Author Archives: katherine

Wonderful Things: Peruvian Rubber Ball

Shaun Aitcheson from our Learning Support Team writes about one of his favourite Science Museum objects.

What do you think this is?

What is this?

Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Whilst this may look like a rock or a big ball of old chewing gum, it’s actually a rubber ball. It was found in the grave of a Peruvian child, and is thought to date from 1590-1610. Rubber balls were invented by the Ancient Mesoamericans who used them in what was probably the first ever ball sport, a game similar to racquetball called the Mesoamerican Ballgame. This game was invented around 1600 BC, but could be even older. In some places, instead of a rubber ball, they would use a human head!

Image Credit: Marjorie Barrick Museum http://barrickmuseum.unlv.edu/families/img/Maya14-small.jpg

Today we think of rubber balls as toys, but this one was most likely used as a funeral offering as a symbolic gesture towards the afterlife or perhaps even evidence of a human sacrifice to the gods.

Although this ball is only around 400 years old, it highlights just how long rubber has been used by humans. Incredibly, humans have been creating rubber for over 3500 years.

The first use of rubber was by the Olmec people (Rubber People) of South America. They would boil natural latex, a milky sap-like substance, which they ‘tapped’ from the rubber tree Hevea Brasiliensis, and mixed with the juice of a ‘morning glory’ vine. This created a very stretchy and extremely waterproof material. The Olmec’s used it to create items such as rubber balls, galoshes and waterproof cloaks.

Rubber wasn’t used greatly in the West until 1770 when an Englishman called Joseph Priestly, noticed that the material was very good at rubbing away pencil marks, hence the name ‘rubber’. Charles Mackintosh began using rubber to create his famous waterproof jackets in 1824. However, they were far from perfect as they melted in hot weather and smelled very bad!

Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock are responsible for producing the rubber we know today. In the 1840s they heated it in combination with sulphur to produce vulcanised rubber, strengthening it greatly. Thanks to the invention of the bicycle and motor car, rubber consumption soared as it was the perfect material for tyres, with its very durable and shock absorbent qualities.

The rubber ball can be found in Challenge of Materials, on the first floor of the Science Museum.

Wonderful Things: Amana Radarange Touchmatic microwave oven

Rosanna Denyer, from our Learning Support Team, writes about an often overlooked object from the museum collection. 

The food we eat has changed over time, and with the development of new technologies so has the way we cook and prepare our meals. Microwave ovens, like this Amana Radarange Touchmatic from 1978, have contributed to changes in both our diet and lifestyle.

Amana Radarange Touchmatic microwave oven

Amana Radarange Touchmatic microwave oven, 1978

The microwave oven was invented in 1945 by an engineer called Percy Spencer. He was researching military uses for radar technology and an accidental side effect of this was the invention of the microwave oven. After standing in front of a magnetron, Spencer noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. To test this further he then held a bag of corn kernels near the magnetron and watched as they exploded into popcorn.

Spencer found that microwaves, such as those emitted from his radar equipment, caused the water molecules in food to vibrate and heat up, which caused the food to cook. Recognising the potential of this, Spencer used the magnetron to create the first microwave ovens, which arrived in Britain in 1959.

After many years of using traditional ovens, the microwave oven was a startling change. Previously cooking had been a slow process, but now whole meals could be prepared in just a few minutes.

Some argue that the invention of the microwave brought about ‘the rise of the ready meal’. The first ‘TV Dinner’ was produced in 1954 and 10 million were sold in the first year alone. Since then, the popularity of ‘convenience food’ has grown and grown and the chilled ready meal market in the UK is now worth over £2.6 billion each year. Busy lifestyles, long working hours and an increased number of women in work are all seen as factors contributing to the popularity of microwaveable food.

But what does this mean for our health? Studies in 2012 suggested that less than 1% of supermarket ready meals complied with the World Health Organisation’s nutritional guidelines and some studies have shown that microwaving food can significantly reduce the nutrients contained within.

Despite this, the popularity of the microwave oven does not seem to be decreasing, and until a faster and more convenient way of cooking is invented, the microwave is likely to remain an essential piece of equipment in many kitchens. 

What labour-saving device would you invent? 

