Category Archives: Collection

Ask A Curator 2013

A global Q&A session, better known as Ask a Curator Day, takes place on Wednesday (18th Sept). Will Stanley, who manages the @sciencemuseum Twitter account, explains more…

What’s the story behind that object? How was it invented? Which is your favourite? Whenever I see a Science Museum curator, I find myself asking questions (and often tweeting about the result). Now it’s your turn. On Wednesday, our curators will answer your questions (between 1-6pm) for #AskACurator day.

Over 500 museums from 34 countries will be joining in via Twitter, and our curators are poised to take part too: just tweet your questions to @sciencemuseum using #AskACurator.

We have put together a great team to help answer your questions:

You can delve into the Secret Life of the Home, with Helen Peavitt, our Curator of Consumer Technology – just ask Helen how fridges changed the world – or tweet a question for Katie Maggs, our resident medical collections expert.

Our Curator of Time, Transport and Navigation, David Rooney (@rooneyvision), is a recent convert to Twitter, but will be on hand to answer your questions about Alan Turing, Making the Modern World and this ghostly 3D scan of the Shipping galleries. Curator Ali Boyle (@ali_boyle) will be answering your particle physics questions just two months before the new Collider exhibition opens.

If communication is more your thing, our Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, Tilly Blyth (@tillyblyth) has been looking at 200 years of communication technologies for new gallery, Information Age. Content developer Charlotte Connelly (@connellycharlie) even visited Cameroon in her quest for mobile phone related objects for the gallery.

Finally, our Collections Coordinator Selina Pang (@spangoline), will try to answer any other collections questions you might have.

Top tips for #AskACurator

  • Try asking “I find ____ fascinating. Can you let me more about it?” That’s sure to get our curators tweeting.
  • Sometime we won’t be able to fit lengthy answers into a tweet, but don’t worry, great questions and answers are likely to turn into future blog posts.
  • Don’t worry if you are not on Twitter either, we’ll be sharing the best questions (and answers) in upcoming blog posts (like this post for example).

#MMWTour – Tweeting a tour of Making the Modern World

We asked Curator of Time, Transport and Navigation, David Rooney to tweet some of the hidden gems in the Making the Modern World gallery.

The full tour can be seen here, but we’ve pick out a few highlights for you below…

The full tour can be seen here

Thanks to all of you who followed the tour, and you can discover more about Making the Modern World here.

Wonder in science: Infinite Monkey Cage at the Science Museum

Will Stanley writes about the recent recording of BBC Radio 4′s Infinite Monkey Cage  in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre.

In their favourite episode of the current series, Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince used the awe and wonder of science as their inspiration, discussing why all children have it and the reasons many adults don’t. And the venue for this recording? Well, it had to be the home of human ingenuity, the Science Museum.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince, presenters of Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage

Brian Cox and Robin Ince, presenters of Radio 4′s The Infinite Monkey Cage

Guests on this special edition of BBC Radio 4’s witty, irreverent take on the scientific world included author and historian Richard Holmes, comedian Josie Long, American astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the Museum’s Director Ian Blatchford.

Ian explained that one reason that children love the Science Museum is because it is brimming with stories and old things; a refreshingly different thing to hear in the digital age. “We’re working on a project to show the history of communications, and when you show young people a telephone exchange or even a dial telephone, they are amazed by that.”

Comedian Josie Long “took it out on chemistry”, burning her notes after finishing exams in protest at not being able to study her favourite art subjects. After historian Richard Holmes described building a “magnesium bomb” in chemistry classes, Brian Cox exclaimed, “They are dangerous these arts people, because they were prevented from being scientists at a young age.”

The Infinite Monkey Cage panel at the Science Museum

The Infinite Monkey Cage panel at the Science Museum. From left: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Josie Long, Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Ian Blatchford and Richard Holmes.

Venturing safely back to the eighteenth century, Richard Holmes, author of the Age of Wonder, described his re-discovery of science when researching how Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Humphry Davy, a poet and a scientist, had worked together on Nitrous oxide experiments.

Questioned about whether we are losing our childlike wonder in the twenty first century, Neil deGrasse Tyson – a modern day Carl Sagan, known for his answer to the most astounding fact about the Universe – said that “a scientist is simply a child who never grew up, because they still wonder.”

