Category Archives: Collection

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake: Britain’s First Female Surgeon

Curator Helen Peavitt and Stephanie Millard uncover the life of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, who is celebrated in a new Science Museum display

The medical achievements of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, come under the spotlight in a new display at the Science Museum. If her name isn’t familiar then it certainly deserves to be. One hundred years ago she was busy writing to every woman on the medical register to enlist their help in setting up hospitals to treat soldiers injured on the eastern battlefields of the First World War. 

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

Aldrich-Blake’s war work saw her, temporarily, leave the shores of Britain. In 1915 she crossed the Channel to work as surgeon for the Anglo-French Red Cross in the 600-bed field hospital at Abbaye du Royaumont near Paris. Conditions there were certainly very difficult. Louisa characteristically rose to the challenge, seeking out every trace of bullet fragments from the war-torn bodies of those under her knife. Such determination earned her the nickname of ‘Madame Générale’ from her patients.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.  Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.
Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The work of Louisa and her fellow female doctors serving overseas helped turn the tide of popular opinion back home in their favour. Their skill and dedication in treating soldiers, often close to the front line, was widely recognised and welcomed – helping to silence the War Office, which was initially reluctant to enlist the help of female medical staff. Furthermore, their example inspired other women to enter medical school for the first time.

By the time war broke out Louisa’s own medical career was already distinguished. She enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1887 aged 22, along with a handful of other new students. Her ambition was largely driven by a deeply held desire to do ‘something useful’. After completing her bachelor degree in medicine she quickly gained her Master of Surgery degree – the first British woman to do so. She also became Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women.

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Aldrich-Blake also researched and pioneered new surgical methods to treat cervical and rectal cancers. In 1903 her paper on a new procedure to treat rectal cancer was published in the British Medical Journal. She was evidently extremely proud of this, because if you leaf through her notebooks – now held at the Wellcome Library in London – you will find a copy of the paper, carefully folded and pressed between the pages.

Aldrich-Blake’s contribution to medicine is celebrated in a statue erected in her honour in Tavistock Square in London – near the headquarters of the British Medical Association. You can visit the showcase exploring Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake’s life on the ground floor of the Science Museum.

Happy New Year (of Light)!

150 years ago, James Clerk Maxwell published his work on light, electricity and magnetism. Our resident physicist, Dr. Harry Cliff, reflects on how Maxwell helped transform the way we live.

Whether you were up with the lark this morning to greet the dawn of the New Year or crawled bleary-eyed from bed after an over-exuberant farewell to 2014, it’s likely that one of the first things you did was to switch on a light or throw open the curtains.

An appropriate way to start what UNESCO has proclaimed as the International Year of Light, a 365-day celebration of light science and technologies, inspired by a number of major scientific anniversaries that fall this year.

It was 150 years ago that one of the most important scientific articles of the 19th century was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Written by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, it was titled A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, and its contents were to profoundly alter the way we think about light, electricity and magnetism and transform the way we live.

A facsimile of Maxwell's 'A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field' on display in the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery.

A facsimile of Maxwell’s ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field’ on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery.

Maxwell had been grappling with the relationship between electricity and magnetism for a number of years, in particular with a very old and thorny problem: how is it that when I hold a magnet some distance away from a piece of iron, the iron is moved without actually touching the magnet?

This so called ‘action at a distance’ was troubling in a mechanical age when scientists were trying to describe all forces in terms of direct physical contact between physical entities. In Maxwell’s previous work on electromagnetism, he had made an attempt to explain action at a distance using the commonly-accepted existence of an all-pervading invisible fluid, the luminiferous aether, full of spinning vortices that transmitted electrical and magnetic forces.

Maxwell’s great breakthrough in his new paper came from his decision to try to describe electricity and magnetism without worrying very much about the details of what the aether was like. Instead he introduced the concept of the electromagnetic ‘field’, which in his words:

    “is that part of space which contains and surrounds bodies in electric or magnetic conditions.”

In other words, the electromagnetic field described the force that would be experienced by an electric charge or magnet when placed close to another charge or magnet. A common experiment at school is to visualise the magnetic field around a bar magnet by sprinkling it with iron filings.

Iron filings showing the magnetic field lines produced by a bar magnet. Source: Newton Henry Black, Harvey N. Davis (1913) Practical Physics, The MacMillan Co., USA, p. 242, fig. 200.

Iron filings showing the magnetic field lines produced by a bar magnet. Source: Newton Henry Black, Harvey N. Davis (1913) Practical Physics, The MacMillan Co., USA, p. 242, fig. 200.

