Category Archives: Exhibitions

Open for Business: The story of contemporary British industry

Curator Ben Russell reflects on the story of contemporary British industry, on show in our Open for Business exhibition. 

Our collections include some of most celebrated icons of manufacturing and engineering in history, including Puffing Billy, Newcomen’s engine and Stephensons’s Rocket. These objects embody the ingenuity, resourcefulness and resolve of the engineers and manufacturers who created them.

Stephenson's 'Rocket' (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Fast forward to the present day, and it seems like many people’s perceptions of manufacturing continue to be dominated by heavy industrial images of men in boiler suits bathed in oil, up to their elbows in a machine. Of course, that’s still an integral part of industry, and one not without its attractions. But what we don’t often recognise is just how much contemporary British manufacturing has (literally) smashed these conventions into pieces.

Many people think Britain doesn’t actually make things anymore, but the reality is very different. Making things and selling them around the world remains strategically important for Britain, and its resilience continues to draw many manufacturing companies back to the UK after relocating to the Far East. As well as the mass production of everything from tin can tops to cars, many British companies thrive by carving out their own unique niches, from building yachts to weaving fine textiles. Many companies make a reputation for the excellence of their product: Quality sells.

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Our exhibition Open for Business tells the story of contemporary British manufacturing through the images of nine Magum photographers. They each concentrated on a different region of the UK, visiting one-man businesses and FTSE 100 companies like Airbus and Renishaw, to try and create a snapshot of industry across the UK.

Their subjects can seem surprising, with photographs that include Aardman animators and theatre propmakers, as well as shipbuilding and factory workers. Renowned photographer David Hurn wanted to show the variety of manufacturing in Wales. Rather than just focus on the coal mines more commonly associated with industry in Wales, he chose to photograph Corgi Hosiery, a Welsh company that produces a range of socks designed by Prince Charles.

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

The incredible diversity of British manufacturing challenges the perceptions of what’s needed behind-the-scenes to make things. Roles in contemporary UK industry are vast, varied and can no longer be defined by the image of men in boiler suits.

Of course, it was ever thus: in the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s reputation as workshop of the world was attributed, not to the rise of the machines, but to the excellence of her people. In 1803, a French commentator praised ‘the wonderful practical skills’ of Britain’s ‘adventurers in the useful application of knowledge, and the superiority of her workmen in rapid and masterly execution’. The same could equally be said about making things in Britain today.

See more stunning images in our Open for Business exhibition, which closes 2 November 2014. 

Make Life Worth Living – Nick Hedges’ Photographs for Shelter, 1968-72

In this post Hedy van Erp, co-curator of the new Media Space exhibition Make Life Worth Living, looks at the background of the exhibition and the significance of the photographs on display.

Nick Hedges was commissioned by housing charity Shelter to document the poor conditions suffered by many around 1970. He travelled around the UK for four years and photographed people in slum properties in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow and other major cities. A selection of these images – 100 out of the 1000 vintage prints held by the National Media Museum – can now be seen in the Virgin Media Studio at Media Space.

Children playing at 'Weddings', The Gorbals, Glasgow, 1970 © Nick Hedges  National Media Museum, Bradford

Children playing at ‘Weddings’, The Gorbals, Glasgow, 1970 © Nick Hedges National Media Museum, Bradford

Detached from the original Shelter context and combined with many images which have never been seen before, Make Life Worth Living does not just show the misery in housing around 1970, but is in fact a cinematic narrative of Hedges criss-crossing the UK from 1968 to 1972. The selection is reminiscent of Robert Frank‘s groundbreaking book The Americans. Like Frank, Hedges at the time was a true ‘noir’ photographer.

It has been said that Nick Hedges’ work for Shelter is strongly related to the American tradition of social documentary established by photographers like Lewis Hine and Paul Strand. Moreover, an analogy can be found in the work of Walker Evans, when he was hired by the Farm Security Administration to document the poor conditions of the farmers in pre-Second World War America.

