Saturday, January 5th 2019
The three museums, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, conveniently gathered together in the same area, form one of London’s more famous landmarks. Today we chose to visit the Science Museum.
In Thurloe Place, in front of the Victoria and Albert Museum, on an island in the middle of the road, stands this cabmen’s shelter. These shelters, of which 13 still survive in various parts of London, were built in the late Victorian era by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund to enable Hansom cab drivers, who were not allowed by law to leave their cabs and horses unattended, to obtain hot meals and refreshments and, no doubt, to provide an alternative to the pub and its temptations. Some of the shelters have nicknames and this one is known as the Bell and Horns, probably after a local pub. The date of its establishment is not known but is thought to be sometime after 1904 as it was installed to replace an earlier shelter further along the road near Harrod’s Department Store. The shelters now also serve the general public with take-away coffee and snacks. See also The secret green shelters that feed London’s cabbies and Wikipedia’s Cabmen’s Shelter Fund for a list of the 13 survivors.
As we approached th entrance to the Science Museum in Exhibition Road, we spied the Natural History Museum Ice Rink and beyond it, a traditional fairground carousel. The rink is open from October 25th to January 20th and no doubt brings in welcome revenue. In the background you can see part of the Natural History Museum building which was designed in a mixture of Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles by Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1881. It is Grade I listed.
It is an unfortunate sign of the times that the entrance to the Science Museum, like those of other busy public buildings, is guarded by security staff who may require you to show the contents of any bags you are carrying. Today, though the control barriers were in place, we were waved through without a bag search.
Visiting the Science Museum is no light undertaking. It is so large that it would be impossible to make sense of it all in a single visit. The best thing is to choose a number of sections to look at in detail or, as we did, wander at random, examining anything that caught our fancy. The photos below show a selection of objects that interested me.
We started in the Clockmakers Museum where there was an impressive collection of clocks and time-keeping machines almost bewildering in the sheer variety of devices and the different functions that they perform. Enchanting also is the beauty of design, particularly in the earlier clocks but also manifested to some later models. There is of course an intimate relationship between timekeeping, astronomy and navigation. Many clocks, as well as telling the time, include a changing astronomical display as part of their function, as does the clock shown above.
Timepieces come in all sizes from wristwatches to tower clocks. Medium size clocks, suitable for placing on a shelf or attaching to the wall in a private or public room include the so called ‘Tavern Clocks’, such as the one shown above, made in the 18th century and signed with the prestigious name of Vulliamy. When clocks are marked out in Roman numerals, the number 4 is traditionally rendered as IIII rather than IV, which is commoner in other contexts.
Another example of the connection between timekeeping and astronomy though this is for domestic interest only. Supported by three male figures by Vulliamy, is a glass sphere on whose surface is engraved a view of the constellations. Inside, a moving model shows the changing positions of the planets corresponding to the current date and time. Such devices would take pride of place in the affluent 18th-century home and serve as useful conversation pieces with one’s guests.
From domestic novelty to working tool. Sea travel was revolutionized – and trade enhanced thereby – with the invention of the chronometer, a clock guaranteed to keep rigidly correct time throughout a voyage. Knowing the exact time was necessary in order to fix a ship’s position from observations of the stars and planets in the night sky. No matter how accurate the timepiece might be when running on the clockmaker’s bench, various influences could affect the mechanism and make is run false, including variations in temperature, atmospheric pressure and the motion of the ship. Various ingenious solutions were found to combat these problems.
The evolutionary road from the Mediaeval weight-driven tower clock showing only the hours to the highly accurate Omega watches taken by American astronauts to the moon is a long and fascinating one.
This figure, no doubt deliberately reminiscent of Leonardo’s ‘man-in-a-circle’ drawings, was part of a display wherein is discussed what materials can be used in the human body to repair it without causing damage on their own account.
And so to the sections on astronomy and space travel. Prominent among the displays is this full-sized replica of the craft that landed on the moon. It looks rather like a device that has been half-removed from its packaging and is still partly enveloped in foil. This foil was of course put in place in the real lander to help reflect away the heat of the sun. In the second picture we see the access ladder down which Neil Armstrong climbed to utter his famous one-liner ‘That’s a small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind’. The size of the drop from the last step to the ground adds piquancy to the remark – it’s more a ‘jump’ than a ‘small step’.
(There is argument over what Armstrong actually said and whether he muffed the speech by omitting the indefinite article which I therefore enclose in parenthesis. In the end, though, we know what he meant, so there’s no need to get in a pother about it.)
This display, which I think is called simply ‘Globe’, consists of a white sphere suspended in mid air a little above head height close to some conveniently placed seats. Ingeniously, onto it are projected images taken of planets and planetary satellites by passing spacecraft. Some are stills and some are short moving sequences. I have combined five of my photos into this slide show. The individual bodies are labelled.
This – I think slightly idealized – bust represents Yuri Gargarin (1934-68), the Russian pilot who was the first man is space. Although he never ‘walked’ in space nor set foot on the moon, his place in the history of space exploration is assured (at least, among humankind).
The Apollo 10 Command Module was the vehicle that, having detached itself from the mighty rockets that brought it to the vicinity of our satellite went into orbit around it in 1969, carrying astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan, in what was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing of Apollo 11.
Returning to earth (without a bump, I hope!) and going back in time, here are some classic vehicles for land travel. The Columbine locomotive was made for the Grand Junction Railway in 1845, in the heady period a steam power. Some of us remember when steam engines pulled the trains of which we travelled and perhaps regret their passing. We are not alone in our fondness, though, to judge by the popularity of those steam railways that have been restored.
What do you use these days to push or pull heavy weights across the ground? I have no idea but in 1871 it would have been this traction engine or another very much like it. Sleek modern lines it does not have (nor does it miss them) but it is beautiful in its own way, I think (or is that my inner Steampunk talking? )
Henry Ford famously said that you could order his soon-to-be legendary Model T Ford in any colour as long as it was black. He also revolutionized not only the manufacture of cars but manufacturing as a whole with his invention of the assembly line.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, many of those ‘daring young men in their flying machines’ would have been performing in Avro 504K biplanes, including sorties over the carnage of the First World War killing fields and nearer home in attacking Zeppelins. It was an extremely popular aircraft, reliable and easy to fly. When superseded for war duty it enjoyed a second life in flying circuses and joyriding into the 1920s.
Having gorged ourselves on the marvels of science and technology in the Science Museum, we thought about taking a tour of the Natural History Museum.
We reached as far as the entrance hall (again no bag search) where I took a photo of this beautiful creature known popularly as Sophie. Discovered in 2003 at Red Canyon Ranch in Wyoming, USA, Sophie turned out to be the most complete skeleton of the Stegosaurus ever found. Just a few bones are missing. The Stegosaurus was a slow-moving plant-eater and I therefore think I would quite like to have met Sophie alive, just to see. Unfortunately, that can never be.
As I say, we made it as far as the entrance hall but were by now quite tired and somewhat ‘museumed-out’. Add to this the crowds, which by now were even more dense than when we first arrived next door, and we decided to call it a day. Waving bye-bye to Sophie, we made for the door, the street and the bus stop.
But we shall return. Count on it!