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David Rooney was Keeper of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum and curator of Mathematics: The Winton Gallery.

I was working at our large-object store at Wroughton the other day, looking at some of the vehicles in our transport collection. One of them is a really lovely Renault taxi from 1910: Ain’t it just a peach? Anyway, on the train back from Wroughton I was reading a 1930s book by Herbert Hodge, called It’s Draughty In Front: the Autobiography of a London Taxidriver. I was amazed to find that in 1915, aged fifteen, Hodge got a job in a taxi […]

In my last post I showed you a section of gun barrel flattened cold by a steam hammer. Spectacular demonstrations of engineering muscle have often yielded cool Science Museum exhibits, and I thought you might like to see another one on show in our Making the Modern World gallery: This is a knot, tied cold, formed by a pair of inch-diameter rods of steel. It was made in 1885 at the Steel Company of Scotland, Glasgow, and comes from a collection […]

My attention was drawn last week to an incredible set of photographs taken recently in Notting Hill Gate underground station, during refurbishment. They show a deserted passageway sealed up in 1959, with advertising posters surviving untouched to this day: The full set, by London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage, Mike Ashworth, are on Flickr. One of them advertises the Science Museum’s then-new Iron and Steel gallery, depicting a Bessemer steel converter in mid-pour: I’ve spoken before (in posts about Barrow-in-Furness and Bessemer) about our […]

I commute to work most days by fast catamaran. It’s a delightful way to travel, and lets me see London from a different perspective. Right now there are lots of big cruise ships using the River Thames as a stopping-off point. One popular mooring location is a spot beside HMS Belfast, near Tower Bridge. Earlier this week, I spotted a ship there called Alexander von Humboldt: Humboldt was a German scientific explorer of the eighteenth century. He became famous for his journal describing his voyages to Latin […]

I’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life… Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals… The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to […]

As you read this, I’m away on a short break, taking my first holiday on a canal boat with some friends. Canals can tell us a great deal about our history and our national identity. This scene, on show in the ‘British small craft’ display in our shipping gallery, contrasts the old and the new on Britain’s inland waterways in the 1960s: A working barge features in the foreground, while a (then) modern canal cruiser sits behind. This shift of […]

Many seventeen-year-olds become very familiar with the world of insurance as they pick up the keys for their first hot hatch… Few of us think about the system that sits behind our insurance policies, but everything in the transport world plays its part in a network of brokers, underwriters, syndicates and financiers – from passenger jets to fleets of reps, container ships to communication satellites. Transport pioneers have long needed the services of insurers. One item in our archive is a 1907 insurance […]

Did anyone catch ‘Britain’s Greatest Machines’ on Five last Thursday? Chris Barrie is presenting a series looking at the evolution of engineering in Britain, directed by science documentarist Martin Gorst. Much of what was talked about in the first episode, covering the 1910s, is represented (as you might expect) in the Science Museum’s collections. Back then we’d just become a fledgling museum in our own right and we were hungry to collect the very latest machines and inventions. In the show, you […]

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of radio time signals. These days, we’re used to the familiar sound of the six pips on the BBC, and we can buy cheap quartz clocks and watches that get magically set right every day by distant transmitters, such as the British service from Cumbria. Whilst experimental radio time transmissions started in the late nineteenth century, it was in May 1910 that Paris’s Eiffel Tower was used to broadcast the world’s first official regular radio […]

I was up in the north-east at the weekend. It’s where I was born and brought up, so I have fond memories of the area’s transport network. I was seven years old when HM The Queen opened the Tyne and Wear Metro system and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, in November 1981. Billed as the UK’s first fully integrated transport system, the Metro changed the face of travel in the north-east, and I still cherish my copy of the souvenir brochure […]

It was on this day in 1904 that two men met at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, sparking a revolution in motoring. Charles Rolls met Henry Royce. Rolls and Royce agreed to form a partnership, and by the end of the year they had made the first Rolls-Royce car. Rolls kept photographs of his products in a pair of albums, now in our Library and Archives at Wroughton. You should go and see them in the flesh if you can, but to whet your appetite, […]

Last time, I talked about early cycling, and today’s attempts to recreate the glamour of the past. Most of the time, though, cycling is just a practical, cheap and straightforward way to get around. What makes it more flexible is the ability to mix modes – to combine cycling with rail travel, car or boat. Jimmy Savile made the point usefully in this 1982 BR poster: That family looks like it’s off on holiday, but commuters can benefit from mixed-mode […]