Tag Archives: industrial

Muzeum Techniki, Warsaw

By Charlotte Connelly

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.

McMillan Sand Filtration Site, Washington, D.C.

By Thad Parsons

Are you looking for something off the tourist track?  What about something that at first sight makes little sense?  Then the McMillan Sand Filtration Site is for you!  Unfortunately, it is closed to visitors but you can the site is bounded by (and you can get good views of it from) North Capitol Street, Channing Street NW, 1st Street NW, and Michigan Avenue NW.  Today, one can glimpse the two paved courts that are lined by regulator houses, tower-like sand bins, sand washers and the gated entrances to the underground filter cells.  Below grade at the twenty-five acre site, there are twenty catacomb-like cells, each an acre in extent, where sand was used to filter water from the Potomac River by way of the Washington Aqueduct.  The treatment was a slow sand filter – a biological treatment system that provided a slow, steady flow of clean water.  For large-scale municipal purposes, the slow sand filter is inefficient and it was replaced in 1985 with a rapid sand filter (which is located across First Street at the McMillan Reservoir.

Diagram of the Washington City Tunnel by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Before water can be purified, it must get to the McMillan complex and it has always arrived the same way, via the Washington Aqueduct.  The aqueduct was commissioned by Congress in 1852 and construction began in 1853 under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers (who still own and operate the system).  It gradually opened starting on 3 January 1859, was fully open in 1864, and has been in continuous use since.  Water travels through the pipeline from Great Falls to the Dalecarlia Reservoir, and then to the Georgetown Reservoir.  From Georgetown, the water leaves via the “castle” on McArthur Boulevard NW, through an arrow-straight tunnel to the pumping house on 4th Street at the McMillan Reservoir.  The aqueduct is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the Union Arch Bridge within the system is listed as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

McMillan sand filtration site under construction. Photo by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The McMillan reservoir, which still holds untreated water for D.C., opened in 1902 and is a dammed stream valley.  The water that flowed through the valley became Tiber Creek and flowed into the Potomac following what is now Constitution Avenue. To clean the water before it was distributed to residents, a filtering plant also had to be constructed as part of the McMillan complex.  At the turn of the 20th century, there was a debate regarding the best practice to purify water – chemical (e.g. chlorine) versus biological (e.g. slow sand).  In D.C., slow sand filtration won out and Congress provided the Army Corp of Engineers with money to build the McMillan Sand Filtration Site.

Photo of Sand Pit being filled with sand. Photo from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Sand filtration is pretty simple.  Dirty water enters the pit, which contains a two-foot layer of sand, percolates through the sand and is clean when it reaches the bottom, where it is drawn off by a pipe.  While the operation of the filter is simple, the process by which it cleans the water is not.  A slow sand filter works because of the formation of a gelatinous layer called the hypogeal layer or Schmutzdecke in the top few millimetres of the fine sand layer.  It forms in the first couple weeks of operation and consists of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, rotifera, and aquatic insect larvae.  As the Schmutzdecke ages, more algae develops and larger aquatic organisms appear, including bryozoa, snails and Annelid worms.  The Schmutzdecke provides effective purification in potable water treatment, while the underlying sand provides a support medium for this biological treatment layer.  The water produced from a well-managed slow sand filter can be of exceptionally good quality with 90-99% bacterial reduction.  Slow sand filters slowly lose their throughput volume as the Schmutzdecke grows, and it necessary to refurbish the filter to maintain volume (which means removing/disturbing the Schmutzdecke and allowing it to regrow).

The overgrown Clean Sand Silos.

Today, the most visible sign of the site’s history are the overgrown clean sand silos and regulator houses.  The rest of the site is covered in grass, as it was when it was designated the McMillan Reservoir Park in 1906 by Secretary of War William Howard Taft.  It was a memorial to to Senator James McMillan (R-Michigan) for his work as chairman of the Senate Commission on the Improvement of the Park System and his efforts in shaping the development of the city of Washington at turn of the century (aka the McMillan Plan).  After Taft became President, the site was officially designated a park by Congress in 1911.  Originally conceived as part of the “necklace of emeralds” that would ring the city in permanent open green space and restore much of L’Enfant’s original city plans.   In total, the forward-looking plans made by the McMillan Commission called for: re-landscaping the ceremonial core, consisting of the Capitol Grounds and Mall, including new extensions west and south of the Washington Monument; consolidating city railways and alleviating at-grade crossings; clearing slums; designing a coordinated municipal office complex in the triangle formed by Pennsylvanian Avenue, 15th Street, and the Mall, and establishing a comprehensive recreation and park system that would preserve the ring of Civil War fortifications around the city.  The implementation of the McMillan Plan involved the leading civil engineers, urban planners, artists, architects, and designers of the time and at the Reservoir alone, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., engineer Allen Hazen, sculptor Herbert Adams and architect Charles Platt were involved.  While the engineering work was paid for by the Army Corps, the landscaping work was paid for by the family of Senator McMillan.

