Tag Archives: London

V2 rocket on launch pad in Germany, 1945.

V-2: The Rocket that Launched the Space Age

This week (8 September 2014) marks 70 years since the first V-2 rocket attack on London. Curator Doug Millard reflects on the rocket that helped start the space age.  

On 8th September 1944 Professor Jones and his colleague turned suddenly to each other in their Whitehall office and in unison said, ‘That’s the first one’. London had experienced four years of explosions from Luftwaffe bombs so this latest blast was hardly remarkable. But what they had noticed was the second bang following immediately after the first: a double detonation.

For over a year Jones, as Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, and his team had been assembling evidence for the existence of a new type of German weapon – one quite unlike anything developed before.

The bombs dropped during the blitz had been carried by manned aircraft; more recent attacks came from pilotless planes nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs (on account of their leisurely flight across the sky and the staccato drone they made). Both could be detected on the way to their targets and warnings issued for the populace to seek shelter.

The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Credit: Science Museum

It had been developed at the Peenemunde research establishment on the Baltic coast line of Germany. Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2.

Thousands of V-2s were launched during the war, most aimed at central London. They steered themselves and could not be jammed with radio signals. So even when a rocket’s launch was spotted by allied forces there was nothing that could be done to counter its flight. The V-2 was the harbinger of the Cold War’s missile age and the four minute warning.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.

After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit.

The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.

The missile Jones heard had come down in Chiswick, west London. It killed three people and destroyed a row of houses. Over the next months many more were launched with most falling in south-eastern England and killing thousands of people (a map of V-2 rocket strikes across London and surrounding counties can be seen here). In a grotesque irony the V-2 killed many more in the course of its manufacture by slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in central Germany.

The final V-2 landed south of London in Orpington on March 27, 1945 killing one person – the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.

For more information, visit the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, where a full size V-2 rocket can be seen on display.

Win tickets to X&Y

Next week the Science Museum welcomes mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy and actress-mathematician Victoria Gould for X&Y – playful new theatre that explores some of the biggest questions about our universe using maths.

To celebrate, we’ve teamed up with HegartyMaths.com to run a competition to win a pair of tickets to the show. It runs from 10 – 16 October at the Science Museum.

To enter, simply retweet this. Good luck!

Marcus du Sautoy

A word from HegartyMaths

HegartyMaths is set up and created by Colin Hegarty and Brian Arnold, two full time London Maths teachers.  We love maths and the creativity and joy that comes from solving maths problems.  At the same time we understand that skill in Maths is also, in effect, a life differentiator and we want to help students raise their standards in the discipline in order to open up their life chances.  Our mission is to provide free, high quality maths tuition via the website to students who need a bit of extra suport in Maths.  All our work is free so that pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can, in effect, benefit from what is like free personal maths tuition.  We have made over 700 videos covering Key Stage 3 Maths, GCSE Maths and A-Level Maths.

Steampunk in the Science Museum

Our summer spectacular, The Energy Show, is staged in a steampunk world which blends the past and the future. Much inspiration for the show was taken from the Science Museum’s collection, especially the machines of The Energy Hall. Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering, talks here about some of our ‘steampunk’ objects in the Museum. 

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Inv 1935-513

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Modern technology values function over anything else. Things are stripped down and smooth in appearance. Steampunk is a welcome kickback against this minimalist modern world we live in, reasserting the importance of form against function – and we can find this delicate balancing act played out in our collections.

Take this beam engine, for example. It’s a model of a full-size engine built in 1840 by Benjamin Hick of Bolton for a Leeds flax mill. It was an immense building, possibly the largest single room in the world. To animate the machines inside, Hick’s engine was certainly powerful, but in building it he gave full reign to his imagination. The result was  an Egyptian engine: It has columns with papyrus-headed capitals, a mighty entablature inspired by a temple overlooking the River Nile, and the ‘chronometric’ governor to control the engine’s speed takes the form of a scarab beetle.

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Later Victorian design became rather bulbous, even grotesque, in appearance. But Hick’s engine is a sinuous masterpiece of epic design and brute strength. It reminds us not only of our creative debt to bewhiskered, roaring, big-jawed machine-makers like Hick, but also the significance of amazing nineteenth century machines, not just as a means to the end of production, but as symbolising national affluence and virility. In our present situation, it’s a lesson worth remembering: if you mean business, build machines that shout it out to the world.

