Tag Archives: radio

Conserving a “Super Selector”

Sophia Oelman works on the conservation team for Information Age, a brand new gallery about the last 200 years of communication and information technology, opening this autumn.

There are a huge range of exciting objects being prepared for the Information Age gallery. As one of the six conservators working on the project, I have the privilege of cleaning, documenting and repairing the objects before they go on public display. My favourite object is the Super Selector Radio Receiver, made around 1927 in London by Selectors Limited.

The Selector super portable before conservation (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Selector super portable before conservation (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Super Selector appeals to me because of its interesting shape and design – it looks more like a piece of furniture than a modern radio set. The radio has attracted lots of attention, although because of its size and shape it is commonly mistaken for a wooden PC computer.

The portable radio is very heavy compared to today's pocket electronics. Perhaps that explains the rather well worn back of the object. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The portable radio is very heavy compared to today’s pocket electronics. Perhaps that explains the rather well worn back of the object. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The first challenge of working with this radio, was moving it from the storage rooms to the conservation lab at the Museum.  Although it is called “super portable”, it weighs about ten kilos and is certainly not super portable by today’s standards, weighing one hundred times more than an average MP3 player.

When the object arrived at the Museum, there were several areas of damage that needed to be documented and repaired before it could go on display. The main areas of concern were the leather handle, which was powdery and weakened and the textile speaker which was torn with sections of missing fabric.  The object needed to be documented, cleaned, repaired and then documented again to record the changes it went through during conservation.

After inspecting the exterior of the radio I began to look inside. Luckily, there were two keys with the radio set which allowed us access to the fascinating mechanisms inside.  Inside the radio, some of the most attractive components are the glass valves.  The valves are potentially dangerous if broken as this may cause flying glass, so one of my first tasks, after cleaning the radio, was to pack the valves with tissue to prevent any breakages.  After packing the valves, the conservation treatment of the radio receiver involved more cleaning, securing the handle and repairing the textile speaker.

The delicate glass valves inside the set needed to be carefully packed before work began. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The delicate glass valves inside the set needed to be carefully packed before work began. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The silk speaker posed the biggest challenge in terms of repair, but after consulting a specialist textile conservator at the National Maritime Museum I decided to cover the fragile silk with toned patches of special conservation silk. I cut the patches to shape, coloured them so that they matched the green colour on the speaker and carefully attached the patches to the speaker frame.  This technique prevents further damage to the object from light, physical damage and dust.

Sophie works to conserve the silk speaker area (Source: Science Museum)

Sophie works to conserve the silk speaker area (Source: Science Museum)

The Super Selector radio receiver was a fascinating object to work with and despite the challenges involved, I believe the radio will stay in good condition for visitors to enjoy in the Information Age gallery for many years to come.

The radio is now fully conserved and radio for display in Information Age when it opens later this year. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The radio is now fully conserved and radio for display in Information Age when it opens later this year. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

Behind the Scenes at Blythe House

Alice Williams is part of the team of Science Museum Conservators and Collections Assistants that have been working behind the scenes since June 2012 on objects that will be displayed in the new Information Age gallery.

As a Collections Assistant working on the new Information Age gallery my role means I work with the objects through each stage of their journey – from storage to display. At the moment I spend my day working in the stores, where each object must be checked for any potential hazards (such as lead or mercury), handled, and moved for conservation. With so many objects to keep track of a lot of time is spent planning conservation and logistics schedules, and making sure every object is accurately documented and well cared for in storage.

With over 800 objects to conserve, pack, transport and install, this is certainly no mean feat. The team is divided across two sites, with three Conservators based at our store for large objects in Wroughton and three Conservators, two Collections Assistants and one Conservation Student based at Blythe House in West London.

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House (The National Archives: Public Record Office NSC 27/2 Album of Blythe Road photographs)

Blythe House, formerly the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank and built between 1899 and 1903, is now a museum storage facility and home to the Science Museum’s incredible collection of small to medium sized objects. There are over 203,000 objects stored over 90 rooms at Blythe House, with extensive and diverse collections ranging from the History of Medicine to Telecommunications.

