Category Archives: Inventions

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. 

Visitor Inventions – Future Fashion

As it’s London Fashion Week, we take a look at the future fashion creations from visitors to our Launchpad gallery.

You may be forgiven to think that this season’s must-have fashion are found on the catwalks of London, Paris or Milan (and you may very well be right!). But this hasn’t stopped our wonderfully imaginative visitors from designing their own creations whilst in the Launchpad gallery. Whatever your fashion sense; from inflatable boat dresses to telescopic shoes, there’s a bit of something for everyone.

Click to enlarge the images.

 

Drayson Racing Car

Formula E: The Future of Racing

Pippa Hough, Assistant Content Developer in our Contemporary Science team, explores the new Formula E racing series.

Last month, we invited engineers from the Power Electronics Group to the Science Museum to share their latest research with our visitors. They are working on wireless charging systems to power up electric car batteries, and with them came the Drayson Racer, the fastest lightweight electric car in the world. This beautiful, green piece of precision engineering is fast; it broke records at 205mph and can go 0 to 60 in 3 seconds.

This week super speedy cars, much like the Drayson racer, will take part in Formula E; the first ever fully electric racing series, starting off in Beijing. The cars in Formula E aren’t quite as fast as the one we had on display, but with top speeds of 140mph it will definitely be entertaining to watch.

Drayson Racer, the fasted lightweight electric car in the world. Credit: Science Museum

Drayson Racer, the fasted lightweight electric car in the world. Credit: Science Museum

There are a few aspects of the Formula E that make it, in my opinion, the best type of racing there is:

Car Swapping

One of the major issues of electric cars is battery life. The racing cars used in Formula E can’t be charged quick enough at the pit stops so the drivers swap to a fully charged car. Given it’s a race the drivers need to hop out and into the other car within a minute. I think it provides an bonus ‘obstacle course’ like challenge that petrol racing really lacks.

Exotic Locations

Yes Formula 1 has exotic location, but Formula E has raised the game. The races will be in the heart of some of the most stunning capital cities in the world. Starting in the Olympic park in Beijing the championship will travel round to 10 cities including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Miami, and finishing up in central London in June 2015.

Futuristic Sounding

Electric cars engines are virtually silent. There’ll be no need for ear plugs while watching and given the city centre locations the races won’t be bothering the neighbours as much as petrol racing might. The sound Formula E cars make when racing has been described as anything from eerie to futuristic. They’re so quiet the engineers have to be warned with an air horn before the car come into the pit stops so they can get out of the way in time.

Fanboost

There’s virtually no interaction with the drivers for fans of racing, especially compared to other sports. The drivers can’t hear you cheering, not until they’re no the podium and by that time your encouragements don’t make any difference. Not so in Formula E, you can vote for your favourite driver before the race. The three most popular driver’s get a ‘power boost’ for their cars in the last leg of race.

Formula E will drive innovation in electric cars that’ll quickly trickle down to their domestic counterparts. In the not too distant future the wireless charging system the Power Electronics Group showed our visitors could be in parking spots all over the country ready to charge your electric car.

You can find out more about Formula E by watching the video below.

30th Anniversary of DNA Fingerprinting

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

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

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3D printing great inventions…from page to product

Mark Champkins, Inventor in Residence, looks at how 3D printing helped him bring to life a young inventor’s bright idea

Have you spotted an unusual looking yellow and pink device sitting among the wall of 3D printed people in our current exhibition? Known as the Pediclean, the object is a prototype for a manual foot shower product, designed by Sophia Laycock, the winner of a competition we ran last year – which called on young people to come up with an invention to solve a problem they encountered with the great British summer.

The competition had an amazing response. From submersible beach shelters (to keep your spot on the beach even after the tide has come in), to suncream dispensing sunshades, we were bowled over by people’s creative ideas.