“Make Life Worth Living”, terrace of back-to-back houses, Leeds, West Yorkshire, July 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

“Make Life Worth Living”, terrace of back-to-back houses, Leeds, West Yorkshire, July 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

Hedges also continued the rich tradition of socially committed photography in Britain. In fact, few photographers have captured better than Hedges what is both so upsetting and captivating in the look of Britain around 1970. Yet this is more than the aesthetics of poverty. Hedges’ Britain is at times a gritty place full of shadows, where you get the feeling things may not end well, but you still can’t stop looking.

Kitchen of slum house, Birmingham Duddleston, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

Kitchen of slum house, Birmingham Duddleston, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

The images taken outside the derelict houses – street scenes, city and rural landscapes – have a casual, almost drive-by feel. But you quickly see how carefully Hedges chose the images he shot over four years. Signs, interiors, children and animals keep cropping up, echoing from image to image. These images possess an energy and a visual harshness that contradict what may at first glance be mistaken for objective photojournalism.

It’s not only permissible, but also rewarding to take pleasure in Hedges’ images; the way light falls on a kitchen floor, the terraced houses running down to a factory, the pile of shoes in the window of a second hand shoe shop, or the vacant stare of a mother holding her baby. When life is hard, which it often is in these photographs, we have to look hard, but when we do, Hedges shows us beauty in many places.

A playground by the shipyards. Govan, Glasgow, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

A playground by the shipyards. Govan, Glasgow, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

Apart from showing beauty, disconnection and decay, Hedges’ poignant work offers us an important part of Europe’s past and culture. 40 years later, his Shelter archive is an incredibly strong body of work with which Hedges created history with his camera, history that happened in the form of scenes that can now become symbolic archetypes embedded in a national consciousness. Nick Hedges shows us life worth seeing – the words ‘worth seeing’ in fact being a gross understatement.

Make Life Worth Living: Nick Hedges’ Photographs for Shelter, 1968-72 runs in the Virgin Media Studio at Media Space until 18 January 2015. Entry to the exhibition is free.

Grand Designs For Information Age

Nick Rolls, Design Project Leader at Universal Design Studio, reflects on the design of the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery.

Artist's impression of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Universal Design Studio

Artist’s impression of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Universal Design Studio

In early 2011, we were commissioned to work on the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery.

From the outset, we knew this project would create a special challenge. With an impressive range of assets –  200 years of inventions, 800 unique objects and a vast gallery space measuring 2,500m2, this would be a unique gallery within the Science Museum.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was organising the huge empty space into a navigable gallery whilst giving each object and story a platform on which to shine.

We started with the largest and most impressive object of all – the aerial tuning coil from Rugby Radio Station, which we decided to place at the heart of the gallery.

Made from timber and webs of cables, this incredible object looks almost primitive in construction. This ambiguity made it a great tool for us to draw visitors into the centre of the gallery and make them question their preconceptions of modern communications. It is a world away from the common communication devices that spring to mind – mobile phones, micro-chips and digiboxes.

We learnt that the tuning coil was housed underneath a copper shroud – we think to dissipate heat and prevent the timber structure from igniting. This provided us with a material that resonated with the object’s history and a warm, reflective surface for the display. The coil is located where visitors can learn about the transmitter, signal and receiver.

From the centre you can see that the gallery is divided into six networks – each one telling stories from a specific section of communication technology. Placed around the outsides of the gallery, similar to the idea of a town square or plaza, we placed large double height display cases. These display structures are designed to house a vast array of objects.

Floorplan of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Universal Design Studio

Floorplan of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Universal Design Studio

These display structures serve several purposes. One function is to hold up the elevated walkway that encircles the gallery. More importantly, they allow visitors to engage with the incredible objects and stories told in each of the six networks. For this reason, they became known as storyboxes. To provide a varied experience, both a producer and a ‘voice’ were assigned to a storybox for each network, creating an installation of their conception.

The sheer quantity of objects on display within the gallery required meticulous planning of the space.

Stories with large numbers of objects fill showcases, which in turn create smaller spaces and routes throughout the gallery. A key concern was to ensure visitors knew where their attention should be focussed, especially in a gallery without a prescribed route.

We crafted a space that used solid forms and open apertures within the gallery, providing clear groups of objects along with vistas from one section to another.

Lastly, we designed a large encircling walkway that loops around the gallery. We introduced this to provide an overview of the space and an alternative perspective of the gallery. We felt it was important for visitors to understand the context of each story within the scheme of the gallery – allowing them to connect objects from one end of the space to the other.

Fundamentally, this is a gallery about incredible objects, people and stories. The format of the gallery plays a supporting role to these awe-inspiring exhibits. We hope visitors will enjoy experiencing the gallery through the space we have designed.

The Information Age gallery will be welcoming visitors from 25 October 2014. For more information visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/informationage.

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.

Global Telephone Calls For All

David Hay, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT, reflects on the story of the first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT1, which opened 58 years ago today (25 September). The story will be covered in the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery, which opens on 25 October.

Programme for the inauguration of the cable, 25 Sep 1956. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Programme for the inauguration of the cable, 25 Sep 1956. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

When the first transatlantic telephone cable was launched on 25 September 1956, it was hailed as the start of the modern era of global communication. It was designed to link both the United States and Canada to the UK, with facilities for some circuits to be leased to other West European countries too.

The cable  provided 30 telephone circuits to the US and six to Canada. Most were for communication with the UK, the rest were connected through London to give direct access to Europe.

Transatlantic telephone cable operations, Oban, Scotland, 1855. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Transatlantic telephone cable operations, Oban, Scotland, 1855. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Undertaken by BT’s predecessor, the Post Office Engineering Department, along with the American Telegraph and Telephone Company, Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corporation, the £12.5 million project took three years to complete. During this time the system was planned, manufactured and installed, which required developing new techniques for placing cable in deep waters.

Men pulling first segment ashore at Clarenville, Newfoundland,  Canada, 1955. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Men pulling first segment ashore at Clarenville, Newfoundland, Canada, 1955. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Telegraph links between the UK and the USA had been in existence from the middle of the previous century, but 1927 saw the first commercial radiotelephone service between the two countries. Initially 2,000 calls per year were made across the Atlantic, but the cost was prohibitive – in 1928 the basic rate for calls to New York was £9 for just three minutes.

It was only with the development of new equipment, such as coaxial cables with polyethylene insulation, carrier frequency equipment and broadband submerged repeaters, that transatlantic telephony by cable could be realised. These new technologies were developed just before and during World War Two. One key Post Office input was the development of subsea repeaters which were robust and reliable enough for areas around the coast and mainland Europe.

Cable operations at Clarenville, Newfoundland,  preparing to bring cable ashore, 1955. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Cable operations at Clarenville, Newfoundland, preparing to bring cable ashore, 1955. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Apart from the short shore ends, the whole of the transatlantic telephone cable was laid by the Post Office cable ship Monarch. It was the only such ship that was capable of carrying the 1,500 nautical miles of cable which had to be laid in one piece across the deepest part of the Atlantic, between Oban in Scotland and Clarenville, Newfoundland. The cable then crossed over the the Cabot Strait to Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia.

Cable route map from Oban to Clarenville and topographic diagram of the ocean floor. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Cable route map from Oban to Clarenville and topographic diagram of the ocean floor. Image credit: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

At the inaugural ceremony at  Lancaster House in London on 25 September 1956, the service was opened by the Postmaster General, who spoke to the Chairman of AT&T calling from New York, and to the Canadian Minister of Transport.

During its first year of service, TAT1 carried twice as many calls as the radio circuits had done in a year – about 220,000 calls between Britain and the United States, and 75,000 between Britain and Canada – generating £2 million to be shared between the three countries.

In 1956, the first transatlantic telephone cable was regarded as a major technological achievement, not least as a base for future research and improvements. It laid the path for further developments such as sophisticated digital fibre optic transatlantic cables, which can pass tens of thousands of calls simultaneously.

