Category Archives: Inventions

‘Tis the season to 3D print your Christmas

Press Officer Laura Singleton explores some festive 3D printing.

Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year – with presents to wrap, trees to be put up and cards to be written. Finding the perfect gift or decoration can be expensive, time-consuming and exhausting. Could the rise of 3D printing provide the answer to our seasonal woes and even tap into our hidden creativity?

Earlier this month we were pleased to unveil a dramatic 3D printed titanium star, which sits on top of the Director’s Christmas tree. The star, which measures 44cm wide, is an awe-inspiring example of what can be achieved on a 3D printer. The star’s design is based on fractals, the self-repeating patterns found within a Mandelbrot set.

Close up of Jessica Noble's 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Close up of Jessica Noble’s 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

The star was the result of a challenge set by the Science Museum’s Director Ian Blatchford at last year’s Christmas party. Attendees to the event were challenged to come up with an innovative design for a star – to be created and displayed on our Christmas tree.

Jessica Noble's 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Jessica Noble’s 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Conceived and designed by London based designer Jessica Noble, with help from Nottingham University, the star features a central nylon core and 97 3D printed individual titanium stars printed by Renishaw that were then connected to the core using carbon fibre rods. The individual parts make the star easy to assemble, dissemble and rearrange – a clear advantage over other types of decoration. The Mandelbrot reference gives a nod to the Science Museum’s mathematical collections.

Designer Jessica Noble with her 3D printed star on top of the Director's Christmas tree. Image credits: Science Museum

Designer Jessica Noble with her 3D printed star on top of the Director’s Christmas tree. Image credits: Science Museum

However, you don’t need to be an artist or designer to take advantage of the benefits of 3D printing. Many printers are now available on the high street and can produce smaller scale designs of your choice. Our Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins, has taken advantage of the technology by creating a range of decorations and gift tags for the Science Museum’s shop that can be 3D printed in under 15 minutes.

A selection of 3D printed snowflakes created in the Science Museum's store. Image credits: Science Museum

A selection of 3D printed snowflakes created in the Science Museum’s store. Image credits: Science Museum

As the museum’s store now sells 3D printers, we’ve set one up to demonstrate how the technology works. Should you wish to buy a decoration such as a snowflake or star, you can choose a design and watch it being printed – ready for you to take home. Why not pay a visit to the museum and try it out?

A 3D printed snowflake designed by Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins. Image credits: Science Museum

A 3D printed snowflake designed by Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins. Image credits: Science Museum

The link between science and design was the topic of a recent debate held jointly at the Science Museum and Design Museum and attended by Universities and Science Minister, David Willets MP. Organised with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the debate focused on breaking down language barriers and encouraging interaction between scientists, engineers and designers explained David Bott, Director of Innovation Programmes at the TSB.

3D printing is rapidly changing society – whether at home, work or our leisure activities. You can find more examples of how the technology is growing in our free exhibition, 3D: Printing The Future, which showcases over 600 3D printed objects including prototypes for replacement body organs, bike gadgets and aeroplane parts.

JJ Thomson’s Cathode-ray tube

Rupert Cole celebrates JJ Thomson’s birthday with a look at one of the star objects in our Collider exhibition.

Holding the delicate glass cathode-ray tube in my hands, once used by the great physicist JJ Thomson, was an incredible treat, and an experience I will never forget.

I had read lots about Thomson’s famous experiments on the electron – the first subatomic particle to be discovered – but to actually see and touch his apparatus myself, to notice the blackened glass and the tube’s minute features that are omitted in books, brought the object to life. History suddenly seemed tangible.

Using more than one cathode-ray tube in 1897 for his experiments, Thomson managed to identify a particle 1,000 times smaller than the then known smallest piece of matter: a hydrogen atom. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, where Thomson spent his scientific career, also has an original tube in its collection.

Each tube was custom-made by Thomson’s talented assistant, Ebenezer Everett, a self-taught glassblower. Everett made all of Thomson’s apparatus, and was responsible for operating it – in fact, he generally forbade Thomson from touching anything delicate on the grounds that he was “exceptionally helpless with his hands”.