Sophia Laycock's design for the Pediclean manual footshower, which won the summer invention competition. Image credit: Sophia Laycock

Sophia Laycock’s design for the Pediclean manual foot shower, which won the summer invention competition. Image credit: Sophia Laycock

Choosing a winner was a challenge. Along with my fellow judges from the Museum, Phill Dickens from Nottingham University’s 3D Printing Research Group and Atti Emercz  from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, I spent an inspiring morning discussing the inventions and admiring their ingenuity.

In my experience, the best inventions are those designed to address a specific problem, are easy to use and look visually appealing. On this basis, it was easy to pick Sophia’s idea as the winning entry.

However, my biggest challenge was working out how to translate Sophia’s drawing of the Pediclean into a real working product. How could I harness the power of 3D printing to make this a reality?

It occurred to me that it might be nice for Sophia to be able to print her very own Pediclean products on her new Makerbot printer – the prize she won for the competition. To do this I had to ensure that the Pediclean could be assembled from components that could all be printed successfully on a Makerbot. Essentially, this involved splitting up the device into six individual parts which could each be printed on the Makerbot. Each piece took approximately two hours to print. When all the parts were printed, I then screwed them together to form the finished Pediclean.

Sophia Laycock, winner of the 3D Summer Invention Competition in the 3D: Printing The Future  exhibition with her ‘Pediclean’ - a portable foot shower to clean the sand off your feet when you have been on the beach. Sophia won a MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer and has had her invention created by Mark Champkins Inventor in Residence, 3D printed and featured in our 3D: Printing the Future exhibition.

Sophia Laycock, winner of the 3D Summer Invention Competition in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition with her Pediclean –  a portable foot shower to clean the sand off your feet when you have been on the beach. Sophia won a MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer and had her invention created by Mark Champkins, Inventor in Residence, 3D printed and displayed in the exhibition. Image credits: Science Museum.

Luckily, Sophia’s design was brilliantly well thought out, containing detailed instructions – even down to the placement of the water nozzles designed to clean the foot. I was able to copy the sketch exactly to produce a final product that worked beautifully well.

You can see the Pediclean and lots of other examples of how entrepreneurs, artists and designers are using 3D printing to realise their dreams, in our free exhibition.

Chancellor’s ‘Northern powerhouse’ vision unveiled at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has announced his ambitions to create a northern “supercity” to rival London as a global hub by building HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds. He was speaking, appropriately enough, at our sister museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, which tells the story of where science met industry to create the modern world and, as the Chancellor himself highlighted, is the site of the world’s oldest surviving passenger railway station.

The Chancellor, George Osborne at the Museum of Science and Industry, announcing plans for the new HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds. Image credit: Roger Highfield

The Chancellor, George Osborne at the Museum of Science and Industry, announcing plans for the new HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds. Image credit: Roger Highfield

His speech, to around 50 key individuals from the region, among the beam engines and other great machines of the museum’s Power Hall, was introduced by Science Museum Group Director, Ian Blatchford, who leads the largest group of science museums in the world which, as he pointed out, lie on “both sides of the Pennines”.

The Chancellor described how he wanted to channel long-term investment into links between the traditionally rival cities, which have a combined population of nine million, similar to that of London. “We need a Northern powerhouse,” he said. “Not one city, but a collection of cities – sufficiently close to each other, that combined, they can take on the world.” To offset the huge gravitational pull of London, the Chancellor also wants to take advantage of the world class universities and teaching hospitals in the north, and “iconic museums such as this one” to create a belt of innovation that straddles the Pennines along the M62 corridor.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, speaking to a high profile audience at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Image credit: Roger Highfield

The Chancellor, George Osborne, speaking to a high profile audience at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Image credit: Roger Highfield

Among the audience listening to his vision for a “third high speed railway for Britain” along the existing rail route, was Sir David Higgins, Chairman of HS2, who has identified the need for better connections in the north. After the Chancellor’s speech on how to make these northern cities more than the sum of their parts, the Prime Minister, David Cameron visited the museum for a round table with key individuals, including Ian Blatchford, Sir David and Lord Heseltine.

