The Bowes Museum is the former home of John and Josephine Bowes, avid collectors of European art in the late 19th century. The building, grounds and collections are themselves worth a visit, but the draw for a historian of science and technology is the Silver Swan, an automaton the Bowes’ purchased in France in 1872. It was built by English inventor John Joseph Merlin in the late 18th century, and first recorded as an attraction at the London Mechanical Museum of James Cox.
Every afternoon a curator inserts a key in the stand below the glass box where the swan sits in a nest of silver leaves; its repertoire of motions takes about 40 seconds. The swan arches its neck, peers around, and preens itself, then bends toward the water in front of it, simulated by rotating glass rods, to snatch a fish; it lifts its head with the fish, then cranes its neck to swallow it.
Unfortunately because the swan is kept in a glass box higher than (at least my) eye level, it’s difficult to get a close look at the water and the fish, which is a shame as part of the automaton’s motions include the small silver fish darting away as the swan’s beak breaks the water,. The museum has, however, developed an excellent and detailed exhibit on the history and working of the mechanism, after an extensive restoration project in 2008. This exhibit includes a great deal of technical information on how the mechanism was constructed and how it works, how it had been mistakenly restored earlier in its history, and the work involved in its 21st century restoration.
Close by the Horological Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds is the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Neuchâtel. This museum holds an outstanding collection of 18th and 19th century machines, including three automata constructed by theologian, mathematician and watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis and their colleague Jean-Frédéric Leschot in the early 1770s. These machines were exhibited all over Europe when they were first built and in the 19th century. In 2009, to celebrate their 100th year at the museum, the Musée d’art et d’histoire undertook a three year restoration project including analysis of the machines (to determine which parts were original and which had been repaired or replaced) and a systematic investigation of archive material for the first time in at least 60 years. Last year the museum hosted a symposium and exhibition, ‘Automates & Merveilles’, highlighting the restoration and research findings.
The Jaquet-Droz automata are two small boys sitting on four legged stools, one writing and one drawing, and a girl who plays a pipe organ. During my visit in 2009 I found the girl the most compelling and lifelike; unlike the boys, her body and head move independently of her task, and she can sit and breathe and fidget (her chest slightly rising and falling, and her head and neck making almost imperceptible movements) for an hour. Though she has no eyelids, and only her head, forearms and hands move as she plays, I found the way she looks at the keyboard eerily realistic.
The drawing boy, the simplest of the three mechanisms, uses a pencil to draw four images – King Louis, portraits of a king and queen, Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly, and a little dog with the words ‘mon toutou’. The writing boy draws the most interest from historians of science and technology, as he is often considered an early example of ‘programming’—but this is misleading, as he is no more ‘programmable’ than a printing press, which he effectively is at one remove. A wheel in his back moves cams that activate 40 different arm movements—tracing letters, making spaces on the paper, and getting more ink from the inkwell. He can write up to four preset lines on a piece of paper the size of an index card, though the mechanism is so delicate the lines have not been reprogrammed since François Mitterrand’s visit to the city.
The automata are operated three times on the first Sunday of every month, and the small theatre in which they perform is always full—21st century audiences watch with as much delight and amazement as people of two centuries ago. Private viewing sessions for small groups can also be arranged.
‘The Birthplace of the Wooden Wonder’- The de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, London Colney, Hertfordshire
Aircraft are one of those technological creations that can stir strong emotions and reactions in people. Indeed the history of the aircraft industry simultaneously evokes a strange sense of nostalgia, heroism and glamour often shrouded in its own myths and legends as well as perpetuating them. No doubt that children’s magazines such as Modern Wonder, Eagle and Look and Learn with their intricate cross-section diagrams and action laden shots of aircraft and rockets did much to capture the imagination, particularly of boys, from an early age. In fact, the subject of the aircraft industry continues to spawn a whole host of documentaries and literature with titles such as Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World (2011) devoted to celebrating and preserving the memory of Britain’s glory days in the aircraft business with its host of fearless and glittering test pilots to match.
