Posts Tagged ‘Science’

London, City of Science 1550-1800, the new gallery at the Science Museum. This is a guest review by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon.


From Holland Park to Tower Hamlets you cannot go far in London without crossing the path of a notable scientist or passing a place where an important innovation or experiment was made. The Science Museum in South Kensington has long been full of Londony objects, although even London Historians might be forgiven for not realising that.

When I visited recently, the Museum plans, signage and maps had yet to catch up with the opening of the new permanent addition, the ‘Science City 1550-1800’ gallery which is all about London. The new gallery, opposite the not-quite-so-new Clockmakers’ Museum (which relocated here from the Guildhall if you have not kept up with things) is on the second floor. It is, in part, a new and roomier setting for an old friend, the George III collection of scientific instruments, which has returned after a world tour of a couple of years or more. It is supplemented by some of the objects previously secreted in the archive of the Royal Society, rescued from the overflow store, or loaned from elsewhere.



Astrolabe, check. Mural arc, check. Sextant, check. Orrery, check. The gallery has all the beautiful brass, copper, wood, enamel and (probably) ebony artifacts that you would expect. Though, if you are a stranger to the astrolabe, you are unlikely to appreciate more than its engraving, after a visit here. And I’m afraid I cannot do much to enlighten you either. (I once asked at the Oxford science museum how an astrolabe worked, and I clearly did not look intelligent enough to be granted an answer – though they were quite nice about it.) Now, I am not normally a fan of videos in museums. But here is one that is absolutely appropriate, and worth your time. It shows for a few minutes some of the craft that goes (went) into making these things – gears, mirrors, glass vessels and globes. (By the way, one of the segments was filmed at the Clockworks, West Norwood which is often a participant in Open House in September.)


In the near future the Science Museum is going to open a temporary exhibition on The Art of Innovation. But it has always been quite possible to treat the Science Museum as a refreshingly different and eclectic art gallery. City of Science continues that strand. There is a portrait of Georgian aeronaut Mrs Letitia Sage, and a view of old Westminster Bridge being constructed with the aid of pile driver developed by (Huguenot?) James Valoue. Bibliophiles will be pleased to glimpse early editions of great works by John Evelyn and Robert Hooke.

And now, welcome to geeks corner. With the opening of this gallery, the Science Museum can boast two different dividing engines on display in different rooms! Just so you know, it’s a kitchen range sized rotating table for marking an accurate scale on a sextant or theodolite. (The one by Troughton long displayed downstairs is the one to see.) However, it was seeing a surveying chain made by celebrated instrument maker Jesse Ramsden and a piece of St Paul’s Cathedral’s original lightning conductor where I found my goosepimples pleasurably elevated. But that might not be the effect on everyone!


What is in the gallery is admirable. But ‘science’ is a misnomer, and an oversimplification. This is a physical science and technology museum. This gallery offers an informative but blinkered view of science over the period in question. Here, you would not guess that there were advances during this period by Londoners unconnected with, or even disdained by, the Royal Society. Also, physiology (William Harvey?) and natural history (Hans Sloane?) are scarcely represented but for Robert Hooke’s magnified louse and other drawings. But the Natural History Museum is next door.

The unfortunate thing about the Science Museum (and any science museum) is that exhibits which are not pure art may be difficult to enjoy from a standing start. In this case, it may be worth glancing at Wikipedia to refresh your memory on the subject of the Royal Society and its early great names before you visit. Even when such care has been taken over the captions, it would aid understanding to have someone next to you getting excited at times, or making a connection with something more familiar – I think. Science City 1550-1800 is an attractive gallery. I hope it may whet the appetite of history enthusiasts to see more of the Science Museum, but note that it probably will not wow the average child for more than about a second.

Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, and a volunteer in the archives of both the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts. His tours cover the period from about 1550 to recent times.


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Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.

Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.

Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter for February 2015.

