Category Archives: Public History

Thinking big

Curator Ali Boyle blogs on Big Science, a recent discussion about science and society since WWII that was part of our Collider events series.   

If you want to get an understanding of giant scientific projects like CERN, go into your kitchen and take your microwave apart. Actually don’t – we recommend that you leave potentially-destructive household experiments to the guidance of Punk Science. But as Jon Agar points out, a household device that we now take for granted contains a component that is a signature of the sciences since WW2. The magnetron – which generates the short-wavelength radio waves (or ‘microwaves’) to heat up your dinner – was crucial in the development of airborne radar for WW2.

While the names usually associated with the invention are those of University of Birmingham scientists John Randall and Harry Boot, they were not stereotypical lone geniuses in a laboratory: Randall was employed by General Electric, and the research was sponsored by the Admiralty with the aim of detecting submarines. This interplay between academic, industrial and military interests is often characteristic of Big Science – a broad term which historians use to describe the large-scale projects of the sciences of the late 20th century.

The original cavity magnetron is on display in Making the Modern World

The original cavity magnetron is on display in Making the Modern World (Image: Science Museum)

Last week’s conversation between Jon and Lisa Jardine, held in our Collider exhibition, discussed several examples of Big Science, and ways of making sense of it. One handy mnemonic is the Five M’s: money; manpower; big machines; military interests and media attention – although CERN, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year, is a notable exception to the ‘military’ rule. It was founded with the aim of using peaceful scientific research to knit Europe together again after the war. Find out more here.

This pan-European institution preceded later economic and political unions, although over the past 60 years particle physics has also witnessed Britain’s ambiguity about being part of Europe. Immediately after WW2 Britain was one of the few European nations that didn’t need a joint accelerator, as it already had its own large facilities, and there was much discussion before signing the CERN convention. Although UK universities and industrial partners were major players in building the Large Hadron Collider, they might not have been involved at all. Jon showed us a 1984 letter, preserved in the National Archives, in which Margaret Thatcher – who trained as a scientist – expresses doubt about ‘extravagant’ collaborative projects. Mrs T was eventually convinced of the worth of keeping the UK in CERN, and was even partly responsible for one of the most common analogies used to explain the Higgs boson. (Mind you, Peter Higgs himself admits that it’s pretty impossible to explain the mechanism simply, in this interview with Jim Al-Khalili).

On a 1982 visit to CERN, Margaret Thatcher is shown a cavity from the Large Electron Positron Collider - see a similar one in our exhibition. (Image: CERN)

On a 1982 visit to CERN, Margaret Thatcher is shown a cavity from the Large Electron Positron Collider – see a similar one in our exhibition. (Image: CERN)

And sometimes exploring Big Science involves looking at the little things: Lisa says that one of the best ways to understand how our lives are intertwined with science is to explore how science is intertwined with life. Big Science provides plenty of opportunities to explore social interaction amongst large groups, whether it’s the staggering 75,000 people working at the Manhattan Project’s Oak Ridge site as development of the atomic bomb neared completion (see an exhibition of the official photographer’s work here) or the 3,000 people onsite at CERN at any given time. We’ve tried to recreate some of CERN’s everyday scenes in Collider, which runs at the Science Museum until 5 May and then at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from 23 May – 28 September.

The audio recording of Lisa and Jon’s wide-ranging conversation can be listened to here, and you’ll find further coverage in Jon’s book on 20th century science. You can also hear more from them both, and many other historians, on science of all shapes and sizes in Lisa’s radio series.

We want your telegrams!

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager, writes about the search for stories for our new Information Age gallery opening in September 2014. 

How do you send a message? Text? Email? What was used before computers? During the reign of Queen Victoria, it was the telegram. Do you have one tucked away somewhere at home that you could bring in and talk about? The Science Museum is inviting you to bring your telegrams into one of our collecting days at the Dana Centre (behind the Science Museum on 165 Queen’s Gate) from 11.00-16.00 on 28 June and 29 June.

Motorcycle telegram messenger, c 1930s

Motorcycle telegram messenger, c 1930s. Image: Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

We are looking for telegrams dated from Victorian times to the 1980s. There is no limitation on the length or content of each message and you will not be expected to donate your telegram. Instead, our team want the chance to chat to you about its background and history and take a digital scan of the card. 

