Dear Museum curators …

Here are the captions I have written. Please note that the word counts are  strict. Some are longer than others, but in all cases, I have been very restricted in what I can get across. Any corrections or suggestions for improving clarity greatly appreciated. Thank you.


[NOTE: There will be an introduction to this section, which will explain the chronological approach and something about the choice of object, the total number of objects the Museum holds etc.]



Stone Age flint blade hand tool 8500 BCE

[NOTE this caption is longer than the one on the rough layout, but I think it’s important to have this … although I could incorporate it into the introductory piece mentioned above]

The objects on these first two pages highlight some of the most important early technologies, which radically changed people’s way of life: tools, shelter, metalworking, lighting, pottery and glassmaking. These advances were largely the result of people living settled lives, rather than hunting and gathering. Being settled certainly gave Neolithic (‘new stone age’) flint knappers a chance to take more pride in their work than their palaeolithic (‘old stone age’) counterparts: notice the polished surface around the blade (at the top).

Mud brick house 5000 BCE

No, we don’t have a full-size 7000 year-old mud brick house in our collection. This is a model, based on a house that was excavated in Jericho, one of the world’s first cities. The bricks were made of straw with a binder of fine mud, left out in hot sun to harden. (Still, you wouldn’t have wanted a prolonged spell of heavy rain.)

Reversible axe on adze 2000 BCE

This exquisite adze, from Papua New Guinea, was used for working wood. It has the greenstone head embedded in a cross piece; if the head were embedded in the handle, it would be an axe. The handle gives this tool more clout than the hand axe (left/above).

Bronze surgical knives c.400 BCE

These bronze knives were used in ancient Egypt to remove organs during mummification. Metal tools had sharper blades than stone tools, could be worked more easily and were more durable. The Egyptians learned about bronze from the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), who also invented the wheel.

Small pottery lamp 100 CE

Vegetable or mineral oil soaked into the small textile wick of this lamp vaporises and ignites, keeping the small flame alight. Lamps like this were the first convenient portable light sources – a crucial technological advance. There is another important innovation here: pottery. In Egypt, where this lamp was made, pottery had been commonplace since around 6000 BCE.

Roman double unguent bottle 300 CE

The Romans were not the first to make glass, but they took glassmaking and glassware to a whole new level: they were the first to make clear glass, and they perfected glass blowing. This beautiful pair of bottles held unguent (an oily ointment).


Islamic sublimation and alembic apparatus c.1000

The science of chemistry only really began in the 18th century – but people had been using many of the techniques modern chemists use for hundreds of years. These glass vessels, made in Persia around 1000, were used for separating mixtures, by distillation and sublimation.

Wells Cathedral Clock 1392

The Wells Cathedral clock is the third-oldest surviving clock in the world; its beautifully decorated face is still in situ in the cathedral. The mechanism is driven by a falling weight on a rope that is wound up every morning, so that it can tick away all day in the Measuring Time gallery.

Genoese medicine chest 1560s


There are 126 bottles and pots for medicines in this grand chest, which was made for Vincenzo Giustiniani, who ruled the island of Chios, in the Aegean Sea. Some of the bottles still appear to have their 16th-century contents, and most of the containers still have their original labels.

John Dee’s crystal

English astrologer John Dee claimed he was given this crystal by the angel Uriel. He believed it possessed magic powers that could cure a range of diseases – not exactly evidence-based medicine. Later, the alchemist Nicholas Culpeper acquired it; he stopped using it because, he claimed, a demonic ghost had burst forth from it.

Galileo’s telescope and Moon sketches


Galileo Galilei made groundbreaking astronomical observations using a telescope – observations that helped confirm the then controversial idea that Earth orbits the Sun. He published drawings and explanations of his observations in Sidereus nuncius (‘Starry Messenger’). This replica of Galileo’s telescope was specially made for the Science Museum in 1923.

Galileo’s pendulum 1642

Galileo discovered that the length of a pendulum’s swing depends only upon its length, not on the weight of the bob, and realised that pendulums could be used to increase the accuracy of mechanical clocks. Galileo’s biographer made a drawing of the idea; this 19th-century model is based on that drawing.


Anatomical models 1650s

The study of human anatomy thrived in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was partly as a result of a new scientific spirit that had emerged and was spreading in printed books – a spirit that led many surgeons to challenge accepted wisdom about the internal arrangement and workings of the human body. These beautiful wooden models were probably used as teaching aids. The one on the right is a pregnant female; there is a foetus is visible inside her uterus.

Acupuncture mmodel c.1650

At around the same time as those wooden anatomical models were being made, followers of acupuncture made this wooden figure – also probably a teaching aid –which shows supposed channels through which life force, or ‘qi’ flows around the body. The model stands nearly a metre tall.

Salomon Coster pendulum clock 1657

Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens continued Galileo’s research into pendulums (see p. 39), and invented a practical pendulum clock mechanism in 1656. He licensed clock maker Salomon Coster to make clocks based on his design – and this is one of only seven of Coster’s pendulum clocks still in existence. Pendulum clocks were revolutionary: they improved timekeeping accuracy from a few minutes to a few seconds per day. Old clocks across Europe – including the Wells Cathedral Clock (p. 38) – were quickly fitted with pendulums.