The quality of Everett’s glassblowing was absolutely crucial for the experiments to work.

Cathode-rays are produced when an electric current is passed through a vacuum tube. Only when almost all the air has been removed to create a high vacuum – a state that would shatter ordinary glass vessels – can the rays travel the full length of the tube without bumping into air molecules.

Thomson was able to apply electric and magnetic fields to manipulate the rays, which eventually convinced the physics world that they were composed of tiny particles, electrons, opposed to waves in the now-rejected ether.

Find out more about Thomson and the story of the first subatomic particle here, or visit the Museum to see Thomson’s cathode-ray tube in the Collider exhibition. If you’re interested in the details of how Thomson and Everett conducted their experiments visit the Cavendish Lab’s outreach page here.

3D printing – an explosion of creativity!

Suzy Antoniw, Content Developer in the Contemporary Science Team, looks at the creation of a new exhibition on 3D printing.

What can make impossible shapes solidly real and create unique, one-off medical treatments that could change your life? A 3D printer of course!

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

Around nine months ago we were given the exciting challenge of creating 3D: Printing the Future, a new Contemporary Science exhibition to show off the real-life capabilities of these hugely hyped machines and highlight the latest 3D printing research.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer. Image credit: Science Museum

But hang on, what exactly is a 3D printer? Even if you’ve read stories about them in the news you probably don’t have one sitting on your desk just yet. So here’s our definition: A 3D printer is a manufacturing machine that turns 3D computer data into a physical object, usually by building it in layers. They come in a variety of types that range from simple consumer models to sophisticated industrial printers.

A prosthetic arm concept  made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

A prosthetic arm concept made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

As well as covering the basics, we decided that our exhibition should focus on the incredible things that 3D printers can create – such as replacement body organs and teeth, that could make a difference to the lives of our visitors.

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printers have been around for decades, so what’s changed? In recent years the patents on simple 3D printing technologies have run out. 3D printers have become available to more people in the form of affordable consumer models, or even as open source plans freely available on the internet.

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

This new freedom to invent has generated an explosion of creativity. And it’s not just hackers, tinkerers and makers who’ve felt the benefits of this new breath of life for engineering and design, but established industry and academia too. So how do you represent a diverse and dynamic explosion of creativity?

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

In July we began collecting 3D printed stuff for what has been known as ‘an explosion’, our ‘mass display’, ‘the wave’, ‘the wall’ and (my favourite) a ‘tsunami of objects’. The display contains over 663 objects – the largest number we’ve ever acquired for a Contemporary Science exhibition, thanks to generous loans, donations and the enthusiasm of the maker community.

Among the amazing ‘wave’ of objects you can see a display of 150 miniature 3D printed people – visitors who volunteered to have themselves scanned in 3D at the Museum over the summer holidays. Look closely at the wall and you may spot actress Jenny Agutter reading her script, model Lily Cole and BBC Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis - with his arm in a sling!

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

The free exhibition is open to the public from 9 October and will run for nine months.

Summer Invention Challenge

By Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor in Residence is challenging young visitors to design an invention to help solve a common summer problem. The winner will receive a Makerbot 3D printer worth over £2,000 and get their idea 3D printed and displayed in a new exhibition

When we’re basking in a heat wave, spending a summer holiday in Britain can be the perfect way to unwind. But as we all know, a British summer can present it’s own problems – from annoying wasps, to superheated car journeys, and from rain-soaked barbecues to sand in your sandwiches.

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

This summer we are challenging young visitors to get their thinking caps on and come up with an invention to help solve a common problem that most of us experience at this time of year. The winner will receive a prize of a Makerbot 3D printer worth over £2,000 and get their idea 3D printed and displayed in a new exhibition opening this Autumn.

MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer

MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer

Could it be an anti-wasp drink shield, or a sunshade for your ice-cream? Or perhaps a fan that can be clipped to your sunglasses, or a sunhat with a deployable umbrella?

