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chemistry

What’s the one gadget you couldn’t live without? Your mobile phone, PDA, music player, game console – or all those things combined in a sleek smartphone? No matter which device you choose, the one thing that all these gadgets couldn’t exist without is their rechargeable battery – the beating heart of the modern world. The first rechargeable battery was the Lead-Acid battery, invented in 1859 by Gaston Planté, but it was the Nickel Cadmium battery invented in 1899 by Waldemar Jungar that […]

Before my first visit to the Science Museum’s stores, I’d imagined having to search for my mysterious magnetic instruments in the midst of much dust and cobwebs in the warehouse from the closing scenes of Citizen Kane. In the rather more ordered and hermetically sealed rooms of Blythe House, the spider threads I found were of a much cosier sort. Encased in their own tiny frame, they rather reminded me of my great-grandparents in their wedding portrait. The two cocoons […]

This box contains a flight spare set of experimental surfaces for the Prospero satellite that was launched in 1971. They were designed to tell scientists more about how different satellite materials and finishes – matt, shiny etc, would behave in the temperature extremes of space. It has always reminded me of a much larger experiment flown by NASA (LDEF – which stands for Long Duration Exposure Facility) that was covered with all sorts of equivalent surfaces. The LDEF was brought […]

What have Humphry Davy, Mike Melvill and my dentist got in common? Answer: They’ve all exploited the chemistry of nitrous oxide, popularly known as ‘laughing gas’. Davy experimented with euphoria-inducing properties of the gas with his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and James Watt. Davy was working at the Pneumatic Institution, set up by Thomas Beddoes to investigate the medical properties of inhaled or ‘factitous airs’. Davy pursued his experiments – part scientific, part recreational – with his normal con brio and was […]

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 stumbled across an old Monty Python sketch the other day that plays with words pleasing to the ear (‘woody’) or displeasing (‘tinny’). I chortled (nice woody word) but then started thinking about wood and science – we don’t often associate the two and we’re culturally conditioned to associate wood with words like ‘old’: and ‘amateur’; But appearances can be deceptive as the Mosquito aircraft demonstrated. It may have resembled its alloy contemporaries of World War 2 but its sleek exterior cloaked a strong, […]

How did you enjoy the hottest day of the year so far on Sunday? It got me thinking about what else we have in the collection relating to temperature.   For simplicity, I like this modern reconstruction of an apparatus which Philo of Byzantium devised back in 200 – 100 BC to indicate temperature change. A hollow, lead globe is attached to a tube, which is bent over into a container of water. You can probably guess what happens when the globe is warmed… Philo explained:   I […]

You may have been following my recent posts on Britain’s submarine history. One thing that’s emerged has been the important role of Barrow-in-Furness in transport history. The Vickers company, now part of BAE Systems, made most of Britain’s submarine fleet at their Barrow yard, and BAE are manufacturing our latest subs there now. But Barrow was a transport town long before the submarines. In the mid-nineteenth century, Barrow became a centre for steel-making, as iron ore mined in the nearby Lake District […]

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