Regulator houses such as this one contained valves for controlling the flow of water through each cell.

While it was a functional piece of real estate because of the sand filter, it was topped by “an imaginative combination of landscaped park … personally supervised by Olmsted.”  In a racially segregated D.C., the park was open to all and residents from the ethnically diverse local neighborhoods were delighted to use the park’s amenities.  Courting couples promenaded, families picnicked, and boy played ball games on top of the vaults full of white sand.  Unfortunately, because of security concerns about the safety of Washington’s water supply, the site was closed to the public during World War 2, when a fence was erected around the site; today, it is only open to special visitors and on specially arranged biannual tours.

From its’ completion in 1905 until the Army Corps sold the Sand Filtration Site in 1987, the site was protected from development.  In 1986, the Army Corp declared the land as surplus and the General Services Administration arranged to sale it.  The The District of Columbia government purchased the site in 1987 for $9.3M, in order to facilitate development. Since the time of purchase, the property has been vacant and has deteriorated severely due to lack of maintenance.  Today, the McMillan Park Committee is fighting to maintain it openness and historic character, while the D.C. government is  considering site for dense commercial and residential development. The following video provides an overview of the planning arguments surrounding the site and some great historic images of the area.

The Newcomen Memorial Engine, Dartmouth

By Eric Preston

Who invented the steam engine ? It was not James Watt who is widely credited with this, but Thomas Newcomen.

The first practical and successful steam engine, installed in over 1400 locations by 1800, was designed by Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729), a Dartmouth ironmonger and blacksmith. After 1775 the Newcomen design was improved by James Watt, but it was Newcomen who deserves the credit for an engine ‘that changed the world’, providing power to pump water from coal mines – and other applications- throughout the world. This led to greatly increased availability of coal, and the wide application of steam engines in factories and elsewhere. Thomas Newcomen has therefore been called a Father of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1963 the Newcomen Society of London wanted to create a suitable memorial to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Newcomen’s birth, and were able to acquire an original engine dating from 1725, then sited at the Hawkesbury Junction of the Coventry Canal, and move it to Dartmouth. Study of this engine showed that the wooden beam and cylinder were original, although the valve gear had been replaced and a ‘pickle-pot’ condenser had been added below the main cylinder later in the 18th century. This was to improve efficiency by condensing the steam away from the main cylinder, avoiding a wastage of heat caused by water cooling the main cylinder. This greatly improved the engine’s efficiency. James Watt’s engines were designed with a separate condenser after 1775, for the same reason.


With the agreement of Dartmouth Corporation the Memorial Engine was set up in a building formerly an electricity sub-station in Dartmouth’s Royal Avenue Gardens, and officially opened on 24 June 1964. A hydraulic mechanism has been added to allow the engine to be set in motion without the use of steam.


The Memorial Engine is now administered by the Dartmouth Tourist Information Centre, and can be accessed through the TIC office. It is believed to be the only Newcomen Engine that can still be seen in operation, apart from the replica engine at the Black Country Museum, Dudley.

Dartmouth’s Newcomen Memorial Engine
Dartmouth’s Newcomen Memorial Engine, showing the wooden beam with arches. Photo: Eric Preston, July 2011.

The first Newcomen engine for which documentary evidence is available was installed in 1712 at the Conygree Coal Works near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire. It made use of atmospheric pressure as well as steam, and was consequently called an ‘atmospheric engine’. Many other similar engines followed, including one installed in 1725 at Griff Colliery near Coventry. It is this engine (according to Dr. Cyril Boucher of the Newcomen Society) that can be seen operating at the Newcomen Engine House in Dartmouth, Devon.