The Chancellor’s ambitions to bootstrap the north’s knowledge-based economy by prioritising science investment – which included a challenge to those in the audience to come up with a “Crick of the north” (a reference to the biomedical research powerhouse under construction in London) – dovetail with those of the Science Museum Group, which wants to make the Museum of Science and Industry a regional hub for the development of world class exhibitions. The £800,000 financial support for the museum announced by the Chancellor in May has kick-started a £3 million plan for a purpose-built exhibition space that will shift the centre of gravity of the Group towards the north and enable the Museum of Science and Industry to develop its own exhibitions that can tour to the rest of the group and beyond.

Plans are already under way to develop an exhibition on graphene, Manchester’s latest global scientific export, in 2015, said Mr Blatchford. The properties of this new form of carbon, found by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester, are extraordinary and graphene has potential in the aerospace, automobile, electronics, and communications industries.

The Museum of Science and Industry has appointed Sally MacDonald as its new Director who will start in September. She is currently the Director of Public and Cultural Engagement at University College London (UCL), and will succeed Jean Franczyk, who is leaving the museum after two years to become Deputy Director of the Science Museum.

The Chancellor’s full speech can be viewed on the Government’s website.

 

 

Longitude Prize 2014

Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and Chair of the Longitude Prize 2014 Committee, blogs on the launch of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The prowess of the nation’s historic achievements in science and technology is displayed for all to see in the Science Museum – a cathedral to the history of science where visitors can share in the celebration. The Museum is unique in its ability to allow us to reflect on our past achievements, while also inspiring future generations to keep pushing forward the frontiers of science and technology.

I’m pleased to be involved in a new project that I also hope will inspire the next generation of British scientists. Developed and run by Nesta, with the Technology Strategy Board as a funding partner and launched this week on Horizon (Thursday 9pm, BBC2), the Longitude Prize 2014 will give innovators an incentive to grapple with a global problem and to produce a solution that will benefit humankind. Anyone who can find the solution will be rewarded with a multi-million pound prize.

The Longitude Prize 2014 is being launched on the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act where the British government offered £20,000 to find a way for sailors to determine their Longitude at sea.

At that time seafaring vessels were vital to the booming economy of Britain, and to prevent massive loss of life from shipwrecks was a government priority. Many intriguing innovations were developed to ‘discover’ longitude. Eventually, the fund was awarded to John Harrison, for his Marine Chronometer.

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Today, we live in a period of accelerated change as modern technology revolutionises every aspect of our daily lives:  communications, travel and health. There are many challenges that we face both nationally and globally.

The new Longitude Prize gives the chance for everyone to express a view on which area deserves top priority and offers the greatest scope. We’ve identified six challenges for public consideration. Through a text and online vote, anyone can influence which of these six challenges will become the focus of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The Longitude Prize 2014 Challenges:

Water
Water is a finite resource and we must seek to find ways of producing more fresh water. Some 98% of the Earth’s water is too salty for drinking or agriculture and as water requirements grow and as our reserves shrink, many are turning to desalination. However the current desalination technology isn’t optimal for small-scale use.

Antibiotics
Antibiotics have changed the face of healthcare for the better; they on average add 20 years to over lives. 80 years on from the discovery of penicillin, we are still unable to distinguish bacterial from viral infections, or the type of bacteria in the clinic, which has caused the overuse of antibiotics and the evolution of multidrug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Dementia
An ageing population means more people are developing dementia and unfortunately there is currently no existing cure. This means there is a need to find ways to support a person’s dignity, physical and emotional wellbeing and extend their ability to live independently.

Paralysis
Paralysis can emerge from a number of different injuries, conditions and disorders and the effects can be devastating. Every day can be a challenge when mobility, bowel control, sexual function and respiration are lost or impaired. We need to find a way to vastly increase the freedom of movement for people with paralysis.

