Beyond the mouse – the future of computer interfaces

Chloe Vince, volunteer on the Information Age project takes a look at the humble computer mouse, Douglas Englebart’s best-known contribution to modern computing.

Since its invention in 1963, the computer mouse has become an iconic image of personal computing. It was designed and developed by visionary engineer Douglas Engelbart who recently passed away on 4th July 2013 at the age of 88.

This early version of the computer mouse bears very little resemblance to those that we use today – it began as simply a wooden shell encasing a circuit board attached to two wheels which allowed movement across a surface. It was the wire that extended from the wooden shell and connected it to the computer that gave it is resemblance to its namesake – christening it a ‘mouse.’

A replica of the first ever computer mouse designed by Douglas Engelbart invented in 1963 and patented in 1970 (Source: SRI International)

Whilst the function of the mouse has remained the same since this initial model, the design has become much more streamlined. In 1972 computer engineer Bill English replaced the wheels for a ball, allowing the mouse to move in any direction. However this design soon encountered problems when dirt accumulated on the ball and restricted its use and as a result, in 1981 the mouse underwent another redesign.

It was then that engineers at technology company Xerox developed the first optical mouse, which worked by using focused beams of light to detect the movement of the mouse relative the surface it was on. In successive years, the combination of reduced cost in equipment and the progression in optical technology provided us with the optical computer mice that are used widely today.

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

While computer mice have retained their popularity with desktop computers and laptops, more intuitive computer interface technologies started becoming favoured on tablet computers and smart phones.

In the early 1990’s, the stylus pen began to be used widely, particularly with smart phones and message pads. Shortly after, the pen was lost and multi-touch screens became the most popular means to interact with these devices. These screens can detect two or more points of contact on an interface so users can rotate, pinch and zoom in on graphics – something you may be used to doing on your mobile phone.

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

This technology is so effortless to use it is difficult to think of how this interaction can become any easier – but what if you didn’t have to do anything at all? What if all you had to do was think about what you wanted your computer to do?

Computer tablets and smart phones used today mostly use a combination of multi-touch screens and voice recognition software. (Source: Flickr user ‘Exacq’ under creative commons license)

This month, scientists at the University of Washington have published findings showing that patients who had a thin layer of electrodes placed in their brain were able to move a cursor on a computer screen by demand by just thinking about it. Although in the early stages, this technology has the potential for users to communicate with computers using only their thoughts to control the commands on the screen.

While the idea of computers interpreting our thoughts may seem like a daunting prospect for most, patients suffering with severe forms of paralysis could find this research to be a life-line, allowing them to communicate with people via computers for the first time.

At the moment it is unknown whether this technology will be taken further commercially. Do you think it has the potential to be used at home or work to improve our lives? Or do you think this could take our relationship with computer technology too far?

A replica of Englebart’s mouse prototype will be on display in the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014.

“Love to Soph”, hidden Morse messages from the SS Great Eastern

Jennifer Bainbridge, Conservator on the new Information Age gallery, writes about the conservation of Morse code tapes from the SS Great Eastern, 1865, a ship which undertook the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable. John Liffen, Curator of Communication, provides details of transcription.

As one of the conservators working on the new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014, I handle, document and carry out treatments on objects destined for display.  Working so closely with artifacts means I am often in the lucky position of discovering new quirks or secrets, as I was recently reminded when undertaking conservation of some Morse code tapes from the S.S Great Eastern voyage of 1865.

Morse code tapes before treatment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Looking at the tapes on a shelf in our Telecommunications Store, sitting alongside larger and grander objects, they appeared deceptively small and manageable, while at the same time they held the promise of untold stories.  Curator of Communication, John Liffen, informed me that within living memory at the museum the tapes had never been unravelled and no transcription of the message existed. It was now my job to enable this task! Firstly, I had to determine the object’s condition. Wound round an old paper envelope core the tapes were overlapping as they were coiled round and round.

While providing a compact means of storage, the tapes looked under stress.  They were, however strong enough for unravelling to take place.  The unwinding was quite a slow process as it turned out there were nine tapes wound together, with some being very lengthy.

You can see why the tapes were wrapped around an old envelope, they’re a little unwieldy when unwrapped. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

Once unravelled, the tapes were lightly cleaned with Smoke Sponge, a natural vulcanised rubber which gently picked up dust and dirt.  The tapes then needed to be humidified to relax the bends and creases caused by having been rolled.  Direct moisture causes cockling of paper and potential running of inks, so instead the paper was rested on a one-way permeable membrane to allow vapour, rather than water though.  Once lying flat the tears were repaired using heat set tissue, activated with a heated spatula.

