About Charlotte Connelly

I’m a historian of science and technology and in my day job I work at the Science Museum in London, where I mostly work with the communications collections. Tweets at @connellycharlie and blogs at charlotteconnelly.com/blog

Muzeum Techniki, Warsaw

The formidable and controversial Palace of Culture and Science – a gift from Stalin to the people of Warsaw – looms over the city as a reminder of the soviet era. Within the building is a viewing gallery, lots of conference space and the subject of this entry, the Muzeum Techniki. One benefit of the enormous building is that it makes finding Warsaw’s technical museum pretty easy.

Stalin’s gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science houses the Muzeum Techniki.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

The museum is spread over three floors and houses historic technology collections including transport, mining, communication, computing and cosmology. There is also a temporary exhibition space where the display regularly changes. The displays are traditional and do not benefit from modern digital interpretation techniques. Indeed the whole experience is in very stark contrast to Warsaw’s most highly lauded museum, the Chopin Museum, which recently reopened with high levels of digital and interactive display. However, what the Muzeum Techniki lacks in elaborate display techniques it more than makes up for in rich displays of objects.

One of the strongest collections on display is of mechanical music technologies, perhaps this is not surprising as many leading manufacturers were based in Central Europe. Music boxes, self playing pianos and other musical treats are on open display for visitors to explore.

The mechanical music collection is one of the strengths of the Muzeum Techniki.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

Other strengths are the computing collection, which includes early Polish computers and Poland’s first differential analyser, as well as some examples of soviet computing. There is also an extensive communications collection that includes Polish manufactured equipment as well as plentiful examples from better known manufacturers, particularly those in neighbouring Germany.

One room which is a little less densely populated with objects and housing very few original artefacts is the space gallery. Nicolaus Copernicus is one of Poland’s national heroes, and his cosmological work is presented in juxtaposition with high quality models of technologies from the soviet space programme. Copies of Copernicus’s equipment are displayed alongside some archive material and text panels (in Polish) that describe the cosmological system he proposed. Visitors can round off their exploration of space with a short planetarium show.

Copies of instruments used by Copernicus sit alongside displays about space exploration.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

Visitors who don’t speak Polish will find a limited amount of labelling available in English, but interpretation is generally is in short supply even for Polish speakers. For visitors who want more information there are tour guides available for a fee, and it is possible to arrange an English language tour. For those who already have an interest in the history of technology the displays are rich and varied enough to be engaging. However, visitors with little or no background knowledge are likely to struggle to make sense of the enormous numbers of objects they are faced with. Despite that caveat, the Muzeum Techniki is well worth a visit, not least as an insightful contrast to other contemporary museum displays that make extensive use of digital and interactive technologies to interpret the history of science and technology.

Other local points of interest

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Museum – this museum is very light on objects, but rich in images and text about Marie Curie’s life and particularly her early life in Warsaw. The Museum is housed in Curie’s former home in Warsaw’s New Town.

Copernicus Science Centre –  the science centre opened in 2010 and amongst other things aims to explain the science behind Copernicus’s work.

Copernicus Monument and the Polish Academy of Science – Warsaw’s monument to Copernicus is outside Staszic Palace, home of the Polish Academy of Science. On the ground alongside the monument is a nicely realised diagrammatic representation of Copernicus’s model of the solar system.

Borough Hill, Daventry

Borough Hill is now a very pleasant country park.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

Daventry is a historic market town in, more or less, the middle of England. Its central location proved to be very important in the 1920s when the BBC began looking for a site for a new long wave radio transmitter that could broadcast programs to most of the population of England.

The BBC first began broadcasting radio in late 1922 using a small number of transmitters that could reach the occupants of the city they were based in. Not long after the first transmitters were established the BBC’s Chief Engineer, Captain Peter Eckersley, was charged with finding a site ‘north of a line between the Severn and the Wash … and placed so that as much as possible of the area served by the station would be land and not sea.’

Borough Hill in Daventry was found to be the most suitable site and at 7.30 in the evening on the 27th of July 1925 the Post Master General opened the new transmitter, 5XX. As part of the opening celebrations the BBC’s Director General, John Reith, read a poem written by the poet laureate John Noyes.

Daventry calling … Daventry calling …

Daventry calling … Dark and still.

The tree of memory stands like a sentry

Over the graves on the silent hill.

Excerpt from ‘The Dane Tree’ by Alfred Noyes

Daventry 5XX would become a household name, it was able to reach 85% of the population, and booster stations made it possible for many of the households to ‘listen in’.

In 1932 another new service opened from Borough Hill. The first short wave transmitters of the Empire Service, now known as the BBC World Service, were based there. Daventry called the world, and was an important source of news during the Second World War, and later during the Cold War. The powerful transmitters at Daventry were also used in the first practical test of Radar in 1935.

Although the 5XX transmitter aerials were demolished in the 1990s, the concrete blocks they were mounted on still remain.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

The BBC ceased their broadcasting from Daventry in 1992, and demolished the two 500ft aerial masts that had sat on top of Borough Hill. Borough Hill itself is now owned by Daventry District Council and is a very pleasant country park. Visitors can walk around the site, which has a long history prior to the BBC’s arrival. The original transmitter buildings can still be seen, and the large concrete blocks that the aerial masts had been mounted on are still in place.

Aside from the site’s significance as an important site for the BBC, Borough Hill has a long history. It is a designated National Monument due to the evidence of one of Britain’s largest Bronze Age hill forts and evidence of Roman settlement. The old Dane Tree that Alfred Noyes named his poem after is an oak tree that grew on the summit of Borough Hill. Local legend had it that Danish settlers planted the tree there to mark the center of England. Sadly the tree died, probably as a result of damage caused by the BBC’s building works. All that can be seen now is a sorry looking stump next to the original transmitter building.

Some of the artefacts from Borough Hill have been preserved at Daventry’s volunteer run museum. The museum opens on the first Saturday of every month and several items from the radio station are on regular display. Even for those who aren’t interested in radio and broadcasting, Borough Hill also commands some spectacular views of the surrounding area and is a haven for wildlife. It is well worth a visit for that reason alone.

A trip to Borough Hill on a pleasant day is worthwhile for the views alone.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

Further information:

Daventry District Council’s information page: http://www.daventrydc.gov.uk/leisure/parks-and-countryside/borough-hill/

Norman Tomalin, 1998, Daventry Calling the World. Whitby: Caedmon of Whitby Publishers. Available online as a PDF: http://www.bbceng.info/Books/dx-world/dx-calling-the-world-2008a.pdf

Daventry’s volunteer run museum opens from 10-4 on the first Saturday of every month.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly. Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence