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Science Museum Blog

All river traffic through London’s Thames Barrier was halted for ten hours last Sunday, as the gigantic flood-defence machine was given its annual test closure. I went along to Woolwich to watch the event. The barrier is a truly awesome sight, spanning half a kilometre across the River Thames with a series of ten moveable gates. The largest four gates (each with an opening the width of Tower Bridge) are giants: each weighs 3,700 tonnes. The barrier has protected London from […]

On 18 March 1967, the huge tanker Torrey Canyon, carrying 119,193 tons of crude oil, ran aground on Pollard Rock, off the Isles of Scilly. The resulting oil spill reached all the way to France’s west coast and caused devastating environmental damage. Part of the problem lay in the crew’s incorrect setting of the ship’s Sperry automatic steering system. We’ve examples of Sperry kit in our Shipping gallery: There was one positive effect of the disaster: tighter controls on marine pollution and industry-funded research into new spill-beating […]

Before people used chronometers for maritime navigation there was another way. It was called the lunar-distance method, or ‘taking a lunar’: This was all about observing the moon’s position at night compared to certain reference stars, and then doing a whole lot of arithmetic. The key gadget was the sextant, which measured angular distance. Here’s one from our extensive collection: Using the moon to help solve an earthly problem led to countless lives being saved at sea and, indirectly, to the huge changes […]

Our shipping gallery has been closed for a few weeks (for maintenance work) but I am delighted to say it’s now open again. It’s one of our oldest displays, launched in the early 1960s, but it’s wonderful and I love it. The exhibits on show really invite you to spend time with them, to explore them and think about what they mean. And it doesn’t have to be the official story. Any detail might catch your eye and reveal a story personal […]

Since about 1800, maritime navigation has relied on super-accurate timekeeping. Recently this has involved radio time signals beamed down from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, but for the bulk of the period, ship masters have navigated using the chronometer. These are very accurate portable timekeepers carried on the ship, providing a reference to compare against local time. The difference between the two times is equivalent to the east-west distance between the two places. That’s longitude, and it was a real devil […]

Just a quick post today, as I’m out on the road. I spent yesterday at the Science Museum Wroughton with some transport specialists. One used to work for a well-known British oil company, and I had a very interesting chat with him about equipment used for cleaning up oil spills at sea. More on that in a later post (when I’ve had a chance to look into it and get some pictures together), but for now, let me quickly introduce our […]

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Concorde’s first flight (as prototypes numbered 001 and 002), and the iconic aircraft served passengers from 1976 to 2003. A fatal Concorde crash in Paris in July 2000 temporarily grounded the fleet, and economically, it seems, the writing was then on the wall for Concorde’s supersonic service. Our collections are rich with Concorde stuff. Top of the list is our own aircraft, prototype 002, on display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton: In the Science […]

Yesterday, I visited the former Croydon Airport as part of my London Open House perambulations. Croydon was home to London’s first proper airport, with the purpose-designed terminal building opening in 1928. It’s now a visitor centre and business park. Increasing aircraft size, number of flights, and worries over proximity to a fast-growing London (sound familiar?) meant that Croydon’s days were numbered as an international airport after the Second World War, and the last flight left exactly fifty years ago, in September […]

The lovely Emily in our Science Night department has expressed her concern at my taking to powered transport at Wroughton last weekend. She saw me powering into the distance on my Brompton folding bicycle and naturally feared for my safety on anything with an engine! I’ve been thinking of buying a folding bike for ages, but wondered what they were really like to ride. Then I discovered that South West Trains are offering very good value Brompton hire as part […]

I spent last Saturday in the Roundhouse, London. In the 1840s and 1850s it was a locomotive storage shed for the London and Birmingham Railway, and it’s now an arts venue. I was there for the first live performance of Jem Finer’s ‘Longplayer‘, a piece of music designed to play without repeating for 1,000 years. It’s normally computer-generated, and has been playing since 31 December 1999, but Saturday saw 1,000 minutes (nearly 17 hours) of it played live. It was remarkable (not […]

I had a great day out on Sunday at our Wroughton Festival of Innovation. I had my first ever motorbike lesson! My instructor was the excellent (and patient) Neil, from Ace Motorcycle Training, who got me properly riding – changing gears and everything. OK, I didn’t get higher than second, and I had some difficulty turning corners, but I didn’t stall much and more importantly I really enjoyed it… Ace is taking part in the industry-led Get On campaign which is promoting life on […]

Let me introduce the PS Savannah (‘PS’ stands for paddle steamer). 190 years ago, Savannah was docked in Russia while the captain received a gold watch from the country’s Emperor. What was the occasion? A few months earlier, Savannah had become the world’s first steam-powered ship to cross an ocean, travelling from Savannah (on America’s south-east coast), to Liverpool (on England’s west coast) in 29 days. Actually, it was a hybrid sail and steam ship, and most of its journey was carried out under sail, not steam […]