The extended version of the show, featuring the wooden balls of pioneering chemist John Dalton, a coil of wire demonstrating how Michael Faraday tamed electrons and other remarkable objects from the Science Museum collection, can be downloaded here as a podcast.

Asked about their ultimate museum objects, the panel’s choices ranged from objects that are bigger than you are, to a working time machine and the Holy Grail.

Finally, comedian and rap artist Doc Brown closed Infinite Monkey Cage with this special tribute to his – in fact almost everyone’s - childhood hero, Sir David Attenborough.

Generating Ideas: drawing inspiration from the Science Museum

Inventor in Residence Mark Champkins writes about drawing inspiration from the Science Museum. A selection of Mark’s products can be bought from the Science Museum. 

Coming up with ideas and inventions “on demand” is tricky. I work as the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence, and it is my job to generate a stream of products that are interesting to the science-savvy, whilst engaging to those new to the Museum. If possible the products should also be wildly popular and generate lots of income. No pressure then.

Fortunately, the Museum provides an incredibly fertile space for generating ideas. Though my ideas tend toward the quirky, rather than world-changing, there are so many examples of ingenuity, insight and inventiveness, it’s hard not to be inspired. But where to start?

It’s not widely known that the Science Museum is home to just 5% of the Museum’s collection. The majority is tucked away in Blythe House in London, and at Wroughton, a former RAF airbase in Wiltshire. However, as the Science Museum is a showcase for the most iconic items in the collection, for me, it is the richest source of ideas.

The Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

Our Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

I’m particularly drawn to the Making the Modern World gallery. In many ways it is the centerpiece of the Science Museum. Located on the ground floor, it exhibits objects chronologically, on a timeline starting in the 1770′s in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, and ending with the Clock of the Long Now, a clock mechanism intended to keep time for 10,000 years. Walking through the gallery, is walking through the recent history of human development.

Visitors in the Making the Modern World gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

Visitors in the Making the Modern World gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

There are a couple of items in Making the Modern World that have directly inspired new products. One of the first glass cases that you encounter in the gallery contains what looks like a whisk with an accompanying pot. In fact it is the apparatus, made by James Prescott Joule, that defines the standard unit of energy, or “Joule”. Filling the pot with water, a “Joule” of energy is defined as the energy required to whisk the water until it has raised the temperature of the water by one degree.

Beauty in the Making

Beauty in the Making: Telling the story of how materials are manufactured, including an aluminium water bottle

This device got me thinking about how SI units are defined, and of measurement in general, and led to the creation of the Word Count Pencil, a pencil that has a scale printed along it’s length, to estimate the number of words you have written as the pencil wears out. A Gramophone in one of the cases along the side of the gallery inspired the iGramo, non-electrical method to amplify iPhones. Electro-magnets in the central glass cases, inspired my Levitating Cutlery idea. A sample of the first pure aluminium inspired me to design an aluminium water bottle that is decorated with an explanation of how the material is extracted, refined, and formed into the bottle.

Often, as I sit amongst the items in the gallery, trying to think up new product ideas, is gratifying to imagine all the inventors and scientists whose work surrounds me, doing likewise. Conjuring up new inventions and ideas using the power of their imagination. It makes me want to think harder and try to achieve more, and I find that profoundly inspiring.

I would urge anyone tasked with generating ideas, or impressed by ingenuity to treat themselves to a trip to the Science Museum. You never know what you might come up with!

Mallard 75: Celebrating Britain’s steam record

Sam Potts, Communications Officer at the National Railway Museum writes about a rather special gathering in York for Mallard75.

On 3 July 1938 Mallard made history when it became the fastest steam locomotive in the world. The locomotive reached 126mph on the East Coast main line, a record which still stands today, 75 years later.

Mallard’s triumphant record breaking team. From left – fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington who had worked on Mallard since it was built and knew what it could do.

