Tag Archives: Anniversary

30th Anniversary of DNA Fingerprinting

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

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

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sending messages across the Atlantic: 156 years on from the first transatlantic cable

Chloe Vince, Science Museum Volunteer, tells the dramatic story of the laying of the first transatlantic cable, one of the highlights of our new Information Age gallery, which opens in October.

If you needed to send a message to North America, you wouldn’t think twice about drafting an e-mail, hitting ‘send’ and your message arriving in the recipient’s inbox almost instantly.

In 1858, however, communications were much slower. In those days, a message would take up to 10 days to arrive. This was the time it took for a ship to travel across the Atlantic.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Things changed in the August of 1858, when the first message was sent via a transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran from the east coast of North America to the West Coast of Ireland. Messages could now be sent in a matter of minutes, dramatically changing the history of transatlantic communication.

A section of the original transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum.

A section of transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Experimenters had been investigating batteries and electromagnetism to develop a communication system since the early 19th century. The first practical system was executed successfully in the UK by the partnership of Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. They used an electrical current to deflect magnetic needles which could be made to point to letters on a backboard. By the time of the 1858 transatlantic cable, their system had been developed and widely adopted for railway signalling across Britain.

Cooke and Wheatstone's Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Cooke and Wheatstone’s Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

American experimenter Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame), was also working on developing telegraphy. His system used a single circuit to send an electric signal along a wire to a receiver at the other end. Instead of using needles indicating letters of the alphabet, Morse’s system used a code of dots and dashes to spell out words. Morse received funding to use this technology to set up a telegraph system between Washington and Maryland in the USA. The telegraph became an instant success. People relished the ability to send and receive information much more quickly than before, and as a result the telegraph system expanded across America and Europe.

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Soon after, in 1856, the Atlantic Telegraph Company was set-up with the objective of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting America with Europe. Luckily, opinions of the technology were high, which meant shares in the company sold quickly. As soon as enough money was raised, the first transatlantic cable, consisting of seven copper wires and recorded as weighing one ton per nautical mile, was laid from America to Ireland.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson's mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson’s mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic telegram. She sent a message to US president James Buchanan congratulating him ‘upon the successful completion of this great international work.’  The message travelled through 2,500 miles of cable and took 16 hours, a dramatic improvement on the 10 days it would have taken beforehand. The same message was repeated back to Valencia in Ireland in only 67 minutes.

Unfortunately, the success enjoyed by this first transatlantic cable did not last. There were problems with the cable, and within a month it had failed completely. However, the desire for speedy transatlantic communication was great enough to attract more funds to try again.  A further attempt in 1866 was successful.

The consequence of this new form of communication was huge. By the end of the 19th century, new technologies began to emerge. The telegraph was replaced by telephony and these days we rely on the internet for high speed communication. However, the telegraph was the first technology that allowed us to communicate quickly and reliably over long distances, and acted as a turning point in communication history.

You can explore more about the laying of the first transatlantic cable in our Information Age gallery, which opens on 25 October.


De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) by Copernicus, 1543. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

There’s something about February

It is remarkable to think that some of the greatest scientific thinkers who have ever lived, the likes of Darwin, Galileo, Copernicus and Boltzmann, were all born in early February.

Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, born on 20 February 1844, is remembered for his work in the development of statistical mechanics, used to predict how the properties of atoms can determine the behaviour of matter. Boltzmann’s pioneering scientific contributions to kinetic theory – which described the speed of atoms in a gas – came at a time when many scientists disbelieved an atom’s very existence.

Over half a millennia ago (540 years ago yesterday in fact), Nicolaus Copernicus was born in a small medieval town in Poland. Copernicus would go on to fundamentally challenge our sense of place in the cosmos, publishing his ideas of the heliocentric universe just two months before his death in May 1543. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, along with many other objects from the history of astronomy, are on display in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition.

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) by Copernicus, 1543. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Copernicus’s ideas were supported by Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei, born 15 February 1564. After failing to complete his studies in medicine at Pisa, Galileo turned his attention to mathematics. Experiments in 1604 with rolling balls down an inclined plane, led Galileo to deduce the law of falling bodies and show that the speed with which bodies fall is independent of their weight.

Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) by Galileo. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In 1609, Galileo reinvented the refracting telescope leading to numerous astronomical findings, including the discovery of four moons of Jupiter, which he published in Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) – on display in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition. Galileo’s support for Copernicus’s view of a sun-centred solar system brought him into direct opposition with the church and led in 1633 to his imprisonment under house arrest.

Also born in early February were two Naturalists, Charles Darwin (born 12 Feb 1809) and Sir Joseph Banks (13 Feb 1742), who travelled the world – with Banks joining Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific on board HMS Endeavour and Darwin sailing on HMS Beagle – identifying new species (1300 in in the case of Joseph Banks) and exploring geological features and plant and animal life across the globe.

Sir Joseph Banks, British explorer and naturalist. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Outside of his travels to far-off lands, including Newfoundland, Tahiti and New Zealand, Banks was known for his promotion of science. On his return to Britain, Banks wrote detailed descriptions of the people and places he had encountered, and later become honorary director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a Trustee of the British Museum, before being elected President of the Royal Society in 1778.

Charles Darwin joined a five-year scientific expedition on HMS Beagle, studying a vast array of plants, animals and geological wonders. On his return in 1836, he began to think in earnest about the mechanisms that had generated such variety in nature.

Charles Darwin, English naturalist, c 1870s. Image Credit: Science & Society Picture Library

Influenced by the thinking of Thomas Malthus, Darwin developed his theory of evolution through natural selection over the next two decades, only publishing his work after learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had developed similar ideas. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection went on to transform the way the natural world was understood across the world.