London has been at the forefront of exploration beyond the naked eye by telescope and microscope. But another inspiration behind this article was Will Self, the sesquipedalian writer, who recently left London for the underground particle collider at Geneva to see if he could ‘feel the wonder’. (Self Orbits CERN, BBC Radio 4.)

He could not, and who could blame him? The instrumentation engineers, metaphorically looking under the bonnet of the detector, were somewhat detached from the wonder, and the absurd public relations people were bowling him sound bites as if he were a person unused to thinking. Nobody seemed to say to him that particle colliders are continuing an age old exploration of both the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large. A succession of Russian dolls has been opened up, often by Londoners. We may regard ourselves as one doll somewhere in the middle of the set.


Particle collisions studied at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research, known as CERN)

Through the Lens
The first astronomers were limited to studying where the heavenly bodies appeared, and it helped them to cultivate and to navigate. A few weeks before Galileo obtained his telescope in 1609 Thomas Harriot at Syon Park pointed one at the moon and, drawing its imperfections, made the kind of observation that we are all capable of: ‘[It] lookes like a tarte that my Cooke made me last Weeke.’ Galilieo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons was probably more significant in the long run.

In simple form the optical microscope and telescope both involve a pair of lenses. The main difference lies in where the focus of the lenses needs to be. Robert Hooke bought a microscope from Christopher Cock and published, despite terrible lenses, fine drawings he made of familiar objects such as a body louse in Micrographia in 1665. (Familiar? Eek!)


From this we get the Hooke’s word ‘cell’ for the biological building block. Samuel Pepys found the book ‘so pretty that I presently bespoke it.’ Even before Micrographia, Pepys was already succumbing to the wonders of the microscope in 1664.

‘After dinner up to my chamber and made an end of Dr. Power’s booke of the Microscope, very fine and to my content, and then my wife and I with great pleasure, but with great difficulty before we could come to find the manner of seeing any thing by my microscope. At last did with good content…’

A lens usually has a spherical surface because it is easy to make it that way. Unfortunately it is not quite the right shape to focus properly and, even if it were, it would not focus the different colours in the same place. For the telescope, Isaac Newton solved the problem in 1668 by using a curved mirror instead of a lens, bouncing rather than bending the rays. Optician John Dollond, one of the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields, was able to correct the problem for the lens by adding a layer of a different glass in 1758 (Actually, the idea came from a barrister of the Inner Temple). It is sad that such a name as Dollond should be discarded from the high street by the Philistines of our own time.

craig telescope

1852 saw the construction of Reverend John Craig’s telescope on Wandsworth Common. The lens, two feet in diameter, was flawed and the tube dangled at the mercy of the wind. Not a failure of Victorian big science, this was one man’s folly.

Similar problems afflicted microscopes but as the microscope was more a toy than a scientific instrument it had to wait until 1826 for a similar solution by Joseph Jackson Lister. In 1827 botanist Robert Brown of Soho noticed pollen grains jiggling about under the microscope as if pummelled by unseen fists. This ‘Brownian motion’ is caused by invisibly small atoms and molecules striking the pollen. But no one knew it at the time. Atoms were, in 1827, only a theoretical abstraction.

We probably associate the microscope more with microbiology now than any other discipline. It is no coincidence that Lister’s son, the famous surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, unlike so many others, was receptive to the notion that invisible particles might contaminate and putrefy wounds. A few stones of Joseph Jackson Lister’s house remain in an east London park. Most accounts of the house do not bother to mention him.


Joseph Jackson Lister

New Images
Particle physics had to be developed over the next century before there were further significant advances in microscopy, such as the electron microscope. If you can crystallise a substance then X-ray diffraction can reveal the structure. The beautiful patterns captured by researchers, some at the Royal Institution, sufficiently excited interior and fashion designers to incorporate them in their products and at the Festival of Britain in 1951. An X-ray image made at King’s College London in 1952 resolved the structure of DNA. Atomic force microscopes now make it possible to see single atoms as fuzzy blobs. Poking about inside the blobs is where particle colliders come in.