With the tape repaired John then stepped in to commence the transcription. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

The main problem encountered at the transcription stage was that the dots and dashes inked on the tape can at times be ambiguous, with a dot often looking like a dash and vice versa.  As John says,

“To a twenty-first century researcher much of the Morse on the tapes translates as random letters. However, in places recognisable words can be read. On piece 1, the phrases ‘still in Vienna have red red’ and ‘none from Paris’ can be seen. Piece 6 was indecipherable, but when the tape was inverted the phrase ‘concludes lead iron cable’ was found within a string of Morse letters. This is more promising as part of a possible message. Most intriguingly, on piece 4 can be found ‘love to Sophbin’. Presumably ‘Sophie’ is the intended word but the Morse clearly shows a ‘b’ after the letter h. Whoever Sophie was, how did she come to be on board the Great Eastern during its cable-laying voyage?”.

The Turing Tour on Twitter

Curator David Rooney is preparing to take our Twitter followers on a rather unique tour.

Last June, we opened our Codebreaker exhibition, which reveals the life and legacy of a truly remarkable man, Alan Turing. The opening coincided with Turing’s 100th birthday, and over the last 12 months it has been a pleasure to read your comments and welcome so many of you to our exhibition.

To anticipate Turing’s birthday this year, I’ll be giving a live tour of the exhibition via Twitter on Tuesday 18th June between 18.00-18.30 BST. You can join in by following #TuringTour and tweeting your questions to @sciencemuseum.

After the tour, from 18.30-19.00 BST, I will be answering your questions about Turing and our exhibition on Twitter. Send your questions to @sciencemuseum or leave them in the comments below. You’ll need to be on Twitter to see my answers as I’ll be replying through the @sciencemuseum twitter account.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

I hope you can join me for our #TuringTour next week to discover more about the life and legacy of this extraordinary man.

Mobile technology: past, present and future

This blog post is writted by Chloe Vince, volunteer for Information Age. Information Age is a brand new communications gallery opening in 2014. 

“Joel, I’m calling you from a ‘real’ cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone.”

These words, spoken by Martin Cooper – a senior engineer at Motorola, to Joel Engel – a competing developer at the company Bell Labs, began the first ever conversation to be had on a mobile telephone.

It was 40 years ago that Martin Cooper, who has since become known as the father of the mobile telephone, made that call on a Motorola DynaTAC – a device 9 inches tall, 5 inches deep and weighing 28 ounces – truly a ‘brick’. However, it was still not until what has become known as the ‘digital decade’ between 1993 and 2003 that the mobile phones really took off commercially.

The Motorola 8800X ‘block phone’ launched in 1993 at the beginning of the ‘digital decade,’ (Source; Science Museum)

Since then the mobile phone has advanced significantly – not least of all in size and design. Using mobile telephones as a means of calling your friends seems to have become inconsequential with the use of mobile internet, maps, text messaging, music and access to various other applications on-the-go. Which leaves me wondering – where next? How can mobile phone technology developer even further in the next forty years?

The Motorola StarTAC mobile phone launched in 1996 was the first ever ‘clamshell’ design phone, and was one of the first mobile phones to succeed commercially – selling around 60 million. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Motorola StarTAC was the first ever ‘clamshell’ design phone. Launched in 1996, it was one of the first mobile phones to succeed commercially. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

Several communication companies, such as Telstra are currently trialling the use of mobile phones alongside health monitors, for example heart rate monitors attached discreetly to elderly patients, to transmit real-time health data to your GP enabling them to respond quickly to any abnormal activity. This technology would also have the potential to screen for major illness every time it takes a reading. Can you imagine how many lives could be saved rather than waiting five years between health screenings? Not to mention the time and money saved from reduced face-to-face check-ups and appointments.

But let’s take a step back for a moment – is this all good news? Mobile phone companies already have access to a lot of your personal information – most call and text message records are retained for at least a year and GPS services allow mobile networks to trace where your phone is used. Do you want mobile phone companies to have access to our health data too? Or do you think the potential health benefits outweigh the possible privacy risks?

With so much progress being made since that first telephone call in 1973, the future of mobile phone technology seems limitless. What do you think the future holds?

First Time Out…second time around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

60 years of conquering Mount Everest

Dr Helen Peavitt, curator of Consumer Technology, writes about the technology behind sixty years of conquering Mount Everest.