Food
The world’s population is growing, getting richer and moving to cities. Current estimates suggest that by 2050 there will be about 9 billion people on the planet; moreover our tastes will have turned to more resource-hungry foods such as meat and milk. In the face of limited resources and climate change, we must learn how to feed the world with less.

Flight
The rapid growth of carbon emissions caused by air travel needs to be addressed to help tackle climate change. The potential of zero-carbon flight has been demonstrated but it has had little impact on the carbon footprint of the aviation industry, which still relies exclusively on fossil fuels. We need to bring novel technologies into the mainstream to stimulate a significant change.

The Science Museum opens the world of science and technology to everyone. I hope that the Longitude Prize 2014 will stimulate wide interest, as well as encouraging inventors and innovators.

Please watch Horizon and then cast your vote to decide which of these challenges you would like to win the Longitude Prize 2014.

Visitors to the Science Museum Lates on 28 May can discover more about the Longitude Prize 2014, with further information available at longitudeprize.org

Google Doodle celebrates pioneering chemist Dorothy Hodgkin’s 104th birthday

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Google today celebrates the life of the Nobel-prize-winning chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) with a Doodle on its homepage.

Here you can see the inspiration for the Doodle on what would have been her 104th birthday, her historic image of the three dimensional atomic structure of penicillin, which she deduced with a method called X ray crystallography.

Because it was not possible to focus X rays scattered by the penicillin, Hodgkin used large punch-card operated tabulators, predecessor to the computer, to help analyse the way the molecule diffracted X-rays. You can see the original in the Hidden Structures display case in the Science Museum.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945. Image credits: Science Museum

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945. Image credits: Science Museum

Hodgkin, who at Oxford University taught the future prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (then Margaret Roberts) in the 1940s, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”.

Another notable molecular structure Hodgkin tackled was that of vitamin B12, which she cracked with the help of Alan Turing’s Pilot Ace computer, which can also be seen in the Museum.

Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credits: Science Museum

Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credits: Science Museum

She was one of the first people in April 1953 to travel from Oxford to Cambridge to see the model of the double helix structure of DNA, constructed by Briton Francis Crick and American James Watson, based on data acquired by Rosalind Franklin, which can also be seen in the Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credits: Science Museum

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credits: Science Museum

The pioneering protein crystallographer, the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was awarded the Order of Merit, only the second woman to do so, after Florence Nightingale, and was the first to be awarded the Royal Society’s Copley medal, its oldest and most prestigious award.

She died in July 1994, aged 84. In her honour, the Royal Society has established the prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship for early career stage researchers.

The origins of the technique she used date back to when X-rays, one of the most remarkable discoveries of the late 19th century, had been shown to react strangely when exposed to crystals, producing patterns of spots on a photographic plate.

In 1912 physicists William Bragg (1862-1942) and his son Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971) worked out a formula that linked the X-ray diffraction pattern with a crystal’s atomic structure, paving the way for X-ray crystallography as a technique to determine the structure of materials at the atomic level. For this, Bragg and his son won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915.

 

In search of perfect sound – introducing Britain’s largest horn loudspeaker

Aleks Kolkowski, former sound artist-in-residence, remembers his first encounter with the Museum’s exponential horn.

 A long black metal tube, slightly tapered and almost 9-foot-long lay on a row of filing cabinets at Blythe House, the Science Museum’s storage facility. The object was pointed out by John Liffen, the Museum’s Curator of Communications, who guided me during a research visit of the collections in 2008. It was all that remained of a mighty horn loudspeaker that was demonstrated in the Museum during the 1930s, John explained. A demolition accident had almost totally destroyed it in 1949.

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

Now the tube assumed a more fascinating form, like a fossil or a dinosaur bone as we delved into audio archeology. The story of the horn, researched in great detail by John, sparked an interest in me. Four years later in 2012, on being appointed as the Museum’s first-ever sound artist-in residence, I was given a wonderful opportunity to initiate its reconstruction.