However, whereas today physicists consider the electromagnetic field to have existence in its own right, Maxwell still thought of it as an effect of the arrangement of some underlying physical luminferous aether.

Armed with his electromagnetic field concept, Maxwell derived twenty equations that could be used to describe almost any electromagnetic system, and made plain the deep connections between electricity and magnetism. He then applied his equations to describe undulations or waves travelling through the electromagnetic field. His goal was nothing short of explaining the nature of light itself.

James Clerk Maxwell and his wife, Katherine in 1869.

James Clerk Maxwell and his wife, Katherine in 1869.

What Maxwell found was to change the course of science and technology forever. He derived an equation that described a wave of oscillating electric and magnetic fields; little ripples in the electromagnetic field that could even travel through empty space. Calculating the speed with which these ripples would travel, Maxwell found that it agreed precisely with the best measurement of the speed of light. Maxwell concluded:

“The agreement of the results seems to show that light and magnetism are affectations of the same substance, and that light is an electromagnetic disturbance propagated through the field according to electromagnetic laws.”

This was a stunning result, but it would take time for Maxwell’s theory to become widely accepted. The mathematics were so unfamiliar that most physicists were unable to understand, let alone appreciate Maxwell’s work. In 1879 a prize was offered by the Prussian Academy of Science for anyone able to provide experimental verification of Maxwell’s theory.

Experimental support for the theory would not arrive until after Maxwell’s death in 1879 at the age of just 48. In a series of experiments conducted between 1886 and 1888, Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the transmission of electromagnetic waves, proving Maxwell right and opening up a new technological age, one in which electromagnetic signals could be beamed across the planet, radically shrinking the size of the world and allowing communication at a distance never before imagined.

Replica of a set of Knochenhauer spirals used in what proved to be the starting point of Hertz's work on electromagnetic waves. See the spirals on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery. Image: Science Museum

Replica of a set of Knochenhauer spirals used in what proved to be the starting point of Hertz’s work on electromagnetic waves. See the spirals on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery. Image: Science Museum

Although Maxwell never lived to see the full impact of his work, those who followed in his footsteps transformed the scientific landscape. It was Maxwell’s wave equation that inspired Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which did away with the lumineferous aether and recast the very notions of space and time. Einstein himself kept a framed photograph of Maxwell on the wall of his office, and Maxwell is now widely regarded as one of the greatest physicists to have ever lived, second perhaps only to Isaac Newton and Einstein himself.

I will leave the final word to the 20th century quantum physicist Richard Feynman:

“From a long view of the history of the world—seen from, say, ten thousand years from now—there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electromagnetism. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

Find out more about how Maxwell’s work opened up a new age of telecommunication in the Science Museum’s new Information Age Gallery.

How Eddie Redmayne Mastered Stephen Hawking’s Voice

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, writes about upcoming Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything.

Only one person is known to have used the voice synthesiser that now sits in the Cosmos and Culture gallery in the Science Museum: cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who describes the museum as ‘one of my favourite places’.

Voice synthesiser

Voice synthesiser, on display in Cosmos and Culture

Now a second person has mastered Hawking’s voice, that paradoxical blend of machine and personality: the actor Eddie Redmayne, who undergoes an extraordinary feat of transformation during The Theory of Everything (released on 1 January).

He depicts how Hawking changed from a lazy student into the world’s best known scientist who, as a result of motor neurone disease, has only the use of a few muscles.

Hawking caught pneumonia in 1985 and underwent a tracheotomy but regained the ability to ‘speak’ using a computer operated by a hand switch to painstakingly build up words, sentences and phrases so they could be read out by the voice synthesiser that is now in the museum.

Redmayne’s remarkable dedication to his craft can be seen in this biopic, which is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s first wife Jane.

Redmayne describes it as “an incredibly delicate and intricate and quite complicated love story.” One of the most extraordinary dimensions of that story is Jane’s determination to stick with Hawking despite his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, an apparent death sentence, at the age of 21.

Stephen Hawking

Still from The Theory of Everything with Jane (Felicity Jones) and Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne)

The film’s production design department took great pains to accurately recreate the progression of wheelchairs that Hawking used throughout his life, from regular to electric and then one adapted to include a computer and his voice synthesiser.