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

The Conservators work meticulously on each object in our Conservation Laboratory, carrying out research and treatments, and documenting every object in great detail. The Conservators also advise on the best way to display the objects, ensuring the objects will be safe, secure and stable when in the gallery and that they are protected for the future.

Conservators at work in the conservation lab

Conservators at work in the conservation lab (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

While each Information Age object will go through the same thorough process, every day is different for the team at Blythe House. Whether it is co-ordinating the move of larger and more challenging objects, taking part in public events, providing tours, couriering loans, or planning for the arrival of new acquisitions, there is never a dull moment in the stores.

Some carefully stored early radio receivers

Some carefully stored early radio receivers (source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

With the opening of the Information Age gallery planned for later this year, we will soon be reaching the final stages of object conservation. Before long we’ll be packing and transporting the objects to the Science Museum where we will all be on hand to install the objects in the new gallery.

How early radio experimenter Hugh Ryan made contact with the USA

Geoff Chapman is a Science Museum volunteer who catalogued a box of amateur radio materials for our exciting new gallery Information Age. You can read his earlier blog posts here and here.

Since writing my last blog post I’ve looked further into the box of papers on wireless I described in my first blog to find out about experimenter Hugh Ryan who was active from the early 1920s.

Hugh Ryan’s morse code test, essential to obtain a licence at the time, was arranged in August 1922.  He apparently passed because in November 1922 he demonstrated music and speech transmission, with reception at a church hall in Southfields.  ”The use of such apparatus for amusement is irregular” wrote a GPO official, even though the demonstration was permitted.

Radio licenses in the 1920s were strictly for experiment, not for general amusement – as the Post Office are reminding Hugh Ryan here (Source: Science Museum)

In 1923 Hugh Ryan was perhaps pushing boundaries and as a consequence received a letter in July 1923 asking him to strictly observe the terms of the permit issued to his mother.

The Post Office checked up on Ryan to make sure he was sticking to the terms if his radio license (Source: Science Museum)

On 17 December 1923 he was granted special authority to take part in trans-atlantic tests and transmission was allowed for a maximum of 15 minutes a night.

In 1923 Ryan was granted permission to experiment with Trans-Atlantic radio communication (Source: Science Museum)

However ahead of the trans-atlantic tests Hugh Ryan claimed to be the first amateur to make radio contact with the USA after he exchanged calls with 8AJW, on 2 Dec 1923 according to several cards in the box.

Ryan was editor of publication EW&WE (Experimental Wireless and Wireless Engineer) and in that capacity received postal reception reports ( also known as DX reports) from experimenters.  Many reception reports were addressed to Hugh Ryan by his callsign 5BV, which was expressed internationally as British 5BV or G5BV.  The reports came from experimenters in many countries and included technical details and speculation with evidence on factors affecting radio propagation such as time of day, moon phase, barometric pressure, weather conditions, aerial type and even polar lights.  A source of echo was speculated as signals taking two paths round the earth.  These reports read as examples of citizen science.  One experimenter reported on experiments with low power.

When amateur radio operators make contact with each other they send a ‘QSL card’ like this as a record. Hugh Ryan wrote on his “The first amateur to work USA”

To quote a few examples from the reception reports.  An experimenter in a letter dated 3 April 1926 mentions “…we are getting some useful data on conditions as we transmit at various times of the day and night and it does seem that on sunny days the fading is a lot worse than any other time…”.  In a letter of 3 Feb 1926 from Copenhagen in the context of transmissions from boat SS Island the writer reports “one night where polar lights completely caused the signals [from SS Island to Copenhagen] to fade out”.  A letter of July 1925 reports a record, the first reception in England of a South African station.

