Tag Archives: Invention

In search of perfect sound – introducing Britain’s largest horn loudspeaker

Aleks Kolkowski, former sound artist-in-residence, remembers his first encounter with the Museum’s exponential horn.

 A long black metal tube, slightly tapered and almost 9-foot-long lay on a row of filing cabinets at Blythe House, the Science Museum’s storage facility. The object was pointed out by John Liffen, the Museum’s Curator of Communications, who guided me during a research visit of the collections in 2008. It was all that remained of a mighty horn loudspeaker that was demonstrated in the Museum during the 1930s, John explained. A demolition accident had almost totally destroyed it in 1949.

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

Now the tube assumed a more fascinating form, like a fossil or a dinosaur bone as we delved into audio archeology. The story of the horn, researched in great detail by John, sparked an interest in me. Four years later in 2012, on being appointed as the Museum’s first-ever sound artist-in residence, I was given a wonderful opportunity to initiate its reconstruction.

The exponential horn loudspeaker was designed in 1929 by the Museum’s curator of  ‘Electrical Communication’ R. P. G. Denman who also personally built a radio receiver to run in tandem with it. The purpose of this new sound system was to provide the public with demonstrations of the highest quality broadcast sound that was obtainable at the time. Denman saw it as setting a benchmark for audio quality, his aim was, in his words “to provide a standard by which commercial apparatus could be judged”.

The horn measured 27 feet (8.23m) in length with a cross section that curved exponentially from 1 1/16 inches (27mm) to a massive 7-foot-1-inch square (2.16m sq.) at the horn mouth. The science and theory of how horns propagate sound had only begun to emerge in the mid-1920s. It was found that a horn with an exponential shape was the most effective means of converting the sound energy from high pressure, low velocity vibrations produced at the narrow end of the horn, into low pressure, high velocity vibrations at its mouth, then radiated into the outside air. However, in order to reproduce the lowest sounding frequencies, this type of horn has to be very long with a correspondingly large opening.

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

Denman, an expert on loudspeakers, specially designed the horn in order to reproduce frequencies as low as 32Hz and up to 6kHz. This was achieved by loading it to one of the latest moving-coil driver units from the Western Electric Company (U.S.A.) namely the WE 555W, widely used in cinema sound systems of the time and now considered to be one of the greatest loudspeaker drivers ever made.

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

From 1930 until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the apparatus was demonstrated daily in the Museum’s Radio Communication gallery. The giant horn mouth appeared through the wall above the entrance while the rest of it hung conspicuously in the adjacent Agricultural Implements gallery. It was built into the Museum’s infrastructure and may be described as being its very first sound installation.

Concerts broadcast on the BBC’s London Regional programmes provided the content for the demonstrations. Critical reactions were positive and for audiences at the time, accustomed to limited bandwidth, interference and distortion, the sound must have truly been a revelation. The Museum’s Radio gallery became a popular lunchtime destination, where sandwiches were cheerfully munched while listening to the classics or Wurlitzer cinema organ music, the audio reproduced in glorious full-range. It left an indelible impression on those who heard it, including John Liffen’s own uncle. Writing in the Audio Engineering Society Journal of April 1975, the audio experts Percy and Geoffrey L. Wilson opined that “no superior loudspeaker has to date been demonstrated in Britain”.

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

Fast-forward to 2014 and we have an opportunity to hear the horn again.

This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent efforts of the Museum’s Workshops who undertook the reconstruction project with gusto. The missing 18-feet of the horn was rebuilt over an intense 8-month period following Denman’s original specification, although fibre-glass was used in place of the original lead and tin alloy. Led by the Workshops manager Steve Long, the team has succeeded in recreating the single largest loudspeaker in Britain.

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The programme for the upcoming installation is a mixture of past and present, allowing us to listen to the horn in old and new ways. Archive material from the BBC will be heard alongside recent recordings made within the Science Museum. Resonance 104.4FM will be resident in the space, broadcasting live from the Museum, while lunchtime concerts via BBC Radio 3 will mirror the original demonstrations of the 1930s. A series of events, including live music, poetry and performance will also showcase new works for the horn created by a variety of artists, writers and radio programme-makers.

The title, “In Search of Perfect Sound”, refers to Roderick Denman’s quest for audio nirvana. Our modern ears may have become accustomed to high fidelity audio and surround sound, but the exponential horn, with its extraordinary sound presence and a distinct three-dimensional effect, still holds an immersive power of its own.

I’m very proud to have played a part in giving the Denman horn a new lease of life and to have witnessed its exponential metamorphosis, from that modest-looking metal tube, cocooned above all those filing cabinets.

The Exponential Horn: In Search of Perfect Sound opens at the Media Space Studio on 20th May. An afternoon of talks and presentations about the horn and the history of radio in Britain will be held on 12th July. Speakers include John Liffen, Aleks Kolkowski, Dan Wilson and Seán Street.

Aleks Kolkowski is a sound artist, violinist and composer with a special interest in early sound recording and reproduction technology.

Wonderful Things: VCS3 Synthesiser

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

The VCS3 was more or less the first portable commercially available synthesizer, unlike previous machines which were housed in large cabinets and were known to take up entire rooms. It was created in 1969 by EMS (Electronic Music Studios), a company founded by Peter Zinovieff. The team at EMS used a combination of computer programming knowledge, advanced engineering and musical ambition to create a brand new instrument for all to use. The electronics were largely designed by David Cockrell and the machine’s distinctive visual appearance was the work of electronic composer Tristram Cary.

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

The VCS3 was notoriously difficult to program but, a year before the appearance of the Minimoog and ARP2600, it brought synthesis within the reach of the public. It sold for £330 and became very popular in a short space of time. By the mid ’70s, the VCS3 (and its little brother, the suitcase-bound model AKS) had become something of a classic and was used by many famous bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who and Roxy Music.

This unique instrument allowed musicians to experiment with a range of new sounds never before available to them. Along with other early synthesisers it came to shape ‘the sound of the future’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and with further developments came the drum machines of the ‘80s setting the foundation for electronic dance music. Much of the music we take for granted today would not be possible without the pioneering work of groups like EMS and as long as there are developments in technology, there will always be people applying these innovations to music. Inventor Steve Mann has developed many interesting instruments such as the hydraulophone which uses pressurised water to make sounds, while artist and scientist Ariel Garten uses an electroencephalophone to turn brainwaves into music.

What sort of instrument do you think will make the sound of our future?

The VCS3 Synthesiser can be found in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition, on the second floor of the Science Museum.

‘Tis the season to 3D print your Christmas

Press Officer Laura Singleton explores some festive 3D printing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generating Ideas: drawing inspiration from the Science Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty in the Making

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

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

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

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

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.

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