The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory

Peter Morris is the Science Museum’s Keeper of Research Projects and has recently published his latest book, ‘The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory‘.

The laboratory clearly plays an important role in chemistry (and other sciences). Chemists will have received their practical training in the teaching laboratory before spending their career (in many cases) working in a variety of laboratories in academia and industry. Yet this important setting for chemistry has hitherto been little studied. Previous studies of laboratories have almost invariably been an examination of what a chemist or chemists have done in that laboratory rather than the laboratory building itself. And the few papers or books on the design or fittings of the laboratory have restricted themselves to a single laboratory or a specific period.

The Matter Factory

My latest book The Matter Factory is the first book to consider the development of the laboratory over four hundred years. I examine how the early alchemical workshops dominated by the furnace became the standard chemistry laboratory (what I call the classical chemistry laboratory) between the 1830s and 1860s, mostly in Germany and London with its central aisle, benches and bottle racks. This was not just a matter of architectural design or new fittings – it also required the introduction of gas, water and steam into the laboratory and plumbed-in drainage. These changes enabled the development of new fields of chemistry including atomic spectroscopy and organic synthesis as well as the training of an ever increasing number of chemistry students.

New Laboratory in University College, London, 16 May 1846

New Laboratory in University College, London, 16 May 1846.
Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

For many years, well into the twentieth century, this mass training employed inorganic group analysis as a tool. However this group analysis used toxic hydrogen sulphide as a reagent leading to the development of the fume cupboard and even fume boxes on the bench. The classical laboratory spread from its initial home in Germany to other countries, initially Britain and America, then to Japan and France by the 1890s. This type of laboratory was also quickly adopted by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. While the classical laboratory endured for over a century, a new type of laboratory employing a more flexible design has recently been introduced, for example, at Oxford University.

Bunsen's thermostat, 1867.

Bunsen’s thermostat, 1867.
Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

As well as looking at the design and content of laboratories, I have also studied other aspects of laboratory work, such as techniques and apparatus. They have included several items in the Science Museum’s own collections as such the bizarre gas thermostat (1888-307) invented by Robert Bunsen of burner fame and the demonstration apparatus introduced by Wilhelm Hofmann. While the so-called Hofmann voltammeter (to show the splitting of water by electricity) is well-known, he also popularised apparatus to demonstrate other reactions such as the reaction between sulphur dioxide and oxygen (1876-220). I have also argued that the widespread use of the white laboratory coat may be much later than commonly assumed.

Hofmann's apparatus, 1860s.

Hofmann’s apparatus, 1860s.
Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

You can buy The Matter Factory from the Science Museum shop or at our online shop here

Science Museum vine.

Explainer Vines

Eddie, a Science Museum Explainer, on demonstrating science in six seconds.

Are you following the Science Museum Learning team on Twitter? We share lots of interesting facts, ideas and suggestions for teachers (and for anyone else interested in learning about science as well).

We post Vine videos highlighting some of the best experiments and exhibits that we have at the Science Museum. I make these short six second videos, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my favourite videos with you.

Alka seltzer rocket

The alka seltzer rocket is part of our Materials demo. The film canister is fired into the air when gas produced by the alka seltzer tablet expands inside. This was quite a tough Vine to film as the launch is a little unpredictable!

Cornflour on speaker

This experiment is part of our Sound demo, although it’s actually an experiment that demonstrates a material phenomenon. This substance is cornflour mixed with water, which is a non-newtonian fluid. When sound travels through the mix, it gives it energy to lock together in a solid shape.

Newton’s Wheel

The Newton’s Wheel is part of out Light Demo, and is one of our most popular Vines to date. This very simple experiment shows how white light is made up of all of the different colours of the rainbow blended together. When the wheel spins around, our eyes can’t differentiate all the different colours, and it appears as white.

Jumping Ring

You can find the jumping ring in Launchpad, in the Magnetism section. The metal ring is launched into the air by a powerful electromagnet at the base of the pole. This experiment needed the help of Explainer Ben to press the button for me, so we could get the jump in shot!

Plasticine Peter

This smashing experiment is part of our Supercool schools event, which is all about heat and its effect on different materials. We use plenty of liquid nitrogen in this show to demonstrate some of these temperature changes, such as letting our friend here, Plasticine Peter, “cool off”. This is my favourite vine that we’ve ever produced.

