Tag Archives: Information Age

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)

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.

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?”.

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?

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.