Behind some of the aircraft and the companies that produced them were men from typically privileged backgrounds such as Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, who used his name for the aircraft company he established in 1920 at Stag Lane, Edgware, and which later moved to Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Geoffrey de Havilland began his training at the Crystal Palace Engineering School followed by appointments designing and testing aircraft at the then Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough as well as heading design work for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company Ltd. (Airco) formed by George Holt Thomas. He later recalled his motivations as an aircraft designer in his memoirs, Sky Fever: ‘When I started on my first aeroplane the desire to do everything was almost fanatical and I felt almost a fierce resentment against outside help…I do know that the design and production of good aeroplanes has always been to me infinitely more important and rewarding than just making money’. The museum itself is located next to Salisbury Hall, a rather quaint looking country house where various personnel from the design, aerodynamics and stress departments worked on the wooden warplane, the Mosquito, otherwise affectionately known as the ‘Wooden Wonder’. Additionally, Sailsbury Hall had another role to play- it was also once the location for the De Havilland Aeronautical Technical School, the training centre for the company’s engineering and trade apprentices.
In contrast to the rather serious tones conveyed about the practice of making aircraft by Geoffrey de Havilland, the back pages of the company magazine, the De Havilland Gazette, often took to lampooning the designs and names of many of its aircraft through cartoons and jokes. One such joke revealed all the names for the business jet the DH 125 which had been turned down including Deadbeat, Dither and Delinquent. We can be rest assured that this was a Company that could ‘manufacture’ a certain degree of humour as well as aircraft and aero-engines! Visitors can also be sure to view the majority of de Havilland’s most prominent aircraft which are spread across the site. A smaller hanger is solely dedicated to displaying pre-war aircraft whilst the larger hanger houses aircraft ranging from the Mosquito to the post-war jet fighter, the Vampire, often noted by its pilots for resembling an ‘aerial kiddy car’. A further two buildings contain various de Havilland aero-engines, (a subsidiary company was established in 1944 to produce aero-engines based at Stag Lane), alongside an exhibition dedicated to detailing the history of the de Havilland Company.
Most interestingly, the fuselage of one of the early versions of the first commercial passenger jet airliner, the Comet, is also on display which became infamous during its service due to a series of high profile crashes as a result of metal fatigue caused by the shape of its cabin windows. Furthermore, visitors can climb into the cockpit of a simulator from a later adaption of the Comet replete with memorabilia from former airline operator British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.). The Comet perhaps epitomized the ‘jet-age’ with its sleek and glistening metal exterior whilst it was also regarded as a prestigious hallmark of British aircraft design. The aviation weekly, Flight, even amusingly recorded: ‘the Comet has caused the American housewife to choose English China; her husband bought a Jaguar automobile, and her son asked Santa Claus for a Raleigh bike for Christmas’.
Aircraft museums certainly raise interesting questions about how aeronautics is presented to the public especially when they form one of the most archetypal museums. Like many small scale aircraft museums, it serves a mostly didactic purpose aimed at enthusiasts as well as carrying out restoration projects on aircraft. In comparison, the presentation of aircraft in national museums such as the Science Museum have long taken into consideration the need to keep a balance between providing a historical narrative about aviation and the scientific principles behind flight. It has also made sure to interweave these aspects with the aircraft and aero-engines on display. Often missing from aircraft museums, however, are aspects which deal with the design and production processes of aircraft and the amount of people this typically involved, particularly when De Havilland also extended its manufacturing operations to Canada and Australia.
The de Havilland Company started to come to an end as it merged with the Hawker Siddeley Group (1959) whilst its engine division went to Bristol Siddeley (1961) as a result of rationalization measures taking place within the aircraft industry. Nevertheless, the de Havilland name continues to live on around the world and it has certainly left its mark in areas such as Hatfield. Many of the road names as well as a hotel are named after de Havilland and its aircraft whilst the University of Hertfordshire also has a campus named after the Company. The de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre is just one of many aeronautical museums where you feel as if you have somehow embarked on a weird and wonderful journey to witness the continued homage to Britain’s aircraft industry and its many creations first-hand.