CO2 in Bubble Mix

When you put solid carbon dioxide into water, it begins to sublime. This means it goes straight from a solid into a gas, without going through a liquid phase. When we sublime it in bubble mix, it makes some incredible CO2 filled bubbles, which in our tube, makes a Bubble Volcano! It also created a bit of a mess on the floor!

We’ve done almost eighty Vines now on the channel, and there’s more on the way, so make sure to stay tuned to @SM_Learn for all the best experiments that the Science Museum has to offer, in six seconds or less.

Vote for Information Age in the National Lottery Awards

Both ambitious in scale and design, our Information Age gallery is a stunning celebration of the breakthroughs in information and communication technology that have transformed our lives over the last 200 years. From the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America in minutes rather than weeks, to the advanced computing power of the modern smartphone, this gallery brings to life some of the remarkable personal stories behind each of these important technological achievements.

Famously opened by Her Majesty The Queen with her first tweet last October, Information Age has now made it to the finals of this year’s National Lottery Awards for Best Heritage Project (you can vote here).

History is made as HM The Queen sends her first tweet to open Information Age. Image credit: Science Museum

History is made as HM The Queen sends her first tweet to open Information Age. © Science Museum

Over half a million visitors have explored Information Age to date and now all visitors and supporters of the Science Museum have the chance to give the gallery their stamp of approval in this national vote. Voting online is free, takes less than a minute and is open to everyone between 24 June and 29 July. You can vote here and the project with the most votes will win the title of Best Heritage Project 2015.

A gallery shot of Information Age, c. Leon Chew for Universal Design Studio

A gallery shot of Information Age, c. Leon Chew for Universal Design Studio

Featuring more than 800 unique objects from the Science Museum collections and state-of-the-art interactive displays, Information Age is the first museum gallery in the UK dedicated to the history of information and communication technology. We hope all visitors will identify with some of the technology that is on display, but will also be surprised by the scale and elegance of others, and captivated by the stories of those people who invented, operated or were affected by each new invention.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: Science Museum

Head of NASA urges young people to reach for the stars

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communications.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has told hundreds of young visitors to the Science Museum of his strong belief that extraterrestrial life will be found.

NASA's Charles Bolden takes questions from students at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

NASA’s Charles Bolden takes questions from students at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

The Shuttle astronaut, now head of the world’s largest civil space agency, said “we will someday find other forms of life or a form of life, if not in our solar system then in some other”. But in a question and answer session with children from dozens of schools he pointed out that this life was unlikely to match the alien forms the young people may have seen in sci-fi films.

Asked whether he had always dreamed of being an astronaut, Bolden replied that, as a black person growing up in South California, being an astronaut or a pilot (he also served as a naval aviator) simply wasn’t an option and urged all of the young people in the audience to dream big, work hard and not fear failure. “You can do anything you want,” he said.

After taking questions from this enthusiastic audience for an hour, Bolden was thanked by Science Museum Director, Ian Blatchford, who presented the NASA leader with a book about the museum’s forthcoming blockbuster exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

Bolden then moved on to Engineer Your Future, the museum’s interactive exhibition for young people thinking about their futures, which had been transformed into a Sky News studio for the day. There, the eight-strong panel of Hotseat - a collaboration between Sky News and First News that enables young people to interview notable public figures – put Bolden on the spot with a series of searching questions.

Bolden rejected the suggestion that NASA was in danger of falling behind other countries in the fields of technology, space exploration and earth science. ”Nasa is continuing to lead the world” he said, pointing to its partnerships with 120 countries around the world, among them the UK Space Agency. He also insisted that space didn’t need to be a point of conflict between nations, ”as long as we continue to use models like the International Space Station to show that disparate nations who may not agree on everything can in fact work cooperatively in space….I think if there’s anything that deserves a Nobel peace prize, it’s the International Space Station.”

As the father of one of the children in the audience for the NASA Adminstrator’s visit to the museum, I can attest to his inspirational impact on young and old. “That astronaut is awesome,” she told me, the highest compliment from an eight-year-old. His appearance followed a similarly stirring visit to the museum by NASA’s Chief Scientist, Dr Ellen Stofan. We look forward to NASA’s next trip to the U.K.

Why is Asteroid Day important?

Astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 Lunar Module Pilot, reflects on the importance of Asteroid Day. You can book tickets to Asteroid Day at the Science Museum on June 30 here.  

This central question deserves some thought and, hopefully, subsequent action. It arises out of the little known but factual claim that future asteroid impacts can be both predicted and prevented, saving lives and property, provided that we, collectively, employ readily available technology to establish this capability.

But who is the “we” in this statement? “Aye, there’s the rub” as Hamlet bemoans in his soliloquy “To be, or not to be…?” There are two very important “we”s involved which are especially relevant in regard to Asteroid Day; the world public, and world governments.

Planetary defense, the prevention or mitigation of asteroid impacts, is public safety writ large.  Millions of asteroids have impacted Earth in its 4.5 billion year history both enabling and shaping life on the planet. The vast majority have been (relatively speaking) small, equivalent to no more than a typical hydrogen bomb or two. But a few have been in the 100 million hydrogen bomb energy category, destroying much of life on the planet virtually instantaneously. This 4.5 billion year old threat continues unimpeded today.

This film, 51 Degrees North, will be screened as part of Asteroid Day at the Science Museum.

What has changed dramatically is that we humans now have the capability to terminate this ongoing process. Yet, generally speaking, it is governments who ultimately have the responsibility for public safety and who must act. But without public recognition and insistence that they shoulder planetary defense responsibility governments will continue to avoid accountability.

While geopolitical coordinating and real politik is challenging, the cost of developing and establishing a planetary defense capability is surprisingly inexpensive. In a formal NASA report it was estimated that developing the initial capability would require only about 1.4% of NASA’s budget for the first 10 years and thereafter approximately 0.4% of it’s budget for maintenance. This is an amazingly small cost for so huge a survival benefit!

Nevertheless until the world public demands that this capability and coordination be developed it will not happen. There is no scientific community to lobby for this… it is not science. There is no industrial complex calling for this… there are no mega-contracts to be issued. We’re talking long-term human survival here… future generations… our children and grandchildren for generations to come.

Asteroid Day is the first attempt to marshal widespread public support for this global issue. Of highest priority is substantially increasing the discovery rate of potentially threatening asteroids. We can technically increase this rate of discovery by 100 fold. What is needed for governments to commit to this is your signature on the Asteroid Day 100x Declaration.

So please, attend the Asteroid day event at the Science Museum on 30 June 2015 (or for your closest event, see The event will feature a screening of the film 51 Degrees North.

Later this year, the Museum will open Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition exploring the dramatic story of how Russia turned the dream of space travel into a reality. 

Specially designed appliance was used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

A mysterious object

At a recent LATES evening at the museum, this mysterious object was taken out from permanent storage and presented to members of the public during our regular object handling, “Hidden Gems” event. We asked if anyone knew what the item was and (perhaps unsurprisingly) no-one correctly identified what it was used for, with guesses ranging from a beverage cup holder through to a piece of machinery!  

Although initially enigmatic, this object does in fact contain a fantastic back story of bravery, strength in adversity and even a little bit of sporting prowess…

The object was made by Steeper, a company still in existence today and based in Leeds, England. It was made for, and used by, the distinguished Royal Air Force pilot Sir Augustus ‘Gus’ Walker, a man who rose to the highest military ranks by becoming Air Chief Marshal of the RAF and Deputy Commander-In-Chief of NATO forces in Europe. This would, of course, be a tremendous achievement for any individual; however, Walker’s accomplishments are made all the more remarkable by the fact that in 1942 he lost his right arm below the elbow in an airfield accident.

Image of Sir (George) Augustus Walker, by Hay Wrightson Ltd. From the National Portrait Galleries’ Photograph Collection. NPG x180733

Image of Sir (George) Augustus Walker, by Hay Wrightson Ltd. From the National Portrait Galleries’ Photograph Collection. NPG x180733

Walker was not flying an aircraft at the time of the incident, but was in the control tower when he noticed that a Lancaster bomber was on fire whilst taxiing across the runway in readiness for a mission. He hurried out to warn the pilots, but was caught in the subsequent explosion.

A Lancaster bomber. Credit © Daily Herald Archive/ National Media Museum / SSPL

A Lancaster bomber. Credit © Daily Herald Archive/ National Media Museum / SSPL

Rumour has it that upon leaving the airfield in an ambulance he instructed the doctor to telephone RAF high command and ask if they would welcome back a one armed officer in 2 months’ time. True to his word he was back to work inside 2 months and flying aeroplanes again soon after that!