Astrolabe by Jamal al-Din 1666

In the 17th century, Lahore (now in Pakistan) was the place to be if you were an astrolabe maker. This 25-centimetre (10-inch) diameter astrolabe was made there by Jamal al-Din, a member of a prominent family of astrolabe makers. The astrolabe is an ancient invention that was improved upon by Islamic scholars in the 12th century. People used it for telling the time based on your latitude, for predicting the positions of stars and planets – and, in the Islamic world, for determining the direction for prayer (the Qibla).


Samuel Morland’s calculating machine 1666

[NOTE: need to check the date. SSPL caption says 1670-95, while the object itself has ‘1660’ engraved on it.]

French mathematician Blaise Pascal made the first working mechanical calculator in 1642, and several mathematicians and inventors attempted to emulate or improve on his design. Morland’s device, shown here, could add, subtract, multiply and divide; the wheels were operated by a steel pin that was stored in the slot in the machine’s lid. Morland also invented a megaphone – or as he called it, the Tuba Stentorophonica – and a water pump for spraying water to put out fires.

Hooke’s microscope 1670 and drawing of flea


Robert Hooke’s bestseller Micrographia, published in 1665, presented intriguing views of everyday objects, with details too small to be seen with the naked eye. It was very popular, and helped encourage others to take up microscopy. This 1920s replica of one of the microscopes Hooke used while writing Micrographia is faithful to Hooke’s description and drawing contained in the book. The drawing of a head louse clinging to a human hair (left/right/below) is reproduced from Hooke’s book.

Italian enema jar 1700s

This tin-glazed jug is an albarello – an earthenware vessel used by apothecaries to store medicines. It was made in the Italian town of Deruta, renowned for its maiolica pottery. Tin glazing produces bright white backgrounds that make for bright, hardwearing decoration; the rather unsubtle decoration on this albarello shows a nurse administering an enema.

Silver microscope by George Adams

In 1927, the Museum acquired a collection of 18th-century apparatus designed to demonstrate the new discoveries scientists had been making. You can see part of it in Science in the 18th Century, on the third floor. Some of the objects belonged to the lecturer Stephen Demainbray, who travelled the country during the 1750s. The rest was from a collection that was used to teach science to the royal family – including this exquisite silver microscope made by George Adams, instrument maker to King George III.

Arkwright’s spinning machine 1769

Richard Arkwright patented this prototype horse-powered cotton spinning machine in 1769. When scaled up, powered by water wheels rather than horses and licensed for use in mills across the north of England, it played a key role in the Industrial Revolution. A lengthy legal battle in the 1780s proved that Arkwright had borrowed most of his ideas from others. His patent was cancelled, and the technology became available to use without licence. 


William Herschel’s 7ft telescope 1780

and and

German-born English astronomer William Herschel made this telescope for his sister Caroline, who was also a keen and accomplished astronomer. It is very similar to the one Herschel was using when he discovered planet Uranus, in March 1781 – the first planet discovered using a telescope. (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were all known in ancient times, because they are visible to the naked eye.) Around the same time, William was building a much larger telescope, with a tube 40 feet (12.2 metres) long and a mirror that had a diameter of 1.2 metres (49.2 inches) and a mass of nearly 500 kilograms (1025 lb).   [label for image of Herschel:] William Herschel in the 1790s.   [label for image of Uranus:] True- and false-colour images of planet Uranus, taken by NASA’s Voyager 2, in 1986.

George Margett’s astronomical watch 1790

A miniature version of the kind of large astronomical clocks typically installed in churches across Europe, this exquisite watch does more than tell the time. It shows the phase of the Moon and the position of the Sun among the constellations of the zodiac. It also shows which constellations will be visible above the horizon at night, gives the tide times at ports around Britain’s coastline, and could even predict lunar and solar eclipses.

Francis Thompson’s atmospheric engine 1791

Huge beam engines like this first pumped water out of coal mines in the 1710s. Francis Thompson built this one at Oakerthorpe Colliery, Derbyshire, and it worked there from 1791 until 1918, when it was brought to the Science Museum. It is an ‘atmospheric engine’ because atmospheric pressure pushed the piston down with enormous force after steam condensing inside the cylinder left behind a partial vacuum.

Edward Jenner’s vaccination instruments 1796

Pioneer of vaccination Edward Jenner used lancets like these to insert pus, from a milkmaid suffering from cowpox, into the arm of a healthy eight-year-old boy. Several days later, he proved that the boy was immune to smallpox, a much more serious disease, which was killing hundreds of thousands of people across Europe every year. On display in Making the Modern World.


Voltaic pile sent to Michael Faraday 1800

Italian scientist Alessandro Volta invented the battery in 1800. This column of zinc and copper discs separated by cardboard discs soaked in salt solution is a faithful (1930) copy of a ‘Voltaic pile’ battery that Volta made, and sent to English scientist Michael Faraday. The availability of a steady supply of electric current made possible a host of key discoveries during the 19th century – including electromagnetism and several new chemical elements.