Mallard’s record breaking team. From left – fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington. Credit: NRM

Mallard is a streamlined A4 Pacific, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley to be the flagship locomotive for the London & North Eastern Railway’s Silver Jubilee services. In total 35 A4s were built at Doncaster Works, with only 6 surviving the end of steam in 1968.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the record, the National Railway Museum brought together the four UK-based A4s in York.

Four remaining UK-based A4s in York for Mallard's 70th Anniversary.

Four remaining UK-based A4s in York for Mallard’s 70th Anniversary. Credit: NRM

For the 75th anniversary of the record, we decided to do something even more special – reunite all six survivors, including the two A4s which had been given to America and Canada in the 1960s.

Dwight D Eisenhower was presented to the National Railroad Museum Wisconsin in 1964.

Dwight D Eisenhower was presented to the National Railroad Museum Wisconsin in 1964. Credit: Daily Herald Archive/ NMEM / SSPL

In summer last year work began to bring the North American locomotives from their respective homes, back to the UK. Both locomotives were moved, appropriately enough, by rail to Halifax, Nova Scotia ready to be shipped to Liverpool.

Dwight D Eisenhower during its journey from Greenbay, Wisconsin to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Dwight D Eisenhower during its journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Credit: NRM

In October 2012, after a 2,527 mile journey by sea, both locomotives arrived back on English soil for the first time in over 40 years.

Dominion of Canada returns to English soil after 40 years abroad. Credit: Ant Clausen

Dominion of Canada returns to English soil after 40 years abroad. Credit: Ant Clausen

Both of the North American locomotives have been cosmetically restored to their former glory by the National Railway Museum, and have been on display in both York and Shildon.

Finishing touches are made to Dwight D Eisenhower, during its cosmetic restoration. Credit: NRM

Finishing touches are made to Dwight D Eisenhower, during its cosmetic restoration. Credit: NRM

Today is the first day of a fortnight-long celebration of Mallard’s record, and the first time that all six of the A4s will be seen together, which really is a once in a lifetime event.

Mallard is moved into place with five sister A4s to celebrate the world record. Credit: NRM

Mallard is moved into place with five sister A4s to celebrate the world record. Credit: NRM

To find out more about how you can join us to celebrate Mallard’s remarkable world record, visit nrm.org.uk/mallard75.

We want your telegrams!

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager, writes about the search for stories for our new Information Age gallery opening in September 2014. 

How do you send a message? Text? Email? What was used before computers? During the reign of Queen Victoria, it was the telegram. Do you have one tucked away somewhere at home that you could bring in and talk about? The Science Museum is inviting you to bring your telegrams into one of our collecting days at the Dana Centre (behind the Science Museum on 165 Queen’s Gate) from 11.00-16.00 on 28 June and 29 June.

Motorcycle telegram messenger, c 1930s

Motorcycle telegram messenger, c 1930s. Image: Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

We are looking for telegrams dated from Victorian times to the 1980s. There is no limitation on the length or content of each message and you will not be expected to donate your telegram. Instead, our team want the chance to chat to you about its background and history and take a digital scan of the card. 

Telegram operators transpose messages on to typewriters, 1 June 1935.

Telegram operators transpose messages on to typewriters, 1 June 1935. Image:
Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Considered to be the quickest and most efficient way to send short messages, topics could range from local gossip to family announcements to business orders. Although small, these printed cards are now recognised as an important part of the history of communication, which is why the Science Museum has launched a search for telegrams and the stories behind them. Find out more about the search here: sciencemuseum.org.uk/stories

Calling former telephone operators!

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager, writes about the search for stories for our new Information Age gallery opening in October 2014. 

Calling former telephone operators!

We want to speak to the ladies who worked as telephone exchange operators in the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly around Enfield, London. We would like our visitors to be able to listen their memories alongside a display of the last manual telephone exchange in our Information Age gallery.

Before automated systems were introduced in the 1960s, phone calls were manually connected by young female telephone exchange operators. Their concentration, patience and friendly manner ensured calls were placed across the country and each telephone exchange developed into a small social community.

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield, October 1960

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield, October 1960. Image: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The last manual telephone exchange was in Enfield, north London, and marks the end of an era in communication history. A section of the Enfield Exchange forms a part of the Science Museum’s collection and will be put on display in the Information Age gallery. We would like to bring this amazing piece of history to life through the memories of the women who worked with the machine.