These first engines were installed under a patent obtained by another Devon engineer, Thomas Savery, which covered the use of atmospheric pressure and condensed steam to pump water from mines. He called this method “raising water by the impellant force of fire”. However Newcomen’s engines, unlike Savery’s, used a vertical cylinder with a piston, whose movement was transmitted to the mine pump by a large wooden beam. Whereas Savery’s engine had not been successful in practice, Newcomen’s was reliable and soon became widely used, with 125 engines installed worldwide by 1733, and over 1400 by 1800.

Principle of Newcomens Atmospheric Engine

The ‘atmospheric engine’ works as shown in the Figure above (click for the fullsize version). The open-ended brass cylinder is mounted directly above a boiler. Steam is allowed into the cylinder by opening a valve, and then condensed by a cold water jet fed into the cylinder. This condenses the steam rapidly, causing the piston to be forced down by the atmospheric pressure above. This movement is transmitted to the mine by a large wooden beam pivoted in the centre and connected to both the piston and the vertical rod operating the mine pump by chains. The weight of the pump rod draws the piston back up the cylinder ready for the next stroke. The valves were operated automatically by levers worked by the movement of a ‘plug rod’ attached to the moving beam. The steam pressure was kept low to avoid leakage.

Diagram of First Newcomen Engine by Henry Beighton 1717
Diagram of First Newcomen Engine by Henry Beighton 1717

The first engine worked at 12 strokes per minute and had 5.5 horse-power, raising 10 gallons of water from a depth of 150 feet at each stroke. Various minor improvements were made as experience was gained, but this design remained basically unaltered for over 60 years.


Grateful thanks are due to the following :-

  • Mr. Clive Lusby of Markham Grange Steam Museum, for permission to print the diagram showing the Principle of the Newcomen engine
  • Mr. Brian Parker of Dartmouth Museum, for the map showing the location of the Dartmouth Memorial Engine.

Further Reading

  1. The Steam Engines of Thomas Newcomen, by L.T.C.Rolt and J.S.Allen, 1977 (ISBN 0 903485 42 7)
  2. The Pumping Station at Hawkesbury Junction, by Cyril T.G.Boucher, 1963 (Transactions of Newcomen Society Vol. 35)
  3. Thomas Newcomen, Engineer 1663/4-1729, by H.W.Dickinson 1929, revised 1989, pub. by The Newcomen Society, Abbot Litho Press Ltd, Newton Abbot.
  4. Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth and the Engine that Changed the World, by E.J.Preston, 2012, pub. by Dartmouth and Kingswear Society and Dartmouth History Research Group (ISBN 1-899011-27-7).

Finch Foundry, Devon

By Joan Price

Main entrance to Finch Foundry

In the small hamlet of Sticklepath, on the northern edge of Dartmoor, the National Trust in combination with the Finch Foundry Trust have restored a nineteenth century working edge tool manufactory – not strictly speaking a foundry despite its name.  It was started by William Finch in 1814. The name Finch is one of four surnames, which Samuel Smiles states were traditionally associated with iron working. Three overshot water wheels provide the power for a tilt hammer, a drop hammer and a shear hammer.  In 1958 a water turbine was installed and a Hydram provides a better head of water but the business closed in 1960. Since everything is kept in working order, it is possible to see the equipment being used by a blacksmith.

Smiths have shaped wrought iron with hand held hammers for millenia. Water powered hammers are recorded from China in 20 AD but they only became common in Europe in the 12th century. Water powered stamp mills were used to break up mineral ores. Massive hammers raised by water power and then allowed to drop under gravity were used to turn blooms into more workable bar iron and particularly for fabricating articles from wrought iron, steel and other metals.  In such metal works, multiple hammers were powered via a set of line shafts, pulleys and belts from a centrally located water supply. However during the Industrial Revolution the trip hammer generally fell out of favour and was gradually replaced with power hammers worked by steam, and more recently by compressed air.

Finch Foundry interior

Traditionally iron workers have always celebrated on St Clement’s Day. There are still remnants of this tradition in the early iron working districts in the weald of Sussex and Kent. More recently it smiths from all over Britain have come to Sticklepath every 23rd November in order to demonstrate their skills and hold a competition to make decorative ironware – and this is open to the public.

Sticklepath was a hamlet of water mills. In 1814 William Finch leased Manor Mills, which had previously been a corn mill and gradually built up his business. Since he was born at nearby Spreyton, it is thought he may have gained his practical experience at the Tavistock Iron Works. Initially he installed a pair of tilt hammers, possibly purchased from them. Later he added power shears and an air blast sufficient to work half a dozen blacksmith’s hearths plus two furnaces, all powered by water. The business became known as The Foundary – but in practice it was a forge employing seven or eight blacksmiths producing up to 400 agricultural or mining tools a day.  Tools with a sharp edge needed to be ground on the water powered grindstone but the workmen found that half a day spent sharpening them was enough for any man, so apprentices were often sentenced to ‘put their nose to the grindstone’ for misbehaviour. Their travelling salesmen followed a regular circuit around the mining and china clay industries throughout the west of England and also visited agricultural merchants and ironmongers en route. To the rear of the main building is a store for the straw and reeds used for packing the tools prior to transportation. The Finch family business interests extended into corn milling, carpentry, wheel wrighting and since they puchased coal and coke in bulk – the sale of domestic fuel. The business only closed its doors in 1960 and many of their account books, catalogues and samples of their hooks, scythes, hay knives, forks and hoes are on display.

Further information

Website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-finchfoundry

Address: Sticklepath, Okehampton, Devon EX20 2NW

Telephone: 01837 840046

Directions: The Foundry is in the middle of Sticklepath just off the A30 east of Okehampton, Devon. If you ring them in advance they may be able to tell you when a blacksmith will be working there.

Cornish Mines, Cornwall, England

By Simon Naylor

A flash photograph of the Man engine at Dolcoath Mine, Cornwall, 1893

Despite being at one far-flung corner of the British Isles, in the eighteenth century the county of Cornwall found itself at the centre (or at least at one centre) of processes that would irrevocably alter British life and Britain’s landscapes: industrialisation. The mining of tin and copper had been undertaken in Cornwall as far back as the Bronze Age, although the practice remained largely unchanged up to the eighteenth century. However, the introduction of the use of gunpowder in the 1690s helped with the sinking of shafts and the driving of levels. Thomas Newcomen’s ‘fire engine’ promised to assist in the problem of flooding in the 1710s but the cost of running the engine proved so prohibitive that by 1740 there were only three of his steam pumps at work in the county.

Improvements were made to the draining of mines using longer and more efficient adits, which were near-horizontal tunnels that allowed water to drain out of the mine by gravity. The situation was improved further in 1777 when James Watt came to Cornwall to supervise the erection of one of his engines at Ting Tang mine in Gwennap, near Redruth. His engines incorporated a separate condenser and easily drained the water that two of the older engines had failed to do and used a quarter of the fuel in the process. This lowered the cost of extracting the copper and helped Cornish miners to compete with cheap Welsh ore. Further advances were made in the construction of these engines by the likes of Jonathan Hornblower and Richard Trevithick. By 1800 Watt’s patent came to an end and with it the burden of royalties and restrictions on innovation. Trevithick built his high-pressure engine and enabled Cornwall’s mines to sink to extraordinary depths and helped the county to become the biggest copper producing region in the world. The demand for tin-plate in the British domestic market in 1800 also fed a tin boom in the nineteenth century, and served as a ready alternative when copper deposits began to run out by mid-century.

Painting of Richard Trevithick, the engineer, by John Linnell (1792-1882), 1816

The impacts of mining were wide-ranging and felt by all in the county in some way. The population of Cornwall almost doubled, while towns expanded and ports became crowded with ships with orders from around the world. A local manufacturing industry developed in line with the enormous increase in demand for engines and machinery, which led to the establishment of major iron foundries near the mining centres, such as Harvey’s of Hayle and the Perran Foundry at Perranarworthal, near Truro. Transport and communications improved beyond recognition.

The profits that could be made from mining in Cornwall in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries generated vast new wealth for entrepreneurs and added to that of the old landed families. There were also numerous examples of more modest Cornish families who made their fortune through mining and ancillary industries. While the industrial revolution generated vast wealth for a few, it brought misery to many. With an abundant supply of labour, wages for those employed in mining and industry were pitifully low. Families had to work long hours in almost insufferable conditions when they were malnourished and permanently exposed to disease, polluted environments and hazardous conditions. Unsurprisingly, the gentry lived in constant fear of insurrection as violent protests against living conditions and the price of food were routine. In between the very rich and the very poor, industrialisation helped to create a burgeoning middle class in Cornwall, whose professions were supported, either directly or indirectly, by the influx of capital into the county. It was this eclectic socio-economic group that helped to reshape a Cornish identity rooted in urban industrial prowess, which was added to a longer-held rural identity based on the landed gentry.

Cornwall’s mining and manufacturing industries played a large part in the establishment of scientific societies in the county. The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, formed in Penzance in 1814, was in fact only the second geological society to be established in Britain, after the Geological Society of London. It was a socially elitist society and many of its leading members were connected to mining, either as landowners or industrialists. The Society opened the first scientific museum in the county, which displayed its impressive collection of minerals, both local and foreign. Cornwall’s second scientific society, the Royal Institution of Cornwall, also invested heavily in the sciences related to mining. It housed Philip Rashleigh’s remarkable collection of minerals, and still does today. The museum is on River Street in Truro. The Institution also developed an educational programme for miners and mining engineers. In 1888 the Camborne School of Mines was established and acted as an important training centre for the region’s miners, although by then Cornwall’s supplies of copper and tin were in decline and many Cornish miners were leaving the county to seek their fortune overseas. The decline and the exodus continued into the twentieth century and was complete by the end of the century. South Crofty was the last Cornish metalliferous mine to close, in March 1998. Cornwall was devastated by the collapse of the industry, both socially and economically. However, its fortunes have improved recently with the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape being granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2006.


Philip Payton, Cornwall: A History, Fowey, Cornwall Editions, 2004.

John Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, St Austell, Cornish Hillside Publications, 1993.

1 Howard Street, North Shields

1 Howard Street, North Shields
1 Howard Street, North Shields

At the bottom of Howard Street, North Shields, sits a building that has changed its purpose and transformed its significance in line with the surrounding area and its inhabitants. North Shields, a one-time thriving shipping community at the mouth of the River Tyne, now has precious few reminders of its important past as one of Britain’s leading maritime ports, along with the likes of London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff. This building, also known as Maritime Chambers, is one of these reminders.

Plaque on the side of 1 Howard Street, North Shields
Plaque on the side of 1 Howard Street, North Shields

1 Howard Street was first designed in 1806 as the subscription library (the first in the North of England) for the Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society. It served in this important capacity until it was bought by local shipowners the Robinson family in 1891, who used it as their company headquarters for ninety years until October 1981. After a brief period as a pub/restaurant (in the basement) the building changed purpose again and is currently being used as a Registrar’s Office, with marriages being conducted in the old shipping directors’ offices.

It has been estimated that there were at least 90 Tyneside shipping companies that have ever owned tramp ships. The Robinson family of North Shields owned and ran one such company, helping it to become one of the most respected and locally renowned tramp shipping companies throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (a tramp ship is generally defined as a cargo vessel following no set routes, picking up trade when and where it can).

The first vessel purchased under the name of Robinson was the sailing ship Blessing, bought in 1817 by Captain James Robinson (1768-1833), a master mariner originally from Whitby. This vessel stayed in the family until it was wrecked in 1845. Using the insurance money from Blessing, Captain Joseph Robinson (1816-1889), son of James, ordered and bought a new sailing vessel Stag, which was delivered on 14 May 1846. ‘Joseph Robinson & Company’ was formed by Captain Joseph in 1850 to manage the interests of Stag and other sailing vessels. In 1871 the Robinson’s had their first steamship built, the S.S. Stephanotis, and the company quickly built up a fleet of steamers, operating between 10 and 20 vessels from the 1870s to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Stag Line S.S. Linaria (1911-1914) Painting On Wooden Board by one of the Crew
Stag Line S.S. Linaria (1911-1914) Painting On Wooden Board by one of the Crew

From 1870 onwards, the company was managed by Captain Joseph and two of his sons; Joseph Robinson Jr (1846-1904), and Nicholas J. Robinson (1847-1902). The name changed to ‘Joseph Robinson & Sons’ in 1883 before eventually becoming ‘Stag Line’ Ltd in 1895. These three men oversaw the running of the company, helping to transform it from a small-scale, local endeavour into one of the most efficient, successful, and respected North Shields tramp ship companies in the nineteenth century.