Redmayne had spent months studying archival material, from books to video; worked with the Motor Neurone Disease Association and a neurology clinic in University College London, meeting some 30 patients; rehearsed the change in his movements as the disease took hold with a dance teacher; and wore prosthetics to show how Hawking had aged and deformed with the disease, such as oversized ears that could, with oversized clothes, make his face look gaunt.

One of the pivotal scenes with Hawking’s first wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones) took 15 minutes during an intense day of filming using a hand switch to operate a replica of Hawking’s synthesiser system, he explained. Though only an edited version of his laborious original effort remains in the film, it speaks volumes about Redmayne’s attention to detail that he was prepared to go so far.

Hawking was so impressed with the film, said Redmayne, that he responded with a generous gift — allowing the filmmakers to swap the synthetic voice they had to create and replace it with his own, trademarked computerized version.

Trying to balance his science with his personal story presented some of the same challenges for the James Marsh, director of The Theory of Everything, as it did for curators three years ago, when the Science Museum put on an exhibition to celebrate Hawking’s 70th birthday.

While Stephen Hawking might be a celebrity, he is first and foremost a scientist and not only that but a theoretical physicist, one who deals with ideas rather than something tangible like technology. Redmayne admits that it was daunting getting the right balance between science and entertainment.

Still, the film shows how Hawking first captured the attention of his peers in the late 1960s, working with Roger Penrose (played by Christian McKay) on how the laws of physics – notably Einstein’s law of gravity – sometimes break down, resulting in something called a spacetime singularity. If general relativity was correct, they showed, then such singularities must occur inside black holes – and, most probably, at the start of the universe

This idea implies that singularities mark the beginning and end of space and time, which was created during the Big Bang and breaks down within black holes, where it is necessary to incorporate quantum theory – the theory of the very small – in order to understand what is really going on.

The film makes much of how Hawking was determined to find “a simple eloquent explanation” for the universe. One of Hawking’s long-standing goals has been to blend the theory of the very big (general relativity) with the very small (quantum theory) to produce an overarching theory known as quantum gravity.

As the film points out – with the help of its consultant, Jerome Gauntlett, former PhD student in Stephen’s group, who is now Head of the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London –  Hawking moved on to a more radical formulation which incorporates some aspects of quantum theory, the no boundary idea, which says that the entire history of the universe, all of space and time, forms a kind of four-dimensional sphere. Thus speculation about the beginning or end of the universe is as meaningless as talking about the beginning or end of a sphere.

One strange consequence of quantum theory is that empty space isn’t empty at all: pairs of particles are constantly popping into and out of existence. If they appear on the event horizon – the point of no return from the gravity well of a black hole – they may find themselves on different sides, with one sucked in, and the other zooming free as “Hawking radiation.”

There’s a scene in the film showing when Hawking gets a sweater trapped halfway over his head and has an insight that leads to this discovery. “Hawking radiation is widely considered to be the single most important insight into quantum gravity that has been discovered so far,” says Gauntlett, who also helped to bring Redmayne up to speed with Hawking’s science.

The director James Marsh told me that he sees the movie as a human story first and foremost but he does hope, as does Gauntlett, that it will encourage those who are intrigued by the science to find out more. “To be honest, dramatic film is not the best place to explore theoretical physics” Marsh explained. “The idea was to make the science universally available and that meant simple. Better that than address a snobbish or elitist audience. Better that a 14 year old boy or girl watches the film and is intrigued to find out more.”

A Brief History of Time, on display in Cosmos and Culture

A Brief History of Time, on display in Cosmos and Culture

One way he used to lay out scientific thinking in lay terms was to allow the character of Jane to do some explaining, rather that Stephen himself. But, of course, Hawking himself has provided the most stellar example of how to bridge the gulf between the public and cosmologists with A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. To celebrate this remarkable achievement, a copy can be found in the Cosmos and Culture gallery.

The Theory of Everything will be showing at the Science Museum IMAX from 1 January 2015. Book tickets here.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

Chancellor Announces £3 Million Investment in Museum of Science & Industry

By Kate Campbell-Payne and Roger Highfield

The Chancellor, George Osborne MP, today announced a £3 million investment to create a new special exhibition space at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester.

Speaking in the Museum at the official launch and celebration of Manchester as the European City of Science 2016, Europe’s greatest scientific gathering, the Chancellor set out further Government plans to prioritise science investment in the North West.

Chancellor George Osborne MP with Professor Brian Cox , Sally MacDonald, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Chancellor George Osborne MP with Professor Brian Cox , Sally MacDonald, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Mr Osborne said that it was ‘great to be back’ in the Museum, not just in an official capacity but as a local resident who visits with his children.