Early Victorian astronomers such as those at Greenwich were still limited to studying the position and motion of the heavenly bodies. William Hyde Wollaston, who lived just off Fitzroy Square, found in 1802 that the light from the sun, refracted to display a spectrum, was missing certain narrow bands of colour. It was found on the continent around 1860 that chemical elements held in a flame burn with light characteristic of that element. The two discoveries were combined and for the first time it was possible to consider stars as objects of varied substance rather than points of reference.

Three people who explored that substance through studying spectra were draper William Huggins of Tulse Hill who had his own observatory there; Margaret Murray whose own interest in spectroscopy led to her marrying Huggins in 1875; and civil servant Norman Lockyer whose first purchase of a telescope was sparked by socialising at the Wimbledon Literary and Scientific Society and having a house there with a good hilltop position. He identified a new chemical element, helium, in the sun in 1868. Today we need liquid helium to cool magnets in MRI scanners in hospitals.

Dig for the Sky
The nuclear reactions in the stars that forge those elements also produce splinters in the form of cosmic rays. Paradoxically the rays are often studied underground so as not to overwhelm the detectors. We now know that all of the heavier atoms in our own body (the iron from your spinach) formed inside stars.

In the 1930s nobody was thinking of building a 27km cavern for research underground but a cosmic ray detector (an instrument called a cloud chamber originally created to study… clouds) was installed in the unused Aldwych platform at Holborn underground station. Cloud chambers like this one were designed so that invisible particles stealing across them would photograph their own visible trails. This development won Patrick Blackett a Nobel Prize. Some of the detectors at CERN (bubble chambers and spark chambers) are descendants of his cloud chambers.

The Hugginses and others assayed the stars and interstellar dust. But from Hubble telescope observations it turns out that the substance we have come to understand over several centuries only adds up to about 5% of the mass of the universe. The collider will help to find the rest. So, we now find ourselves down a hole, using a descendant of the microscope, to explore what is too distant or too ephemeral to see with the telescope. Do you feel the wonder yet? Would you want the exploration to stop? The hole may be in Geneva, but London has always provided explorers, and a vital prerequisite: scope to wonder.

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edward learThe bicentenary of Charles Dickens has caused the eclipse of two other Victorian worthies: Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887) and Edward Lear (1812 – 1888). But the Royal Society, at least, has mounted a small exhibition in remembrance of the maestro of nonsense. But not for his daft poetry and cartoons, rather his illustrations of animals and birds. Lear was a highly talented illustrator and the images shown here are still in books, where they belong. Most were written by Fellows of the Royal Society. The illustrations feature tortoises, hedgehogs and other quadrupeds but the most spectacular pictures are of birds. The bulk of this work was done by Lear when he was in the 1830s when he was very much still a young man. But his very poor eyesight deteriorated, helped along no doubt by having to do this highly intricate work.

edward lear toucan

edward lear crane

edward lear

The Royal Society is based at 7 – 9 Carlton House Terrace, near Pall Mall. This has only been its homes  since 1967, however. It kicked off in 1660s at Gresham College. Then, when William Chambers’s Somerset House was built the society moved there and later – like the Royal Academy – de-camped to Burlington House. But what they always lacked was space. After World War 2, the old German Embassy in St James’s came up for grabs and this is where the institution has been based to this day. As you would expect, the place is festooned with busts and portraits of very brainy men, most of them famous for their braininess. But I was particularly pleased to find a model for the British Library’s monumental Newton statue by Paolozzi. I love a good maquette, I do.

Royal Society

The President’s Staircase. Marble abounds.

royal society

Brainy Roster

royal society

Newton, by Sir Edward Paolozzi after Blake.

Officially Edward Lear and the Scientists finishes tomorrow. But I’m advised that the Royal Society doesn’t plan to disassemble the display for a week or two, so you can still see it and it’s free. Just call them up first to let them know when you’d like to come. 020 7451 2606 or email library@royalsociety.org.

