Tag Archives: num:ScienceMuseum=1901-6

FM: No Static At All

Our car is still fitted with a cassette player. Albums from long ago (Steely Dan and Beatles are current favourites) provide regular entertainment on journeys and are also enjoyed by the younger members of the family. I suppose we should have moved over to a CD player or something more exotic still, but somehow it seems unnecessary while the cassettes hold out (now 25 years old plus and still working fine!)

8-Track audio tape

8-Track tapes like this one dominated the American in-car market between the 1960s and 1980s but were then killed off by the improved audio quality of the handy cassette. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I suppose the same can now be said of the car’s FM radio, given government Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s announcement last week that the digital radio switch-over will happen, but only when a vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

He went on to highlight in-car radio as one of the biggest challenges facing the digital switch-over. This because of the difficulty in receiving digital signals while moving at speed. Once again, why bother to spend money on new technology when the old still works just fine.  He threw down the gauntlet to the car manufacturers to work towards some solutions.

But, although we choose perhaps to forget it, this tendency to delay novelty in favour of that which already works is by no means uncommon.

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Take another domestic technology – the electric iron: it’s changed little over at least 70 years. Neither, by and large, has the basic form of the bicycle, now well into its second century of pedalling.

Rover 'Safety' Bicycle, 1885
Rover ‘Safety’ Bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And at the other end of the cost spectrum – we still use rockets adapted from 1950s inter continental ballistic missiles to launch satellites and probes into space – they exist, we know lots about them, they do the job – why fix things that aren’t bust?

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009 (NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall, Tom Farrar)

So novelty is no guarantee of successful innovation. Maybe Steely Dan had something to say about it in one of the songs we were listening to in the car: ‘FM – No Static at All.’

Shaking bones and perilous penny-farthings

It’s 125 years since bicycles took the form that we know today. Then, cycling meant mobility in a world before mass motoring. Now, eyes are turning to cycling as part of a solution to urban congestion.

Transport for London is planning a turn-up-and-ride cycle hire scheme for the capital, going live this summer. One problem might be theft of the bikes. TfL’s response? “The bicycles will stand out as Cycle Hire bicycles. That way we hope people will think twice about stealing or damaging them.” You can see what they mean on the BBC website here.

Cyclists have long striven for lightweight and comfortable machines. New frame designs, gear arrangements, pneumatic tyres and suspension all helped in the development of the form we know today.

The ‘boneshaker’ was the first bike design with pedal drive to become popular. It was developed in France in the 1860s and widely taken up around the world:

Boneshaker bicycle, c.1869 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Boneshaker' bicycle, c.1869 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The ‘ordinary’ or ‘penny farthing’ was used from 1870 to 1890. The idea of the big front wheel was to increase speed - but it also made it dangerous and hard to ride:

Ordinary bicycle, c.1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Ordinary' bicycle, c.1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Then the ‘safety’ bicycle was introduced in 1885. The diamond frame with chain drive to the back wheel was much easier and safer to ride, and turned the bike into a universal mode of transport:

Safety bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Safety' bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve examples of all three types in our Making the Modern World gallery, if you fancy a trip out this weekend…


I had a great day yesterday at the Science Museum Wroughton, recording a series of video interviews promoting the Festival of Innovation (12 – 13 September). I was there to talk about twenty transport icons that shaped the modern world.

One was a Moulton bicycle, the first significant design change to the bike since J. K. Starley’s ‘Rover’ safety bicycle hit the scene in the 1880s. The Moulton is a small-wheel, compact cycle with full suspension that is easy to ride, mount and store.

Rover safety bicycle, 1885, in Science Museum collections (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Rover' safety bicycle, 1885 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Raleigh Moulton Mk3 bicycle, 1970

Raleigh 'Moulton Mk3' bicycle, 1970 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

I’d never ridden one, so I arranged to use the Wroughton staff bike (which is a Moulton) to get from the entrance gate to the hangar I was filming in. Top fun – especially when I realised it had a coaster brake. I’ve never ridden a coaster brake before. I wondered why something seemed to be rubbing as I dawdled along the airstrip… I probably should have done my research properly first! Still, I did my bit for the planet.

Moulton Major bicycle used as staff site transport at the Science Museum, Wroughton (credit: David Rooney)

Moulton 'Major' bicycle used as staff site transport, Science Museum, Wroughton (credit: David Rooney)

I made it in one piece and went on to spend time with hovercrafts, trucks, planes, cars and bikes of every description, including our Boeing 247D and Douglas DC-3 airliners:

Boeing 247D airliner flying into Science Museum Wroughton, 1982 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Boeing 247D flying into Science Museum Wroughton, 1982 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Douglas DC-3 airliner at Science Museum Wroughton (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Douglas DC-3 airliner at Science Museum Wroughton (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

More next week on the rise of the passenger plane, as there’s a significant anniversary coming up…