This object, as Walker’s own unique prosthetic limb attachment, was subsequently made so that he could continue to fly aircraft despite having lost half of one arm. He connected the attachment to the end of this prosthetic arm, tied the leather strap around the joystick and controlled the aircraft with his left hand.

Specially designed appliance used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

Specially designed appliance used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

Walker never let his prosthetic limb limit him, and throughout his RAF career he continued to fly new generations of aircraft including the Canberra and Vulcan jet bombers.

As well as being an excellent military man, Walker was also blessed with enviable sporting talents. He was captain of the RAF rugby team and in 1939 earned two full caps for the England team in matches against Ireland and Wales. Walker’s story emphasises the strong historical links that exist between the military and rugby union; a connection that continues to the present day.

Walker even rose to the highest administrative ranks of his chosen sport, as between 1965 and 1966 he had a spell as president of the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

Many who met and served with Walker described him as an exceptional serviceman, strong leader and a true gentleman. The high esteem in which he was held has not diminished, as in 2006 a blue plaque was erected in Walker’s honour by a local historical society at his former family home in Garforth, West Yorkshire.

Upon his death in 1987 it was commented that the RAF would never see the like of Walker again, and although his custom made prosthetic is initially mysterious to those who encounter it, it is in fact wonderfully emblematic of a truly unique and remarkable individual.

Revealing the invisible

Adam Stoneman, Explainer at the Science Museum looks at the impact of the early photographic experiments in Media Space exhibition Revelations, and wonders whether today’s innovations will have the same lasting influence.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography at Media Space, Science Museum © Kate Elliott

Revelations: Experiments in Photography at Media Space, Science Museum © Kate Elliott

Revelations: Experimentations in Photography traces the impact of early scientific experiments on the history of photography and showcases the innovative scientists and artists who strived to see the world anew.

Early pioneers like Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton and Eadweard Muybridge were driven by a desire to reveal the invisible processes and structures of our physical world. This desire is still with us and today there are countless magazines, websites and blogs dedicated to sharing photographic experiments – both dark room and digital – but has the popularisation of these once revolutionary photographic techniques – x-rays, high-speed photography photomicrography etc. – diminished the ‘revelatory’ impact they once had? After all, a revelation only happens once.

Bullet Through Lemon, c. 1955 - Color © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

Bullet Through Lemon, c. 1955 – Color © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

The development of technology over the last 100 years has made photography popular and accessible. Almost all of us carry a relatively high quality camera with us on our phones these days, and digital reproduction has expanded the audience for photographic experiments. Bernice Abbott’s now iconic MIT photographs became widely known as illustrations in physics textbooks but today blogging and photo-sharing websites like Flickr and Instagram foster a much wider, international audience for photographic experimentation. Harold Edgerton’s early experiments helped to popularise the stroboscope; a once obscure laboratory device for photographing objects at high speed; and now slow motion photography is part of our everyday visual language. Ubiquitous on advertising billboards and in music videos, slow motion imaging is also an internet phenomenon; the Slow Mo Guys, a Youtube channel dedicated to capturing high-speed processes like exploding watermelons and bursting balloons, have 5.5 million subscribers and over 500 million views.

Thanks to pioneers such as Edgerton and Étienne Jules Marey, many of the photographic techniques featured in Revelations have become a familiar part of our visual culture, but we shouldn’t forget how astounding these techniques once were.

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

The story goes that when French film pioneers the Lumière brothers first screened their film Train Pulling Into a Station in 1895, audiences jumped out of their seats for fear of their lives. Early films like this one had a frightening effect on people because of their novelty – it was unlike anything they had experienced before. 120 years of cinema history later and we have become very used the medium of film, so that a sequence of a train pulling into a station is unlikely to carry the same impact (although more recent advances in 3D technology and motion simulation as featured in the Science Museum’s IMAX and Discovery Motion Theatre might come closer to simulating the original shock of the Lumière brothers’ film!).

The innovative photographic techniques displayed in Revelations may have lost their novelty but viewing these photographs today it is hard to deny how striking and effective they still are as images.