1 Howard Street, when owned by Stag Line (c.1970s)
1 Howard Street, when owned by Stag Line (c.1970s)

The image of the trippant stag, bringing up notions of nobility and grandeur, was adopted on the funnel of every ship, on the top of all company correspondence, on the front and side of the company’s office building and even etched into the windows of this building. This symbolism was a prominent part of the company’s identity when ideas of imagery or branding were as important commercially then as they are now (think Google, or Apple). The positioning of the building overlooking the Tyne at the end of Howard Street meant that not only could Stag Line’s owners oversee theirs and others’ ships entering or leaving the river, but also every ship passing through would see the large and prominent image of the white stag on a bright red background (unfortunately, when a council contractor was recently restoring the concrete around the sign he left the background unpainted and coloured the stag in red!).

1 Howard Street from across the Tyne at South Shields (October 2010)
1 Howard Street from across the Tyne at South Shields (October 2010)

In summary, this building serves as a physical reminder of a by-gone age, where entrepreneurial Britons helped their families, communities and the maritime nation of Britain itself to prosper and thrive. In an age where Britain, with its sprawling empire and global shipping networks, was at the forefront of world industry and trade, it was in buildings like 1 Howard Street and in families like the Robinsons who operated in them, where all this ‘progress’ and ‘success’ was made. Without families like these, who helped shape their local society (and who were in turn shaped by them), maritime Britain and its associated buildings and industries may not have been the dominating, seemingly unsurpassable force it once was.

Further Information:

Nicholas J. Robinson, Stag Line and Joseph Robinson and Sons (World Ship Society, Kendal, 1984).

Oliver Carpenter, ”The Robinson Line of Boats’, Networks of Trust in a Nineteenth Century Shipping Company’, in Don Leggett and Richard Dunn (Eds), Re-inventing the Ship: Science, Technology and the Maritime World 1800-1918 (Ashgate, Forthcoming).

William Denny & Brothers Test Tank, Dumbarton, Scotland

By Don Leggett

Few buildings along the famous River Clyde region of Scotland figure as importantly to the history of shipbuilding, naval science and the British maritime empire than the small and innocuous brick structure that holds the Denny test tank: the world’s first commercial tank (or model basin).

The Denny tank, opened in 1884, was only the second of its kind, built on specifications provided by William Froude, an Oxford-trained mathematician and one-time collaborator with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Froude designed the first private test tank to provide the British Admiralty with an accurate guide to how full-sized ships would perform at sea.

Well into even the twentieth century, shipbuilders continued to rely on the untrained eye, craft practice and a series of fairly arbitrary calculations to work out the optimum hull shape for ships of all varieties. Froude posited, and then demonstrated, that twelve-foot long model hulls propelled by railway carriage in a water tank 300 meters long would more accurately represent the behaviour of the same said design at sea.

The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton
The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton

The British shipbuilding industry was largely unconvinced of the benefits to be derived from Froude’s work, but he did find an influential supporter in the shipbuilder William Denny (whose firm built such ships as the King Edward, the first commercial vessel driven by Charles Parsons steam turbines). In a competitive business community where shipbuilders bid for contracts, accurately estimating ship speed and performance could provide a significant advantage.

William Denny (1847-1887) led his firm through a series of major shipbuilding reforms based on the use of experiments and rigorous sea trials to develop a working knowledge of efficient hull shapes. He instigated the practice of progressive trials to examine the relationship between engine power, speed and hull resistance in different ships; in the mid-1870s he began to closely work with Froude on the analysis of hull resistance; and in 1884 he finished work overseeing the construction of the test tank. He would later write of his firm’s approach to shipbuilding:

A quick and all-round approximation of any new proposal is the only platform from which a professional man can safely start; and it, again, can only be the outcome of years of laborious investigation, and observation, and experiment. The bulk of our brother-ship-builders, and I suspect pretty nearly all your men, don’t yet understand the meaning of this.

Today model testing remains a key part of shipbuilding practice, complimenting computer modelling. The machinery on display at the Dumbarton test tank (now part of the Scottish Maritime Museum) covers a wide chronology, but the museum displays have been presented as ‘Victorian’, complete with mannequin invisible technicians undertaking detailed study of ship curves and test tank measurements – while also moonlighting as night guards to the tank archives stored within the displays.

'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians
'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians

Dumbarton is a little over ten miles west of Glasgow. The frequent train service is recommended as it passes alongside the River Clyde, the birthplace of much of Britain’s former maritime empire.