One experimenter mentions conducting reports into fading for the Radio Research Board, perhaps this was an example of citizen science overlapping with official research.  What became of EW&WE is not recorded in the papers in the box, but Hugh Ryan kept up his enthusiasm for radio and was still licensed as a radio amateur as late as 1965.

Discover more about the history of communication technologies in our exciting new gallery Information Age, opening September 2014. 

Sparks fly in west London

Curator of Communications John Liffen blogs on recreating early ‘wireless telegraphy’ ahead of the opening of Information Age, a new gallery exploring communication technologies.

Radio operators on board ship used to be nicknamed ‘Sparks’ – and with good reason. In the earliest days of ‘wireless telegraphy’ the radio waves were created by a continuous train of high-voltage sparks. The phenomenon can be observed whenever you switch a light on or off if a radio set is switched on nearby. At the moment the switch connects or breaks the mains circuit, sparks are created which send out pulses of radio waves which will be heard as a momentary crackle through the set’s loudspeaker.

On board ship, generating equipment continuously charged up capacitors which spontaneously discharged at high voltage across a spark gap. The radio operator used a morse key (a simple on/off switch) to interrupt the sparks in the form of morse code. The resulting coded radio wave ‘oscillations’ could be heard by other ships within a radius of a hundred miles or so. This was the method of transmission in use at the time of the Titanic disaster in April 1912. Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, the operators on the Titanic, sent out their distress signals in this way which were picked up through the headphones of operators on board other ships with range.

The Titanic, seen shortly before she sailed on her last voyage (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Titanic, seen shortly before she sailed on her last voyage (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

In the 1920s the use of spark transmission was phased out as more efficient transmitters using thermionic valves or ‘tubes’ were introduced. These could be tuned to a much more precise frequency so were less wasteful of the radio-frequency spectrum than spark transmitters. Today almost nobody will have heard the sound of a radio message sent by spark.

Sparks flash across the spark gap (source: Science Museum / John Liffen)

Sparks flash across the spark gap (source: Science Museum / John Liffen)

Consequently when we decided to feature the Titanic disaster in our new Information Age gallery, we felt we should re-create some of the morse distress messages so they could be heard by visitors much as they had been in 1912.

In order to do so we had to find a specialist radio historian with a suitable spark transmitter. One such individual is Dr Tony Constable, the founding Chairman of the British Vintage Wireless Society. Recently I visited his home in west London.

He had set up a suitable induction coil, Hertz-type spark gap and morse key in his living room, set to work at the lowest possible power so as to avoid, as far as possible, interference on neighbours’ radios.

Tony Constable keys in a message. The spark transmitter is on the right (Source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony Constable keys in a message. The spark transmitter is on the right (Source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Together we worked out a couple of messages, adapted from the original transcripts. This from the Titanic:


and this from the rescue ship Carpathia:


CQD was the original morse distress signal. It had been replaced by SOS before 1912 but at that time both were still used by some operators.

Tony Constable at the morse key (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony Constable at the morse key (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

Tony placed an vintage Bush transistor radio on the other side of the same room and de-tuned it on medium wave away from any programmes so that it just gave out a hiss. The morse signals were clearly audible as a harsh buzzing, incidentally demonstrating the un-tuned nature of spark transmission.

How the signals were received: Bush transistor radio on left, digital recorder on right (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

How the signals were received: Bush transistor radio on left, digital recorder on right (source: John Liffen / Science Museum)

As you can hear, the recordings were very successful. A word of warning, though. The equipment, though simple, uses very high voltages and must be handled with extreme care. We don’t recommend you try this particular experiment yourself.

Discover more about the history of communication technologies in our new Information Age gallery, opening in 2014.  

William Rathbone VIII – an early wireless experimenter with a human side

Geoff Chapman is a volunteer on the Information Age project. This blog follows on from his first foray into a mystery box of early wireless paperwork.