Wooden figure of Saint Apollonia 1800s

The Wellcome Collection (see p. XX) contains more than 100,000 objects relating to the history of medicine – including many statues of saints. Many Christians believed that saints could offer cures for specific conditions – and the statues reminded them how a particular saint had been martyred, and therefore what kind of cure they might offer. This rather gruesome example shows Apollonia (3rd century), the patron saint of toothache, having her teeth forcibly removed.

Laennec’s stethoscope 1820

In 1816, French doctor René Laennec listened to a young woman’s heart through a tube of rolled up paper, to avoid the embarrassment of putting his ear to the woman’s chest. He called his invention the stethoscope (from the Greek word for chest, stethos), and this wood and brass one is one of his early examples. The familiar binaural stethoscope came into use in the 1840s.

Robert Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive 1829

By the end of the 18th century, steam engines were commonplace in factories, driving a host of different types of machine. In the early years of the 19th century, engineers began building engines that used steam at much higher pressure, opening up new applications – most importantly, steam locomotives. Rocket, perhaps the world’s most famous locomotive, was designed and constructed by British engineer Robert Stephenson in 1829. Stephenson built the locomotive to compete in the Rainhill Trials – a competition to decide which locomotive would be used on the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Rocket won convincingly, thanks to many innovative design features all later steam locomotive engineers adopted.


Set of miniature heads used in phrenology 1831

Swiss sculptor William Bally made these miniature heads to illustrate the classification of head shapes devised by the German physician Johann Spurzheim, a major figure in the emerging ‘science’ of phrenology. Phrenologists believed that the shape and size of particular areas of a person’s brain determine that person’s personality – and that these areas would affect the shape of the skull.

Tonsil guillotine 1830s

For much of the 19th century, no one knew the connection between microorganisms and disease – so the only treatment for tonsillitis was removal of the tonsils. The fact that there were no general anaesthetics at the time makes this fact all the more terrifying. The tonsil guillotine was adapted from an instrument for removing the uvula (the dangly bit at the back of the mouth). It became popular in the 1830s  – although this example was made in the 1870s.

Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraph 1837

At the same time as people were taking their first train journeys, or having their tonsils sliced off by a guillotine, a communications revolution was brewing. British pair William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone were behind the world’s first practical telegraph systems, which began operating in 1838. The five needles in this instrument would swing to point to letters of the alphabet.

Babbage Difference Engine No. 2 

Difference Engine No. 2 is the last of three calculating machines Charles Babbage designed. It was conceived to solve equations in order to produce mathematical tables. Science Museum staff built it, to Babbage’s plans, in 1991. Its 4000 parts weigh in at 2.5 tonnes. The whole thing works perfectly, expressing its results as 31-digit numbers. In 2000, we added a printer, also according to Babbage’s plans. None of Babbage’s machines was completed in his lifetime, although he did see trial sections of the first two – Difference Engine No. 1 and the Analytical Engine – which are also on display at the Museum.


James Joule’s paddle wheel 1845


British scientist James Joule used this apparatus in his now classic paddle wheel experiment. Falling weights turned the paddles to churn water; the churning raised the water’s temperature slightly, and Joule found that the temperature rise was in direct proportion to the amount of ‘work’ done by the falling weights. Joule’s ‘mechanical equivalent of heat’ was crucial in developing the concept of energy.

James Nasmyth’s steam hammer 1845


James Nasmyth invented the steam hammer in 1838, to forge paddles for SS Great Britain. In the end, the ship had propellers rather than paddle wheels, but Nasmyth’s invention, renowned for both its power and its control, and went on to play a key role in many large engineering projects. In the black-and-white photograph, taken in 1845, Nasmyth himself stands proudly by his invention.

Sewing machine by Elias Howe 1846

American inventor Elias Howe created the first practical sewing machine, in 1845. Howe’s device included the main features of modern sewing machines, including an automatic feed mechanism that pushed the fabric along step-by-step and a shuttle moving to-and-fro beneath the fabric carrying thread that looped around thread carried by the needle pushing through the fabric from above. Howe’s brother Amasa brought this example to London in 1846, to seek funding.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s attaché case mid 1800s

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is one of the icons of British engineering. His many large projects were made possible by innovations such as Nasmyth’s steam hammer (left/above) and the availability of cheap steel and concrete. They include bridges, railways and stations, docks, tunnels, ships and even a prefabricated hospital that was sent to the Crimean War. The photograph shows Brunel at Millwall during the construction of the Great Eastern – by far the biggest ship ever built at that time.


Bottles containing mauveine salts 1856

[NOTE: these actually date to 1863, but I thought it better to use the date of Perkin’s discovery]

British chemist William Perkin created the first synthetic dye, mauveine, while attempting to synthesise the malaria medicine quinine. Chemists quickly discovered many other synthetic dyes, which were cheaper than natural ones and came in a wide range of new colours. These samples of mauveine were donated to the Museum in 1947, by Perkin’s daughter, Annie.

Louis Pasteur’s silk worms 1865

French microbiologist Louis Pasteur played a crucial role in establishing bacteria as one of the main causes of disease. An important early step came in the 1860s, when he identified the cause of a disease that was decimating the French silkworm industry. We have several pieces of his laboratory apparatus, as well as this string of silkworm cocoons that formed part of his investigation.