Sectioned submerged repeater for TAT-1 the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable, designed at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, made by Standard Telephones and Cables Limited, Woolwich, London, England, 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Sectioned submerged repeater for TAT-1 the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable. Credit: Science Museum

BT is excited to be Lead Principal Sponsor of the new Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, where the story of TAT1 and transatlantic communications is told. Our purpose as a company is to use the power of communications to make a better world. We have been involved in every significant development in telecommunications since the birth of the technology in 1837 with the invention of the electric telegraph in the UK

It was important for us to be able to support Information Age in telling the stories of how communications technology has changed the world for the better. And we are delighted to have donated so many of the objects on display in the gallery from our own heritage collection.

Information Age opens to the public at the Science Museum in London on 25 October 2014. For more details visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/informationage.

The Rubbish Collection by Joshua Sofaer

In the final post of our series linked to The Rubbish Collection the artist behind the project, Joshua Sofaer, looks back at a truly ambitious exhibition. 

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection is coming to an end. The Head of Exhibitions & Programmes at the Science Museum, Emily Scott-Dearing, asked me how I felt about it all. The truth is that now I just want to get to the end of it and for nothing to have gone wrong. I’m looking forward to looking back and for nobody to have succumbed to any of the long list of potential hazards that we had to consider on our lengthy risk assessment.

Joshua Sofaer in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Joshua Sofaer in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The project to document and display 30 days’ worth of Science Museum rubbish started several years ago. For the first years, I spent my time trying to convince scientists, curators, managers and pedagogues that it would be a fantastic idea to let members of the public get elbow deep in the museum rubbish before displaying it all in galleries that are normally reserved for precious and unique objects. Once they agreed I suddenly had a panic, as I was forced to seriously consider all the things that could go wrong: “But what if…?”

Volunteers sorting the Museum's rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Volunteers sorting the Museum’s rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the 30 days of the first phase with 4 assistants, 30 Science Museum volunteers and the help of over 400 visitors, we collected, laid out and documented all the rubbish produced by the Science Museum’s:
281,647 visitors
500+ staff and contractors
5 cafés
2 building sites
3 shops
2 Science Nights
1 Lates event
…and several storage cupboard clearances.

We had predicted that around 28 tonnes of rubbish would be thrown out but it was actually closer to 33 when we got the figures back from the Science Museum’s main waste contractor Grundon.

We brought over 18 tonnes of materials back to the gallery for the second phase of the exhibition, including:
7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels
2.4 tonnes of bottom ash aggregate
2.3 tonnes of glass sand
1.4 tonnes of wood
1 tonne of fertilizer
698 kilograms of steel
650 litres of dehydrated sewage sludge
291 breezeblocks made from air pollution control residue
…and nearly 1 tonne of various recycled plastics.

7.4 tonnes of paper and card in reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Items that we retained from the rubbish included:
3 fridges
1 dishwasher
3 kettles
3 wheelchairs
1 sleeping bag
1 mini snooker table
16.5 pairs of shoes
2 two-piece suits and ties
1 bra
1 negative pregnancy test
1 love letter
£40.16
…and a crazy amount of disposable cutlery, usable stationery and discarded medicines.

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Whether disgusted or curious, everyone it would seem, has an opinion about rubbish. We are all throwers away. The psychological desire (and most often the psychological effect) of throwing something away, is to forget about it. We throw something away precisely because we don’t want to think about it any more. I have loved watching the faces of the Science Museum visitors as they realise that they are looking at what we have collectively tried to forget. There are moments of surprise and moments of recognition. Reactions have perhaps been strongest when confronted with the sewage.

The Italian artist Piero Manzoni cleverly played with the reverence that is accorded to the artist and the art object by producing a number of actions that resulted in sculptural provocations. Merda d’Artista (or Artist’s Shit) is what is says on the tin: 30g net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961. The performance is of the artist’s action that we are asked to imagine: that of him taking a dump. Manzoni places this object on a gallery plinth in a simultaneous act of gross self-aggrandisement and fierce condemnation of the gallery system. By making shit art, Manzoni cleverly manages to critique what he also aspires to (and has subsequently achieved), the reified status of the artist.