At 11.30am, on this day (29th May) in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people in the world to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were part of the expedition team led by John Hunt. Despite the relative ‘ease’ with which the summit is climbed today by increasing numbers of people, the magnitude of the 1953 achievement cannot be underestimated. The mountain still maintains its mystique and reasserts its perilous nature during each climbing season, with an average of one death for every ten successful attempts on the summit.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks. Credit © DEA / BERSEZIO / Universal Images Group / Science & Society Picture Library

The infamous character of the Himalayan peak began in 1852, when George Everest’s Great Trigonometrical Survey of India established peak ‘b’ as the survey team first called it as the highest mountain in the world. Straddling Nepal and Tibet – both secretive, inaccessible countries at the time – it was perhaps inevitable that it would enter the imagination of many by providing another unknown, uncharted territory to explore. After the Tibetan government opened up the country to the British in the 1920s, attempts on the mountain’s summit from the north side by a rash of British-led teams began. The successful 1953 party scaled the mountain from the south side.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b'.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b’. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The Science Museum holds a number of artefacts from some of the more well-known attempts on the summit. These reveal both the very private and the public nature of climbing the mountain. Although Hilary himself commented: ‘Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it’, much of the equipment developed for the 1953 expedition used cutting-edge technology. For example, the Pye wireless equipment used, including the walkie talkie in the image below, was specially adapted by Pye for the extremes of weather and temperature experienced on the mountain. This enabled the team to receive broadcasts from the world outside and to communicate with camps up to two miles away.

Pye radio set used on the successful 1953 expedition.

Some of the Pye radio equipment used on the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

An oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shows how even the air we take for granted has to be supplied for most climbing teams at such high altitude. The oxygen levels above 8,000m in the mountain’s Death Zone, are so low that the body uses its store of oxygen up faster than it can be replenished by breathing.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Many of the other Everest-related objects in our collections are more personal items of clothing. There are butter-soft silk gloves and a pair of special lightweight double clinker nailed climbing boots from the 1933 expedition; and a fibre jacket from a 1978 climb – the first successful ascent without bottled oxygen.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Whilst these objects are all in the Museum’s stores, a lurid waterproof jacket and trousers by Karrimor, using Gore-Tex was worn by Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest on the 40th Anniversary Expedition in 1993; is on show in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

There’s also a pair of Indian puttees belonging to Dr Tom Longstaff from the 1922 expedition – the first which set off with the expressed purpose of reaching the summit. Longstaff advised against the expedition’s third attempt on the summit during which seven were killed by an avalanche. Many of these objects form poignant and intimate reminders of the very personal nature of climbing the most famous mountain in the world.

Hidden Histories of Information

Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, writes about the hidden histories of information. Information Age, a new £15.6m communication gallery, will reveal how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Our new gallery on information and communications technologies, Information Age, will open in Autumn 2014. It will look at the development of our information networks, from the growth of the worldwide electric telegraph network in the 19th century, to the influence of mobile phones on our lives today.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

One of the challenges of exhibiting the complex, and mostly intangible, world of information in a museum context is how you bring together the technology with the people involved and the information shared. The history of information is not just a neat history of devices. The telegraph instruments, radio and televisions, computers and mobile phones all reflect the material culture of information, but the history and future of information is much more complex.

One approach for dealing with this complexity is to look at how users, as well as innovators, have developed information and communications networks. Through personal stories we can connect visitors to the lived experience of technological change and reveal the significance of these networks to our ancestors’ lives.

As part of this approach we are conducting some new oral histories. We have recorded Gulf War veterans discussing their experience in 1991 of navigating around the desert both with, and without GPS. We have talked to the original engineers who set up Britain’s first commercial mobile phone networks for Vodafone and Cellnet in 1985. We will be talking to those who created and used the world’s first computer for commercial applications, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO 1) in 1951. We have also interviewed some of the women who worked at the last last manual telephone exchange in Greater London, the Enfield Exchange in North London.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

A lovely example of one account if this interview with Jean Singleton, a telephone operator who worked at a few different telephone exchanges, including Enfield when it was still a manual exchange. Jean left school at 15 when she started working for the GPO. Here she describes what made a good telephone operator.

We hope that detailed personal accounts like these will enthuse our audiences, reveal histories that are often not formally documented and show how centuries of ‘new’ information and communication devices have changed people’s lives.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Science Museum enters the Information Age

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer for Information Age, a new communications technology gallery opening in September 2014.

Last night the Science Museum announced exciting details about a new £16m communications gallery, Information Age, which will open in September 2014.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph. Image credit: Science Museum / Universal Design Studio

The gallery will be a celebration of information and communication technologies. We’re already working on cutting edge interactive displays and participatory experiences that will reveal the stories behind how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Hundreds of unique objects from the Science Museum’s collections will go on display, many of which have never been seen before. They will include the BBC’s first radio transmitter 2LO, the BESM-6, the only Russian supercomputer in a museum collection in the West, and a full sized communications satellite.

Laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 proved to be a tricky challenge to overcome. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

In Information Age we tell some of the dramatic stories behind the growth of the worldwide telegraph network in the 19th century and the influence of mobile phones on our lives today. Visitors can uncover stories about the birth of British broadcasting and learn about pioneering achievements in the development of the telephone. The role of satellites in global communications and the birth of the World Wide Web will also be explored in the new gallery.

