Category Archives: Great British Innovation

Alan Turing granted Royal pardon

A posthumous pardon has been granted to the great mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and philosopher, reports Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaker who laid the mathematical foundations of the modern computer, has been granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen for his criminal conviction for homosexuality.

A Royal pardon is usually only granted where a person has been found innocent of an offence and a request has been made by a family member. This unusual move brings to a close a tragic chapter that began in February 1952 when Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”.

Portrait of Alan Turing. Image credits: NPL / Science Museum

Portrait of Alan Turing. Image credits: NPL / Science Museum

To avoid prison, Turing accepted treatment with the female sex hormone oestrogen: ‘chemical castration’ that was intended to neutralise his libido.

Details of the circumstances leading to his death on 7 June 1954, at home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, can never be known. But Turing had himself spoken of suicide and this was the conclusion of the coroner, following an inquest.

In 2009 Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, issued a public apology for his treatment. A letter published a year ago in the Daily Telegraph, written by Lord Grade of Yarmouth and signed by two other Science Museum Trustees, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Dr Douglas Gurr, called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon Turing.

Turing has now been granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy after a campaign supported by tens of thousands of people. An e-petition calling for a pardon received more than 37,000 signatures.

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, said: “A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

The pardon states: “Now know ye that we, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented to us, are graciously pleased to grant our grace and mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and grant him our free pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”

But the reaction to the news has been mixed. Turing biographer Dr Andrew Hodges, of Wadham College, Oxford, told the Guardian newspaper : “Alan Turing suffered appalling treatment 60 years ago and there has been a very well intended and deeply felt campaign to remedy it in some way. Unfortunately, I cannot feel that such a ‘pardon’ embodies any good legal principle. If anything, it suggests that a sufficiently valuable individual should be above the law which applies to everyone else.

“It’s far more important that in the 30 years since I brought the story to public attention, LGBT rights movements have succeeded with a complete change in the law – for all. So, for me, this symbolic action adds nothing.

“A more substantial action would be the release of files on Turing’s secret work for GCHQ in the cold war. Loss of security clearance, state distrust and surveillance may have been crucial factors in the two years leading up to his death in 1954.”

The Science Museum’s award-winning Turing exhibition,which closed a few months ago, showed that a signature moment of Turing’s life came on February 13, 1930, with the death of his classmate and first love, Christopher Morcom, from tuberculosis.

Science Museum conservator Bryony Finn inspects the Pilot ACE computer - at a preview of the Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy exhibition at the Science Museum. Image credits: Science Museum

Science Museum conservator Bryony Finn inspects the Pilot ACE computer – at a preview of the Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy exhibition at the Science Museum. Image credits: Science Museum

As he struggled to make sense of his loss, Turing began a lifelong quest to understand the nature of the human mind and whether Christopher’s was part of his dead body or somehow lived on.

Earlier this year Turing’s Universal Machine, the theoretical basis for all modern computing, won a public vote, organised by the Science Museum, GREAT campaign and other leading bodies in science and engineering to nominate the greatest British innovation of the last century.

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.

Strange objects give a feel for the origins of X-ray crystallography

A guest post by Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College.

The things and objects of history are important because they provide a tangible connection to the past. Seeing, or better yet holding and touching, the stuff that generations now dead made and worked with enlivens history, shucking us from the present and its endless clamour for our attention.

The Hidden Structures exhibition at the Science Museum trips us into the history of X-ray crystallography with a small but intriguing display of objects from the 1940s through to the 1970s. The exhibition commemorates the centenary of the development of the technique, by the father and son team of William and Lawrence Bragg who figured out how the scattering of X-rays by crystals could be analysed to reveal the atomic and molecular arrangements within, providing a vista of the structure of matter that had never been seen before.

The Braggs first applied the technique in 1913 to show how the patterns of X-rays diffracted onto photographic plates by table salt — sodium chloride — could be interpreted to reveal the organisation of the two atoms within its crystals. It was apparent from the beginning that the method was applicable to anything that could be induced to crystallise, even the most complex molecules of chemistry and biology. Soon structures composed of tens or hundreds or even thousands of atoms were emerging from UK labs, which established itself at the forefront of the technique thanks in no small part to the inspirational leadership of the younger Bragg.

Hidden Structures 1The first protein structures; left to right — myoglobin, perspex stack of electron density, haemoglobin

The artefacts in the Hidden Structures display come mainly from the first bloom of chemical and biological crystallography; there is Dorothy Hodgkin’s ball-and-stick model of penicillin, John Kendrew’s wormy brown representation of the oxygen-storage protein, myoglobin, Max Perutz’s black and white slabbed structure of haemoglobin, the oxygen-transporter from human blood, and in pride of place, Hodgkin’s huge model of the atomic structure of insulin.

