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engineering

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 […]

I wonder if the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) had a little-known sub-section devoted to pigeon fanciers.  A branch, perhaps (or a wing)? How else to explain the preponderance of interesting  features high up on old buildings that are indistinct at street level but – presumably – clear as bread crumbs to passing pigeons? I was mulling this over yesterday as I squinted at the figures and details of The Treasury’s Whitehall pediment, and then again while attempting to make out the features […]

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’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life… Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals… The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to […]

What would you do on your perfect bank holiday Monday? Well I don’t know about you guys, but as a kid I always dreamt about owning a Lotus and going for drive in the country. The Lotus Elan was originally conceived by Ron Hickman, the director of Lotus Engineering, in 1963. It was a deeply covetable sport car available in two models – one with fixed position head lights and the other with drop-heads. If the Lotus Elan is the dream, the […]

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, […]

Recently I received an email alerting me to the launch of the United States Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, a winged, unmanned mini-shuttle capable of reaching orbit and then returning autonomously to Earth. Earlier that day I had been looking at 1960s military wave rider wind-tunnel models at the Science Museum’s main store. A wave rider is a particular design of aerodynamic wing – for planes and missiles travelling at hypersonic speeds (at least five times the speed of sound) – in which […]

Science Museum curators seem to have a curious affinity for tunnels. Stewart’s been down a sewer, David ventured under the Thames, and I’ve just been to one of the biggest tunnels in the world, a 27km ring under Switzerland and France. Yes, it’s the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Unlike my colleagues I didn’t get to enter this tunnel – that would be a bit inconvenient right now, as on Tuesday the LHC commenced physics operations, colliding beams of protons […]

I love hammers, or to be more precise, I like hitting things with hammers. Be it nails, walnuts or – at some point in the long-distant past – brothers. So when I saw this giant steam powered hammer looming over me in Making the Modern World I had to learn more. It was invented by James Hall Nasmyth. He was born in 1808, and drawn to mechanics from a young age, making his first steam engine at the age of 17. […]

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