Frederick Holmes’ lighthouse generator 1867

The discovery of electromagnetism in 1820 led to the introduction of electromagnets, electric motors and generators, gradually during the rest of the 19th century. This steam engine-driven generator, designed by British engineer Frederick Holmes, powered brilliant carbon arc lamps in Souter Lighthouse, Tyne and Wear, from 1871 until 1900. It is on display in Making the Modern World.

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and terminal panel 1877

Another product of research into electromagnetism was the telephone. British-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell made this telephone to demonstrate the new technology to Queen Victoria, at Osborne Cottage, on the Isle of Wight, in January 1878. Since it had only one wire along which sound signals passed, the mouthpiece was also the earpiece, and the user had to listen and speak alternately. No one is sure whether the demonstration actually took place.

Swan and Edison electric lamps, 1878-9

Development of the incandescent light bulb began in the 1840s. These experimental bulbs were made by Joseph Swan (left) and Thomas Edison. In 1881, Swan lamps made the Savoy Theatre, London, the first public building entirely illuminated by electric light. By 1882, both men were selling bulbs commercially, Edison to customers of the first public power stations, in London and New York. In 1883, the two men joined forces, forming the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company.


Sunshine recorder 1880

In 1853, British scholar John Campbell came up with a device that could record the hours of sunshine on a particular day. In his apparatus, a glass sphere sitting in a wooden bowl focussed sunlight, so that it made scorch marks in the wood; the marks became trails as the Sun moved across the sky. British physicist George Stokes improved the design in 1879, replacing the wooden bowl with a replaceable strip of paper held in a metal stand.

Parson’s original steam turbine 1884

The steam engines that were used to power the generators in early power stations were heavy, large and relatively slow. Charles Parsons’ steam turbine was a radically different design: high-pressure steam turned a shaft at high speed, and could turn a generator much faster and more efficiently. The shaft inside this experimental turbine rotated at 18,000 rpm. All coal- and oil-fired and nuclear power stations use steam turbines to this day.

Rudge ordinary bicycle 1884

Bicycles like this were popular from the 1870s. In the 1890s, they became known as ‘ordinaries’ to distinguish them from the new-fangled ‘safety bicycles’. With a large front wheel, you could go further with each turn of the pedals – but riding so high up was awkward and unstable. These bicycles also had the nickname ‘penny farthing’ because the large and small wheels reminded people of the relative sizes of the penny and farthing coins.

Rover safety bicycle 1885

In the late 1870s, bicycle engineers were exploring new designs that would allow the rider to be closer to the ground, and would therefore be safer. British inventor John Kemp Starley designed the first successful safety bicycle in 1885. It has all the basic features of standard modern bicycles – including chain drive, which meant the wheels could be the same size. With the introduction of the safety bicycle, cycling became enormously popular, among both men and women.

Sir Oliver Lodge’s coherer 1894

German physicist Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves in 1888. The first reliable device to detect the waves was the radio-conductor, invented by French physicist Édouard Branly – in which radio waves change the electrical resistance of iron filings inside a glass tube. British physicist Oliver Lodge renamed it the coherer; in August 1894, he used this one at a meeting of the British Association, in a key demonstration of the potential of ‘wireless telegraphy’.


Turbinia engine 1894


Charles Parsons (see p. 54) had always been a keen sailor. In 1894, Parsons fitted his 30-metre (100-foot) long experimental ship Turbinia (above) with a steam turbine, making it by far the fastest ship in the world at the time and heralding a new era of marine propulsion. Steam turbines remained commonplace in ocean liners until the 1960s, when diesel engines began to supersede them.

John Joseph Thomson’s cathode ray tube 1897

This is one of the original cathode ray tubes used by Joseph John (‘JJ’) Thomson in a series of experiments that led him to discover the electron, in 1897. Other investigators had observed strange rays emitted from cathodes (negatively-charged plates) inside glass tubes; Thomson was the first to prove that the rays were streams of particles. Thomson’s discovery led to an explosion in the understanding of atomic structure, and to the electronics revolution of the 20th century.

HMV gramophone 1896

The first consumer device to play back recorded sound was the phonograph. It played wax or tin cylinders. The gramophone, developed by German inventor Emile Berliner in 1888, played flat discs instead of cylinders. This model featured in the trademark of the Gramophone Company and its record label, HMV: a painting of a dog called Nipper sitting next to a gramophone listening to ‘his master’s voice’.

Mill engine 1903 and black and white in situ images via Ben Russell (thanks)

Despite the coming of power stations and the invention of powerful electric motors, steam engines remained the dominant source of power in factories in the early 20th century. This sophisticated 700 horsepower engine was installed in the Harle Syke Mill, near Burnley, Lancashire, in 1903. It powered hundreds of looms in the mill, via ropes wound around the huge, 20-tonne, flywheel. The black-and-white photographs show the engine in the mill just before it was dismantled in 1970. It was moved to the Museum in 1979, where it runs most days – albeit at around one-quarter of its intended speed – still powered by steam produced by an oil-fired boiler in the basement.


