Tag Archives: Making the Modern World

Pair of wooden roller skates, c. 1880

Wonderful Things: Roller Skates, 1880

Becky Honeycombe from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

You could be forgiven for thinking the heyday of the roller skate was in the 1980s with leg warmers and neon Lycra being the order of the day.  The truth is that there was a craze just as big a hundred years earlier and we have a pair of Victorian skates in our Making the Modern World Gallery as evidence.

By 1880, roller skates of some kind had already been around for over 150 years.  The first prototypes of the roller skate are said to have been created by an anonymous Dutchman in the early 1700s, who as a fan of winter skiing wanted to extend his hobby into the summer months.  He created his ‘skeelers’ by attaching wooden spools to strips of wood and then nailing them to his shoes. The first recorded use of roller skates in Britain was not until 1743 when they were used as part of a London stage show.

One of the most famous early appearances of roller skates occurred in 1760 when inventor Joseph Merlin rolled into a masquerade party playing a violin.  Although his entrance was undoubtedly dramatic, it wasn’t a complete success as he only managed to stop by crashing into a huge mirror, breaking not only the mirror, but his violin and several of his bones too.

Over the next century, several different designs for roller skates were created and tested.  Many were heavy and difficult to control and it was not until 1863 that the quad skate we know today was designed by James Leonard Plimpton in New York.  The ease with which the new skates allowed users to manoeuvre them made them an instant success and Plimpton opened New York’s first skating rink in his furniture store before expanding to a bigger venue like the one in the picture below.

District of Columbia, glimpses of life at the national capital – a fashionable roller-skating rink
Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, USA

By the end of the 1800s, skates like the ones in our gallery, were being mass produced, which meant they were cheaper and more readily available.  Roller skating became a popular leisure activity and regular skating endurance competitions were held. London businessmen could even be seen skating to work! The sport’s popularity continued to grow into the 20th century where its success as a mainstream pastime is demonstrated in early films such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Rink.  Today, with new skate designs like the Land Roller and sports such as roller derby gaining large followings, it is clear that the popularity of the roller skate continues.

Do you think your favourite hobbies will stand the test of time?

This object is currently on display in the Making the Modern World gallery.

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.

#MMWTour – Tweeting a tour of Making the Modern World

We asked Curator of Time, Transport and Navigation, David Rooney to tweet some of the hidden gems in the Making the Modern World gallery.

The full tour can be seen here, but we’ve pick out a few highlights for you below…

The full tour can be seen here

Thanks to all of you who followed the tour, and you can discover more about Making the Modern World here.