In the Science Museum we have on display not just a tin can but a large gallery vitrine full of human waste: 650 litres of dehydrated sewage. This is perhaps the ultimate waste, the stuff we really want to forget. But when our poo is pushed in our faces it asks us to think about what we choose to keep, what we choose to get rid of, and what happens to our stuff once it has left us.

Sludge cakes formed from a month's worth of the Museum's human waste © Glasshopper

Sludge cakes formed from a month’s worth of the Museum’s human waste © Glasshopper

I would like to thank the Science Museum for allowing this to happen. I would like to thank the many waste contractors who have been involved. I would like to thank all the assistants and volunteers who tirelessly sorted through bags of café waste late into the evening after the museum was shut. I would like to thank you, the Science Museum visitors for donning gloves and getting stuck in and also for throwing things out, without which there would have been no project. Only, paradoxically, that would be better: the very thing that this project has relied on – that people throw stuff away – is also the thing we want to reduce. Let’s work towards a time when a project like this is unnecessary or even impossible. Disposal is the last resort.

Continuing our look at climate and sustainability, our Antenna team will be bringing Bio-Bean – recently announced as winner of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge – to the Museum from next week. The Rubbish Collection continues until Sunday 14 September 2014.

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

Bringing Maths to Life at the Science Museum

Today, we announced an ambitious new mathematics gallery that will open in 2016.

Our new gallery will be designed by the world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects, who also designed the stunning Aquatics Centre used in the 2012 Olympics in London, and has been made possible by the largest individual donation ever made to the museum, an unprecedented £5 million gift from David and Claudia Harding.

Dame Zaha Hadid, David and Claudia Harding, and Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, joined our Director, Ian Blatchford, and the gallery’s curator, David Rooney, to announce the news this morning.

David Harding, Dame Zaha Hadid, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, Ian Blatchford and Claudia Harding (L-R) announcing the new Maths Gallery.

David Harding, Dame Zaha Hadid, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, Ian Blatchford and Claudia Harding (L-R) announcing the new Maths Gallery.

Ian Blatchford, the Science Museum’s Director, explained his ambition was ‘to deliver the world’s foremost gallery of mathematics both in its collection and its design.’ Dame Hadid described how mathematics, in particular the modelling of turbulence around an aircraft, had inspired the design of the new gallery and she recalled her first visit to the Science Museum, aged 10, describing it as ‘extremely fascinating’.

Maths is too often perceived as a dry and complex, but the new gallery will tell stories that place mathematics at the heart of our lives, exploring how mathematicians, their tools and ideas, have helped to shape the modern world.

The stories told in the gallery will span 400 years of science and mathematics, from the Renaissance to the present day, with objects ranging from intriguing hand-held mathematical instruments to a 1929 experimental aircraft.

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery featuring the Handley Page aircraft. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery featuring the Handley Page aircraft. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

The Handley Page aircraft is one of the star objects – a 1929 British experimental aircraft with a 12m wingspan, which will be suspended from the gallery ceiling. With civilian air travel expanding rapidly in the 1920s, aircraft manufacturers around the world needed a better understanding of the mathematics of aerodynamics and material stress.

This experimental aircraft, made in Britain by Handley Page and building on aerodynamic work carried out during WWI, was designed to take off and land slowly and steeply without stalling, vital at a time when urban airfields were often shrouded in fog.

A plan diagram of the Mathematics Gallery. The gallery layout follows the Handley Page aeroplane's turbulence field. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects.

A plan diagram of the Mathematics Gallery. The gallery layout follows the Handley Page aeroplane’s turbulence field. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects.

Welcoming the £5 million donation, our Director Ian Blatchford described it as a “game-changing gift to the museum”. David Harding has a long-standing relationship with the Science Museum, most recently supporting the museum’s Collider exhibition and tour, the new Information Age gallery and our educational work.