Wright Flyer 1903


Many people attempted to build flying machines around the beginning of the 20th century. American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to achieve sustained flight, in the Wright Flyer, in December 1903. Wilbur donated the aeroplane to the Science Museum in 1928, after a dispute with the Smithsonian Institute over priority. The original was returned to the Smithsonian in 1948 – but not before this faithful replica was made.

Fleming’s original thermionic valve 1904

John Ambrose Fleming’s invention represents a key moment in the history of electronics. It is a ‘valve’ because it only allowed electric current to flow in one direction. Connected to an antenna, it could detect radio waves in wireless telegraphy (Morse code messages via radio). Other inventors developed thermionic valves into devices that could amplify or used as electronic switches – so that they played a vital role in every aspect of electronics, including the first electronic computers.

Mr Gibson’s pharmacy 1905

and others (SSPL 10287950, 10446214, 10446213, 10446216, 10446207)

The Gibson family opened a pharmacy in Hexham, Northumberland, in 1834. The shop’s interior remained largely unchanged until it closed in 1978, its shelves still populated by a bewildering array of ‘shop rounds’ (glass jars that held medication). Most of the shop rounds had labels carrying the abbreviated Latin names of their contents. We acquired the entire contents and fittings of the shop in 1979, and it has been on permanent display ever since, in the Lower Wellcome gallery – recreated as it would have been in 1905, behind a faithful replica of the shop front.


Dial telephone 1905

In 1890, American funeral director Almon Strowger discovered that the wife of one of his competitors was a local switchboard operator – and was putting callers through to her husband and not Strowger. In response, Strowger invented an automatic exchange, through which callers could connect their own calls using a rotary dial. This telephone is from the USA; the first automatic exchange in Britain opened in 1912.

Booth vacuum cleaner and poster

and a poster, but not the one you see here, because it is on loan.

British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth came up with the idea for the vacuum cleaner after watching railway carriages being cleaned using compressed air to blow away dust and debris. Booth’s early machines were large and expensive, so at first he offered vacuuming as a service. Typically horse-drawn, the machines were parked outside houses and long hoses were fed through windows. This one was made for Osborne House, a naval training centre on the Isle of Wight.

Hiram Maxim’s Pipe of Peace inhaler 1909

American-born British inventor Hiram Maxim is best known for inventing the first self-powered machine gun, in the 1880s. Among his many other inventions was this inhaler. Soothing vapours produced by a few drops of his own concoction, ‘Dirigo’, in warm water. His friends told him they were worried it might destroy his reputation – but good reports from users led to a surge in demand, and hundreds of thousands were sold.

Mechanical cash register 1910

In 1879, American bar owner James Ritty invented the cash register. He hoped his invention would thwart his employees’ attempts at pocketing money – his first model was called ‘Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier’. The National Cash Register Company was formed in Ritty’s home town of Dayton, Ohio, after he sold his rights to the invention in the 1890s. This crank-operated machine, made by that company, features a printer that produced paper receipts.


Louis Bleriot’s monoplane 1910


On 25 July 1909, French aviator Louis Blériot became the first person to fly across the English Channel. His flight took just under forty minutes, and won him a £1000 prize from the Daily Mail – equivalent to more than £50,000 today. This is the control mechanism; the rest of the aeroplane is on permanent display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, in Paris. The photograph shows the aeroplane shortly after it flopped down in a field just outside Dover.

Ford Model T 1916


American industrialist Henry Ford is famous for making motoring affordable for millions of people. His Model T, introduced in 1908, was enormously popular. The engine (sectioned view below left) remained virtually unchanged until production ceased, in 1927. To keep up with demand and reduce the car’s price, Ford introduced assembly line working. From 1914 onwards, every Model T was produced in the same colour: black. This one is on display in Making the Modern World.

Vickers Vimy Rolls Royce Biplane 1919

Just ten years after Blériot’s flight across the English Channel (see left), British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown claimed another Daily Mail aviation prize – this time for £10,000 – when they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. They crash landed in a bog near Clifden, Connemara, Ireland, sixteen hours after leaving Newfoundland, Canada (photo). The Vickers Vimy aircraft they flew had been built as a bomber during the First World War; extra fuel tanks were added for the trans-Atlantic crossing. This replica of the cockpit sits beneath the actual aeroplane Alcock and Brown flew, which is suspended in Flight on the third floor.


BBC headphones 1923

Until the end of the 1910s, all radio signals carried messages – in Morse code, for example – rather than audio. Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi made the first broadcasts of sound signals in Britain, in 1920. The BBC was founded two years later, as the British Broadcasting Company (‘Company’ changed to ‘Corporation’ in 1926). These headphones, stamped with the BBC’s logo, were typical of the kind used by broadcasters and listeners during the 1920s.

Pohl Omniscop X-ray apparatus 1925

After the discovery of X-rays in the 1890s, doctors quickly saw the potential of this mysterious radiation in diagnostic medicine. German engineer Ernst Pohl’s Omniskop could effectively rotate around the patient, giving different views of their insides. The patient lay on the wooden plank, the radiologist in the metal frame beneath. The device included a fluoroscope: a screen that scintillated when X-rays hit, and which therefore allowed the radiologist to examine the X-ray images in real time.