‘Comets- and Transatlantic Psychology’, Flight, February 1954, p. 176
‘De Havilland Signature Page’, [Cartoon], De Havilland Gazette, No. 123, June 1961, p.120
Braun, Hans-Joachim. The Science Museum’s Aeronautics Gallery Redisplayed, Technology and Culture 36(3) (1995): 625-629. For a comparison with the Science Museum’s Aeronautics Gallery.
de Havilland, Geoffrey, Sky Fever. (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1979)
Edgerton, David, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991). For an overview of the organization of the aircraft industry during the war and post-war periods.
Hamilton-Paterson, James. Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft ruled the World, (London: Faber and Faber, 2011)
Sharp, Cecil Martin. DH: A History of de Havilland. (Airlife, 1982). On the history of the de Havilland Company and its aircraft.
Address: De Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, Salisbury Hall, London Colney, Hertfordshire, AL2 1BU
Location: The museum is located next to Salisbury Hall at Junction 22, M25.
The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum (ILC & LM) researches, preserves and interprets all aspects of the history of the Irish linen industry, Lisburn and the surrounding area.
The Museum and its collections are housed in the old Market House, an late seventeenth-century building, since heavily modified. The town’s merchants sold their wares and produce and sought shelter in and around the ground floor of the building, and John Wesley preached here in 1756 and 1789. The first floor Assembly Rooms played an important role in the social and political life of Lisburn, hosting regular soirees, balls, dance classes and political meetings throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
The surrounding Market Place was first laid out in Sir Fulke Conway’s plan of the town in the 1620s, and was the later site of the city’s bustling linen market. Here weavers sold vast quantities of brown, unbleached, linen. William of Orange, on his way to the Boyne, ‘took refreshments’ in Market Place in 1690, while United Irishmen swung from gallows erected here following the unsuccessful rebellion of 1798. At an entry just off nearby Castle Street, James Wallace installed Ireland’s first steam engine, from Watt’s factory in Glasgow, in 1790.
From the museum it is only a short walk to Castle Gardens. Although the original castle is no longer standing, part of the walls and the impressive seventeenth-century terrace, including the gazebo and bakery, remain. The Gardens contain a monument to Sir Richard Wallace, local MP, landowner and successor to the Conway’s, whose collection of art and that of his father’s, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, largely makes up the Wallace Collection.
Castle Gardens affords a panoramic view of much of Lisburn and the wider Lagan Valley, and it is possible to pick out remnants of the region’s industrial past. Just east of the Gardens, for example, lies the former site of the Vitriol chemical works (c.1760-c.1840) and later the Island Spinning Company Ltd (1867-1983), responsible for flax spinning and thread making. The island, bounded by the River Lagan in the north and the canal in the south, is now occupied by Lisburn City Council, but the lock, through which over 180, 000 tons of linen, coal and dry goods travelled every year, remains.
Nearby, also, is the site of the iconic Coulson’s factory. From 1766 up until the 1960s the company, housed in a distinctive thatched building, produced fine damask linen, which was exported internationally. Coulson’s received Royal patronage in 1811, and a gold medal for their linen napkins and tablecloths at the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace (1851).
South east of Castle Gardens, and just over a mile east of the Island, is the site of the Hilden mill complex, at one stage the world’s largest linen thread mill. Owned and operated by the Barbour family, in some form, from 1842 to the 1960s, the complex is a patchwork of workshops for spinning and the production of linen thread. The Barbour family, in the tradition of many nineteenth-century industrialists, built a model village, consisting of housing, a school and a community hall, to support their workforce. Although abandoned, the mill is still standing, and provides a glimpse back into the Lagan Valley’s industrial past. A short distance away is Glenmore bleach green. In constant use from the eighteenth century, the green was used to treat – through the use of sulphuric acid, and an extended drying period in the sun – the brown, untreated, linen. In 1887 the site at Glenmore, under the ownership of Richardson, Sons & Owden turned out over 300,000 linen webs.