Not only are we working hard behind the scenes of the Museum, we’ve also been working with lots of other organisations to develop the gallery. For our mobile phone display, we have a great selection of objects collected in Cameroon – look out for a blog post all about that coming soon! We’ve been working with Cameroonian communities in both Cameroon and the UK to decide how these stories are displayed.

We’ve also interviewed women who worked on the manual telephone exchange at Enfield in North London. Their stories have been selected by young women from the same area to be included in the gallery.

Our Curator of Communication, John Liffen, looking at a section of the Enfield exchange when it was installed in the Enfield Museum (Source: Hilary Geoghegan)

Watch this space to discover more about Information Age as the team will be writing regular blog posts about their work on the gallery to keep you up to date. Add your comments below to tell us what you would like to find out about.

I AM….

In Emily’s second post, find out about one of her favourite art pieces in the Science Museum

Sitting there, watching Listening Post, I was strangely mesmerised. The computer synthesised voices read out posts in different, monotonic keys, creating a calm chorus of gentle noise. I was completely hypnotised and probably could have sat there for hours… 

Listening Post at the Science Museum

Created by artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post is an art project which came to the museum in 2003. It displays small sections of live conversations from public internet chat rooms or bulletins. All the information is uncensored and picked up randomly from English sites so it could be anything. There are seven ‘scenes’ which do various displays on 200 tiny screens. Sounds from the real electronic world are also simulated like clattering of typing, the tone from an answering machine, and in some scenes, a calm, simple musical soundtrack will accompany.

My favourite scene was one where the computer voices read out single lines from a conversation, each one displayed on a new screen, eventually filling the entire display, each sentence designated to a screen on a constant loop. It was a pattern of sentences beginning with ‘I am…’ I was surprised at how much I smiled when the synthesised voice read out ‘I am happy,’ and I suppose I was touched at how someone, somewhere was happy. Along with this, there were some loops which had some rather amusing content and I was forced to hide my chuckle because the whole space was silent aside from the light clattering of changing text and the drone of the electronic voice.

Listening Post at the Science Museum ( Image Graham Peet )

The other scenes had different displays. One read out whole paragraphs of conversation, layering them and creating a harmonised symphony of undecipherable words. It was interesting to see that different ways people used networking. Meeting new people, talking to old friends. It made me feel small and insignificant, that these sections of text and words were only a miniscule fragment of what was out there on the internet at the present time. It also made me more aware that what I might be posting on the internet isn’t private and that it will remain there forever, imprinted on the walls of the World Wide Web.

Experiencing the Science Museum

This blog post was written by Emily to share her thoughts on her placement at the Science Museum

I came to the Science Museum for a two week work experience placement and was surprised at how much there was going on! Going to a museum for a school trip, or even for a day out with my family, I’m used to seeing people in the Learning department, working at the café and in the shop but being behind the scenes, I discovered there was much more then meets the eye…

Emily with Helen Sharman’s space suit ( Science Museum, London )

Walking into the building on day one, the first thing I noticed was that staff had a separate entrance with their own receptionist – there must be a lot of people working here. Then, on my quick look around the museum, half of it was looking at the galleries and exhibitions, but the other was walking around all the hidden away offices, conservation rooms and more. There was so much going on and it was all immensely interesting. Working in the Collections Office, I was opened to the opportunity to do a wide variety of tasks and experiences: Going to interesting meetings, contributing to website creations, visiting Blythe House, and doing things that actually made a difference around the museum.

Computers at Blythe House

 I’m quite a shy person. Usually, I find it very difficult to talk to people I don’t know or have never met and I become extremely passive. Working at the museum, however, with everyone being so friendly, I felt very comfortable in the work place very quickly. I was even shocked at myself at how I could so easily talk to people I had only just met and I think that being so warmly welcomed was a big contribution to that.

There were some stressful bits of work; guiding a group of people from one place to another, although a simple job, it had to be executed smoothly, and being a naturally worried person, it was quite a big thing for me to do. None the less, it was completed successfully so I was rather proud of my self. This was, after all, work experience, and it was good for me to see some of the less relaxed parts of a full time job.

Pharmacy jars at Blythe House

But, of course, this experience couldn’t be complete without a tour of Blythe House, a store for objects, and a wind down with a milkshake, IMAX film and Learning show. I enjoyed working at the museum and will undoubtedly miss my time here. But, I will leave with a fully enriching experience and I cannot thank everyone who made it such a nice time for me, enough.

 Join us soon for a second blog post by Emily on her favourite art piece at the Science Museum.