For further details on visiting the tank visit the Scottish Maritime Museum website see http://scottishmaritimemuseum.org/dumbarton.html.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

By Neil Calver

Clifton Suspension Bridge at night

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, spanning the picturesque Avon Gorge, is for many the symbol of the City of Bristol. It is, also, a site for the celebration of not only Victorian science, but also more contemporary innovations.

Its story begins in 1754 with the vision of a Bristol wine merchant who left a legacy to build a bridge over the Gorge. The twenty-four year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed project engineer – his first major commission. Work began in 1831 but the project was blighted by political and financial difficulties and by 1843, with only the towers completed, the project was abandoned. The Bridge was, however, completed in 1864 at a cost approaching £100,000 in memorial of Brunel who had died five years previously.

Illustration of Clifton Suspension Bridge
Illustration of Clifton Suspension Bridge. Image in Public Domain.

Well, that is one version of the story. Adrian Vaughan, railway historian and biographer of the engineer, claims in his recent book The Intemperate Engineer, that Brunel’s idolatry is not justified – it is shorthand, convenient history. Vaughan argues that Brunel’s reputation today stems from ‘heroic myths’ promoted in a biography from the 1950s by Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt which glossed over not only the engineers shortcomings, but also the contribution of others. Vaughan’s analysis of Brunel’s diaries and letters at the National Archives, Kew, and at Bristol University, show that the eventual bridge design was fundamentally different from Brunel’s and was the work of William Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw.

While Brunel’s design had two suspension chains supporting it, the final design had three, with a third more ‘hangers’ – the bard from the chains down to the road. It also had an entirely different system of attaching the ‘hangers’ to the chains, to correct the twisting effect that Brunel’s system would have had on the chains. The method of stiffening under the road was also entirely new. While Brunel had designed a system of wooden struts, these were not considered sufficient so were replaced with riveted, wrought iron, lattice work girders.

We can, however, more readily identify the workings of a more contemporary addition to the Bridge. A question for you: how many light bulbs do you think it takes to illuminate this magnificent structure at night? None. The illumination system – which was switched on at a ceremony in 2006 to mark the 200th birthday of Brunel – is comprised of four elements. Along the length of the chains from which the bridge is suspended are more than 3,000 one watt LEDs (light emitting diodes), in groups of three, each focused on a small section of the chain and throwing into relief the giant nuts which connect the links; Fluorescent tubes beneath the handrail illuminate the walkway and silhouette and emphasize the delicate design of the iron lattice running the length of the bridge; lamps concealed within the arches of the two piers at each end of the bridge, and in the spaces around the top, reinforce the three-dimensional aspects of the bridge. The two sides of each pier are washed with light, carefully directed and focused to avoid the problems associated with urban glow.

Low powered lights concealed beneath each end of the Bridge deck gently downlight the abutments so that, when viewed from the north or south, the Bridge no longer appears to ‘float’ above the Avon Gorge but can be seen to be connected to the structures which support it. The illumination system normally uses no more electricity than a detached house with its domestic appliances switched on.

Torpedo Factory Art Center (and Alexandria Archaeology Museum), Alexandria, Virginia

By Thad Parsons

Open daily from 10:00am to 6:00pm (except on Thursday when it is open until 9:00pm – Second Thursday Art Night is from 6 to 9p – and when it closed at 5:00pm because of a private function).  Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.  Individual studios are required to be open a minimum number of hours per week but actual schedules vary, while the larger group galleries and workshops have regular schedules (available here).  Metro accessible via the Blue or Yellow Lines to King Street, where the free trolley service will deliver you to the waterfront.

Aerial View of Torpedo Factory in 1920s

The Torpedo Factory Art Center is a world-renowned art center housed in an early twentieth-century munitions factory. Construction began on 12 November 1918 – the day after Armistice Day – and the building became known as the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station.  Its immediate post-World War One service was brief and as world-wide armament reductions occurred, the Alexandria factory was mothballed.  The facility continued to serve as a munitions storage facility and manufacture was able to resume shortly after the beginning of World War Two.  During the War, a number of torpedoes were built at the facility, including:

After the War, production stopped and the building reverted to a storage facility.  It was used by the Smithsonian to store art objects and dinosaur bones, by Congress to store documents, and by the Military to store German films and records acquired during the War.  In 1969, the building was purchased by the City of Alexandria and in 1974, the Torpedo Factory Art Center opened to the public.  After years of questionable working conditions, it was renovated in 1983 with some of the more artful touches that you can see today, such as the spiral stairs.

Today, the Torpedo Factory producing a wide-range of beautiful and interesting artwork but nothing that explodes!  Luckily for the interested visitor, some of the building’s history has been preserved in a number of exhibits, including this bright green target torpedo.  It was built at the factory in 1945 and is accompanied by its logbook of tests.  Besides this large display, there are smaller displays and wall panels that give further information about the building and its various uses.

Finally, it is also the home of the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which works with citizens and professionals to manage the historic remnants of Alexandria.  The small museum has a number of displays about Old Town and is a useful resource center for historians interested in area attractions.

May and Baker (Sanofi-Aventis), Dagenham, East London

By Alan Dronsfield

May and Baker advertisement, 1922

The Royal Society of Chemistry presented a National Chemical Landmark plaque to Sanofi-Aventis (formerly May and Baker) to commemorate its research and manufacturing activities at the Dagenham, East London, site which started there in 1934. The presentation was made on 2nd July 2010 by RSC President Elect Professor David Phillips to Jim Moretta, Site Director Sanofi-Aventis, and the plaque itself was unveiled by Councillor Nirmal Singh Gill, Mayor of Barking and Dagenham. The Historical Group was represented by David Leaback, Peter Morris and Alan Dronsfield

The citation on the plaque reads

“….in recognition of the pioneering research and manufacturing work
carried out at the May & Baker (sanofi-aventis)
Dagenham site in a wide range of chemical
and pharmaceutical fields since 1934.
These products continue to benefit patients
and their quality of life
around the world”

Colin Ward, Ex Head of Analytical Development & Compliance, Quality Operations, Dagenham, has kindly supplied the following background to the Award:

The Dagenham site was bought by May & Baker then based in Wandsworth, for £1l,000 in 1919 but was not opened for business until 1934. It was to become the headquarters of the multinational, May & Baker Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rhône-Poulenc S.A., and in its heyday the site employed some 4,000 people.

The Dagenham site was diverse in terms of chemical manufacture with active pharmaceutical ingredients, pharmaceutical products, veterinary medicines, aromatic chemicals, agrochemicals, photographic chemicals, plastics, industrial and fine chemicals being manufactured there over the last 75 years.

In addition to chemical and pharmaceutical manufacture, Dagenham had a strong R&D base and some significant molecules were synthesised here. Perhaps the most notable are the bacteriostatic sulphonamides, with M&B 693, Sulphapyridine, synthesised in 1937 and M&B 760, Sulphathiazole, a year later. Both were very active against cocci infections and were the forerunner of the antibiotics. During WW2, it was noted that M&B 693 had saved many thousands of lives. Indeed Sir Winston Churchill extolled the virtues of M&B 693 having been treated with it for pneumonia infections twice during the war.

Research on sulphonamides stopped after these two products but continued with other therapeutic agents and agrochemicals. Dagenham was instrumental in developing the diamidine group of bacteriostats, including Pentamidine, Propamidine and Dibromopropamidine, the beta-blocker Acebutolol hydrochloride, the HBN herbicides, Ioxynil and Bromoxynil, the phenoxybutyric acid herbicides and the carbamate herbicide, Asulam. In addition it developed and manufactured the veterinary compounds, Dimetridazole, Sulphaquinoxaline and Isometamidium chloride and marketed many improved products in the field of photographic chemicals, developers and fixers.

The site has won the Queens Award for Industry three times for technological innovation and in 1974 was granted a royal warrant as suppliers of agricultural herbicides to HM Queen Elizabeth II.

From its May & Baker beginnings. Dagenham has had several name changes and as the Company expanded and merged the site became consecutively Rhône-Poulenc Ltd., Rhône-Poulene Rorer, Aventis and latterly Sanofi-Aventis. However, although the sign on the gates is now Sanofi-Aventis, the site is still very much “May and Bakers” to the local community.

However, in recent years many of the plant’s activities have either been has been discontinued or transferred to other Sanofi-Aventis locations. At present it is only manufacturing sterile oncology products and a couple of other anti-cancer drugs. The work force has shrunk to 450 employees and in December 2009 it was announced that the whole Dagenham operation would close by 2013. The site will be redeveloped as an industrial park and sadly an era of London’s chemical industry will become history.

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, August 2010.