Telegram operators transpose messages on to typewriters, 1 June 1935.

Telegram operators transpose messages on to typewriters, 1 June 1935. Image:
Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Considered to be the quickest and most efficient way to send short messages, topics could range from local gossip to family announcements to business orders. Although small, these printed cards are now recognised as an important part of the history of communication, which is why the Science Museum has launched a search for telegrams and the stories behind them. Find out more about the search here: sciencemuseum.org.uk/stories

Calling former telephone operators!

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager, writes about the search for stories for our new Information Age gallery opening in September 2014. 

Calling former telephone operators!

We want to speak to the ladies who worked as telephone exchange operators in the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly around Enfield, London. We would like our visitors to be able to listen their memories alongside a display of the last manual telephone exchange in our Information Age gallery.

Before automated systems were introduced in the 1960s, phone calls were manually connected by young female telephone exchange operators. Their concentration, patience and friendly manner ensured calls were placed across the country and each telephone exchange developed into a small social community.

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield, October 1960

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield, October 1960. Image: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The last manual telephone exchange was in Enfield, north London, and marks the end of an era in communication history. A section of the Enfield Exchange forms a part of the Science Museum’s collection and will be put on display in the Information Age gallery. We would like to bring this amazing piece of history to life through the memories of the women who worked with the machine.

Do you know of anyone who worked as a telephone exchange operator? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Please visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/stories to get in touch.

Lyons Tea Shop Managers needed!

We are also looking to speak to Lyons tea shop managers that worked with Lyons Electronic Office (LEO I), the world’s first business computer, in the 1950s. Brought to life on 17 November 1951, LEO I played a crucial role in the development of a new computer age and we would love to hear from its female workforce. If you are a former manager (or relative), please get in touch and share your stories.

Lyons Tea Shop Manager Alice Eleanor Bacon, 1897

Lyons Tea Shop Manager Alice Eleanor Bacon, 1897. Image: Peter Bird

A Great Exhibition

Harriet Lamb, Senior Individual Giving Executive in our Development team, writes about the history of the 1851 Great Exhibition. 

Early May marks the anniversary of the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (and therefore the origins of both the Science Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum). 100,000 objects from art to machinery, from all over the world were on display in an enormous purpose built glass structure –  so big that it arched over two of the trees in Hyde Park. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

In five and a half months, over six million people visited the exhibition from across the nation to satisfy their interest in the latest innovations and technological and manufacturing marvels of the 1850s.

There was initial concern about the cost of the Great Exhibition and building its giant glass structure, but to everyone’s surprise the exhibition made a profit of £168,000. That’s over £16m in today’s money! This money was put to good use, and following on from the phenomenal success of the Great Exhibition part of the profit was used to set up the South Kensington Museum (pictured below).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum). Image: Science Museum / SSPL

This museum housed art and science objects in new buildings on a road named after the success of 1851 – Exhibition Road. The collections grew so large that by 1893 both the science and arts collections had their own directors, with the Science Museum officially opening in 1909.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

It’s amazing to think that an exhibition visited by millions of people more than a century and a half ago is part of the reason the museum is here today. Last year, our 3 million visitors generously donated almost £1m to help us continue bringing the history and future of science to life. If you’d like to support us, find out more here or speak to a member of staff next time you visit.

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Polio: On the edge of eradication

Billionaire computer entrepreneur and philanthropist, Bill Gates, is to discuss the impact of polio on humanity at this evening’s annual BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture. His speech, which will be broadcast from the historic Royal Institution, will be supported with the visual aid of an iron lung from the Science Museum’s collection (1.03 mins in).

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The global effort to eradicate polio, which has reduced the number of recorded polio cases by 99 percent within the last two decades – from 350,000 cases a year in the late 1980s to 205 last year – has been funded, in part, by billions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation on the planet.

The effects of polio can be seen in the range and development of technology designed to relieve suffering. At its worst, polio survivors are unable to breath without assistance, and this lead to the development of the iron lung, or cabinet respirator, in the 1920s by Philip Drinker of Harvard University.

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Although life-saving, early models were alarming and uncomfortable for patients, and it wasn’t until 1956 that Captain G T Smith-Clarke, a British engineer, devised a vastly superior device. Patients encased in the cabinet had pressurised air pumped into the chamber causing the lungs to inflate and deflate, enabling the patient to breathe.