The exponential horn loudspeaker was designed in 1929 by the Museum’s curator of  ‘Electrical Communication’ R. P. G. Denman who also personally built a radio receiver to run in tandem with it. The purpose of this new sound system was to provide the public with demonstrations of the highest quality broadcast sound that was obtainable at the time. Denman saw it as setting a benchmark for audio quality, his aim was, in his words “to provide a standard by which commercial apparatus could be judged”.

The horn measured 27 feet (8.23m) in length with a cross section that curved exponentially from 1 1/16 inches (27mm) to a massive 7-foot-1-inch square (2.16m sq.) at the horn mouth. The science and theory of how horns propagate sound had only begun to emerge in the mid-1920s. It was found that a horn with an exponential shape was the most effective means of converting the sound energy from high pressure, low velocity vibrations produced at the narrow end of the horn, into low pressure, high velocity vibrations at its mouth, then radiated into the outside air. However, in order to reproduce the lowest sounding frequencies, this type of horn has to be very long with a correspondingly large opening.

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

Denman, an expert on loudspeakers, specially designed the horn in order to reproduce frequencies as low as 32Hz and up to 6kHz. This was achieved by loading it to one of the latest moving-coil driver units from the Western Electric Company (U.S.A.) namely the WE 555W, widely used in cinema sound systems of the time and now considered to be one of the greatest loudspeaker drivers ever made.

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

From 1930 until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the apparatus was demonstrated daily in the Museum’s Radio Communication gallery. The giant horn mouth appeared through the wall above the entrance while the rest of it hung conspicuously in the adjacent Agricultural Implements gallery. It was built into the Museum’s infrastructure and may be described as being its very first sound installation.

Concerts broadcast on the BBC’s London Regional programmes provided the content for the demonstrations. Critical reactions were positive and for audiences at the time, accustomed to limited bandwidth, interference and distortion, the sound must have truly been a revelation. The Museum’s Radio gallery became a popular lunchtime destination, where sandwiches were cheerfully munched while listening to the classics or Wurlitzer cinema organ music, the audio reproduced in glorious full-range. It left an indelible impression on those who heard it, including John Liffen’s own uncle. Writing in the Audio Engineering Society Journal of April 1975, the audio experts Percy and Geoffrey L. Wilson opined that “no superior loudspeaker has to date been demonstrated in Britain”.

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

Fast-forward to 2014 and we have an opportunity to hear the horn again.

This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent efforts of the Museum’s Workshops who undertook the reconstruction project with gusto. The missing 18-feet of the horn was rebuilt over an intense 8-month period following Denman’s original specification, although fibre-glass was used in place of the original lead and tin alloy. Led by the Workshops manager Steve Long, the team has succeeded in recreating the single largest loudspeaker in Britain.

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The programme for the upcoming installation is a mixture of past and present, allowing us to listen to the horn in old and new ways. Archive material from the BBC will be heard alongside recent recordings made within the Science Museum. Resonance 104.4FM will be resident in the space, broadcasting live from the Museum, while lunchtime concerts via BBC Radio 3 will mirror the original demonstrations of the 1930s. A series of events, including live music, poetry and performance will also showcase new works for the horn created by a variety of artists, writers and radio programme-makers.

The title, “In Search of Perfect Sound”, refers to Roderick Denman’s quest for audio nirvana. Our modern ears may have become accustomed to high fidelity audio and surround sound, but the exponential horn, with its extraordinary sound presence and a distinct three-dimensional effect, still holds an immersive power of its own.

I’m very proud to have played a part in giving the Denman horn a new lease of life and to have witnessed its exponential metamorphosis, from that modest-looking metal tube, cocooned above all those filing cabinets.

The Exponential Horn: In Search of Perfect Sound opens at the Media Space Studio on 20th May. An afternoon of talks and presentations about the horn and the history of radio in Britain will be held on 12th July. Speakers include John Liffen, Aleks Kolkowski, Dan Wilson and Seán Street.

Aleks Kolkowski is a sound artist, violinist and composer with a special interest in early sound recording and reproduction technology.