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By Selina Hurley on

Pens On Strings

Any readers of the blog will know my obsession with our mobile X-ray bus! If anyone caught ‘Call the Midwife‘, you may have seen our X-ray bus in all of its glory around 33 minutes in (link works for UK audiences only). Marta Leskard, our very own Conervation and Collections Care Manager, had a starting role as an extra! The episode told the story of mass miniature radiography coming to the East End.

These are the first words you read on climbing aboard one of the most magnificent large items in our medical collections – an x-ray bus.

'Chest x-ray service' written on bus
Mobile x-ray unit, 1948 (1984-486, Science Museum, London)

During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, mobile mass miniature radiography units were a common sight on the road, x-raying people for signs of tuberculosis. The disease could present itself with no symptoms at all – making it all the more dangerous for the people around you.

The first words that I uttered on climbing aboard were ‘pens on strings!’ – which surprised both me and my colleagues.

THE pens on strings (Science Museum, London)

For me, the pens on strings gave a real sense of a human experience. You would fill out your details on the bench and hand them to the clerk in the booth behind you (it’s a bit of a tight squeeze). This card would later hold your miniature x-ray, just 10 cm in height.

Mass miniature x-ray (1981-2087 pt1, Science Museum, London)

It was easy to imagine what the process was like for people. Anyone could have an x-ray free of charge, possibly after seeing a poster, like this one, or just after having spotted a bus on the street.

Poster promoting x-ray buses, 1945-1969 (1981-2088 Pt6, Science Museum, London)

It turns out I didn’t have to imagine too much as an x-ray bus was featured on Steptoe and Son episode called ‘TB or not TB’. I think there was some artistic license though – the bus is not quite the tardis it seems on the programme!

Through view of the x-ray bus (Science Museum, London)

Geekily, those pens on strings became the desktop image on my PC for a while –  definitely an indication that I’m in the job! The bus is in storage in Wroughton, but you can explore it virtually here. Keep an eye out for the pens on strings…

One comment on “Pens On Strings

  1. Fantastic, I like the superb graphics showing details of the truck and bus, very interesting.

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