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

To get everyone started we are asking people to think of the places they normally visit when they’re holidaying in Britain and the problems people might face in situations such as the seaside, in the countryside, on a long car journey or at home in the garden. Then think about the pet hates that you normally experience and devise a clever (or funny) solution that could help overcome the problem.

To join the summer invention challenge click here.

Cultured Beef

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about the world’s first lab-grown or ‘in vitro’ hamburger. Would you eat the burger? Vote here 

The world’s first lab-grown or ‘in vitro’ hamburger was cooked and eaten today at a press conference in London for a demonstration project to show the future of food, funded by Google’s Sergey Brin.

The cultured cell burger, estimated to be worth around  £220,000, was created by Prof Mark Post of Maastrict University in a project that took him two years.

A burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

A burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

The burger was cooked in butter by chef Richard McGowan before an audience of journalists, then subject to a taste test by US-based food author Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler.

The verdict? Close to meat, though more like ‘animal protein cake’, said Schonwald. All commented that it lacked fat, salt and pepper.

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

You can follow the press conference on Storify, watch a video here and read reports by the BBC, Daily Telegraph, New York Times and Popular Science.

The event heralded  a ‘Brave Moo World’  according to Channel 4.

To create the hamburger, muscle cells taken from the shoulder muscle of a cow and multiplied to form muscle tissue, the main component of beef.

The cells arranged themselves into tiny ‘myotubes’ which are grown around gel hubs, attached to Velcro ‘anchor points’ in a culture dish.  Electrical stimulation was then used to make the muscle strips contract and ‘bulk up’.

With this technique, a single strand can produce over a trillion new strands. And when all these tiny pieces are added together, tissue is the result; it took 20,000 of these small strands of meat to create one normal sized hamburger.

Other ingredients include salt, egg powder, and breadcrumbs. Beetroot juice and saffron were added to provide authentic beef colouring.

One reason Brin is backing this project is that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the demand for meat is going to increase by more than two-thirds in the next four decades and current production methods are not sustainable.

Livestock also contributes to global warming through releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, via belching and farting.

According to Prof Post, research carried out at the University of Oxford suggests that producing cultured, or in vitro, beef could use as much as 99% less space than current livestock farming methods and will have smaller emissions.

The Art of Boiling Beer: 60 years of the Bubble Chamber

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole explains how beer was used for cutting-edge particle physics research. 

Late one night in 1953, Donald Glaser smuggled a case of beer into his University lab. He wanted to test out the limitations of his revolutionary invention: the bubble chamber.

Previously, Glaser had only tried exotic chemical liquids in his device. But now his sense of experimental adventure had been galvanised by a recent victory over the great and famously infallible physicist Enrico Fermi.

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Fermi, who had invited Glaser to Chicago to find out more about his invention, had already seemingly proved that a bubble chamber could not work. But when Glaser found a mistake in Fermi’s authoritative textbook, he dedicated himself to redoing the calculations.

Glaser found that, if he was correct, that the bubble chamber should work with water. To make absolutely certain he “wasn’t being stupid”, Glaser conducted this curious nocturnal experiment at his Michigan laboratory. He also discovered that the bubble chamber worked just as well when using lager as it had with other chemicals.

There was one practical issue however, the beer caused the whole physics department to smell like a brewery. “And this was a problem for two reasons,” Glaser recalled. “One is that it was illegal to have any alcoholic beverage within 500 yards of the university. The other problem was that the chairman was a very devout teetotaler, and he was furious. He almost fired me on the spot”.

On 1st August 1953, 60 years ago this Thursday, Glaser published his famous paper on the bubble chamber – strangely failing to mention the beer experiment.

Glaser’s device provided a very effective way to detect and visualise particles. It consisted of a tank of pressurised liquid, which was then superheated by reducing the pressure. Charged particles passing through the tank stripped electrons from atoms in the liquid and caused the liquid to boil. Bubbles created from the boiling liquid revealed the particle’s path through the liquid.