A thorough overview of the Barbour family, a sample of Coulson’s damask linen, or indeed the broader history of the linen industry in the Lagan Valley, is provided at the ILC & LM’s permanent ‘Flax to Fabric’ exhibition. Visitors are guided through the history of linen and its manufacturer, from its use in Egyptian burial rites, its biblical significance – fine linen is mentioned in Genesis – right through to its cultivation in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Irish linen industry developed under various political and technological pressures, and the influence of English landlords, Dutch spinning techniques, Quaker labour and Huguenot self-promotion, is outlined in the exhibition. A recreated 18th-century cottage scene gives visitors a sense of the lives of workers in Ulster’s domestic linen industry before industrialisation. The entire family was involved in the process. Women spun the flax into yarn – visitors can try this for themselves – while children wound it onto bobbins. Weaving was left to the men, and usually took place in a separate part of the cottage. The ILC & LM have a workshop dedicated to weaving, with a full-time staff operating a series of looms, including two Jacquard looms. Jacquard’s design was revolutionary, significantly speeding up the weaving process, and his innovative use of punched cards to control individual threads of the warp allowed complex damask patterns to be wove. His invention was an important influence on Charles Babbage, and the Jacquard system is viewed as a ‘first-step’ towards the development of the modern computer. Demonstrations are given daily.
The linen industry played an important role in the geographical, social and industrial heritage of Ulster, and this is explored through presentations of The Wee Blue Blossom, a 1930’s film examining the traditional harvesting and spinning of flax, and The Irish Interlude (1955), a nostalgic look at industrial-life in post-War Belfast. Irish linen was sold worldwide, and the Museum houses a collection of some of the finest samples, including a piece of intricate damask woven at Coulson’s to commemorate Queen Victoria and Albert’s 1849 visit to Belfast, as well as fine embroidered muslin from the prestigious Belfast retailers Robinson & Cleaver. The work of Sybil Connolly, once Ireland’s leading clothes designer, is also celebrated in a display that shows off a number of her linen creations. Her work was worn by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth and Liz Taylor.
The Market House gallery hosts regular displays and exhibitions on local history, from the Titanic to ‘17th-century Lisburn’, or even highlights from the Museum’s collections in the ‘Curator’s Choice’. The ILC & LM has a dedicated library and research service, and its education officers run a range of free workshops for school groups, colleges and community organisations.
The museum is open 9-5pm Monday to Saturday, and admission is free. Group tours of the museum and Castle Gardens can be arranged. The Museum shop sells a wide range of linen and craft goods, as well as books on the history of the industry and the Lisburn area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Located in the heart of Edinburgh, near the University of Edinburgh’s Old College, is the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, a must-see collection of oddities and artefacts that collectively bear witness to how far we’ve come in our understanding of the human body and all that ails it.
The current museum building – a grand edifice with classical pillars – was built in 1832 by renowned architect William Playfair, but the idea for the museum dates back to 1699, when Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons made a collection of ‘natural and artificial’ curiosities available to the public. This description is still applicable.
The current museum features six permanent exhibitions: the pathology museum, which contains one of the largest collections of pathological anatomy in Europe; the history of surgery; the dental collection; ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’, which focuses on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s friendship with Joseph Bell of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, who was the author’s inspiration for Holmes; ‘Sight for Scotland: 100 Years of Ophthalmology’; and ‘Skin Deep: The Restoration of Form and Function’, which examines the history of plastic surgery, a practice that amazingly dates back to 800BC.
Each exhibit at Surgeons’ Hall is impressive or surprising in its own way: the dental exhibit, for example, is one of the most significant in the UK and contains rare dental artefacts from around the world, in addition to some of the crudest historical dental tools imaginable. Meanwhile, the history of surgery takes visitors through some of the key medical developments of the last several hundred years, from pre-anaesthesia surgery (imagine that – or don’t) to the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic, to the development of antiseptic by Joseph Lister in Scotland.