He told the audience of leading figures that Manchester was the first great scientific city in the modern world and that it was developing into a global force.

Today’s investment will allow the Museum to take forward ambitious plans to convert the brick-vaulted basement of its historic 1830 Warehouse – the first ever railway warehouse – into a venue for world-class exhibitions that will inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

This will help shift the centre of gravity of the Science Museum Group towards the north and enable the Museum of Science & Industry to develop its own touring exhibitions, along the lines of Collider. ‘It is a real pleasure to be here as a near local MP and someone who believes passionately in the future of the city,” he said.

Director Sally MacDonald said the investment would enable the iconic site to create a ‘really stunning’ gallery: “With the support of our partners, we want to develop ground-breaking exhibitions that can tour internationally, shining a global spotlight on our collections and our great city of Manchester.”

She hopes the new gallery will help boost the current audience of around 700,000 visitors by tens of thousands more. “This is a place where ideas can change the world, from industrial revolution to today and beyond.”

Today’s announcement comes just days after the Chancellor announced plans for a £235 million Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research and Innovation at the University of Manchester. “I want it to be the best in the world,” he told the audience.

This, the centrepiece of investment plans for the region announced last week, will build on two centuries of innovation in developing materials that has underpinned Manchester’s rise as one of the first globalised industrial cities.

The £3 million Government investment in the Museum is in addition to an £800,000 grant that funded preparatory work, including the selection of the best location for the new exhibition space from across the Museum’s historic 7.5 acre site.

It was at the Museum’s Power Hall in June that George Osborne announced his intention to create a “Northern supercity” to rival London, New York and other major cities by building HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds.

At the launch was Professor Brian Cox, who still lectures in the university and conducted a bioluminescence experiment in the Museum for primary schoolchildren, along with the Chancellor. He remarked on how, over the past decade, more and more children were inspired by STEM.

Professor Brian Cox and the Chancellor conduct a bioluminescence experiment with local school children.

Professor Brian Cox and the Chancellor conduct a bioluminescence experiment with local school children.

Prof Cox laid down a challenge to all the political parties in the coming election to ring fence the science budget, or indeed increase it, to match the huge research budgets of Germany and America.

Prof Cox said that the UK can indeed be the best place in the world to do science, building on its infrastructure of world class schools, universities and museums. “I am extremely optimistic about the future.”

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, said that the city has a tally of around 25 Nobel Prize winners. “Science is at the heart of Manchester, its past present and future,” he said, adding that around 50,000 people in Greater Manchester are employed in science and technology.

Manchester is the home of many world changing science achievements:  John Dalton’s atomic theory of the 19th Century; the pioneering work of James Joule in thermodynamics; Rutherford’s work to reveal the atomic nucleus by smashing helium nuclei into gold foil;  the world’s first programmable computer in 1948; the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube’ baby, in 1978; and in 2004 when Manchester made headlines with  ’graphene’ an atom-thick wonder material.

That long history is celebrated throughout the Museum of Science & Industry and in its collections, ranging from Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame (1775) to the creation of Terylene, the world’s first wholly synthetic fibre (1941) , and the isolation of graphene just a decade ago.

The Museum is constantly innovating new ways to tell this story so as to make science accessible and enticing for its visitors, from its partnership with the largest STEMNET contract outside of London to the annual Manchester Science Festival.

The Museum’s major partnerships include relationships with the Wellcome Trust and the University of Manchester with whom the Museum is working on a new exhibition on graphene, which will open in 2016.

The Museum audience was also addressed by Rowena Burns, CEO of Manchester Science Partnerships, on the ‘limitless opportunities’ for life sciences in the region.  Plans for the European City of Science, “an unmatched opportunity to showcase our science and innovation to the world”, were outlined by Prof  Luke Georghiou, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester; and Professor Colin Bailey, Vice-President of the University of Manchester, told the audience that the new Sir Henry Royce Institute will “ hit the sweet spot in the innovation chain of materials” to speed their delivery from lab bench to market.

Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum: Objects from the Ancient World

Content Coordinator Ulrika Danielsson goes behind the scenes to explore our medical collections. 

I recently had the opportunity to explore the Science museum’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The fact that the museum has a Classical collection may come as a surprise to some readers; to quote a former colleague’s young son, ‘Planes, cars, trains and rockets!’ may more readily come to mind when thinking about the Science Museum. However, the collection does exist and has many interesting stories to tell, some of which will be included in new galleries dedicated to the history of medicine that will open in 2018.

