Category Archives: Exhibitions

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.

A WEEE waste recycling challenge?

Sarah Harvey, Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, talks to Dr Philip Morton, Chief Executive of REPIC about the challenges of dealing with growing volumes of electrical and electronic waste.

REPIC is the largest not-for-profit WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling scheme in the UK. Instead of letting valuable or harmful waste and scarce raw materials go to landfill, REPIC’s job is to recover and transport used electrical goods and batteries to specialist treatment plants. Upon arrival at the plant, the WEEE waste can be safely handled and recycled into new usable raw materials.

What is WEEE waste?

Every year, people in the UK buy around 1.5 million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment, like toasters, TVs, washing machines and computers. We throw away about one million tonnes of equipment, so WEEE waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and in the EU. It’s important that we take action now to stop it from piling up.

Some of the components used to make electronic goods can be hazardous and harmful to the environment, while others can be recycled and reused. Some are even precious and contain gold, silver, indium or palladium. It’s amazing to think that WEEE contains 40 times more gold than gold ore!

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

What are the biggest challenges faced by the industry in recycling and recovering these materials?

A big problem is the difficulty in separating the complex scarce trace metals using the technology currently available. Different proportions of trace materials are present in different bits of WEEE and some materials bind together, making separation a challenge.  At present, only a tiny percentage of these metals is captured in the recycling process, so it isn’t sustainable. 

What can people do to help?

Just as we separate our plastic bottles and tins from paper and compostables, we need to separate our old electrical appliances and take them to a local recycling centre.

As with electricals, it’s easy for batteries to end up in landfills if the proper recycling channels are not used. Batteries contain chemicals that can be hazardous if released into our soil, water and air.

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

But there is an alternative. You could save your batteries and take them to special battery bins at shops, schools and recycling centres. This ensures the batteries are recycled responsibly.

Our top three tips are:

  • Repair or re-use used electricals if possible
  • Recycle, but don’t make a special trip (check our website www.responsible-recycling.co.uk).
  • Choose energy and eco-efficient products where possible when buying replacements

What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years time? 

To meet the new EU directive we need to recycle 85 percent of WEEE generated in the UK by 2018. The value of WEEE will be higher as there will be less rare metals and raw materials to extract from the Earth.  Advances in technology will mean that electrical goods will be even lighter, more compact and flexible. Think projected keyboards, flatter TV screens – we’re already seeing roll up TV screens – so expect more to come.

 

 

Your future without antibiotics?

Georgie Ariaratnam, Assistant Content Developer, blogs about the rise of antibiotics, the subject of a display in the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest challenges of our time. It affects all of us, so perhaps unsurprisingly, it was declared the winner of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The new antibiotics display in the Museum's Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The new antibiotics display in the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

At the Science Museum, we decided to examine this topic in more depth with a new exhibit, Your future without antibiotics?, which explores the rise of antibiotic resistance and the latest research to tackle it.

The exhibit, currently on display in our Who am I? gallery, changes every few months, giving the Science Museum the opportunity to explore current and significant research stories in health, genetics and neuroscience. With over a million people visiting the Who am I? gallery each year, it’s important to design exhibits that are interesting and relevant to our visitors’ lives.

We chose to tell three main stories in the display case. The Rise of Resistance looks at how bacteria have become resistant, Radical Research focusses on the latest research to tackle resistance and Stop the Spread explores how to prevent the spread of infection.

A close up look at the new antibiotics display case in the Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

A close up look at the new antibiotics display case in the Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The display features unique and intriguing objects to tell these stories. You can see a Star Trek-inspired hand-held ‘tricorder’ which uses a virus to identify bacterial infection.  Alongside, you can spot a keyboard and mobile phone cover coated with the world’s first light-activated antimicrobial surface that also works in the dark. Other items include a bio-engineered medical honey which can kick start the healing process in wound treatment. There is even a giant, lime green stick insect, whose guts researchers are studying for new antibiotic compounds.

To develop the display case, we spoke to many institutions that focus on tackling antibiotic resistance including the World Health Organisation, Department of Health, Public Health England and Antibiotic Action. The exhibit also features research from scientists at University College London, University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester.

Your future without antibiotics? opened on 18 July and will be on display in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery until late November 2014.

Going down the drain

In the latest of our blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey talks to Nick Mills, Waste Innovation Manager at Thames Water about what happens to our sewage and what the future holds for wastewater.

Sarah: What do Thames Water do with our sewage?

Nick: We have 350 sewage works and 68,000 miles of sewers across our region, which stretches from East London to the Cotswolds in the west. Last year, we removed and treated 4,369 million litres of sewage from 15 million customers. At our 350 sewage works we treat the sewage to remove contaminants and return it safely to the environment, it is often cleaner than the water in the river.

Sarah: What happens to the end products of the processing?