Cooke and Wheatstone two-needle telegraph, 1851, Inv 1884-95

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

A recurring theme in Steampunk is the application of nineteenth-century design ideas to modern digital technology: laptops, PCs, even memory sticks can be made antique with brass gearwheels, dials and mahogany cases.

Colliding state of the art technology with the Gothic isn’t just a recent thing, though. In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the world’s first successful telegraph system. It was mainly used on Britain’s evolving railway system, conveying messages via wires running alongside the tracks. A slightly lesser-known use of this pioneering system was to convey messages and reports across London, from the Houses of Parliament at Westminster to clubs in St James’s.

The Electric Telegraph Company was formed in 1846 and this instrument was installed at the Houses of Parliament in 1851. As a ‘black box’ of purely functional appearance, it would have jarred badly against the Gothic Revival style adopted in the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster. So, the telegraph was fitted with its admirable Gothic casing, complete with pointed arch, finial, and delicately-realised columns. It must surely have lent a feeling of permanence and robustness to the room that it graced, reflecting the standing of Parliament – and also pre-empting one of the major pillars of steampunk.

Model of the side-lever engines of the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’, 1832. Inv 1900-41

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

The problem with modern technology is that so much of it is intangible, digital, virtual, ephemeral. This point of view certainly underpins many Steampunk projects.

It wasn’t always like this, of course: introducing steam power to ships during the nineteenth was the cutting edge of serious heavy metal technology, and was a highly demanding field to design machines for: engines couldn’t be too heavy, they had to have a low centre of gravity, they couldn’t take up too much space.

These prerequisites offered valuable motivation to innovate in engineering design styles. Rather than big, heavy, monolithic construction and great slab-sided machines, engineers evolved lighter cast-iron structures, with lots of space, openings, and details which could be embellished without adding too much weight. Gothic engines? Check.

This model was built in 1832 for the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’ by the London company Maudslay, Sons and Field. Maudslay was a prolific model-maker, trying out new ideas before committing to them full-size, and this model is one of the finest surviving. The delicate cast iron Gothic tracery of its framing would not look out of place in a cathedral – a very tangible record of the creative impulses afforded to engineering, and perhaps inspiration for those Steampunkers looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

Take a look at our own Steampunk set Science Museum Live: The Energy Show which runs until 31 August. Book tickets and find more information here.

Jennifer photographed with the new trophy for the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering.

Queen Elizabeth Trophy Competition Winner Announced

This tree-like structure that symbolises the growth of engineering has been chosen as the trophy for a new global prize. The Queen Elizabeth Prize is considered to be the Nobel prize for engineering and yesterday the winner of the trophy competition was announced by Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Jennifer photographed with the new trophy for the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering.

The prestigious award was given to Jennifer Leggett, an A Level student from Sevenoaks in Kent, who was the brains behind the winning design. Jennifer fought off tough competition from a shortlist of ten young designers, aged between 16 and 22, to win the prize and will have the unique opportunity to see her trophy presented to the winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize at the inaugural ceremony in March 2013. Following the announcement the delighted Jennifer thanked the judges and congratulated her fellow competitors commenting on the quality and range of all the designs in the room.

3 of the 5 judges photographed with Jennifer Leggett and her trophy. From left: Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group; Yewande Akinola, Engineer; Jennifer Leggett; Nick Serota, Director of the Tate.

The panel, who had the tough job of selecting the trophy, consisted of: Science Museum Director and Chair of judges, Ian Blatchford; architect Dame Zaha Hadid; Director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota; Design Museum Director, Deyan Sudjic; and Engineer, Yewande Akinola. During the judging competitors were asked to explain the inspiration behind their design and what material would best fit their trophy but, on announcing the winner, Ian admitted that the judges had to add two additional criteria to help them whittle it down and come to a decision – whether the Queen would take pleasure from handing the prize and how the winner of the QE prize might feel when collecting their award. The winning trophy was described as “jewel-like” and was praised for its strong design which reflected the creativity, power and importance of engineering in the world today.

Reflecting on the competition Ian Blatchford said, “We set a challenge for young people to come up with an iconic trophy design that best embodies the wonder of modern engineering and reflects the merging worlds of science, art, design and engineering. Jennifer has shown real imagination and talent – all the judges were enormously impressed with her design.”