Greek and Roman antiquities made their way into the Science Museum more or less entirely from the enormous collection amassed by Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). The great majority were transferred as a permanent loan into the Science Museum’s custodianship in the 1970s as part of a larger collection relating to the history of medicine. Looking at the Classical collection today there is a wonderful mix of ceramics, sculpture, glass vessels, surgical tools and coins just waiting to be discovered.

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Amongst the most eye-catching finds is the large number of anatomical votive offerings of terracotta and marble which include heads, abdominal viscera, feet, breasts, wombs, genitalia, eyes and ears. While the exact age and provenance of these anatomical models unfortunately remain uncertain, we know that they would have been brought to sanctuaries and shrines in the ancient world to express thanks or request healing or fertility from the gods believed to reside there. As divine property, the votives were not destroyed or recycled but instead packed into small buildings or rooms, or buried in sacred pits, which is why such large numbers have survived.

Votives were made from moulds and mass produced, most likely by family-run businesses located near shrines and on the major pilgrim routes. In some cases, the reproductions were modified to show specific pathological conditions, or even specially commissioned to show the specific limbs and features of individuals. You can see the former in this copy of a votive elbow covered in raised pustules in the Science Museum collection (below).

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Anatomical votives do not only tell us about religious medicine in the ancient world, but also of the Roman and Greek understanding of the body and of common ailments and afflictions affecting ancient populations. In some cases votive deposits confirm and underline what we know from written sources and other archaeological material, as is the case with for instance eye disease. Partial or complete blindness was a very serious condition in the ancient world as it would have prevented people from carrying out their livelihoods.

Eye conditions in general were common and feature prominently in both ancient literature and medical texts. Additionally, votive eyes have been found in large numbers and also feature prominently in the Science Museum collection. There is even a theory that different conditions can be gleaned from the way votive eyes have been depicted. Votive eyes showing eye balls may indicate conditions affecting vision (e.g. short-sightedness, detached retina and cataract) while those with eyelids and other surrounding tissues may point to infected lesions (e.g. trachoma or inflammation of the eyelid).

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

In the ancient world religious medicine was part of a bustling medical market place where individuals were at liberty to consult different practitioners in lieu of, or alongside, seeking divine help. Any comfort, psychological or otherwise, gained from religious medicine should not be underestimated. There is also evidence to suggest that healing shrines specialised in for instance injuries to hands and feet, or indeed eyes, and that practitioners specialising in treating the above would have set up shop near the shrine, offering their services and wares. Ultimately votive offerings and religious medicine in general needs to be considered when looking at ancient medical practice as a whole.

This and many more exiting stories will be told in the new Medical galleries opening at the Science Museum in 2018. If you can’t wait, why not visit our current medical galleries, The Science and Art of Medicine and Glimpses of Medical History.

How did tea and cake help start a computing revolution?

Today (17 November) marks the 63rd anniversary of the LEO 1 (Lyons Electronic Office 1) computer, the first computer to be used in the workplace. 

In 1950 if you fancied a cup of tea or a piece of cake you might have gone to a Lyons tea shop. J Lyons & Company ran tea shops across Britain. But the company was also interested in improving the way its work was managed and conducted, so it decided to build a computer that could support the collection and analysis of this information. Brought to life on 17 November 1951, LEO I played a crucial role in the development of a new computer age.

Working with the team at the University of Cambridge that had built the EDSAC computer in 1949, Lyons developed the LEO I, assembling it at the Lyons main factory building in West London. The computer ran its first program on 5 September 1951, valuing the cost of goods that came out of the bakeries.

Leo I electronic computer, c 1960s

Leo I electronic computer, c 1960s

The company LEO Computers Ltd was formed in 1954 and went on to build LEO II and LEO III. These were installed in many British offices including those of Ford, Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue and the Post Office. The later models were exported as far as Australia and South Africa.

You can find out more about the LEO computer in our Information Age gallery, which looks at the last 200 years of how communications technology has transformed our lives.

Her Majesty The Queen sends her first tweet to unveil the Information Age

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Her Majesty The Queen this morning opened the pioneering Information Age gallery at the Science Museum by sending her first tweet to the world, 76 years after The Queen’s first visit to the museum.

HM The Queen opens the Science Museum's Information Age gallery by sending her first tweet

HM The Queen opens the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery by sending her first tweet. Credit: Science Museum

The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh had earlier toured the landmark gallery, which explores the six networks that have transformed global communications, listening to personal recollections of people whose first experience of television was watching her Coronation in 1953.

