Tag Archives: objects

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.

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.

Off the Beaten Track at the Science Museum

Laura from the Learning team shares some alternative things to see on a trip to the Museum.

Half term at the Science Museum can be busy, with families flocking to the exciting interactive galleries (like Launchpad) and energetic science shows. However, there are times when a quiet mosey around a museum is just what you need, away from the bustle of London. 

Here are 9 of my favourites from all the weird and wonderful objects that you might not expect to find in the Science Museum. They’re off the beaten track but are sure to go down well with children and adults alike. See if you can spot them next time you visit with your family…

1. Egyptian Mummy

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Yes, there is a mummy at the Science Museum! And not just one either, you’ll find mummified cats and birds displayed next to our ancient Egyptian friend in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

2. Poo Lunch Box

Found in the Energy gallery

Human poo could be the energy source of the future. Afterall, it was used in ancient China to fertilise crops. But would you be happy to take this lunch box to work or school? Have closer look at this lunchbox in our Energy gallery and find out some more interesting ways of using your poo to save the planet!

3. Models of Human Eyes

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Slightly spooky, ivory peepers – these Victorian models could be taken apart to show how the human eye works. See them in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

4. Shoes made of carpet

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Carpet slippers? How about carpet platforms with these shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood and used in an advertising campaign for Axminster carpets. See them in our Challenge of Materials gallery.

5. Your worst fears, bottled

Found in the Who Am I? gallery

Some fears and phobias that you can probably relate to, and some others that maybe you can’t. Scientists still don’t know why and how we develop some of our more bizarre phobias. See more phobias in our Who Am I? gallery.

6. Toilets, as you’ve never seen them before

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

These two can be found with several other loos on display – how do they compare with yours at home? The one on the left didn’t have a flush mechanism, you would have had to pour a jug of water down the bowl to wash away your business!

7. Play the video game that launched video games

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

You could say that Angry Birds wouldn’t be here without it, it’s Pong, the first ever home video game. Have a go in the Secret Life of the Home gallery and see how you score.

8. Underwater Rolex

Found in the Measuring Time gallery

This Rolex watch looks like a bubble for a reason, it can still function underwater at a depth of 7 miles. See this watch and over 500 timepieces in our Measuring Time gallery.

9. Middle-Eastern Super Sword

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Legend has it this 18th century sword is so strong it could slice right through a European broad sword. Scientists still don’t know how it was made to be so strong, but if you look closely you can see a beautiful ripple pattern on the blade, which may give a clue to it’s unique properties. See it in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

If you’re thinking about a trip to the Science Museum, why not try out the visit us pages to help you pick and choose what you’d like to see.