Why is this? Certainly it helps that the exhibition frames them in terms of their historical significance, which makes their innovative aspect clear. The remarkable aesthetic quality of these early photographs is also important to consider, and this is especially evident when you see them alongside art photography (the great originality of this exhibition). The photographs taken by Edgerton during his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrate a visual sensibility in their complementary pastel backgrounds and Alfred Ehrhardt and Carl Strüwe’s photomicrographs show an interest in the ‘abstract beauty’ of microstructures.

Proboscis of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, 1928, Carl Strüwe © Carl Strüwe Archive, Bielefeld, Germany  VG Bild-Kunst

Proboscis of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, 1928, Carl Strüwe © Carl Strüwe Archive, Bielefeld, Germany VG Bild-Kunst

No doubt the experiments in photography being carried out today and shared online to vast audiences will soon lose their initial ‘novelty’ impact. Whether their value as striking and ‘revelatory’ images will last, however, is a question for future generations.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography is at Media Space until 13 September 2015. Click here to book tickets. An accompanying book edited by co-curator Ben Burbridge, entitled Revelations and co-published with MACK, is available to buy online from the Science Museum Shop. The exhibition transfers to the National Media Museum, Bradford where it will run from 19 November 2015 to 7 February 2016.

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE

Wonderful Things: Ancient Egyptian Curling Tongs

Stella Williams from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

For pretty much as long as people have had hair they have looked for ways to change it. Inventions such as curling tongs feel relatively modern but they have actually been around for centuries.

We only have to look at paintings and carvings from the ancient world to see that having curls was a fashion that crossed many cultures. Babylonian and Assyrian men dyed their hair and square beards black, then crimped and curled them with basic curling irons. Persian and Greek nobles also used rods of iron or bronze heated over a fire to produce impressive hairstyles which would highlight their wealth and beauty. Egyptian nobles often cropped their hair close or shaved their heads but on ceremonial occasions, for protection from the sun, they wore wigs. The wigs would be long and full of curls or braids, which were styled with tools like this one.

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

These bronze curling tongs are combined with a hair trimmer and would have been heated up on a fire before pieces of hair were curled around them.

In the 1890s tonging became very popular as hair was elaborately styled on top of the head often with loose curls or ringlets around the face. Books and articles with instructions were written about the arrangement of hair to emphasise a woman’s beauty, and upper class women were expected to follow these guidelines.

The fashion wasn’t just for the very wealthy anymore though as the emerging middle classes tried to emulate the style. Curling tongs still resembled those from Ancient Egypt, and many accidents resulting in burnt or damaged hair occurred as the heat of the metal tongs was difficult to control.

Illustrations from 'Fashionable Hair Dressing' an article in The Delineator, 1894

Illustrations from ‘Fashionable Hair Dressing’ an article in The Delineator, 1894.

With the advent of electricity curling tongs started to resemble those we use today. Curling tongs were invented which could be plugged into a light socket which meant more temperature control and less scorched hair! By the mid-twentieth century there were many varying designs, so much so that the definitive inventor of the modern curling iron is much disputed. They now come in many sizes and styles depending on the type of curls you desire from tight ringlets to loose waves or even crimped styles. Everyone now has the freedom to express themselves by styling their hair in an infinite variety of ways and as technology develops who knows what new tools may be invented.

What hairstyles do you think will be in fashion in 50 years time?

This object is currently on display in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery. There are also other examples of some 19th Century curling tongs in the Secret Life of the Home gallery.

Funders and our climate science gallery

By Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group

I wanted to respond to a story in the Guardian in which a campaign group that opposes sponsorship by oil companies highlights the Science Museum’s relationship with Shell, with whom the museum has a long-standing partnership.

Shell was a major funder of Atmosphere, our climate science gallery which provides our visitors with accurate, up-to-date information on what is known, what is uncertain, and what is not known about this important subject. The gallery has been hugely popular since it opened four years ago and has now been visited by more than 3 million people.

As with all of our exhibitions and curatorial programmes, the editorial vision and control sits with our curatorial team.

The campaigners say emails between Shell and our fundraising team, which we shared in response to a Freedom of Information request, suggest that Shell was seeking to influence the direction of Atmosphere and the associated curatorial programme. Having spoken to our curatorial team, I can confirm that not a single change to the curatorial programme resulted from these email exchanges.