The Smith-Clarke ‘Baby’ iron lung in our collection was acquired in 1990 from The Royal Free Hospital in London, where it had been standard equipment in the 1960s, but by 1990 they had become rare indeed.

With polio now prevalent in just three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – and with a continued global effort, total eradication is, for the first time, within our grasp.

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Codebreaker wins Great Exhibition award

By Roger Highfield

The Science Museum’s critically-acclaimed exhibition about Alan Turing, the mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and philosopher, has been awarded a prestigious prize by the British Society for the History of Science.

First prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition went to Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy which commemorates the centenary of Turing’s birth by telling the story of how he helped lay the foundations of modern computing and broke the codes of the Nazis, nature and society too.

The exhibition traces the influences over Turing’s lifetime from the death in 1930 of the love of his life, Christopher Morcom, to the use of his Pilot ACE computer by crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin to crack the atomic structure of vitamin B12 to his final research on pattern formation in biology.

First demonstrated in 1950, Pilot ACE is one of Britain’s earliest stored program computers and the oldest complete general purpose electronic computer in Britain.

The standard of the submissions to the competition’s large display category was ‘extremely high’, said the BSHS, with entrants from North America, Europe and Britain, covering various subjects, from alchemy and acoustics to anatomy and computing.

James Stark, Chair of the Society’s Outreach and Education Committee commented that Codebreaker goes beyond basic biography:

This helps to move the public understanding of Turing beyond that of a solo genius. The objects used in the display are foregrounded well, especially the beautifully-presented Hodgkin B12 model, and interestingly juxtaposed: the theatrical set-like pieces worked well to conjure up different historical moments such as Turing’s work in Cambridge and Manchester. Overall, it presented a clear, coherent narrative, and showcased a wealth of content, illustrated with original objects.

The exhibition, designed by Nissen Richards studio and made possible with the generous support of Google, covers how Turing’s team cracked U boat codes at Bletchley Park to change the course of the Second World War and features three examples of the German enciphering machine, Enigma, including one lent to the museum by Sir Mick Jagger.

Among the other items in the exhibition are a cybernetic tortoise that had inspired Turing during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, and a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen: Turing had been subject to ‘chemical castration’ to neutralise his libido.

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Homosexuality was a criminal offence at that time and in February 1952 Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”. To avoid prison, he had accepted the hormone treatment.

The most poignant item on display is a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report, detailing the circumstances of Turing death at his home on 7 June 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental: there was enough of the poison to fill a wine glass.

The award for the exhibition comes as leading figures, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Sir Paul Nurse (both Science Museum Fellows), called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon Turing.

Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy was launched at the Science Museum on the 21 June 2012 with an event that featured, among others, David Rooney, Curator; Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies & Engineering, Emily Scott-Dearing, now Head of Exhibitions and Programmes, Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, David Harper of Google  and Sir John Dermot Turing, nephew of Alan Turing. Codebreaker will run until 31 July 2013.

The Second prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition was won by the Berlin Museum of Medical History at Charité for their exhibition Tracing Life.

The small exhibition category was won by the Royal College of Physicians, London, for ‘Curious Anatomys’, while joint second place was taken by the National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, for Reconstructing Lives, and The Museum of Art at the University of Virginia for Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott.

Roger Highfield is the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

John Liffen, Curator of Communication at the Science Museum inspects the Brother CM-1000

Oh Brother where art thou…

By Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technologies and Engineering

Clack clack clack clack… ping! The sound of a typewriter sweeping across the page, already becoming a faint memory, will soon fall silent as the mass manufacturing of this technology ends in the UK. Typewriters are iconic machines and have served as the tool of communication over the last 130 years. Whether it’s the legacy of the Beat generation of authors; William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac capturing post-war America on the page, or images of secretaries fiercely typing away, the typewriter has been indoctrinated into our historical and cultural heritage.

Marking the end of UK typewriter production

The place which marked the end of UK typewriter production was Ruabon, at the Brother Factory set within the beautiful Welsh countryside. The factory’s 200 employees witnessed the final model of the Brother CM-1000 being packed into its box to a soundtrack of emotional sighs and cheers. This object is the 5,855,533rd of its type to be produced but the only one which has a place in the Science Museum collection. Brother have kindly donated this last British made typewriter to the Museum, which will be an invaluable addition to the 200 typewriters already in our collection.