One of the delightful things about Surgeons’ Hall is that the science is made accessible to the general public. Quirkiness is a prevailing virtue of this museum, from telling about a quack eye doctor who blinded hundreds of patients throughout Europe – potentially including Handel and Bach – on visits he’d make in his carriage that featured painted eyeballs, to all the skeletons and body parts you can handle.
Temporary exhibitions at Surgeons’ Hall often focus on individual contributors to science and medicine, usually ones who have an Edinburgh connection; in 2012, Surgeons’ Hall featured a large exhibition on Joseph Lister, while the year before it was Sir James Young Simpson, an Edinburgh medical pioneer who introduced the use of general anaesthesia during childbirth, among other developments. If your next holidays take you to Edinburgh, Surgeons’ Hall is a worthy stop for anyone, especially scientists, physicians and those interested in history.
Surgeons’ Hall Museum Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Nicolson Street Edinburgh UK EH8 9DW
The International Museum of Horology (Musée International d’Horlogerie) is situated in the picturesque Swiss Jura Mountain city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the canton of Neuchâtel. The area is famously known as the ‘Watch Valley’ which stretches approximately 120 miles from Geneva to Basel in the north-western region of Switzerland.
Starting life as a small collection of time-pieces in the city’s Horological School (École d’horlogerie) in 1865, the intricate workings of a selection of watches and clocks were carefully studied and analysed by apprentice watch-makers and their teachers only. The ever-expanding collection, however, soon required a larger purpose-built space. Any endeavour to maintain restricted access to the collection proved ephemeral as it was deemed of worldwide horological interest.
Publicly recognising this fact in 1963, Professor Georges-Henri Rivière, Director of the International Council of Museums (Conseil international des musées, or ICOM), boldly declared: ‘La Chaux-de-Fonds is the world’s horological capital; its horological museum must be the most beautiful in the world…’
International prominence ensued five years later, when the collection completed its transition from meagre School status to monumental Musée international d’horlogerie, enhancing the collection’s original pedagogic purpose; this time, accessible to a wider (public) audience. Relocating to Rue des Musées, in 1972, gave a new-found significance to the collection; strengthening its synergy with the nearby Natural History and Fine Arts Museums and boosting its historical prominence.
The building’’s eye-catching avant-garde architecture – largely underground – proves a remarkable arena for creative museography. Visitors are drawn in by the enticing entrance, eager to explore this intriguing cave-like space. Adding to the novel architectural design, a portico sculpture commissioned for the museum’s 25th anniversary (1999) – known as the ‘Porte magique’ (‘Magic Door’) – welcomes visitors to the museum broadcasting the time in French, German, and English.
Scientific work conducted here – bolstered by the creation of the ‘Man and Time’ Institute (Institut l’homme et le temps) in 1989 – offers an insight into ‘the role of time and timekeeping instruments in society’. The Institute runs a publishing house, by the same name, to communicate its research findings. Integrated within this establishment is the Centre for the Restoration of Antique Horological Pieces (Centre de restauration en horlogerie ancienne) and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (Centre d’études interdisciplinaires du temps). The former carries out conservation work under the watchful gaze of museum visitors, whilst the latter houses the most comprehensive specialised horological library in Switzerland.
A vast majority of didactic models and kinetic sculptures are exhibited to demonstrate the development of horological techniques over time. Displays chronologically arranged from 4000BC to the present-day allow people to walk through the history of time; learn how it was studied, measured and made.
Once inside, visitors begin their journey by traversing the passerelle (footbridge). Their attention is drawn up to the monumental collection of local clocks – the first types of mechanical clocks invented – hanging above. Sundials and water clocks from Antiquity, a full-scale model of Giovanni de Dondi’s Astrarium (a planetarium from the Middle Ages), musical clocks and marine chronometers of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, and the wristwatch and atomic clocks of the twentieth century await curious museum-goers. It is, however, the smallest and most remarkable hand-made works which captivate the imagination, artistically stationed within spherical bubbles ingeniously suspended from the ceiling.