I know some people will have a broader disagreement with our decision to form partnerships with corporations such as Shell. I respect their right to hold that opinion but I fundamentally disagree. And it’s not just because external funding is vital in enabling us to remain free to millions of visitors each year and in allowing us to curate ground-breaking temporary exhibitions at a time when Government funding is declining. More importantly it’s because when it comes to the major challenges facing our society, from climate change to inspiring the next generation of engineers, we need to be engaging with all the key players including governments, industry and the public, not hiding away in a comfortable ivory tower.

In the case of our Atmosphere gallery, the Science Museum invited Shell’s Group Climate Change Advisor David Hone to sit on an advisory panel alongside people such as Tony Juniper, the former Executive Director of Friends of the Earth. We knew that decision wouldn’t please everyone, but we wanted to hear all sides of the debate and we’re proud of Atmosphere and the role the gallery and accompanying programme have played in raising awareness of climate change among visitors to the Science Museum.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov on the birth of the space age

As Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov celebrates his birthday this week (30 May), Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, spent a day with the pioneering cosmonaut for the launch of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

With the help of chalk and blackboard, Alexei Leonov recently gave a vivid personal account of the first seventy years of practical cosmonautics, from the birthplace of modern rocket science in Nazi Germany to his first ‘step into the abyss’ and the prospect of asteroid apocalypse.

At an event organised by the Starmus Festival, Leonov was introduced to a celebrity-laden audience in the museum’s IMAX theatre by Director, Ian Blatchford. Earlier that same day Blatchford and Leonov had sat in front of a reproduction of Leonov’s painting of his pioneering spacewalk to announce the most ambitious exhibition in the history of the museum, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP, when many Soviet spacecraft will be gathered together for the first time.

As Mr Blatchford thanked the twice-hero of the Soviet Union, whose character is every bit as bold as his space feats, Sputnik 3, Soyuz and a Lunokhod 2 rover were being lifted through the museum into their temporary home on the first floor. Vostok 6 and Voskhod 1 had arrived the day before, the first wave of around 150 iconic objects that hail from the dawn of space exploration.

Leonov began by recounting Nazi Germany’s attempt ‘to destroy London’ in the Second World War, when modern rocketry was launched with the V-2, the first long-range guided ballistic missile. When the Russian Army entered Peenemünde, among them an expert group including Sergei Korolev, who would come to be known as ‘The Chief Designer’ in the Soviet Union), the Germans had left only 10 minutes earlier. ‘The coffee was still warm’, said Leonov.

The German rocketeers who had already fled included Wernher von Braun, who would become the father of the US Apollo moon programme, and had by then surrendered to the Americans in Austria. Von Braun had wanted to defect to the Americans but later told Leonov that he would have worked for the Soviets too, claiming he wanted to use rocketry for exploration, not murder. ‘He was very sincere, very frank,’ said Leonov, ‘though you may chose not to believe his words because these were weapons, after all.’

The USSR captured a number of V-2s, including one from the marshes of Peenemünde, and German staff. This paved the way for the manufacture of a Soviet duplicate, the R-1. By August 1957, a descendant, the R-7, was capable of launching a satellite into orbit.

The space age dawned with the launch of Sputnik 1, which was ‘just a sphere with a transmitter…beep beep, beep beep,’ said Leonov. ‘That was sufficient for people to get very excited, now we are in an era where there is an artificial object floating in space. This was only the beginning.’

The Soviet Union followed Sputnik by launching the first animal, man and woman into orbit in just six years, feats that will be recorded by the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts exhibition with objects ranging from a dog ejector seat from a sub-orbital rocket to a model of Vostok 1 (Russian for ‘East’), which carried Yuri Gagarin into space, and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 descent module.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

After chalking the outline of a Vostok, Leonov moved on to the Voskhod (Russian for “sunrise”), which he said was part of a lunar programme that began with a directive in 1962 and was officially sanctioned by the Politburo two years later.

Voskhod 1 launched on October 12, 1964. Even though there was not enough room to wear space suits, or time to develop a launch escape system, it successfully took the first three-man crew into orbit years before the US Apollo’s three-man crews.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Voskhod 2 featured more powerful propulsion, TV and had been adapted to allow Leonov to carry out the first ever spacewalk. The spacecraft carried a ‘genius invention’, he said, an airlock that could be inflated through which a cosmonaut could step into open space. ‘That was me,’ said Leonov.