These scientists had to be very hands-on at all stages of their work — growing crystals, carefully measuring X-ray diffraction patterns recorded on photographs, and printing out the electron density maps produced by their analysis. These three-dimensional maps (there is one for haemoglobin in the display, printed in sections on stacked sheets of perspex) show where the electrons are concentrated, so defining the positions of the atoms. The early models simply depict the contours of these maps and give the overall form of the protein molecule. Coming some years after X-rays had unveiled the elegant double-helix of DNA, their crude irregularity was at first a disappointment: “hideous and visceral” wrote Perutz.

But the resolving power of X-rays soon improved and those early crystallographers had to swap plastic and plasticene for intricate assemblies of rods, each representing a bond between two atoms, that were put together with loving attention to detail. Hodgkin’s insulin model from the early 1960s may not be beautiful, but it is mesmerising — and hugely informative.

Hidden Structures 2Hodgkin’s atomic structures: left, insulin; right, penicillin.

X-ray crystallography continues apace. Thousands of protein structures have been solved, providing a detailed understanding of the workings of biology at the molecular level. We see clearly now not just how hormones like insulin work, or how haemoglobin picks up and drops off its cargo of oxygen, but also how DNA is synthesised and decoded, how ion channels enable the transmission of nerve signals, how the immune system fights off infection. No pharmaceutical company works blind in the 21st Century; all use X-ray crystallography to reveal the molecular targets of therapy, whether from a virus or bacteria or a cancerous cell, as part of the quest for new drugs and vaccines.

But all the work of recording and analysing data and building models has now migrated to computers. For sure this has greatly accelerated the pace of research and discovery, but there are no more photographs or stacks of electron density or models made of stuff for future generations to pick up and wonder at. All the more reason therefore to cherish the crystallographic arcana on show at the Science Museum.

Stephen Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College. He writes regularly about science at the Reciprocal Space and Occam’s Corner blogs.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency.

2000s: Quantum Dots

On the last day of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovations – we pick one innovation which could shape our future: Quantum dots

Quantum dots, tiny nanometre-sized particles, have some rather unique properties that we are only just starting to explore. “This particular innovation is so exciting partly because we’ve yet to see what exciting new developments it’ll lead to,” explains Professor Jim Al-Khalili.  “Quantum dots are going to change the world. Everything from new types of smart materials, solar cells, medical imaging, to potentially building a quantum computer.”

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency. Image credit: Nanoco Industries Ltd.

Made of cadmium or zinc-based semiconducting materials, it is the small size of the dot (made up of about 50 atoms, just a few nanometres across) that leads to unusual quantum behaviours. Quantum dots have a range of practical applications including in clothing dyes, flat-screen displays and medical imaging.

Click here to vote for Quantum dots as the British innovation most likely to shape our future.

Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web in 1991.

1990s: World Wide Web

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1990s, it’s the turn of the World Wide Web.

“No technology has been so pervasive so quickly as the internet. Twenty-five years ago it was a mystery to most people and now several billion of us use it everyday, several times a day.”  Brian Eno on why you should vote for the the World Wide Web.

“What made the internet really viable, the blood in it veins if you like, was the brilliant invention of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web. What made that so universal was the decision to make it free. So, to brilliance, add generosity.”

Born out of a need for scientists at CERN to share data more efficiently, computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee and Belgian Robert Cailliau created a system of linked ‘hypertext’ documents accessible through a global computer network.

Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web in 1991.

Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web in 1991. Image credit: CERN

Described at the time as ‘vague but exciting’ by his boss, Berners-Lee went on to host the first web page in December 1990, and today over 2.4 billion people – more than a third of the population of Earth – have access to over a trillion web pages which make up the World Wide Web.

Click here to vote for the World Wide Web as the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years. 

Concorde on the runway, Feb 1977. Image credit: Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

1970s: Concorde

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1970s, it’s the turn of Concorde.

With the end of WWII came new aviation technologies, with advances in jet engine design and aerodynamic shapes allowing passengers to fly further and faster around the globe.

By 1962 the British and French governments had agreed to build a passenger aircraft able to fly at twice the speed of sound – Mach 2.0. Seven years of detailed design work later, the British prototype Concorde 002 had its maiden flight, with the aircraft reaching Mach 2.0 in November 1969. Concorde entered regular service in 1976, crossing the Atlantic in just 3 hours 50 minutes, before retiring in 2003 after 27 years of service.

Concorde on the runway, Feb 1977. Image credit: Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Concorde on the runway. Image credit: Science & Society Picture Library

 

To this day, Concorde is regarded by many as an aviation icon and triumph of engineering. Journalist Samira Ahmed explains here why Concorde should get your vote as the greatest British Innovation of the past 100 years:

“It had style and streamline space-age beauty. Those delta wings, that beautifully sharp, dipping nose-cone for improved pilot visibility, and Concorde was a product of Anglo-French cooperation. What could be more futuristic than that?”

