Category Archives: Inventions

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.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

The ingenious inventions of Mr Babbage!

By Cate Watson – Content Developer on the Babbage display

Although Charles Babbage is best known for his calculating engines, plans of which are now on display in the Computing gallery, he was a life long inventor with a passion for improvement.

As a 16 year old Babbage nearly drowned when he trialed his newly invented shoes for walking on water. This setback failed to discourage him and Babbage’s inventions ranged from designs for a locomotive ‘cow catcher’, an automaton for playing noughts and crosses, a ‘black box’ recorder for monitoring railway tracks and ‘speaking-tubes’ linking London and Liverpool among many other ideas.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Babbage fervently believed that new inventions should be freely available to all – when he constructed the first known opthalmoscope in 1847 for internal eye examinations he refused to patent it. The credit went to Herman von Helmhotz 4 years later instead.

You can see another of Babbage’s inventions in the Museum – an occulting light mechanism to help with ship navigation. Ship captains used lights on shore to steer by but the increasing number of lights on the coast led to confusion. Babbage designed a light with mechanical shutters to create a unique flashing signal for ships.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

Frustratingly for Babbage, this invention, like many of his ideas, found no favour at home. It did however sufficiently impress the Russians, who used the principle of his signalling lights against the British in the Crimean war.

Babbage’s foresight wasn’t limited to his inventions. He predicted the end of the coal mines and recommended tidal power instead, commenting that if posterity failed to find a substitute source of power it deserved to be ‘frostbitten’!

See more of Babbage’s inventive drawings in a new display in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.

Enjoy Christmas all year round with a Christmas tent

Visitor Inventions – What they really wanted for Christmas

“Wow! It’s what I always wanted….” is the standard response when you receive presents from your friends and family.  But was it really?  Whether you received the latest gadget, perfume or socks – some of our visitors dream of receiving jetpack boots, a time machine and a walking toilet.

Below is a selection of inventions that our visitors came up with when in the Launchpad gallery.  Click on any image for larger pictures.

Explainer Fact:  The Museum is only closed 3 days a year – 24th-26th December

Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree

Inventing the Future of Christmas

By Mark Champkins

As Inventor in Residence, I was given the task of coming up with some inventions that we might see in the future at Christmas time.

A good starting point was to think about all the problems and minor annoyances about Christmas, then to try to think of solutions. It turns out there are plenty of Christmas gripes, from pine needles dropping all over the carpet, to eating Brussel sprouts and wrapping countless presents!

On the first weekend of December, I bought and installed a Christmas tree in my living room. I have been making a range of products for the Science Museum called “Beauty in the Making” that describe how and where products have been manufactured, before they make it into our homes.

Beauty in the Making

Beauty in the Making: Telling the story of how materials are manufactured

I started to wonder about where all the other things around me had come from including my new Christmas tree. Where had the tree been growing before it had been chopped down? Could it ever be replaced? I then struck upon the idea of the Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree, complete with soil and fertiliser that could be planted to grow a new Christmas tree.

Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree

The next problem I thought about solving was wrapping up presents. My solution came when I was thinking about a more robust alternative to wrapping paper that could be reused. Initially, I wondered whether Christmas wrapping cloth might catch on. Then I remembered using some vacuum pack bags to store away a duvet. It occurred to me that if these were produced in opaque with Christmas patterns, they would make a great way of wrapping things quickly and could be reused again. The result was Vac-Pac-Wrapping. I’ve tested the idea and it works really well!

Vac-Pac-Wrapping: The future of Christmas Wrapping?

Another invention idea was inspired by the feeling of excitement I used to feel as a child as the presents began to build up underneath the Christmas tree. Before opening them, my brothers and I would subject our presents to some rigorous scientific tests to figure out what was inside. Heaviness was usually a good sign!

Guess the Gift kit: Tools to investigate what a present might be

So I came up with the Guess the Gift kit. It comprises a range of tools that can be used to interrogate what a present might be, and after Christmas can be used to explore other mysteries! These include a magnet, a set of scales, a torch, a magnifying glass and dental mirror.

It’s hard to predict whether these inventions will catch on in the future, but I’m already thinking about the inventions next year might bring.

Mark Champkins is the Inventor in Residence at the Science Museum

Motorola 8800X

SMS turns 20 with a touch of festive cheer

By Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer – Making Modern Communications

Every time we invent a new communications device, somebody has to decide what the first every message will be. Sometimes this is planned in advance and has a weighty meaning. For example, when the first American telegraph line was officially opened in 1844, the first message sent by Samuel Morse asked: What hath God wrought?

On other occasions, the inventors of the technology were taken by surprise, such as Alexander Graham Bell. His first words were less majestic: Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.