Earlier, Korolev had told him, ‘as a sailor should know how to swim in open ocean, so a cosmonaut should be able to swim in space.’

But Leonov’s ill-fated mission almost did not take place. An earlier automated unmanned test flight - Voskhod 3KD – had been destroyed after ground controllers sent a sequence of commands that accidentally set off a self-destruct mechanism designed to prevent the craft ending up in enemy hands.

At a meeting in a hotel, Korolev told Leonov he hoped to adapt his Voskhod 2 to complete the unmanned mission to test the airlock and spacesuit. ‘We were set dead against it,’ said Leonov. He protested to The Chief Designer: ‘We have personally worked through 3000 emergency scenarios’, which was greeted, understandably, with scepticism. ‘Yeah, of course you did,’ said Korolev. ‘You are sure to come across the three thousand and first. And, of course, Leonov ‘would know what to do.’

Leonov admitted to the audience that Korolev’s cynicism was well placed. To carry out his spacewalk above the Black Sea, on 18 March 1965, he and his crewmate Pavel Belyayev came across the ‘three thousandth and second and third and fifth and sixth…all of them were not described in any instructions before.’

Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

A painting by Alexei Leonov. Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

As Leonov ‘stepped into the abyss’, he was struck by the sound of his own breathing, his heartbeat and a sense of the universe ‘being limitless in time and space’. Given that in the darkness the temperatures plunged to minus 140 deg C and in sunlight rose to 150 deg C his suit was ‘a stroke of genius’ for the way it kept him at a comfortable 20 deg C.

But eight minutes into the spacewalk, he felt that his gloves had expanded so much that he could no longer feel them with his fingers any more. His legs started to shake. Leonov’s spacesuit had by now ballooned in space to an alarming degree. ‘I started feverishly thinking of what I was going to do to re-enter the spacecraft’.

First he had to coil his tether. Every 50 cm dangled a 2.5 cm diameter ring, which he was supposed to hook.’ But he had ‘no support’ and was hanging on by one hand. ‘It was very hard.’

He disobeyed the orders of Korolev – there was no time to wait for a committee to be assembled to deliberate on his predicament – and opened a valve to bleed of some of the suit’s pressure, risking the bends by lowering the pressure beyond the safety limit.

On his back Leonov wore ‘metal tanks with ninety minutes’ worth of oxygen’  but it was clear from his talk that he remained concerned he had not left enough time for the nitrogen from the oxygen/nitrogen mix inside Voskhod to be purged from his blood. ‘There was a danger of nitrogen boiling in my blood and I was feeling this needling sensation in my fingers but I had no choice.’ Fortunately, ‘The feeling went away.’

Instead of entering legs first, as he had trained to do, Leonov went in head first, requiring ‘an awful amount of energy’ to turn around in the confines of the 1.2 m diameter airlock (he measured 1.9 m in his spacesuit). His core body temperature soared by 1.8 °C as he contorted himself. ‘That was the most stressful moment.’ Overall, the spacewalk lasted 12 minutes. By that time, Soviet state radio and television had stopped their live broadcasts.

The mission’s problems were far from over. The descent module’s hatch failed to reseal properly, leading to a slow leak. The craft’s automated systems flooded the craft with oxygen, raising the risk of fire of the kind seen in the Apollo 1 tragedy.

When they turned on their automatic descent systems, the spacecraft did not stop rotating. ‘It was difficult and dangerous to stop.’ Their automatic guidance system had malfunctioned. They asked Korolev for permission to conduct a manual descent, which the craft was not designed to do. ‘It was very similar to driving a car looking out the window from the side.’ From an ‘ancient Soviet radio station’ in Antarctica came permission, along with a note of caution: ‘Be careful.’

‘You know what, let us land in the Red Square, it would be so jolly funny,’ remarked Leonov, who was the mission navigator. Belyayev, commander, replied that they would ‘clip all the stars in the Kremlin so I don’t think we should do it’. Eventually, Voskhod 2 ended up far from the primary landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan, in polar forests – taiga – around 180 kilometres from Perm in Siberia. ‘To us, the trees of 30-40 m looked like a manicured lawn.’ Leonov transmitted a call sign with a manual telegraph system – ‘everything is in order’ – but it was greeted by silence.