Jason, de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane 1929

British aviator Amy Johnson was born in 1903 – the same year as the Wright brothers made their first sustained flight (see p. 58). She found fame in May 1930, when she flew solo from Croydon, UK, to Darwin, Australia. With fifteen stops along the way, the 18,000-km (12,000-mile) journey took 20 days. The aeroplane in which she made her historic flight – a de Havilland Moth with a de Havilland Gipsy engine she named Jason – is on permanent display in Flight, on the third floor. It has a wooden frame and fuselage, and was covered with fabric. Johnson had it painted bottle green with silver lettering.


Radium teletherapy apparatus 1930

In the 1920s, the radioactive element radium was used in a wide range of ‘health’ products, including radium water and even radium chocolate. These products did more harm than good, but radioactive substances can be used beneficial, when used in radiotherapy to destroy cancerous tumours. This apparatus, made at Westminster Hospital, London, exposed patients’ tumours to radiation emitted by a radium sample held in the egg-shaped unit, via a shutter released by the bicycle brake cable.

Early Geiger counter 1932 – we can’t use it, as it was on loan and has been returned.

Shelvador domestic refrigerator 1934

In the early 1930s, American entrepreneur Powel Crosley began making refrigerators. He bought the rights to a simple innovation: putting shelves inside the refrigerator door. Other manufacturers had rejected the idea, but consumers agreed with Crosley. The ’Shelvador’ became a market leader, and the only refrigerator with shelves in the door until the patent ran out.


Alexander Fleming’s penicillin mould 1935

British biologist and pharmacologist Alexander Fleming gave this sample of the mould Penicillium notatum to a colleague at St Mary’s Hospital, London, in 1935. Seven years earlier, Fleming had discovered by chance that this species of mould produces a substance he called penicillin that has powerful antibiotic properties. The sample is on display in Making the Modern World. [To be confirmed]

Twin tub washing machine 1937 – TO BE CONFIRMED

SSPL image number 10250650    

Ferranti television receiver 1937

The first television broadcasts in the UK were made in 1929 – but they used an electromechanical system. All-electronic television systems developed gradually during the 1930s. This receiver was made in 1937, by British firm Ferranti, for a special exhibition in the Museum. It is not marked with the manufacturer’s name, because at the time, the Museum was a government department, and could not be seen to favour one manufacturer over another.

Whittle W1 jet propulsion engine 1938


RAF cadet officer Frank Whittle came up with the idea for the jet engine in the late 1920s. This is one of his early engines, the W1, which was used in Britain’s first jet-powered aeroplane, the Gloster-Whittle E.28/39 (pictured). Both the engine and the aeroplane are on permanent display in Flight on the third floor.

V2 gyrocompass 1942


This pair of gyroscopes was part of the stability and guidance unit of the V2 rocket (pictured), a long-range missile developed in Germany. The first V2 test flight took place in October 1942 – and during 1944 and 1945, more than 3000 of these missiles, packed with explosives, fell on major cities around Europe.

Hiroshima rice bowl 1945


The atomic bomb that exploded in the Japanese city of Hiroshima killed 80,000 people directly; the radioactivity it left behind killed an estimated 60,000 more. This porcelain bowl was found among the ruins of the city (pictured). As a result of the heat of the explosion, the glaze melted and sand and stones have become embedded in it.


Model of penicillin, Dorothy Hodgkin 1945

In the early 1940s, the antibiotic penicillin (see p.68) was hailed a wonder drug, after successful trials and its use on injured soldiers. In 1945, British chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin used X-ray crystallography to work out its molecular structure. Her work enabled scientists to understand how the drug works, and to develop new antibiotics.

Prillect electric travelling iron 1948

If you ever wanted evidence of the influence of science and technology on culture, look no further than this picture. This simple travel iron was made possible by so many advances – including the smelting of metals; the development of stainless steel, synthetic materials and electricity supplies; mass travel made possible by trains, aeroplanes, cars and buses …

Rover gas turbine car 1948

[NOTE: this has (probably) gone, as we can’t use the image of the turbine, and we need more space for the X-ray bus.]


X-ray bus 1948

plus one or two others.

After the war, the newly created National Health Service commissioned a fleet of 52 mobile X-ray vans, as part of its effort to eradicate tuberculosis (TB). The vans travelled around Britain carrying out chest X-rays – as many as 120 per hour – in search of people with early signs of the disease. This X-ray bus is in storage at our Wroughton large object storage facility, but you can take a virtual tour of it on our Brought to Life website.


Williamson home-constructed amplifier 1949

In 1948, vinyl replaced shellac for making gramophone discs, bringing near-silent sound reproduction. As a result, audio buffs needed better quality amplifiers. This hi-fidelity amplifier was designed by British electronics engineer Theo Williamson. Instructions on how to build it appeared in the hobbyist magazine Wireless World.

Pedoscope X-ray apparatus 1940s (possibly different image, showing the whole device)

This machine presented a picture of the bones in your foot and an outline of your shoes. Although there was little evidence to suggest that these devices would help find perfectly fitting shoes, they were a fairly common sight in shoe shops from the 1930s to the 1960s. Their use quickly declined after scientists began to understand the risks associated with excessive exposure to X-rays.