Reconstructions of watchmaker, engraver, and enameller workbenches are displayed equipped with all the (original) tools of their trade – from pin punchers and precision screwdrivers to lathe machines and their components – bringing the watch-maker to life. Any occupying thoughts of how such intricate items were made, where, and by whom, are instantly answered. Evolutionary mechanisms and decorative clock case designs, symbols of the technological advancements made in the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century watchmaker’s workshop, all highlight the talented and artistic flare requisite in the watch-making trade; formulating a vista of historical craftsmanship.
The museum’s unique ‘Vivre l’heure’ exhibit – a giant clock-face embossed on the floor with spotlights above – allows visitors to interact with time itself. Standing in the centre, their shadow becomes the hands of a clock, projecting an accurate image of the time onto the floor below.
Upstairs, the ‘belfry’ houses a temporary exhibition dedicated to CERN – ‘Echo of the Sky’ (L’Echo du ciel) -which showcases a segment of the time projection chamber (TPC) from the ALEPH particle detector, given to the museum in 2001. This gallery also displays high precision timekeeping devices used particularly in observatories. It houses a magnificent meridian telescope from the early twentieth-century, as well as the latest in Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.
The exterior carillon completes the unique architectural design of the museum. Standing in the grounds, this iconic twentieth-century structure, with fascinating aesthetic qualities, represents a futuristic time-piece that is both a kinetic clock and musical instrument. Its twenty-four tubular bells liven up every fifteen minutes with a tune, which changes depending upon the season, accompanied by seasonal colour-changing shutters, which move in time to the music.
The museum personifies the continuously evolving measurement of time. It depicts fascinating stories of how our ancestors kept the time, as well as how advancing technological innovations will continue to time-keep for generations to come. Showcasing delicately intricate as well as larger complex time-pieces from around the world, the museum displays the numerous values time-pieces have embodied; be they ornate symbols of wealth or daily (fashion) accessories. More significantly, the exhibitions present the ways time-measuring technology has influenced and developed other technologies – GPS, for instance, – for occupational as well as personal uses.
This collection confidently justifies its title of ‘horological capital of the world’.
This plaque will draw to public attention an individual who was responsible for starting a major chemical industry in West Lothian, but who hitherto has had no memorial in the conventional sense. However, anyone who visits the region to the west of Edinburgh cannot fail to miss the huge heaps of a pinkish colour known as “bings”. These are the physical remains of the shale oil industry started over 160 years ago by James Young.
Young was born to a cabinet maker in Glasgow, and after a rudimentary education he initially worked for his father. At the age of 19 he enrolled on evening classes at Anderson’s University where he came to the attention of the Professor of Chemistry, Thomas Graham, later to become the first President of the Chemical Society. By 1834 he was lecturing for Graham, and in 1837 he moved to London to join Graham at University College. By 1838 he was employed by James Muspratt at his chemical works in Newton le Willows, and in 1844 he was manager of the chemical works of Tennant, Clow & Co. in Manchester. It was while there that a former fellow student at Anderson’s, Lyon Playfair, told him about a spring of petroleum yielding 300 gallons per day at a colliery in Derbyshire. Young was soon refining the oil. At first the most important product was spindle oil to lubricate the machinery of the cotton mills of Manchester.
Young erroneously thought that the oil had been produced from coal by a natural underground distillation process, so he started to experiment in the production of oil by heating various coals and shales. He discovered that the best material to use was torbanite or cannel coal, found near Bathgate, which is so rich in oil that a pointed stick of it will act as a candle (the name “cannel” comes from the Gaelic “conneal” meaning candle). Young patented his distillation process in 1850, and opened his oilworks near Bathgate soon afterwards.