A gust of cold air entered when they opened the hatch. Belyayev jumped out and ended up neck deep in snow. Leonov was sloshing around knee deep in water in his spacesuit. They stripped in the cold and Leonov wrung out his underwear. ‘Can you imagine this picture – a spacecraft, the taiga, and naked chaps standing next to each other?’

The next day, ‘comrades on skis’ arrived and, after another night and a nine kilometre ski trip, they were picked up by helicopter.

The Soviets had originally planned to orbit the moon in 1967 and had two parallel lunar programmes, one manned and one unmanned (This was a mistake, Leonov conceded). On his blackboard, Leonov drew a Soyuz (Russian for ‘Union’) 7K-L1 ‘Zond’ (‘probe’) spacecraft that was designed to circle the Moon and described how he had even studied the sky in Somalia to decide which stars to use for lunar navigation. ‘Everything was ready.’

Leonov was once the Soviet cosmonaut thought most likely to become the first human on the Moon. But the Soviet lunar programme was starved of resources compared with America’s Apollo programme, the Soviet manned moon-flyby missions lost political momentum and Korolev died in 1966 (‘those who took his place decided this was too risky’). One could sense his frustration when he declared: ‘Six spacecraft orbited the moon without a man on board.’

However, Science Museum visitors will be able to inspect the monumental five metre LK-3 lunar lander, the finest example of its kind, which was designed to take a single cosmonaut to the Moon’s surface.

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Leonov counted himself lucky to be part of the Apollo Soyuz mission, when ‘the cold war could become a hot war at any moment.’ Conducted in July 1975, it was the first joint US–Soviet space flight, and the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft. The mission was a symbol of superpower détente. ‘Every day we spoke on Good Morning America,’ said Leonov. He groaned with mock horror, ‘awwww’, acting out the apoplexy of small-town America at the thought of a cosmonaut orbiting overhead.

Leonov went on to talk about how singer Sarah Brightman had cancelled her trip to the International Space Station, mention the Soviet Buran shuttle, which was delayed by discussions about pilots and automated control (the latter won but ‘we lost three years, launched only one and then nobody commissioned it’) and discussions to allow China to dock with the ISS.

He also discussed the greatest threat to humanity, that of asteroid impacts (now marked by Asteroid Day), which demanded the best of human ingenuity and technology in response. In 2008 the Association of Space Explorer’s Committee on Near-Earth Objects and its international Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation gave recommendations to the United Nations. ‘So far we have not heard back from them. I think they are waiting for the asteroid to hit them’.

Leonov had before him in the Science Museum IMAX an audience that ranged from amateur space enthusiasts to rock legends Brian May and Rick Wakeman, and the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who had recently given a highly publicised tour of the Science Museum. Leonov described him as ‘amazingly courageous’.

Sitting in the front row of the IMAX was the UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, whose Sokol space suit will be shown in Cosmonauts. Leonov described how he had a ‘very moving’ reunion in the museum with ‘little Helen.’ ‘The best pupil I have ever had,’ said Leonov.

Sharman had been selected to travel into space on 25 November 1989 ahead of nearly 13,000 other applicants. She blasted off in 1991. Leonov encouraged her to stand, and the audience showed their appreciation with a round of applause. ‘She had a special energy, special intellect. You should be proud of this person.’

At the end of the event, Leonov was presented an honorary fellowship of the Science Museum by Hawking and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dame Mary Archer. In return, Leonov, who had dined with Hawking earlier that day, presented the Cambridge cosmologist with a portrait he had sketched after lunch. ‘Stephen smiled, hooray,’ a delighted Leonov told the audience, who were also addressed by Alistair Scott, President of the British Interplanetary Society, and astronomer Garik Israelian of the Starmus Festival.

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

At a celebratory dinner in the museum that night, Leonov gave a speech in Russian (he preferred his mother tongue because, as he cheerfully recounted, he once ended a speech given in English by wishing his audience ‘sex for life’ rather than ‘a successful life.’) Leonov also alluded to the prevailing American bias in museum accounts of space history. He praised the Science Museum for containing the ‘wisdom of the world’ that would be an ‘inspiration and lesson for future generations.’ Finally, he wished Ian Blatchford ‘good luck’ with Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.