Tag Archives: Science Museum

100 years of stainless steel

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

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

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

Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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.

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.