So, 20 years ago today, when 22-year-old British engineer, Neil Papworth, was trying out Vodafone’s new SMS system out for the first time, what did he send? Well, as it was nearing Christmas, there was really only one choice: MERRY CHRISTMAS

Motorola 8800X

This phone, the Motorola 8800X, was launched in 1992. The same year that the first SMS message was sent. Source: Science Museum

The first commercial SMS (short message service) system went into operation in 1993, after several years of tinkering with various text based messaging services. Mobile phone companies didn’t rush to get text messaging out there because they didn’t think anybody would be interested in sending such short messages.

In a way they were proved right, because it wasn’t until the late 1990′s when the first pre-pay phones came into use that texting really took off. Lots of users found texting to be a cheap way of sending a snippet of information, and by 2002 we were sending 2 million texts an hour in the UK alone.

Nokia 3310

You might recognise the Nokia 3310, it was launched in 2000 at around the time that sending text messages was really getting big. Source: Science Museum / Science and Society

The number of texts being sent around the world is still growing, but as our phones become the centre of our communications world, with social networks and email as well as texting and calling, the humble text message is going to have to work hard to stay in use.

Swiss Army Octopus - the perfect camping buddy

Visitor Inventions – Animals

They say the UK is a country of animal lovers and judging by what our visitors have drawn, it is most certainly true!  Why use a standard Swiss Army knife when a friendly octopus can help you instead?  Or why should we continue to burn fossil fuels when hamsters are happy to power devices for us?

We give our visitors the tools (colouring pencils and paper) to doodle down any ideas they have whilst in our Launchpad gallery.

Here’s a selection of animal-based inventions drawn up by some of our imaginative visitors. Click on any image to see bigger pictures.

Explainer Fact: The Museum has a large anatomical horse in the Veterinary section on the 5th floor

Trace023title

Visitor Inventions – Adult ideas

It’s not just our younger visitors who love drawing their ideas down on paper whilst inside our Launchpad gallery – adults do too!  Especially after a bit of alcohol and some silent discoing during one of our Science Museum Lates, which happen on the last Wednesday of every month except December.

Below are a selection of inventions drawn by some of our larger visitors – click  on any image to see bigger pictures.

Mark Champkin's with his gift for Stephen Hawking

A ‘black hole light’ as a birthday gift to Prof Hawking

By Mark Champkins

When I was asked to design Stephen Hawking a 70th Birthday present on behalf of the Museum, I have to confess, I was a little overwhelmed. I was chuffed to be asked, but didn’t really know where to start.

A ‘black hole light’ as a birthday gift to Prof Hawking

After giving it some thought I reckoned it would be worth talking to some people that knew him and his theories really well, so I approached the Museum curators, Boris and Ali, who have been responsible for putting together a display about his life and work.

They were amazingly helpful, explaining a little about his theories about Black Holes and his work to unite the field of quantum physics with the cosmological. They showed me some images of his office, and his most prized objects and awards, along with some models he had made of the way light falls into a black hole. They also directed me to one or two objects in the Museum that have relevance to his work, one of them being Geissler Tubes.

Geissler tubes are beautiful! Alison and Boris described to me how a fella called Geissler was experimenting with vacuums, and created Geissler tubes by pumping gasses into the vacuum tube, and passing a current through the gas. The gasses glowed as they emitted photons, and though they started out as a curiosity, they led to two developments that relate to Hawking’s work. Firstly, the tubes led to the development of the equipment used to discover the electron – the first sub-atomic particle, which in turn, arguably led to the field of Quantum Physics. Secondly, the Geissler tubes led to the creation of Crookes radiometer, which as it’s name implies detect radiation, linking with Hawking’s identification of his very own form of radiation, that which escapes from a black hole.

I then hit upon the idea of making a “Black Hole Light” using the closest thing available to a Geissler tube – neon tubes. I liked the pun, and how it alludes to Hawking Radiation.

The form I chose for the lamp was inspired by the profile of the model I had seen in Hawking’s lab, demonstrating how light is sucked into a black hole.

I rather liked the idea of uniting the technology that led to the birth of Quantum Physics (in the form of a Geissler-inspired neon tube), with a form that is representative of the path light would take spiralling into a black hole. Mixing Cosmology with Quantum Physics, and trying to reconcile them in one artefact. Something of a metaphor for Hawking’s work.

Having made the light, I am really pleased with it. I really hope it can also serve a practical purpose in his home or office, and that he’ll like it!

View the rest of the pictures in our Flickr set

 

Pencil that does your homework for you!

More visitor inventions

A pencil that does your homework for you, clouds that rain chocolate and a levitating chair – just a few of the ingenious inventions that have been dreamt up by visitors to our Launchpad gallery.

Here’s a small selection – click on any image to see bigger pictures.

That last one was just us showing off…