The industry flourished, but the torbanite was soon near exhaustion, so the local shale was mined instead. Although this was not so rich in oil, it was much more plentiful. Other companies were established to obtain oil from the mined shale, and Young was forced to defend his patent rights on a number of occasions. Soon after the patent expired in 1864 there was a boom in the industry, and by 1870 there were 97 firms processing oil shale in the area. Young retired at that time a very wealthy man. He devoted his remaining years to science, leisure and philanthropy. His philanthropic activities included endowing at Anderson’s University the Young chair of technical chemistry which still continues at the University of Strathclyde. He also financed two of the expeditions to Africa of David Livingstone (another former fellow student at Anderson’s), and he erected statues to Livingstone and Thomas Graham in Glasgow. He served as Vice-President of the Chemical Society from 1879-1881.
Eventually the industry supported some 40,000 people in the area, and the crude oil obtained in the primary distillation was being further refined into a wide variety of products including, in the early 20th century, motor spirit. After World War I the importation of oil from overseas made shale oil uneconomic, and although the industry enjoyed a revival during World War II, the final works closed in 1962.
The unveiling ceremony commenced with an introduction by Malcolm Simpson, Chair of the Bennie Museum, which houses an interesting local collection. We then heard a presentation on James Young from Dr Robin Chesters, Director of the Almond Valley Heritage Trust. Professor Lesley Yellowlees, RSC President-Elect, then spoke about the Chemical landmark Scheme and we also heard from Ian Blackley, a retired diplomat, who is a great-great-grandson of James Young. Then followed the unveiling of the plaque, on which the wording reads:
James ‘Paraffin’ Young (1811-1883)
In recognition of his outstanding contribution, started on a site close to here in Birniehill Bathgate, where in c. 1850 he processed torbanite (‘cannel coal’) to create the first commercial production of paraffin oil in the world, leading to the major shale oil industry in West Lothian.
27 April 2012
The event was attended by teachers and pupils from two local schools (the James Young High School and Bathgate Academy). Also present was Graeme Morrice, MP for the Livingston Constituency, which includes Young’s house and the sites of some of his later works. It was a pleasure to represent the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group at this event, ably organised (as always) by Pauline Meakins. And it is nice to know that Young now has not only bings as his memorial, but a handsome plaque.
Postscript: Shortly after it was unveiled the plaque was stolen, apparently by scrap metal thieves. Luckily it was later recovered undamaged, but at the time of writing no decision has been reached as to where it should be re-sited.
The Science Museum holds the national collections in science, technology, industry and medicine. The huge size and range of the collections is best illustrated by the Museum’s flagship Making the Modern World gallery on the ground floor, where Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, Crick and Watson’s DNA model and the Apollo 10 command module (on loan from the Smithsonian) are amongst the parade of ‘icons’ in the central aisle. For a more rewarding gallery visit, veer off the beaten track and browse the hundreds of objects in the gallery’s side aisles, which cover historical series and technology in everyday life.
Most visitors to the Museum, unsure where to start in such a large building, tend to congregate on the ground floor. It’s easy to spend an entire visit here, taking in the Energy Hall’s steam engines and James Watt’s workshop, and the Exploring Space gallery, featuring Britain’s Black Arrow launcher and a sample of moon rock. But there is much more to be found on the quieter upper floors. Amongst the hundreds of timepieces in Measuring Time (first floor) are fragments of a Byzantine sundial-calendar – the second-oldest surviving gearing known after the Antikythera Mechanism – and the Wells Cathedral Clock, still running after more than 600 years. On the second floor, History of Computing boasts part of Charles Babbage’s brain alongside the Museum’s reconstruction of his Difference Engine No. 2. On the third floor, highlights of the Flight gallery include Amy Johnson’s Jason 1 Gypsy Moth and Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy, while Science in the 18th Century showcases King George III’s magnificent collection of scientific instruments and demonstration apparatus, next door to today’s scientific demonstrations in the ever-popular Launchpad. The fourth and fifth floors are dedicated to the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine and contain thousands of objects. (Note: the Wellcome Collection now has its own premises on Euston Road, but the collection remains in the care of the Science Museum by long-standing loan. It is so large and varied that there are more than enough objects to display at both venues).