Iron lung 1950

If you had polio (poliomyelitis) in the 1930s or 40s – or the 1950s, when a vaccine was developed – chances are you would have spent a few days lying in one of these – with your head sticking out of the large hole at the end. It’s a negative pressure ventilator, or ‘iron lung’: the sealed chamber was connected to an air pump that repeatedly changed the pressure inside the chamber, so that your lungs would compress and expand.

Pilot ACE 1950


In 1945, while working at the National Physical Laboratory, British mathematician Alan Turing formulated the design of an ‘automatic computing engine’ (ACE) – a machine that would have been the world’s first general purpose computer. Turing left the NPL in 1948 – but this smaller prototype was made in his absence in 1950. Although just a ‘pilot’ version, this remarkable machine found a range of applications, including working out the stresses on aeroplane wings.


Crick and Watson DNA model 1953


In 1953, British and American molecular biologists Francis Crick and James Watson pulled off one of the most profound scientific triumphs of the century. Using their knowledge of chemical bonds, along with X-ray crystallography results from British chemist Rosalind Franklin, they worked out the ‘double helix’ structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the molecule that acts as a blueprint for all living things and is responsible for inherited characteristics. Within a decade, scientists had worked out how information is coded along the molecule. This reconstruction of Watson and Crick’s first model includes some of the original metal plates they used. It is on permanent display in Making the Modern World, on the ground floor.

Ferranti Pegasus computer 1956

Row upon row of valves form part of the ‘electronic brain’ of the Ferranti Pegasus computer, an early, British-made business computer. Forty of these machines were built. We have number 25, which is the second oldest working computer in the world – and which we regularly demonstrate to visitors.

NS Savannah nuclear powered ship 1959

Model of Nuclear Ship Savannah, the first of only four nuclear powered cargo ships ever built. A nuclear reactor on board heated water to produce steam, which turned a turbine (see p. 56). The ship was in service until 1972. Although it ran well, it was more expensive to run than diesel-powered ships, which were the norm by then.


Morris Mini Minor 1959

This full size cutaway Mini from 1959 shows just how successful Greek-British designer Alec Issigonis was in making this small car feel so spacious inside. The Mini was enormously successful: this is one of more than five million made altogether. It is on permanent display in Making the Modern World.

Oramics machine 1959


Influential British musician Daphne Oram was one of the pioneers of electronic music, and co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Her Oramics machine created sounds to order, being fed waveforms that were drawn onto 35mm film (below). Ten strips of film could be ‘played’ simultaneously.

Forest of Rods 1960

British crystallographer John Kendrew and Austrian-British molecular biologist Max Perutz built this remarkable model, using steel rods in a wooden baseboard, to represent the molecular structure of myoglobin, a compound that stores oxygen in muscles. The two scientists won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for their work determining the structure of this and other ‘globular proteins’.


Blue Steel missile 1960

The rising tensions of the Cold War convinced the British government to develop a weapon that would act as a deterrent against pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The result was Blue Steel: an air-launched, supersonic missile with a nuclear warhead. Blue Steel was first tested in 1960s, went into service in 1963 aboard Vulcan and Victor bombers. It was retired in 1970, thankfully without ever having been used.

Pair of CO2 powered upper limb prostheses 1964

Starting in the 1950s – long before the computer-controlled neural interfaces and electric ‘muscles’ found in cutting edge prostheses of today – prosthetic limb designers used pressurised carbon dioxide to offer some power and control. These arms were made for a twelve year-old boy who had lost his arms when he was eight. Notice how the shoulder fittings are soft, to allow for the child’s growth.

Mould for Tupperware container 1965

After the Second World War, American entrepreneur Earl Silas Tupper experimented with polythene – a plastic that had been invented in the 1930s but used only for secret military applications during the war. He created a range of kitchen storage vessels with a patented seal. Tupperware became enormously popular after he introduced direct selling at home parties in 1951.


Greenwich Mean Time equipment 1969

Ever since 1924, the BBC has been broadcasting six short 1kHz tones, nicknamed ‘the pips’, to act as a time check on the hour. This equipment was installed for twenty years at the Royal Observatory in Sussex. It contained an atomic clock, and sent signals along two telephone lines to Broadcasting House in London. It was retired in 1990, when the BBC began using its own atomic clock, as well as synchronising with other atomic clocks via radio links. Today, you can see it in Making the Modern World.


Apollo 10 Command Module 1969

This is the actual spacecraft that carried astronauts Thomas Stafford, Eugene Cernan and John Young to the Moon and back in May 1969. Charlie Brown, as it was nicknamed, blasted into space at the very top of a Saturn V rocket as part of Apollo 10 – a rehearsal for Apollo 11, the mission that landed the first astronauts on the Moon in July of the same year. In orbit around the Moon, this craft was attached to a Lunar Module and a Service Module. The Lunar Module un-docked and carried Stafford and Cernon close to the lunar surface before ascending and re-docking. The Command Module was the only part to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, after which it crashed down into the Pacific Ocean. It is on long-term loan from NASA, and is on display in Making the Modern World.