Inviting Her Majesty to open the gallery, Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford remarked on how royalty had embraced communications technology from the day Queen Victoria took an interest in the invention of the telephone, which was demonstrated to her in January 1878 by Alexander Graham Bell at Osborne House, Isle of Wight.

“Your Majesty has followed in this tradition,” said Mr Blatchford while addressing around 600 guests including communications entrepreneurs, authors and experts, from Baroness Lane Fox, Hermann Hauser and Mo Ibrahim to Prof Steve Furber, James Gleick, Tom Standage and Sir Nigel Shadbolt.

“You made the first live Christmas broadcast in 1957,” he added, “and an event relished by historians took place on 26 March 1976, when you became the first monarch to send an email, during a visit to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. “

Then Mr Blatchford invited Her Majesty to join him to “send your first Tweet”.

The Queen removed a glove to send her pioneering tweet from the @BritishMonarchy Twitter account.


The Queen's first Tweet

The Queen’s first Tweet

This marked the first time that a reigning British monarch contributed one of the half billion or so tweets that are sent every day.

The Queen has a long relationship with the Science Museum and first visited in March 1938, as a princess, a few years after it launched a pioneering Children’s Gallery.

Today she explored Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World, the first museum gallery dedicated to the history of information technologies, containing more than 800 iconic objects and six state-of-the art interactive displays in story boxes connected by an elevated walkway.

The £16 million project saw collaborations with leading artists and thinkers, including Olivier award-winning video and projection designer Finn Ross, artists Matthew Robins and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, broadcaster Bonnie Greer and developer of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

From the dramatic story of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America  to the birth of the modern smartphone, it looks at how today’s  world was forged with six communication networks: the telegraph; the telephone, radio and television broadcasting; satellite communications; computer networks; and mobile communications.

Lead curator Dr Tilly Blyth showed The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh around the exhibition, from the bright yellow call box from Cameroon to the BBC’s first radio transmitter from 1922 to the monumental 6-metre high aerial tuning inductor from Rugby Radio Station that lies at the heart of the gallery.

This strangely beautiful web of copper and wood was once part of the most powerful radio transmitter in the world and was donated to the Science Museum by BT.

Over 410,000 people follow the Science Museum on Twitter via @sciencemuseum.

We use twitter to share as many fascinating objects (some weird, others wonderful) and stories from our exhibitions and collections as possible.  In the past we have shared science jokes and organised a Q&A with an astronaut.

We’ve even taken our followers inside Charlie Brown, the Apollo 10 Command Module.

Our curators regularly take over the @sciencemuseum account, taking hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter tours of their favourite objects. In the past, @rooneyvision has shared his story of how we made the modern world, with @ali_boyle selecting her favourite objects from our astronomy collection (you can read the #CosmosTour here).

The @ScienceMuseum account was also at the heart of the Great British Innovation vote which attracted more than 50,000 votes from the public for their favourite innovation.

We love reading tweets from the millions of you who visit each year, sharing stories of visits, getting engaged and even dancing under our rockets.

From astronauts to pop stars, we have had the pleasure of meeting and tweeting many famous faces. Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, joked with us about driving a NASA moon buggy, with Chris Hadfield sharing stories of life on board the International Space Station, and joining us for a tour of the museum.

And it was a remarkable day when both Prof Stephen Hawking and Nobel prize-winner Prof Peter Higgs met in the Science Museum for our Collider exhibition opening.

This year a record breaking 450,000 young people visited the Science Museum on educational trips, or benefitted from its outreach programme, more than any other UK museum. Our Learning team (@SM_Learn) helps schools to plan their visits as well as sharing science demos and experiments that wow visitors every day.

Information Age has been made possible through the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, BT (Lead Principal Sponsor), ARM (Principal Sponsor), Bloomberg Philanthropies and Google (Principal Funders).  Major Funders include the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation, the Bonita Trust and the Motorola Solutions Foundation. 

Additional support has been provided by Accenture (Connect Circle Sponsor) as well as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Cambridge Wireless (CW), the David and Claudia Harding Foundation and other individual donors.  The Science Museum would also like to thank the BBC for their assistance.

Revealing The Real Cooke and Wheatstone Telegraph Dial

John Liffen, Curator of Communications, blogs about an important discovery to be displayed for the first time in our new Information Age gallery opening 25 October 2014.

The Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery features over 800 objects spanning 200 years of telecommunications. Many have been on display before, but most are on show for the first time in this gallery. Among these are newly-acquired objects that show the latest developments in communications, while others are drawn from the Museum’s extensive collections.

One object in particular represents what we believe to be a major discovery.

The object in question is a large Cooke and Wheatstone electric telegraph dial, on loan from Kings College London since 1963. The object has never before been on public display because of doubts over its authenticity. However, I am now confident that it dates from 1837, the year that the practical electric telegraph was introduced in Britain.

Cooke and Wheatstone's Five Needle Telegraph © Science Museum

The newly-identified Cooke and Wheatstone Five Needle Telegraph, 1837 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

Since 1876, the Museum has displayed a smaller five-needle instrument and has claimed it to be one of the original instruments installed at either Euston or Camden Town in 1837 when Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke demonstrated their electric telegraph system to the directors of the newly-opened London and Birmingham Railway.

I had long been suspicious of this because there were several technical features which just did not ‘add up’. All the history books repeated the Museum’s assertion about its originality and yet there was no real evidence to confirm it. I decided it was time to find out for certain.

The smaller Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph instrument, now believed to date from about 1849 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

The smaller Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph instrument, now believed to date from about 1849 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

I researched the whole story again, this time using only contemporary records such as Cooke’s letters, other manuscript documents and press reports. After much work, I concluded that the large dial was almost certainly one of the two 1837 originals, whereas the smaller instrument was likely to be one of the working models made for demonstration at a High Court hearing in 1850 when a rival company was disputing Cooke and Wheatstone’s priority in the invention.

The layout of the dial was Wheatstone’s idea. Any of the 20 letters on the dial can be indicated by making the appropriate pair of needles point to it. No knowledge of a code is needed and the dial is big enough for a crowd of people to see it working. Then as now, good salesmanship was needed to put over new technology.

Sheet 1 of the drawings for Cooke and Wheatstone’s 1837 electric telegraph  © Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library

Sheet 1 of the drawings for Cooke and Wheatstone’s 1837 electric telegraph © Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library

So why is this discovery so important?

The electric telegraph was the first practical use of electricity and from the 1840s onwards it transformed world communications. After a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866, messages between Europe and North America took only hours to arrive rather than weeks. Moreover, Cooke saw the emerging railway system as a major customer for the new technology. To operate safely, the railways needed to observe a timetable based on a standard time system.

View taken from under the Hampstead Road Bridge  looking towards the station at Euston Square, 1837

View taken from under the Hampstead Road Bridge looking towards the station at Euston Square, 1837 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

The electric telegraph enabled Greenwich time to be distributed right across Britain, and within a few years local time, based on the times of sunrise and sunset, had been replaced by standard (Greenwich) time. The telegraph could also help catch criminals. In 1845 a message sent from Slough railway station to Paddington enabled murder suspect John Tawell to be identified, arrested, and in due course, executed.

After many years of doubt, I am now satisfied that one of the key inventions from the beginning of electric telegraphy has been authenticated and rightly takes its place in our new Information Age gallery.

Life on the Exchange – Stories From The Hello Girls

Sunday 5 October marks the 54th anniversary of the Enfield Exchange switching from manual to automatic exchange. To celebrate, Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager, spoke to telephone operators from the 1950s and 1960s who shared their stories for the new Information Age gallery.

Today when we pick up the telephone, the digital automated system makes connecting a call quick and simple. But before this automatic system was introduced, telephone exchange operators had to help us on our way.

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield. October 1960. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield. October 1960. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

In the first half of the 20th century, women worked across the country, connecting calls and helping people get in touch with one another. The work required concentration, patience and an excellent manner, but the community created within these exchanges was fun and social once shifts had ended.

Women working on the Exchange at Enfield. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Women working on the Exchange at Enfield. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

One of the last manual telephone exchanges was based at Enfield, north London. The Enfield Exchange’s switch from manual to automatic exchange, marked the end of an era in communication history. A section of the Enfield Exchange, donated to the Science Museum by BT, forms a part of the Museum’s collection, and will go on display in the new Information Age gallery.

To bring this amazing piece of history to life, we spoke to women who worked as telephone exchange operators in the 1950s and early 1960s, recording their stories through oral history interviews.

These former ‘hello girls’ gave their insight into how the exchange worked and what the job of an operator involved, but also shared wonderful stories about the friends they made and the social life they experienced once they’d clocked off.