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.

1960: Discovery of Pulsars

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1960s, the discovery of Pulsars.

“In 1967, a twenty-four year old post graduate student made one of the greatest astronomical discoveries in living memory,” explains TV presenter and writer Gia Milinovich, who is championing the discovery of pulsars as the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years.

When analysing three miles of radio telescope data by hand in 1967 at the University of Cambridge, Jocelyn Bell identified a regular pulse of radiowaves. Seemingly too regular to be anything but man-made, months of further research led Jocelyn to discover the origin of the signal was over 200 light-years away.

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.
Credit: National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Known now as pulsars, these rapidly spinning, very dense dead stars produce beams of radiowaves which are periodically directed at the Earth. Astronomers have since detected more than 1800 pulsars, and their precise nature make them useful tools for astronomical observations.

In the past Jocelyn’s work has been over looked – the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to her PhD supervisor Anthony Hewish without any mention of Jocelyn – but she is now rightly remembered for her discovery. Vote here for the discovery of Pulsars.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

1950s: Double Helix

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1950s, Double Helix: Discovering the structure of DNA.

Almost all frontiers of biological research in the 21st century owe their origins to the work of two Cambridge scientists (James Watson and Francis Crick) and their contemporaries at King’s College London (Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins).

Watson and Crick’s collaboration began in 1951, drawing on a range of evidence – including chemical techniques and X-ray crystallography – to determine the elusive structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). A breakthrough arrived when Watson was shown Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography photos of DNA, which clearly suggested a helical structure. As Watson wrote in his memoir: ‘The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my heart began to race’.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

Understanding the structure of DNA, particularly how a sequence of simple nucleotides (A, C, G & T) can encode genetic information, has revealed ‘the secret of life’ – as Francis Crick announced in a Cambridge pub in 1953. A decade later, Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work (Franklin missed out as Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously).

Listen here to broadcaster and writer, Judith Hann, explain why deciphering the structure of DNA should get your vote, and click here to see a reconstruction of Watson and Crick’s DNA model in the Museum.

Developed by John Turton Randall and Harry Boot at Birmingham University, the cavity magnetron produced powerful, ultra-short radio waves for use in Radar.

1940s: the Cavity Magnetron

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1940s, the cavity magnetron.  

You might wonder what the humble microwave oven, University of Birmingham and changing the course of World War II have in common. The answer: the cavity magnetron.

John Randall and Harry Boot invented a prototype cavity magnetron – a device used to generate microwaves – in 1940 at the University of Birmingham, but the UK lacked the funds and manufacturing resources for large scale production. In an extraordinary gesture, Winston Churchill offered the magnetron (a smaller, more power design than anything else available) to the USA in exchange for financial and industrial support.

Developed by John Turton Randall and Harry Boot at Birmingham University, the cavity magnetron produced powerful, ultra-short radio waves for use in Radar.

Developed by John Turton Randall and Harry Boot at Birmingham University, the cavity magnetron produced powerful, ultra-short radio waves for use in Radar.

It was, in the words of one American historian, “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores,” and by early 1941, mass production had enabled portable airborne microwave radar systems to be fitted to American and British aircraft. Vastly superior to the rival German systems, the cavity magnetron gave the Allies a considerable advantage, directly influencing the outcome of the war.

This British innovation, one of the most significant to be developed during World War II, is now found across the world inside microwave ovens. Vote here for the cavity magnetron as the greatest British innovation.

Alan Turing

1930s: Turing’s Universal Machine

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1930s, Turing’s Universal Machine.

Did you know that the blueprint for the modern computer was laid down as long ago as 1936?

That was the year that mathematical pioneer Alan Turing imagined a ‘universal machine’ in his paper ‘On Computable Numbers.’ Turing described a machine that could read symbols on a tape and proposed that the tape be used to program the machine. However it was not until many years later that Turing’s ideas were realised as practical machines.

Alan Turing

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Turing became head of a codebreaking unit at Bletchley Park, where he used his mathematical skills to design a series of codebreaking machines known as ‘bombes’. After the war, he moved to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. Here he devised one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, revisiting his original ideas proposed in 1936, called the Automatic Computing Engine or ‘ACE’.

Stephen Fry, explained why he was voting for Turing’s Universal Machine via an audioboo, saying, “Turing had an idea of a machine to solve an intellectual problem and then had that rare ability amongst mathematicians to push it through to building machines, which he did in the codebreaking, and then he moved on later, in Manchester to the idea of this Universal Machine, which is the first programmable computer.”

Without Turing’s Universal Machine, we would not have the computers that we take for granted today, which is why it deserves your vote as the Greatest British Innovation. Cast your vote here.