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

One of Glaser’s motivations for his invention was to avoid having to work with large groups of scientists at big particle accelerators. Instead, he hoped his device would enable him to study cosmic rays using cloud chambers in the traditional fashion; up a mountain, ski in the day, “and work in sort of splendid, beautiful surroundings. A very pleasant way of life – intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic”

Ironically, as the bubble chamber only worked with controlled sources of particles, it was inherently suited to accelerator research, not cosmic rays. Soon the large accelerator facilities built their own, massive bubble chambers.

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Between 1965-1970 CERN built Gargamelle – a bubble chamber of such proportions that it was named after a giantess from the novels of Francois Rabelais (not the Smurfs’ villain). Gargamelle proved a huge success, enabling the discovery of neutral currents – a crucial step in understanding how some of the basic forces of nature were once unified.

This November you’ll have the chance to see up close the original design drawings for Gargamelle, and much more in the Collider exhibition.

Generating Ideas: drawing inspiration from the Science Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty in the Making

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

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

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

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

T. Alva Edison and his Amazing Phonograph!

Jared Keller, a researcher and former Science Museum Explainer, discusses some of our hidden objects and the science behind them. 

Today we’re looking at the Sound Section of Launchpad and one of my favourite exhibits, “Sound Bite”. If you’re a bit rusty on your Sound Bite science, HERE is an old BBC refresher course on the principles of sound travelling through a medium/solid.

Launchpad’s World Famous ‘Sound Bite’ – Credit: Man Chiwing

The important thing to remember is that sound waves can travel through a solid material like a metal rod the same as they can through the air. Proof of this lies in the fact that you can feel the rod vibrating if you pinch it with your fingers. When you bite down, those vibrations are passed up through your teeth, through your jaw, and up into your ear where they vibrate the same bones in the inner-ear that normally vibrate from sound waves in the air.

Edison stares intently at his new invention - Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Edison stares intently at his new invention – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In 1877 a very ‘bright’ man named Thomas Alva Edison put this principle to use in what he called a phonograph. Whereas the more familiar gramaphone ‘records’ are flat two-sided discs of vinyl, Edison’s original phonographs used 10 cm cylinders made of soft tin-foil (and later wax).

Edison's original phonograph cylinders - on display in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

Edison’s original phonograph cylinders – on display in the Secret Life of the Home gallery – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Whatever you call them, the science is simple: he knew, just like you, that sound travelling through a metal causes it to vibrate. His great insight, was in realising that vibrations in a metal could then be turned back into vibrations in the air – what we normally hear as sounds!

The first words spoken into Edison's new phonograph recorder? ... "Mary had a little lamb" - Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

The first words spoken into Edison’s new phonograph recorder? … “Mary had a little lamb” – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In the drawing above you can see Edison speaking into one of his phonographs. As he spoke into the cone and tube, it captured his voice and funneled it down until it was intense enough to vibrate a small, incredibly sharp piece of metal. As the metal vibrated with the sound of his voice, the soft tin cylinder was rotated underneath the vibrating tip which caused the tip to cut into the tin. If you want to see a real phonograph player and its cylindrical record, simply head to the ‘Secret Life of the Home’ gallery in the basement.

Closeup of the grooves on a phonograph cylinder - Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Closeup of the grooves on a phonograph cylinder – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Edison knew that once the vibration of his voice had been carved into the soft tin, passing another tip through those grooves in the now hardened tin would make the needle vibrate in exactly the same way! All he had to do then was take those vibrations and amplify them so they were loud enough to be heard by the human ear. But being the veteran Sound Biters that we are, we know that if Edison had simply attached small metal rods to that vibrating tip we could bite down on them and let the vibrations pass up our teeth, through our jaws, and up to our ears, just like with Sound Bite!

A dapper Edison pumps music directly into our skulls! – Credit: Matteo Farinella

Though maybe Edison was right: listening to a song through the air is much more satisfying than biting down on a metal rod!

Hempcrete Store Wins Sustainability Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dambusters, Barnes Wallis and the Bouncing Bomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bouncing bomb trials. Film stills signed by Barnes Wallis.

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

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

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

Barnes Wallis with his hypersonic aircraft model

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

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