At the awards ceremony at the Science Museum’s Smith Centre, all ten of the shortlisted designers saw their trophy brought to life having had their design transformed into 3D printed prototypes by BAE Systems using the latest in Additive Layer Manufacturing technology. These replicas illustrated the intricate designs of each of the trophies which varied from Alexander Goff’s ‘Flowers and Thorns’ a towering structure of petals and sharp thorns, to Gemma Pollock’s ‘Bright Perceptions’ that centred around a double helix, and Dominic Jacklin’s ‘The Nest’ a vortex of geometric shapes which was concieved to represent the ubiquity of engineering in our lives.

The QE prize is a new £1 million global engineering prize, launched in 2012 which rewards and celebrates an individual (or up to three people) responsible for a ground-breaking innovation in engineering that has been of global benefit to humanity. The first winner of the QE prize will be announced in March 2013 and will be presented with Jennifer’s trophy by the Queen in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner drops into Science Museum

On a Sunday afternoon in October, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner had just seconds to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view, before stepping off his capsule and reaching supersonic speeds as he fell into the void.

Twenty four miles and a little over five minutes after leaving the capsule, Felix was back on Earth, having broken the sound barrier and reached speeds of up to 834 mph as part of the Red Bull Stratos project.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHtvDA0W34I']

Today Felix visited the Science Museum where he told the museum’s Roger Highfield how, with only 10 minutes of oxygen remaining, he had just a few seconds to enjoy the majestic view of his home world before continuing with the mission protocol. Felix also talked about the first few terrifying moments, when he spun out of control in the near-vacuum conditions.

Taking time out of his busy schedule, Felix took a quick tour, starting with the Making the Modern World gallery, the museum’s ‘greatest hits’ of modern science and technology, which includes the Apollo 10 Command capsule.

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Stopping to admire the Apollo 10 capsule, Felix discussed the differences with his own capsule and took a special interest in Apollo’s battered heat shield – a testament to an achievement that seems greater today, in 2012, than it did in 1969.

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Felix visited the museum with his mentor Joe Kittinger - an 84-year-old former U.S. Air Force colonel who set the previous freefall record in 1960 when he jumped from 102,800 feet. Joe was the “Capcom” (capsule communications) and primary point of radio contact for Felix Baumgartner during his remarkable mission.

French human skin with tattoos

Writer-in-Residence

Our writer in residence, Mick Jackson, gave us a few words on his tenure here at the Science Museum.

The flag on top of the Science Museum has been lowered to half-mast. It’s a modest gesture, marking the fact that my tenure as writer-in-residence is slowly drawing to a close. People ask, with some justification, what a writer-in-residence actually does. Well, in my case, it was a number of things: I offered writing surgeries to the museum’s staff (a surprising number of whom are privately working on a novel or collection of stories), I composed a short ‘jogging memoir’ to coincide with the Olympics and I generally tried to make myself available and useful.

In return I was given access to some of the museum’s more obscure nooks and crannies, as well as its extensive stores (two of the items that made the greatest impression on me were the 19th Century ‘French human skin with tattoos’ and early lunar photographs). I also took part in a press interview with Sky TV’s ‘The Book Show’ – talking about the residency here as well as appearing in the Bookseller magazine.

French human skin with tattoos
Human skin, with tattoos of women’s heads, France, 1900-1920

Just as importantly, I was given access to the museum’s employees. I could list a hundred inspiring meetings I’ve had over the year but shall limit myself to one. Did you know that the Science Museum has a disused observatory on its roof? No, neither did I. The curator of astronomy and modern physics, Alison Boyle, showed me round soon after I arrived. I know practically nothing about astronomy but the visit encouraged me to start finding out. Until I saw a notice on the wall I’d never previously come across the concept of sidereal time. In the short term it inspired a short story which was commissioned by The Verb / Radio 3, ‘Information regarding the stars’, but I’ll be surprised if I don’t revisit the idea.

The Science Museum

Anyway, heartfelt thanks to the museum and all who work in her. I’m sure that I’ll be drawing on the ideas I’ve uncovered here for years to come. As a farewell gift to the public I shall be tweeting some behind-the-scenes photos of the museum over the coming weeks (@mickwriter). After that, who knows? The Science Museum’s a big place. If I can just keep a hold of my security pass people might not notice that I never actually left …