It has often been said that the Science Museum serves a second function, as a museum of museology. Display styles span a range of museological trends, from the 1950s dioramas in the Agriculture gallery (first floor) via the 1980s tableaux of Glimpses of Medical History (fourth floor), to the recently-updated exhibitions on contemporary science in the Wellcome Wing, featuring extensive new media interpretation of genetics, climate change and the latest science news. The Museum is embarking on a new masterplan to redevelop the whole South Kensington site, so catch the older galleries while you still can. While the masterplan is being developed, permanent displays of the physical sciences are rather sparse, with those collections largely moved to storage. They can be viewed by appointment.
As with most large national museums, fewer than 10% of the Museum’s collections are on display at any given time, and the reserve collections are displayed in turn via a series of special exhibitions. As of 2012 these include exhibitions on Alan Turing (entrance hall mezzanine), alchemy (second floor), and astronomy (first floor). A series of interventions throughout the Museum re-examines the displays through the lens of climate change, and a regular programme of contemporary art exhibitions and events provide alternative takes on the themes explored by the main collections.
Peter J.T. Morris (ed.), Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
The Wagner Free Institute of Science has its origins in the adult education movement which had started in 1821 in Great Britain with the foundation of the Edinburgh School of Arts, a similar movement developing only very slightly later in the United States. Philadelphia was a thriving commercial city by the first half of the nineteenth century; culturally some institutions, including the Library Company (1721), the University of Pennsylvania (1740) and the American Philosophical Society (1743) had been established pre-Independence. These catered for the middle, educated classes. The Franklin Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, founded 1824, was more in the nature of a British mechanics institute. William Wagner (1796-1885), a Philadelphian of German descent, felt that there was a need to provide more educational opportunities for working people. He had become wealthy as a merchant in the lumber trade and he had a passion for natural history. In 1840 he sold his business, which provided him with sufficient capital to live the remainder of his life as a gentleman and philanthropist.
In 1843, Wagner purchased an estate to the north-west of Philadelphia and his embryo institute and museum were initially to develop there for “the free dispersion of scientific knowledge among the citizens of his native city.” In 1847 he offered a “Course of Lectures on Mineralogy, treated Chemically & Metallurgically… Illustrated by Specimens” and he later developed further courses on geology, mineralogy, and conchology. All the while, he was creating large collections. In 1855 he handed these over to trustees, teaching resources which by this stage also included “a library, philosophical apparatus, extensive assortments of diagrams illustrating geological phenomena, maps and cabinet cases.”
From 1859 to 1865, a fine purpose-built institute was constructed in neo-classical style, and it survives to this day. It originally included a library, classrooms, a lecture theatre and a large museum hall for natural history on the upper level. Following Wagner’s death in 1885, the building was somewhat remodelled and the museum was revised under the supervision of Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. It is this reorganised display which is the basis of today’s museum and it is a remarkable survival: very few of today’s museum presentations can be seen to follow the organisation of a nineteenth-century display so closely. Most specimens are presented in cherry wood cases constructed in the 1880s and many retain the original handwritten curators’ labels. A particular strength is the collection of fossils from American sites, many of them collected by Wagner himself (see Earle E Spamer and Catherine A Forster A Collection of Type Fossils in the Wagner Free Institute… with a History of Paleontology at the Institute (Philadelphia 1988)). Sadly, the philosophical instrument collection, used for teaching by demonstration, is much diminished. The ground floor of the building, which includes the library and lecture theatre, has a splendid varnished-wood, Victorian quality about it. Lecture courses on scientific subjects continue to the present day, though they are now organised at a number of sites around the city as well as in the original building. The serial Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science commenced publication in 1887, though it appeared irregularly.
The Wagner Free Institute survives in a somewhat run-down part of the city and is best visited by taxi.
Address: The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 West Montgomery Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19121, USA Website:http://www.wagnerfreeinstitute.org Tel: (001) 215-763-6529