute, transmitting its time through an oversized watch-escapement mechanism to the heart of the clock, a mechanical computer.

This computer, conceptually linked to the machines of nineteenth-century polymath Charles Babbage, operates once every hour, updating timekeeping elements within the dial display, including the position of the sun, the lunar phase and the locally-visible star field. The slowest-moving part of this display indicates the precession of the equinoxes.

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

As the designer of some of the world’s fastest supercomputers in the 1980s, Danny Hillis said in the 1990s that he wished to ‘atone for his sins’ of speeding up the world by designing the world’s slowest computer for the Clock of the Long Now.

This range of tempos reflects the Foundation’s idea of ‘layers of time’ in human existence. The fastest-changing layer is fashion and art; a little slower is commerce. Infrastructure and governance take still longer to change. Cultures change very slowly, with nature reflecting the slowest tempo of all. ‘The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize’, explained Brand. The Foundation believes that an understanding of the opportunities and threats embodied in these layers of temporal change is crucial in correcting humankind’s apparent short-sightedness.

These ambitions and ideals were expressed eloquently in the finished prototype clock, which first ticked in San Francisco moments before the end of New Year’s Eve 1999. It was then moved to London, where the Clock of the Long Now had been selected as the final exhibit in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, opened by Her Majesty The Queen in 2000.

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

Meanwhile, the Foundation continued to build further prototypes, refining the design of the clock’s several constituent subassemblies in preparation for the construction (now underway) of a 10,000-year clock inside a mountain in western Texas, near the town of Van Horn. The Foundation hopes to build several ‘millennial clocks’ over the course of time, and a site for another has been purchased atop a mountain in eastern Nevada, adjacent to Great Basin National Park.

By its nature, the clock is both a conclusion—of a long process of human thinking, making and acting—and a starting point, for a long future, the contents of which are uncertain, the opportunities of which are infinite. Stewart Brand observed, ‘This present moment used to be the unimaginable future’.

As a symbol for the past, present and future of human ingenuity, the Clock of the Long Now is a fitting device to represent the modern world and all of its milestones. As Danny Hillis has said, ‘Time is a ride—and you are on it’.

David Rooney (@rooneyvision)

Putting a piece of Cameroon in the Science Museum

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer on Information Age, a new exhibition opening in 2014. She works on stories about mobile phones, radio and television. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp are conservators based at the Science Museum’s stores at Wroughton.

This week I’ve headed up to Manchester to talk about a tiny part of Information Age at the biggest ever history of science conference. Together with some other people from the Information Age team I’m running a special session about communications technology in Africa, with a special focus on Cameroon.

Last year a small group of us were lucky enough to go to Cameroon on a field trip to collect a range of objects for the museum that show how mobile phones have affected peoples’ lives. Just like in Britain, the mobile phone means that people organise themselves differently now that they’re constantly connected.

But, in Cameroon telecommunication technology used to be very expensive and difficult to access for most people, and now many more people can own and use a mobile phone making communication much easier. Although we collected lots of different kinds of mobile phone technologies I want to tell you about just one of objects we collected.

Emmanuel’s call box in Bamenda, Cameroon (Source: Science Museum / Sjoerd Epe Sijsma)

Emmanuel Bongsunu lives and works in Bamenda, in the English speaking part of Cameroon. He set up his first call box business in the late 1990s, very soon after mobile phones were introduced into the country. His call box tells the story of how the business evolved over time. In the picture you can see the original part of the call box – the small yellow box at the front that he would have sat behind, probably under an umbrella. As the business grew so too did his call box until eventually it was big enough to stand in, and even had its own electricity supply. When we spoke to Emmanuel he offered to sell us his call box as it would allow him to get a brand new one made to meet his needs today. It was such a great example that we couldn’t resist – even though getting such a big object back to the UK was going to be tricky.

A local carpenter helped us by building enormous crates to put our objects in, and his team also helped us to dismantle this large item. It was difficult to watch it being taken to pieces, and I made endless notes and labelled each part carefully so we would know how to put it back together afterwards.

Our crates ready to be taken to the port and shipped to the UK (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

A few weeks ago I travelled to our stores at Wroughton to work with two of the Science Museum’s conservation team to finally bring the call box back to life. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp have written about the part they played in reconstructing this rather dilapidated object. Here’s what they had to say:

When this item first arrived at Wroughton we froze it to eliminate any unwanted pest activity, after that it arrived in the conservation laboratory in its disassembled state. We decided to give the object a relatively light clean and to make only necessary repairs to the structure to allow it to be put back together in a stable condition.  Running repairs and rough edges were all part of the object’s history and we wanted to preserve this, making it look too clean or new would not give a true impression of its working life, or the piecemeal way in which it had been constructed.

We did a light surface clean to remove some insect debris and thick soiling that had built up during transportation. Original nails also had to be removed where they were sticking out from the timbers as they were usually bent and corroded and would get in the way of the reassembly, as well posing as a safety hazard to the team. We used modern fixings in the re-build instead, as this involved putting the timbers under less stress and also means in the future it will be obvious which bits are the original object, and which bits we added. Anything we added to the object has been carefully recorded.

Esther and Diana working on reconstructing Emmanuel’s call box (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

Some timbers had to be repaired for the structural integrity of the object; in these cases the damage had been caused entirely through the deconstruction process.  The work included ‘consolidating’ the feet of the object to prevent any of the original wood being lost and to protect them during transport to the gallery. Working on the roof was quite challenging, and we built a special support so that it could be worked on upside-down. We haven’t put the roof back on yet because it’ll be easier to transport it back to London in two pieces ready for the display.

Keep your eyes peeled for future posts about how we’re working with Cameroonians based in London to decide together how the various objects we brought back should be displayed.