Do you know of anyone who worked as a telephone exchange operator? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Please visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/stories to get in touch.

Lyons Tea Shop Managers needed!

We are also looking to speak to Lyons tea shop managers that worked with Lyons Electronic Office (LEO I), the world’s first business computer, in the 1950s. Brought to life on 17 November 1951, LEO I played a crucial role in the development of a new computer age and we would love to hear from its female workforce. If you are a former manager (or relative), please get in touch.

Lyons Tea Shop Manager Alice Eleanor Bacon, 1897

Lyons Tea Shop Manager Alice Eleanor Bacon, 1897. Image: Peter Bird

From Patches to Peake – celebrating 44 years since the Apollo 10 mission

Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technologies and Engineering, writes about Apollo 10 and four decades of space exploration.

Forty four years ago today, on 26th May 1969, NASA’s Apollo 10 command module and crew of three splashed into the Pacific Ocean after eight days in space. The mission, a dry run for Apollo 11, returned valuable information about our nearest cosmic neighbour ahead of the Moon landing later that year.

The team of three astronauts - Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan - returned with the most impressive images of the Moon surface ever seen. Thomas Stafford described the surface as “very smooth, like wet clay”. Two months later the Apollo 10 mission proved its worth as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of the Moon.

Apollo 10, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan

Apollo 10 command module. Image Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Apart from the giant Apollo 10 command module on display in our Making the Modern World gallery (the only one outside of the United States), we have smaller, yet just as significant, objects from the Apollo 10 mission in our collection, including mission patches.

Apollo 10 mission patch, worn on the garments of astronauts.

Apollo 10 mission patch, worn on the garments of astronauts. Image credit: Science Museum

Mission patches have been an important part of the military long before humans were sent in space. Many of the first astronauts started their lives as pilots of planes not spacecraft. With this background the tradition to wear specially designed patches became, though not smoothly, a custom of NASA missions. Interestingly the astronauts are heavily involved in the design of their mission patches and the Apollo 10 mission was no different. Gene Cernan explained that his team, with the help of artist Allen Stevens, wanted a badge which showed the mechanics and goals of their mission. They decided on a patch in the shape of a shield with the mission number written in Roman numerals stretching from the Moon to their space capsule orbiting above.  The name of the mission and the astronauts are clearly visible around the edge of the shield.

Each culture has used space mission patches in its own way.  In 1963 the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova blasted into space in the spacecraft Vostok 6.  Not only did she became the first woman in space but she is also considered the first cosmonaut to wear a mission patch, two years before the US officially introduced them into their space programme. Tereshkova’s insignia was a white dove with the letters CCCD stitched below. We now have another patch to look forward to seeing, that of Tim Peake, who was announced as the UK’s first official astronaut last week at the Science Museum.

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Peake will be launching into space in November 2015 to spend six months on the International Space Station (ISS). Although his mission may be different to that of Valentina Tereshkova and the crew of the Apollo 10, Peake is not unlike space explorers of yesteryear as he will be continuing to push the boundaries of human endurance and explore the unknowns of space.

Hempcrete Store Wins Sustainability Awards

The Science Museum has been honoured for its green credentials this month by scooping two prestigious awards for its new Hempcrete storage facility at Wroughton.

The innovative storage building which is made from hemp and lime, was honoured for its sustainable design by winning the Sustainability Award at the Museums and Heritage Awards – beating stiff competition from the BP Showcase Pavilion at the Olympic Park and the Museum of Surfing.

The Science Museum won in the Sustainability category at the Museums and Heritage Awards. Picture credit: M&H Show

The Science Museum won in the Sustainability category at the Museums and Heritage Awards. Picture credit: M&H Show

The project was also recognised earlier this month at the Greenbuild Awards, where it won the Best Workplace New Build category – fending off competition from organisations such as Co-op and Network Rail.

Like many other national museums, the Science Museum only displays 8% of its collections to the public – there is just not enough space to display any more. The other 92% of the collection is housed in storage facilities. One of these storage sites is a former airfield near Swindon, which holds 16,000 objects including large scale items such as aeroplanes, trains and cars.

The Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

The Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

The Hempcrete facility was designed as a radical new solution to protecting objects including horse-drawn carriages, fine art works, wooden ship models and paper archives. Many of these objects are sensitive to changing climate conditions such as light, heat and moisture so providing the right environment is essential to prevent deterioration.

The solution was to create a zero-carbon storage building from hemp and lime – low carbon natural materials which provide temperature and humidity buffering and ensure that the museum’s collections are maintained for future generations.

The Hempcrete store is a new solution to preserving the museum's sensitive objects. Picture credit: Science Museum

The Hempcrete store is a new solution to preserving the museum’s sensitive objects. Picture credit: Science Museum

Matt Moore, Head of Sustainable Development, Science Museum said “I’m delighted that the Hempcrete project has won these awards and been recognised by the museums and building sectors. The project is part of a wider remit to reduce emissions across all our sites. Using science and engineering to look after the Science Museum collections seems to be a perfect solution to one of our biggest challenges.”

Hempcrete is a material made from hemp fibre and lime mortar mixed and moulded in precast, pre-dried cassettes to form Hemclad panels. The material is typically used to provide sustainable building materials for housing and industrial building sectors.

As well as protecting objects from deterioration, the Hempcrete facility allows the museum to reduce carbon emissions and make significant energy savings. The new store will be used to house valuable objects from the Science Museum as well as those of its sister museum – the National Railway Museum.

The Dambusters, Barnes Wallis and the Bouncing Bomb

Seventy years ago, in the early hours of the 17th May 1943, 8 Lancaster bombers flew back to RAF Scampton and into the history books as part of the daring Dambusters raid. The 617 squadron, formed only two months earlier, had successfully destroyed two dams (Mohne and Eder), and damaged a third (Sorpe) using the ingenius invention of Barnes Wallis – a four tonne bouncing bomb.

Shortly before he died, Wallis donated the bulk of his papers to the Science Museum, including design notes, photographs, correspondence and reports relating to his work. We’ve picked out a few images below to tell the story of the bouncing bomb.

Taken from Wallis' report on the proposed method of attaching dams. The diagram shows the path of the Spherical Surface Torpedo (bouncing bomb) . Image credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Taken from Wallis’ report on the proposed method of attaching dams. The diagram shows the path of the Spherical Surface Torpedo (bouncing bomb) . Image credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Even before the war begin, the UK Government had identified the three German dams as potential targets, but had no suitable weapons to launch an attack. Wallis’ idea is simple to explain, but was far more complex to put into action: bounce a 4 tonne rotating bomb across 400m of water until it hits the dam, sinks and explodes.

Equipment used to hold and spin the bouncing bombs. Image: BAE Systems/SSPL

Equipment used to hold and spin the bouncing bombs. Image: BAE Systems/SSPL

Bouncing bombs allowed Wallis to completely avoid the torpedo nets protecting the dam. However, to get the bounce just right, the Lancaster bombers needed to approach the dams flying just 20m above the water while traveling at 230mph (more on how this was done can be read here).

At exactly 389 metres from the dam wall – calculated by triangulating with the dam’s towers – the bombs were released. Wallis calculated that backspin would stabilise the bombs in ‘flight’, help create the bounce and forced the bomb to cling to the face of the dam once it sank.

Bouncing bomb trials. Film stills signed by Barnes Wallis.

Bouncing bomb trials. Film stills signed by Barnes Wallis. Credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Even with practice runs, it took many attempts to bounce the bombs correctly, and trials with live ammunition were only conducted three days before the raids. To this day, the skill and bravery of the 617 squadron (113 men in total), who flew low over enemy territory under the cover of darkness, remains breathtaking.  

After the war, Wallis continued his work on aircraft design (before WWII he was a pioneer of geodetic design, used to build the largest airship of its time, the R100), designing “swing wing” aircraft suited to hypersonic flight. 

Barnes Wallis with his hypersonic aircraft model

Barnes Wallis with his hypersonic aircraft model. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Our Senior Keeper, Andrew Nahum, was recently interviewed about Barnes Wallis, his bouncing bomb and other work. The full interview can be read here.