Whenever I go to London by train I see the civil engineering works outside Paddington Station for the new Crossrail link. There is a big hole ready to take the giant German-made tunnelling machines which will soon start work boring the Crossrail tunnels under London.
These amazing pieces of engineering are often scrapped after their job is done. They are far too large to fit in any museum, so we have a model of the similar machines used to bore the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s.
However, at our Large Object store at Wroughton in Wiltshire we have one of their very much smaller ancestors, the Whitaker Tunnelling machine.
Ours was built about 1922 and used for early Channel Tunnel exploratory work.
Like modern machines it has a revolving ‘cutter head’ at the front to chew through soil or soft rock, and is gradually inched forward as the tunnel is excavated.
How it came to the Museum is a fascinating story. Abandoned for nearly 70 years outside the short tunnel it excavated near Dover, the machine was rescued in the 1990s, restored, and presented to us.
Yet there is a sombre side side to its history – the Whitaker Tunnelling machine was originally developed to drive tunnels under the German lines during the First World War, so that so that huge caches of explosives could be fired under them to break the stalemate on the Western Front.
The forthcoming anniversary of that destructive conflict reminds us how conflict is often a driver for technological change for good or ill.