I had a discussion about a LH guided tour there early part of next year. Very much look forward to that.

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Royal InstitutionThe Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) has existed, since its inception in 1799, in the same building in Albemarle Street, Mayfair. Lined with art galleries, posh hotels and expensive cars, a very swanky thoroughfare, which perhaps belies one of the Institution’s core missions to bring science to the people and vice-versa. One of Albemarle Street’s other claims to fame is that it is London’s first one-way street, necessitated by the congestion caused by the carriages of patrons clamouring to attend lectures at the Institution itself.

Royal Institution, London

The RI is sometimes confused in the mind of the public (including this writer) with the Royal Society, founded in 1660. They are entirely different. For Royal Society think Wren, Boyle, Newton, Evelyn – founding Royal patron: Charles II. For Royal Institution, think Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday and the live Christmas Lectures for children on the telly – founding Royal patron: William III.

The Royal Institution was founded by a group of gentlemen scientists who included Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, (an Anglophone American), the 9th Earl of Winchilsea, Henry Cavendish and Sir Thomas Bernard. They appointed Sir Humphrey Davy (1778 – 1829) as their first lecturer. He, in due course, appointed Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) – a bookbinder by profession – to be his assistant. The brilliant Faraday went on to eclipse his former boss, notably – but far from exclusively – in the field of electricity. Davy, Faraday and distinguished scientists who followed in their footsteps – James Dewar, Sir William and Sir Lawrence Bragg among others – conducted their work in laboratories at the RI, work which continues at the Institution to this day. In 1825, Faraday began the famous Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, beloved by children down the generations, many of whom became prominent scientists themselves.

In 1973, the RI opened its museum, which comprises part of the thousands of scientific artefacts in its wonderful collection. It includes many of the scientific instruments, tools, books, papers and correspondence of its legendary scientists, notably Faraday himself. His work was pioneering stuff, of course, so often the accoutrements required for his experiments simply didn’t exist. But he could turn his hand to almost anything and we see the glass containers and iron tools which he hand-made himself.  Astonishing, a truly remarkable man.

The photos featured below are from my visit to the RI today. Unfortunately, they exclude the highlight of the day. As a special treat, I was taken by Charlotte New, Curator of Collections, into the actual archive. Among the treasure I saw were: a hand-written thank-you letter from Albert Einstein, dated 1923; one of Faraday’s small note-books: he had tiny, neat and simply beautiful handwriting (gorgeous chapter headings, underlines and curly brackets); medallions and awards of great scientists of the past; portraits; a bronze bubble-wrapped bust of Newton, awaiting the repair shop; original running-horse stills by Edweard Muybridge. I had to work hard not to dribble on the utterly wonderful historical objects!

So. What is the Royal Institution? It is a working laboratory and advanced scientific research centre, as we have noted. It is an historic building. It has a museum, a library and probably the nation’s most famous lecture theatre. It is an art gallery. It has a coffee shop and a bar. Most of all, it is one of London’s secret delights and I thoroughly recommend you pay it a visit soon. It is open Monday – Friday and is totally free of charge.

My sincere thanks to Pete Berthoud, Royal Institution volunteer, qualified Westminster Guide, blogger and London Historians member for inviting me today. And to Charlotte New, Curator of Collections.

Royal Institution, London

Main staircase. Statue of Faraday on the right. A bronze version of this stands outside the Institute of Electrical Engineers on the Embankment.

Royal Institution, London

Genre painting of science lecture in progress, outside the lecture theatre.

Royal Institution, London

Brainy fellows: Faraday on the right.

Royal Institution, London

Royal Institution, London

Faraday's Lab.

Royal Institution, London

21st Century Lab.

Royal Institution, London

In the museum.

Royal Institution, London

Faraday. Left, glass items and tongs he made himself. Right, electro magnetic coil.

Royal Institution, London

WH Bragg's X-ray spectrometer. Beautiful.

Royal Institution, London

Shiny science things. Actually vacuum flasks, I think. Gorgeous.

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