 VCS3 music synthesiser 1970

Music synthesisers became commercially available in the mid-1960s. Early models were all very large and very expensive. The VCS3 – a modular analogue synthesiser made by British company Electronic Music Studios – was practically portable and much more affordable. Many pioneers of electronic music in the 1970s used the VCS3, including Pink Floyd and Roxy Music.

Mitral and aortic heart valves 1970s

Valvular stenosis is a disease in which the flaps of valves inside the heart become enlarged, normally as a result of rheumatic fever, and prevent normal blood flow. The mitral valve, also known as the bicuspid valve, allows blood to pass from the left atrium to the left ventricle; the aortic valve allows blood from the left ventricle out of the heart into the aorta. Artificial valves like these (here standing on tubes for display) dramatically improve sufferers’ survival rates.


Boeing 747 (1970)

[NOTE: this caption was written for the pic of the 747 with a Space Shuttle on top, as on the rough layouts]

Even in our large objects store in Wroughton (see p. XX), we don’t really have enough room for a complete Boeing 747 – let alone a Space Shuttle. We do, however, have a section of a Boeing 747SP fuselage, featuring the cargo hold and two floors of seating, on display in Flight on the third floor. The ‘SP’ variation (for ‘Special Performance’) entered service in 1976. The Boeing 747, nicknamed the Jumbo Jet, revolutionised passenger air travel after it was introduced in 1970. Its large size dramatically lowered per-passenger per-kilometre operating costs, making long haul flights affordable for many more people. It also helped reduce congestion at busy airports, where increasing numbers of people had been waiting for small airliners.

Black Arrow R4 1971

In October 1971, in Woomera, Australia, a British-built rocket lifted a British-built satellite into orbit. The rocket was Black Arrow R3; the satellite was called Prospero, and is still in orbit today. The Black Arrow programme was scrapped before the next Black Arrow could be launched – and we have R4, intact and on display.


Philips compact disc player 1984

The compact disc (CD) was developed in a collaboration between Japanese company Sony and Dutch company Philips. The first compact disc (CD) player, Sony’s CDP-101, was launched on 1 October 1982. Shown here is one of Philips’ early offerings, from 1984: the CD100, which was the first top-loading CD player.


Apple Macintosh computer 1984

The Apple Macintosh was the first personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) – featuring a ‘desktop’, windows and clickable menus. It had a 9-inch (23 cm) monochrome monitor screen, 128 kilobytes of RAM, and came with a keyboard and mouse. The slot in the front of the machine is for a floppy disk, which enabled the user to load programs and save files. Within a year, Microsoft introduced its own GUI operating system, Windows.

Jedi helmlet 1984

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) was still new and experimental during the 1980s, and having a scan was daunting, especially for children. To produce clear images of the head, copper coils had to be placed close to the head, to increase magnetic sensitivity. Ian Young, at Hammersmith Hospital, made the experience less daunting, by incorporating the coils into helmets reminiscent of those used by trainee Jedi knights in the Star Wars films.

Vodaphone transportable mobile phone 1985

Vodafone launched the UK’s first ‘cellular’ mobile phone network on 1 January 1985. This early mobile phone would normally remain in a user’s car, but could be lifted out and carried round – although it only offered a few minutes of call time before the battery went flat. Battery technology has moved on since then – and network cells are smaller, so less power is needed to communicate with a base station.

Spacelab 2 X-ray telescope

This telescope, designed and built at Birmingham University, used a gold-plated ‘mask’ to focus X-rays from distant objects in space – since lenses can’t focus X-rays. It formed part of the Skylab 2 module that was carried into space in July 1985 aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. From its position outside the atmosphere, it captured for the first time X-ray images of galaxy clusters and our own galactic centre.


Oncomouse [TM] 1988

On 12 April 1988, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued the world’s first patent on an animal. The subject of the patent was the Harvard Mouse, or OncoMouse[TM] – a strain of mice created by inserting a gene from a virus into the DNA of a mouse embryo. The resulting mice and their progeny were used in cancer research, because they were much more susceptible to cancer than normal mice. The first transgenic animal, also a mouse with virus DNA, was created in 1974.

Friendly floatee duck 1992

Plastic ducks in the Science Museum’s collections? We didn’t collect them because of the material of which they are made (PVC?). They were part of a consignment of nearly 30,000 plastic toys that fell into the North Pacific from a container ship in 1992. Many of those toys inadvertently became part of a massive scientific study: beachcombers have been finding them ever since, helping oceanographers refine their models of ocean currents.

Tracey the Sheep 1990s

Transgenic sheep Tracy was born at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh – the same research facility that created the world-famous sheep Dolly (the first mammal cloned from adult cells). Tracy carried a gene that codes for a protein called human alpha 1 anti-trypsin, a promising treatment for cystic fibrosis and emphysema. The protein accounted for around 50% of all the proteins in her milk.

Prototype gyrscope from Gravity Probe B 2005

Gravity Probe B was an experiment staged in orbit in 2004-5. It was the most rigorous test to date of Einstein’s general theory of relativity – specifically, of the curvature of spacetime. At the heart of the experiment were four rapidly spinning gyroscopes at a temperature close to absolute zero. Each gyroscope contained a ball made of fused quartz and was coated with a thin layer of niobium. At the time, the balls were the most perfect spheres ever manufactured.