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engineering

Whenever I go to London by train I see the civil engineering works outside Paddington Station for the new Crossrail link. There is a big hole ready to take the giant German-made tunnelling machines which will soon start work boring the Crossrail  tunnels under London. These amazing pieces of engineering are often scrapped after their job is done. They are far too large to fit in any museum, so we have a model of the similar machines used to bore the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s.  However, at our Large Object store at […]

This is undoubtedly our most famous painting: Philip J. de Loutherbourg’s 1801 ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, a noisome depiction of the industrial revolution in all its terrible glory. Here are the ‘Bedlam furnaces’ in action – open coke hearths used for smelting iron, the visible face of a burgeoning coal industry. But if we dig a little deeper, we find a rich and little-known iconographic seam in the Science Museum’s art collection. For one thing, what de Loutherbourg saw at Coalbrookdale was […]

My colleague Katie recently posted about the upcoming royal wedding. But of course, public events involving royalty have not always been so benign. On January 21st 1793, ‘citizen’ Louis Capet – formerly Louis XVI of France – was taken by carriage to the Place de la Concorde (re-named Place de la Révolution at the time). Here, in front of a crowd of many thousands, the ex-king was beheaded.  Although death at the hands of your people is about as low as […]

To me the most touching item in James Watt’s workshop is his son’s trunk. Gregory died of consumption at only 27 years old. The trunk is full of his schoolwork; beautiful paintings, drawings, diagrams and page upon page of his lessons and notes, in immaculate copperplate writing. It is a poignant reminder that the genius engineer was as human as the rest of us. Quite apart from his own bad health, his first wife died in childbirth and only one of his […]

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) was born in Germany and studied in Strasburg and Paris. He became artistic adviser at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1771-81. As an innovative set designer and scene painter, he helped to lay the foundations of pictorial illusion in stagecraft. After abandoning theatre in the 1780s, he became an important figure in British landscape painting. The Science Museum holds one of his most famous works, ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, 1801. This epitomises the romantic view of the growth […]

Preparing the contents of an 18th century workshop for display is a complicated and fascinating thing to do. And when it belongs to the engineering icon, James Watt, it’s even more challenging. Watt was a Scottish engineer, born in 1736. His fame stems from a stupendously clever improvement to the steam engine, the separate condenser. He and his other contemporaries kick-started what we now sometimes call the Industrial Revolution. We’ve got the garret workshop from his retirement home at Heathfield near […]

From November 1782, James Watt and his friends were excited by the Montgolfier brothers’ experiments with hot air balloons. Watt wrote to Dr Joseph Black in 1783 that “The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls at present”. In August 1783 the Frenchman J A C Charles and two brothers called Robert substituted hydrogen, or“inflammable air”, for hot air. Alarmed locals pitchforked their balloon where it landed. In December Charles and one Robert brother set off on their first manned flight, using hydrogen made by […]

James Watt died 191 years ago today. He was considered one of the most important engineers in the country, and after his death he was turned into a national hero. The result was a slew of statues, memorials and paintings – some of which will go on show in a new exhibition opening in spring 2011. More details to follow… When Watt was 59, his friend and partner Matthew Boulton introduced him to Carl von Breda, who painted the earliest portrait that that Watt was […]

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 […]

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