Hi, I’m Geoff, and in this blog I will describe what I found out about an early wireless experimenter called William Rathbone from the box of old radio related papers I wrote about in my first blog post. I discovered some great stories about what early experimenters got up to, and found William Rathbone had a human side which he revealed in the “Episode of the Den of Crombie”.

The particular William Rathbone issued with a wireless licence on 23 August 1913 was William Rathbone VIII, who lived from 1880 to 1941, and was son of William Gair Rathbone VII and Blanch Luling.  He served as a Captain of the Royal Engineers Territorials (Wireless Signal Co) in the First World War. The University of Liverpool Library hold the Rathbone papers and in a few words the Rathbones of Liverpool were non-conformist merchants and shipowners with a tradition of public service and philanthropy.

In the box of mystery wireless papers were a number of items linked with William Rathbone:

  • letters of  1905 to 1908 on technical aspects of radio such as use of coherer, aerials and jigger, from an experimenter in Crigglestone, near Wakefield
  • William Rathbone’s wireless telegraphy licence in its original form complete with red seal and receipt for fee paid
  • a letter from wireless pioneer Oliver Lodge asking if one of his junior members of staff, Dr T.F. Wall, can visit Rathbone’s wireless experimental station in Liverpool

The wireless telegraphy licence cost one pound and one shilling and permitted William Rathbone to communicate with two other named experimenters at a maximum power of 10 watts and with wavelength less than 100 meters

William Rathbone’s wireless station was near Seaforth, a Government wireless station for communication with ships at sea.  Rathbone was sensitive that wireless amateurs should not cause interference to communication with ships, otherwise amateurs risked being banned from transmitting anywhere near Government wireless stations – that would have held them back considerably.  

Rathbone focused his efforts on trying to prevent interference at Seaforth

That made Rathbone particularly sensitive to interference to the Seaforth station, as revealed by papers in our box about “The Episode of the Den of Crombie”, which occurred in early February 1914.

William Rathbone writes about the Episode

The incident, an episode of bad interference, was investigated by Rathbone who found that the ship’s radio operator on board Den of Crombie, and not a radio experimenter, had caused interference to Seaforth.  However Rathbone was struck by the “youthful spirits” of the ship’s operator and so acted carefully to both “thoroughly frighten him” into better future behaviour, while at the same time saving the operator’s career. The operator’s mother was involved and wrote “his enthusiasm and zeal in electricity and wireless of late years has led him into many troubles which we hoped were over now he had got to the desired occupation”.

Rathbone sends a telegram to Percy Dennison to get to the bottom of the interference.

The original papers give fuller detail of the story which also involved not only Captain Loring at the General Post Office (the licensing authority at the time) in London, but also Mr Bradfield, the Managing Director of the Marconi Company.

Captain Loring thanks William Rathbone for his quick actions

Look out for Geoff’s third and final blog post about Hugh Ryan, an experimenter who made radio contact between the UK and the USA.

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.

The decline of WorldSpace

Last month I went to a conference marking 50 years of the UK in space. Some of the speakers reminded us many of us use space daily without even thinking about it when we watch satellite television or get directions from our GPS.

A snapshot from last month’s conference (Credit: Alex Costa)

I recently took delivery of a new object for the collection that also uses space – a satellite radio made for WorldSpace. The WorldSpace company was founded in 1990 and used geostationary satellites to broadcast to Asia and Africa. At one point they had 170,000 paid up listeners.

This WorldSpace WSSR-11 satellite radio broadcast receiver we recently added to the Museum’s collection (Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

The company also maintained a not-for-profit arm, using 5% of the satellite’s bandwidth to broadcast programs giving advice on HIV and AIDS, agriculture or providing information for women. It was tricky to make these programs localised enough to be really useful. For example, WorldSpace broadcast some Somali language programmes for use in classrooms in one region of one country, but anyone in Africa could tune in.

Satellite radio also faces technical challenges; I spoke to an engineer who explained that the signal is easily interrupted by concrete, glass, trees and even smoke.