The Amana Radarange Touchmatic microwave oven can be found in The Secret Life of the Home gallery in the Basement of the museum.

Wonderful Things: Frost Ornithopter

Becky Honeycombe from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite objects in the Museum. 

Have you ever dreamed of being able to fly like a bird?  Well if you have, you’re certainly not alone.  The ability to fly has been a human obsession for thousands of years.  One of the earliest references to bird-like flight is found in the Ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus who attached feathers to their arms to escape captivity.  However, the story ends in tragedy for Icarus as after a brief flight he crashes to the ground.  Sadly, this has been the fate for many humans who have tried to imitate the story and reach the skies, either by attaching wings to their bodies or by making flying machines that mimic a bird’s flight.

Frost's experimental ornithopter, c 1900. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Frost’s experimental ornithopter, c 1900.
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

These machines are known as ornithopters and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the earliest designs were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th Century, but perhaps one of the strangest can be seen in our Flight gallery. The Frost ornithopter, created in 1904 by Edward Purkis Frost, was designed to replicate the wings of a crow. He used both real and imitated feathers combined with an internal combustion engine in an attempt to get his machine off the ground. Frost avidly studied flight and designed a number of contraptions between 1868 and his death in 1922. Despite his best flight being only a ‘jump’ off the ground and his witnessing the development of the conventional aeroplane, Frost remained convinced he had pursued a worthy cause. When asked about his studies towards the end of his life he stated ‘I do not begrudge the time and trouble I expended upon the attempt. The investigations opened my eyes to the wonders of nature. It is a beautiful study’.

University of Toronto's human-powered plane

University of Toronto’s human-powered plane. Photo courtesy of Todd Reichert, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies

Incredibly, despite the prominence and success of conventional fixed wing aircraft, contemporary scientists continue to be as fascinated as Frost with constructing the perfect ornithopter. In 2010 the University of Toronto successfully achieved the first level sustained flight by a human-powered ornithopter flying 475 ft over 19.3 seconds.

However, despite this success it may not be propelling man into the sky which eventually proves to be the best use for the ornithopter. Recent research has tended to focus on other uses of the technology such as conservation and surveillance. Researchers at the University of Illinois recently developed an ornithopter perfect for urban surveillance. Its ability to mimic the way a bird hovers and lands in confined spaces could make it ideally suited to cramped city conditions.

The history of ornithopters is long and varied, and research into their development and uses looks set to continue for a long time to come.

What other benefits might there be to using ornithopters?

Building Bridges project comes of age

Building Bridges, an exciting new Science Museum Learning project began last year. Here, the team share a few highlights from the project so far.

Building Bridges is a three year project aimed at year seven (11-12 year old) students, helping them to make sense of the science that shapes their lives. 

Students take part in a special Museum trail

Students take part in a special Museum trail

Building Bridges is doing this by focusing on three outcomes: helping students develop new ideas about why science is important to them/society at large; giving students the ability to communicate these and other ideas clearly; and an increased enthusiasm for science. So far, the project has been working with 16 schools, engaging up to 35 students at each school.

Each group takes part in three key activities over the year: an outreach visit into their school, a school visit to the Science Museum and a family event held at the Museum. The outreach visits were lots of fun for everyone: students got involved in the gloriously disgusting It Takes Guts show and took part in the “Science Communication” session. This gave them the opportunity to think about the stories behind the objects, and also learn science demos to present back to their friends.

Lucy presents 'It Takes Guts'

Lucy presents ‘It Takes Guts’

In May, we welcomed students to the museum for a fun filled VIP day where schools were treated to their own exclusive events and a visit to Launchpad. They also met real scientists during a science journalism session, discussing subjects including the painkiller quality of chillies, and resuscitation. Finally, the students explored the Making the Modern World gallery, searching for objects to help a very important guest…

The Queen awaits her subjects

The Queen awaits her subjects

Last weekend, we said goodbye to our first year of students with a fun filled family weekend at the Museum. The students brought their families to the museum and enjoyed an entire gallery of activities especially for them, including meeting with research scientists and the Imperial College Reach out Lab.

Year one of Building Bridges has been amazingly busy and a lot of fun. We can’t wait for year two!