John Liffen, Curator of Communication at the Science Museum inspects the Brother CM-1000 (l) and Wheatstone telegraph printer (r), which share a similar printing mechanism

Interestingly, the CM1000 (above left) shares a similar mechanism with another object in our collection, one of the earliest telegraph printers built by Sir Charles Wheatstone in the mid 19th century (above right). This latest addition to the collection will enable us to tell the story of how technology has evolved and been shaped by our communication needs.

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter

Research: putting a very big ‘open’ sign on the door

By Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History

At the end of last month, the Science Museum Group formally launched its new Research and Public History Department. Research is at the heart of every great museum; without it we cannot understand the stories our collections tell, how our audiences engage, or how to slow the deterioration of our objects.

BBC Horizon producers discuss the programme’s history at the Science Museum

Horizon producers discussing the programme’s history at a recent AHRC-funded event organised by the Research & Public History Department.

If research is so central, it may seem odd that we are having this launch now in 2012. And, of course, research has always had a role at the Museum. But what this launch signifies is a hunger to do more, in a greater variety of ways, and with an increasingly diverse range of partners.

Any scholar intrigued by the Museum’s collections, its galleries, or curious about the way that its galleries act as a public space for science and technology, is invited to work with us to delve deeper and to understand better; to research with us.

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter, subject of a recently-completed AHRC-funded collaborative doctorate.

Ludmilla Jordanova, the eminent historian and Science Museum Group Trustee, argued at the opening event that, “it is fitting that a group of museums about ‘science’, which in many languages still has the broad meaning of knowledge and learning, should use and foster a wide range of approaches to understanding some of the most central phenomena of human existence, namely science in its more specific sense, medicine and technology.”

But what is research? Ludmilla suggested that it is ‘sustained nosiness’; that it is a kind of ‘systematic curiosity’. This definition gives a clue to that other phrase in our title, public history. At one level, academic research is simply a more intensive version of what all of us do when we visit a museum or gallery with a wish to understand more and better.

So, we are interested in how our visitors think about the history of science, and in developing insights that will enable us to attune our offer better. But we also know that the academics who work with us – historians, education experts, geographers, media scholars and many others – bring new and exciting ways of seeing from their own disciplines.

The research door is open; we encourage you to come in.

BPS Curator of Psychology Phil Loring showing participants objects from the medical collection. (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

Science Museum History Open House

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

On Saturday the 16th June, the Research and Public History department organised a History Open House event at the Dana centre. The event showcased how the Science Museum’s collections, library and archives could be valuable resources for people who are researching their local or community heritage. The event was attended by members from local community groups, history societies, arts organisations and subject enthusiasts who had an interest in their Science, Technology, Engineering or Medical heritage.

Associate Curator Merel van der Vaart presenting at History Open House (Credit: Hilary Geoghegan)

The participants were firstly provided with the opportunity to attend two gallery tours of Making the Modern World and the Science and Art of Medicine, where they could explore some of the collections already on display in the Museum. Afterwards there was the opportunity to talk to staff and ask questions about the resources available to them and the ways in which they can be accessed. Please follow this link if you would like to learn more about the collections or wish to search the collections online.

Secondly, the participants were shown around the Science Museum’s Library, where they learnt about two dimensional collections. Not only do these include books and journals, but also original histories, biographies and digital sources.  The Science Museum Library is based inSouth Kensington, but there is also an Archive collection held at Wroughton. Wroughton Library and Archive  contains original scientific, engineering and technology material from the last 500 years.

BPS Curator of Psychology Phil Loring showing participants objects from the medical collection. (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The day aroused great interest from the attending participants, and many were surprised with the wide variety of resources that are available in the Museum and Library and Archives beyond the display cases and exhibits.

For participants that were interested in funding opportunities for their research project, an external representative for the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was invited to talk about the All Our Stories grant scheme. This scheme is a wonderful opportunity for projects that intend to explore, share and celebrate heritage and range from £3,000.-  to £10,000.-. More information about All Our Stories can be found here.

 

The Science Museum History Open House was made possible by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.