Nick: The main end-product of the sewage treatment process is something called sludge. This energy rich by-product is put to good use in anaerobic digestion, producing renewable energy that helps power our treatment sites. The digested sludge is then recycled to agricultural land.

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges you face in dealing with our sewage/ waste water?

Nick: London has outgrown its sewer system. The Victorian sewers are in great condition, but simply not designed for today’s population. They were designed for just over two million but are used today by just over six million. The proposed Thames Tideway Tunnel will stop tens of millions of tonnes of raw sewage flowing into the Thames every year via the outfall system. It is a must-do job. We can’t keep treating the Thames as a sewer.

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw down the drains?

Nick: ‘Bin it – don’t block it’ is our campaign to end the misery caused by fatbergs. Leftover cooking fat and oil poured down the sink will set hard. This creates stinking, pipe-blocking fatbergs beneath your house or in your street.

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

Wet wipes are another big no-no because they are made of plastic. They don’t break down like toilet tissue, clinging to fat and clogging up the system. If drains get blocked, what you flush can come back up through your toilet or even your sink.

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?  Is there a top 3 list of things people could do differently to help?

Nick: Our message is simple, if it’s not water, toilet tissue or poo, please… ‘Bin it – don’t block it’.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 20 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Nick: In 20 years’ time I can see the wastewater industry becoming a net energy producer, by employing more efficient processes and increasing energy recovery. Combining advanced anaerobic digestion and technologies like pyrolysis, large increases can be made. Our Innovation team are busy demonstrating this at the moment. Phosphorus, a finite resource essential to life as we know it, will be recovered at every major sewage works and sold competitively as a fertiliser to farmers, this has also been demonstrated recently at our Slough sewage works by the Innovation team.

Innovation works at Slough © Thames Water

Slough sewage works © Thames Water

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection project?

Nick: I think it is great. It shows the harsh reality of waste, but at the same time reveals the great work that people do behind the scenes to keep society moving. I hope it will encourage a new generation to start what is a very interesting and rewarding career as there are huge challenges yet to be solved.

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

Sending messages across the Atlantic: 156 years on from the first transatlantic cable

Chloe Vince, Science Museum Volunteer, tells the dramatic story of the laying of the first transatlantic cable, one of the highlights of our new Information Age gallery, which opens in October.

If you needed to send a message to North America, you wouldn’t think twice about drafting an e-mail, hitting ‘send’ and your message arriving in the recipient’s inbox almost instantly.

In 1858, however, communications were much slower. In those days, a message would take up to 10 days to arrive. This was the time it took for a ship to travel across the Atlantic.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Things changed in the August of 1858, when the first message was sent via a transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran from the east coast of North America to the West Coast of Ireland. Messages could now be sent in a matter of minutes, dramatically changing the history of transatlantic communication.

A section of the original transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum.

A section of transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Experimenters had been investigating batteries and electromagnetism to develop a communication system since the early 19th century. The first practical system was executed successfully in the UK by the partnership of Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. They used an electrical current to deflect magnetic needles which could be made to point to letters on a backboard. By the time of the 1858 transatlantic cable, their system had been developed and widely adopted for railway signalling across Britain.

Cooke and Wheatstone's Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Cooke and Wheatstone’s Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

American experimenter Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame), was also working on developing telegraphy. His system used a single circuit to send an electric signal along a wire to a receiver at the other end. Instead of using needles indicating letters of the alphabet, Morse’s system used a code of dots and dashes to spell out words. Morse received funding to use this technology to set up a telegraph system between Washington and Maryland in the USA. The telegraph became an instant success. People relished the ability to send and receive information much more quickly than before, and as a result the telegraph system expanded across America and Europe.

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Soon after, in 1856, the Atlantic Telegraph Company was set-up with the objective of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting America with Europe. Luckily, opinions of the technology were high, which meant shares in the company sold quickly. As soon as enough money was raised, the first transatlantic cable, consisting of seven copper wires and recorded as weighing one ton per nautical mile, was laid from America to Ireland.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson's mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson’s mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic telegram. She sent a message to US president James Buchanan congratulating him ‘upon the successful completion of this great international work.’  The message travelled through 2,500 miles of cable and took 16 hours, a dramatic improvement on the 10 days it would have taken beforehand. The same message was repeated back to Valencia in Ireland in only 67 minutes.

Unfortunately, the success enjoyed by this first transatlantic cable did not last. There were problems with the cable, and within a month it had failed completely. However, the desire for speedy transatlantic communication was great enough to attract more funds to try again.  A further attempt in 1866 was successful.

The consequence of this new form of communication was huge. By the end of the 19th century, new technologies began to emerge. The telegraph was replaced by telephony and these days we rely on the internet for high speed communication. However, the telegraph was the first technology that allowed us to communicate quickly and reliably over long distances, and acted as a turning point in communication history.

You can explore more about the laying of the first transatlantic cable in our Information Age gallery, which opens on 25 October.