“I had a guy in Ethiopia write me every day that his signal was lost at roughly 10am, 1pm, and 4pm daily. We couldn’t figure it out… It turned out the antenna was in a courtyard, and people took their smoke break in front of the antenna – effectively cutting the signal until they finished their break.”

Aerial masts are a common feature of the landscape in Africa now. This picture was taken in Buea, Cameroon in March 2012 (Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

Unfortunately WorldSpace was unsustainable as a business and went into liquidation in 2008. It might be surprising that a business with 170,000 customers would struggle, but communications technology has changed rapidly since the service started. Back then mobile phones were only just getting going in developed countries, and satellite radio seemed to be a really good way forward. Now, however, mobile phones have completely changed telecommunications in Africa and Asia, and satellite technology is expensive and hard to localise.

Exploring our vintage radios

When I was asked to help develop ideas about early radio broadcasting for a proposed new gallery at the Science Museum I soon realised that I needed help to build up my knowledge quickly. I began with the usual resources – I read some books, looked online and scoured our collection for likely looking objects to explore. While all of these resources could provide me with a technical understanding of the history of radio, I struggled to get a grasp of what it must have felt like to have used early radio sets or listened to early broadcasts. It was time, I decided, to seek some expert help.

The 2LO transmitter at Marconi House in the Strand (Science Museum)

Several members of the British Vintage Wireless Society (BVWS) were already pencilled in to pay a visit to the Museum to look at the radios in our collection. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to recruit a few of them to work more closely with us. We knew we wanted to display one star object from the collection – the 2LO transmitter, which transmitted the very first BBC radio broadcasts in 1922. In addition we have a large collection of radio receivers from the 1920s and 1930s. What we were missing was a range of fascinating stories to help us choose between all those radios. We invited the members of the BVWS to help us select the stories that represented their experience and knowledge of vintage radios.

Five of the group offered their time, and I worked with a colleague to plan a series of four sessions for them. Over the course of the sessions the group got to know our collections and gradually built up their own set of criteria for selecting radio equipment. We asked them to arrive at a list of three objects each, meaning we would have a total of fifteen radio receivers as a long-list to work with.

Mike and Martyn inspect a speaker horn with my help (Science Museum)

As well as gathering a list of objects we were keen to collect stories about the historical impact of radios on everyday life. We also hoped to find out what led the members of the BVWS to be so enthusiastic about and enthralled with vintage radio equipment. They have a strong emotional attachment to these objects that would be brilliant to share with our visitors. We spent one of the four sessions at the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum which holds an amazing collection of radios and televisions inside the walls of an innocent looking house in South London. While we were there, surrounded by all the fantastic objects in the museum, we interviewed some of the group and asked them about what got them collecting in the first place.

By the end of the four sessions we had a successfully arrived at a list of objects to display alongside the 2LO transmitter, together with stories to support them. One of the more unexpected items to make it onto the list was a ceramic mixing bowl selected by Lorne Clark. He told us how his mother, who had lived near a large transmitter, would place a pair of headphones in a mixing bowl in order to amplify the sound from a crystal radio set and make group listening possible.

The sessions were great fun and I certainly learned a lot about early radio from the group, and much more quickly and enjoyably than if I had been left to my own devices. Inviting outside groups to add their own expertise to the knowledge held by a museum and its curators can add a richness and variety to displays – especially as personal stories such as Lorne’s are often missing from a museum’s formal historic collections. Hopefully all of the BVWS members we worked with enjoyed their experience and gained an interesting insight into how a large museum goes about developing exhibition displays. I’m positive they enjoyed looking at our objects in storage because persuading them to leave the storeroom at the end of a session was always something of a challenge.

Some of the BVWS group with Science Museum staff in the garden of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum – (left to right) Charlotte Connelly, Martyn Bennett, Marie Hobson, Lorne Clark, John Thompson, Deanne Naula. (Courtesy of Lorne Clarke - www.earlywireless.com)