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By David Rooney on

Killer Snakes, Steel Knots And A Silver Laboratory

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:

Knot of steel, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

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 of 3,700 metallurgical specimens put together by Dr John Percy FRS. We bought the collection upon Percy’s death in 1889.

John Percy, English metallurgist, 1859 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Percy was the inaugural Professor of Metallurgy at the School of Mines, the first government-backed technical higher education establishment in the UK, and taught there from 1851 to 1879. Here’s his laboratory:

John Percy's metallurgical laboratory, 1877 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Percy had made a name for himself in the 1840s for a new method of extracting silver from ore, which went into widespread use. He went on to develop new ways to make steel, improving Bessemer’s process.

His collection was eclectic, to say the least. While reading through the files in order to write this blogpost, I saw that another of the items in his collection was a box of boa constrictor dung, used as a fuel for smelting. Ingenious…

The School of Mines ended up as part of the Department of Materials at Imperial College, next door to the Science Museum. You can read the history of the school in a super booklet written by Imperial’s wonderful archivist, Anne Barrett.

And if you’re going there to study this autumn, do drop by and see us.