A switchboard from the Enfield Exchange, which will go on display in the Science Musuem's new Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

A switchboard from the Enfield Exchange, donated to the Science Museum by BT, which will go on display in the new Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

One of these former operators, Jean Singleton, shared her thoughts on what made a good telephone operator, even if she didnít feel she was one!

‘How do I know? [Laughs] I wasn’t a good telephone operator, I was a naughty telephone operator! Well, first of all, you had to have a nice speaking voice, you couldn’t go there if you were a Cockney, speaking in a Cockney way, or a Northern way, you had to speak the Queen’s English, or King’s English as it was then. I suppose I had a decent enough voice. You had to be polite, and the customer sort of was always right, more or less, you know, you didn’t swear back at somebody if they swore at you, you weren’t allowed to do that sort of thing. If you found you were in trouble with a person on the telephone, you just passed them over to your supervisor, and they would deal with it.’

A close up view of the Enfield switchboard. Image credit: Science Museum.

A close up view of the Enfield switchboard. Image credit: Science Museum.

Another former operator, Rose Young, talked about some of the kit that was used whilst working on the exchange.

‘The first headsets were very heavy, you’d have a mouthpiece that came up in front of you on a plastic piece that had a tape on that you hung round your neck. And then the headpiece was like a metal band with a very heavy earpiece, you had one ear free so that you could hear what was going on around you and one that you covered, that covered your ear, but they were very heavy.’

Visitors to Information Age will have the opportunity to hear more from these incredible women through an interactive audio experience which will sit alongside the original section of the Enfield Exchange. We’ll just have to make sure we edit the cheeky bits!

Discover more about these stories when the Information Age gallery opens on Saturday 25 October.

30th Anniversary of DNA Fingerprinting

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

This fuzzy image, taken on 10 September 1984, launched a revolution; one that sent out shockwaves that can still be felt today. It is the first DNA fingerprint, taken on a Monday morning at the University of Leicester by Alec Jeffreys, now Sir Alec in recognition of his momentous achievement.

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The fuzzy pattern that he recorded on an X-ray film was based on genetic material from one of his technicians, Vicky Wilson. At that time, Sir Alec was investigating highly repetitive zones of the human genetic code called “minisatellites”, where there is much variation from person to person. He wanted to study these hotspots of genetic change to find the cause of the DNA diversity that makes every human being on the planet unique.

Gazing at the X-ray film recording Wilson’s minisatellites, he thought to himself: “That’s a mess.”
But then, as he told me, “the penny dropped”. In this mess he stumbled on a kind of fingerprint, one which showed not only which parts of Wilson’s DNA came from her mother and which from her father, but also the unique genetic code that she possessed, one that was shared by no other human being on the planet.

In that Eureka moment, the science of DNA fingerprinting was born.

Sir Alec and his technician made a list of all the possible applications of genetic fingerprinting – but it was his wife, Sue, who spotted the potential for resolving immigration disputes, which in fact proved to be the first application.

An autoradiograph of the first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

An autoradiograph of the first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

Soon after his discovery, Sir Alec was asked to help confirm the identity of a boy whose family was originally from Ghana. DNA results proved that the boy was indeed a close relation of people already in the UK. The results were so conclusive that the Home Office, after being briefed by the professor, agreed to drop the case and the boy was allowed to stay in the country, to his mother’s immense relief. “Of all the cases,” he recalls, “this is the one that means most to me.’’

Sir Alec is the first to admit that he never realised just how useful his work would turn out to be: in resolving paternity issues, for example, in studies of wildlife populations and, of course, in many criminal investigations (DNA fingerprinting was first used by police to identify the rapist and killer of two teenage girls murdered in Narborough, Leicestershire, in 1983 and in 1986 respectively).

Similar methods were used to establish the identity of the ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele (using bone from the Nazi doctor’s exhumed skeleton), and to identify the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family – in the course of which the Duke of Edinburgh gave a blood sample.

Sir Alec told the University recently: “The discovery of DNA fingerprinting was a glorious accident. It was best summarised in a school project that a grandson of mine did years ago: ‘DNA fingerprinting was discovered by my granddad when he was messing about in the lab’. Actually, you can’t describe it better than that – that is exactly what we were doing.”

Sir Alec has long been concerned about the world’s DNA databases. He describes how there needs to be a balance between the state’s rights to investigate and solve crime and an individual’s right to genetic privacy. “I take the very simple view that my genome is my own and nobody may access it unless with my permission.”

As for what happens next, Sir Alec says: ‘I’m now retired and consequently busier than ever.’