The David and Claudia Harding Mathematics Gallery will open in 2016, and will be curated by David Rooney, who also curated our award-winning Codebreaker exhibition about the life of Alan Turing. The gallery is part of the Science Museum’s Masterplan, which will transform around a third of the museum over the next five years.

V2 rocket on launch pad in Germany, 1945.

V-2: The Rocket that Launched the Space Age

This week (8 September 2014) marks 70 years since the first V-2 rocket attack on London. Curator Doug Millard reflects on the rocket that helped start the space age.  

On 8th September 1944 Professor Jones and his colleague turned suddenly to each other in their Whitehall office and in unison said, ‘That’s the first one’. London had experienced four years of explosions from Luftwaffe bombs so this latest blast was hardly remarkable. But what they had noticed was the second bang following immediately after the first: a double detonation.

For over a year Jones, as Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, and his team had been assembling evidence for the existence of a new type of German weapon – one quite unlike anything developed before.

The bombs dropped during the blitz had been carried by manned aircraft; more recent attacks came from pilotless planes nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs (on account of their leisurely flight across the sky and the staccato drone they made). Both could be detected on the way to their targets and warnings issued for the populace to seek shelter.

The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Credit: Science Museum

It had been developed at the Peenemunde research establishment on the Baltic coast line of Germany. Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2.

Thousands of V-2s were launched during the war, most aimed at central London. They steered themselves and could not be jammed with radio signals. So even when a rocket’s launch was spotted by allied forces there was nothing that could be done to counter its flight. The V-2 was the harbinger of the Cold War’s missile age and the four minute warning.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.

After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit.

The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.

The missile Jones heard had come down in Chiswick, west London. It killed three people and destroyed a row of houses. Over the next months many more were launched with most falling in south-eastern England and killing thousands of people (a map of V-2 rocket strikes across London and surrounding counties can be seen here). In a grotesque irony the V-2 killed many more in the course of its manufacture by slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in central Germany.

The final V-2 landed south of London in Orpington on March 27, 1945 killing one person – the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.

For more information, visit the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, where a full size V-2 rocket can be seen on display.

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

Robert Watson-Watt and the Triumph of Radar

BBC2 recently broadcast a drama about Robert Watson-Watt’s fight to invent the radar. Curator Andrew Nahum takes a closer look at this incredible story, soon to feature in a new exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, opening at the Science Museum in January 2015. 

In the 1930s, as the German air force grew in strength, the fear of air attack became intense. Prime Minister Baldwin had warned that ‘the bomber would always get through’, but a minority, including Winston Churchill and his scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann, argued that some new form of technical defence must be possible. Surely Britain’s scientists – affectionately known as boffins – could devise a countermeasure?

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, Scottish engineer, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, Scottish engineer, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

In February 1935, a pilot from the flight research establishment, Farnborough, was told to fly a bomber to the Midlands and back. He was not told why, but the course took the aircraft past the BBC’s short-wave transmitter at Daventry.

Hunched in a van on the ground nearby, Robert Watson-Watt from the National Physical Laboratory and his colleague, Arnold Wilkins, intently watched a cathode ray tube on a cumbersome radio receiver. They hoped that the powerful BBC signal would be reflected strongly enough from the bomber to be detected. As the aircraft flew past about eight miles away, a green spot on the screen appeared, grew, and shrank away again.

The two men had ‘seen’ the aircraft by its electronic echo. Watson-Watt turned to Wilkins and reputedly said ‘Britain is an island once more’. Following this trial – the Daventry experiment – cash secretly began to pour into developing radar technology. Research took off at immense speed, first at Orfordness in Suffolk and then nearby at Bawdsey on the mouth of the Deben river. Just a year after the first trial, the detection range had improved to 75 miles and 120 miles was later achieved.

Robert Watson-Watt's radar apparatus, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Robert Watson-Watt’s radar apparatus, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Soon, a series of stations with massive 360 feet (110 m) radar masts began to spring up around the coast until there was an unbroken chain watching out to sea for enemy aircraft called the ‘Chain Home’. This radar system was not, for its time, especially ‘hi-tech’, but it was designed to be built fast. It was incorporated into a comprehensive control system for reporting and plotting raids, for steering RAF fighters to their targets and for directing the air battles of World War II in real time. It was this integrated system that changed the nation’s fortunes in the Battle of Britain.

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

During radar development, Henry Tizard, the Air Ministry’s most trusted scientist, shared the secret with John Cockcroft who had been first to ‘split the atom’ in Cambridge in 1932.  ‘We met at lunch at the Athenaeum and Tizard talked to me about new and secret devices. These would be troublesome and would require a team of nurses. Would we [the Cambridge physicists] come in and act as nursemaids, if and when war broke out?’ That is how it turned out and British radar became closely linked with the nation’s best scientists. This electronic war proved to be a powerful intellectual challenge. The physicist R V Jones, described it as the ‘the best fun I ever had’.

Of course science came to the aid of war in many other fields including nutrition, the production of penicillin and antibiotics, sea warfare and the Bomb.  However, this war also helped launch a post-war scientific renaissance in Britain. Returning scientists achieved striking results in the fields of molecular biology, radio astronomy, nerve and brain behaviour and much more.

Watson-Watt’s original radar apparatus will be on display in our exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, which opens on 23 January 2015. The exhibition will look at the triumphs in science during Churchill’s period in power, both in war and in the post-war era.

Living in a materials world – the human story of rubbish

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey follows some of the unexpected stories and personal objects that were found in the Museum’s bins. As the exhibition nears its end, what will happen to all this ‘rubbish’ afterwards?

Much of the feedback I have received about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection, from both visitors and staff, has been about the surprising personal items and stories that have come out of the bins. When we were first carrying out trials for the project it was one of the unexpected outcomes of the documentation process. This revelation, that sorting through waste was like a form of contemporary archaeology, inspired Joshua to invite the public to take part in the documentation process so that visitors also had the chance to experience the wonder of piecing together those narratives.

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

The stories we found in the bins ranged from the very general (like what the favourite crisp brand amongst visiting schoolchildren was) to more Museum-specific (like which new galleries were under development and which events had taken place). Even the volume told us how busy the Museum had been on a given day. There were also very personal stories such as notes put into someone’s lunchbox by their partner, a surprising number of medicines, and children’s drawings of their day out. In a painfully frank teenage love note, the author proclaims that they are not worth the attention of their crush and recommends they should go out with someone else. We even found a pregnancy test (negative; was its user disappointed, happy or relieved by that result? We’ll never know).

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

We don’t often think about our rubbish, full stop, let alone consider it as a personal document of our lives. Archaeologists have long been aware of this when piecing together a picture of the lifestyles and living conditions of people’s past, as have the paparazzi in finding out private information about celebrities and public figures. Looking at the landfill of the last few decades, I imagine, will tell a story of the rise of plastics and packaging, the dominance of certain supermarkets and brands, the affordability of electrical goods, our increasingly global markets and the enormous growth in waste generally. Hopefully, as with the Science Museum’s bins, an examination of more recent landfill should document a more positive change, that of recycling and our increased awareness of the value that materials still hold. The next step may be mining our municipal dumps to try to recover some of those precious materials that are now scarce in the natural world, such as the rare earth metals that are so important in the manufacture of electronic goods.

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

And what will become of all the rubbish and materials on display in The Rubbish Collection? Well, the materials, like the paper reels, plastic pellets, metals and fertilizer, will be returned to the companies that lent them to us, to continue on their recycling journey to become new products.  Electrical goods will be sent to specialist recycling companies to separate any reusable parts and recycle what cannot be salvaged. The items that we retained from the rubbish bags, though many would have originally gone to incineration if we had not intervened in their journey, will be recycled wherever possible. Medicines will be taken to a pharmacy for safe disposal, usable stationary will be returned to offices and the 16.5 pairs of shoes, 2 suits and other items of clothing will be taken to charity shops.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.