Science and Technology

Sarah Hiddleston By Sarah Hiddleston, Assistant Curator, Projects Working in the Science and Technology department over the years I’ve come across a number of impressive and inspiring objects. One such object that has always grabbed my attention is the model of S.S. Nerbudda. I remember on one particular day strolling through the National Museum of Scotland carrying out my weekly rounds of dusting objects, when I spied this magnificent item. It was then I felt I would like to know more about the history of this object.

Museum label 1886

Museum label 1886.

S.S. Nerbudda can be seen displayed in the Workshop of the World gallery. It is a large model at 4.2 metres in length. Built in the Museum’s model workshop in 1885, the model was described as ‘innovative’, since it was unique in size and presentation.

S.S. Nerbudda on display in the National Museum of Scotland

S.S. Nerbudda on display in the National Museum of Scotland.

“The model, which is on the large scale of half an inch to the foot, is sectional, and shows construction, fittings, and machinery of the ship in the minutest detail, in a manner probably never before attempted.” The Museum’s Annual Report 1885.

One of the ship plans provided by Wm. Denny & Brother Ltd, on which the model was based

One of the ship plans provided by Wm. Denny & Brother Ltd, on which the model was based.

The model itself was built from the original ship plans used and provided by the firm William Denny & Brothers Ltd, Leven Shipyard, Dumbarton. I decided to take a closer look at these plans, which are now in storage. Having worked in the past on a documentation project on engineering drawings and plans, I found this enabled me to get a good understanding of the detail that went into the planning and building of the model. Every part was thought about, right down to the finest detail – although the pink colour of the propeller has never been explained! Traditionally propellers were metal, so the very fact that this part was painted pink is somewhat of a mystery.

History of the ship

Researching the historical background of the ship, I discovered that the S.S. Nerbudda was a cargo ship, built for the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd, Glasgow, in 1882. It also served as a passenger ship, with accommodation for 32 First Class passengers and 15 Second Class passengers.

S.S. Nerbudda circa 1880s

S.S. Nerbudda circa 1880s.

Nerbudda remained in service with British India until 1911, when it was sold to the company Sato Shokai Goshi Kaisha, who renamed it the Asuta Maru. Exactly why the Museum decided to create a large scale model of the Nerbudda is not clear. The ship itself was not a piece of ground-breaking engineering. Steam ships had been in operation since the early 1800s. Nonetheless, an excerpt from The Scotsman reported that the model would attract great interest from the public.

“We have no doubt that this elaborate and instructive piece will prove of the highest interest, not only to the general public, but to serious students of marine architecture and engineering.” The Scotsman, 31st December 1885.

Museum model-making

The Nerbudda model is a prime example of the detailed and skilled work that was carried out by the Museum model workshop, which built a wide array of working technological and science models from the late 1860s to the mid-1970s. Detail and accuracy were of paramount importance to the Museum model makers, their reasoning being the Museum’s ethos: to enable its audience to see up close the technological and scientific innovations created in industrial Britain. The models allowed the Museum to do this, in a way that was accessible and easy to understand for visitors. Here a quote from a letter written by Thomas Archer, the Director of the Museum from 1860-1884, illustrates the high level of accuracy required in the building of Museum models:

“I have now got the model of the S.S. “Nerbudda” so far advanced that the workmen cannot safely proceed much further without seeing some of the detail of the finishing of the decks and other portions on an actual ship, something similar to the vessel that the model represents. From the large size of the model (14 feet long) any important error will be very conspicuous. I propose accordingly, to send through to Dumbarton the two model makers who are doing the iron work, and the joiner who is doing the wood work of the model, to get some little information about these details…” Thomas Archer (Museum Director) to Messrs W. Denny & Bros, Leven Shipyard, Dumbarton, 8 Sept 1884 (National Museums Scotland Library Archive, Directors’ Correspondence – General, Letterbook 1881-1887, p. 140).

Today you can still see some of the models displayed throughout the Museum. The Museum no longer produces models but those that were previously made are maintained and now cared for by the Museum’s engineering conservation team. The history of the Museum and its workshops is currently a subject which is being revived through the research of Research Associate Geoff Swinney. Together with Dr Klaus Staubermann, Principal Curator at the Science and Technology department, Geoff has uncovered many interesting facts about the history of the Museum’s model-making practices, which can be traced back to 1868. Further to this work, the Museum plans to showcase more of the models in future exhibitions. Some of these models will be available to see in the new Science and Technology galleries, which are scheduled to open early summer 2016 and future special exhibitions.

You can see some of our working models in action here.

Tacye PhillipsonBy Dr Tacye Phillipson, Senior Curator of Modern Science and Computing

One of the great joys of working in a museum is getting to research the specimens in our collection and realise what treasures we have. I was delighted a few months ago to notice in our catalogue Herapathite or artificial tourmaline, 1853. This perhaps needs some explanation – what is herapathite? And why was a specimen dated 1853 delighting me?

The specimen

The specimen in question

Herapathite, or iodoquinine sulphate, is the first synthetic polariser, discovered in 1852 and used by William Land in 1929 to construct the first sheet polaroid.  During the Second World War, polarising sunglasses (in the original aviator frames) were in demand as they cut the glare from the water and made it easier to spot submarines. However, the quinine from which herapathite was made was in short supply as it was also used to treat malaria. Because of this, Land developed an alternative polaroid material, used today in sunglasses and liquid crystal displays.

Herapathite was first described by a Bristol chemist, William Herapath, in a paper published in 1852. He describes how one of his students drew his attention to bright green crystals which had formed after iodine was added to the urine of a dog which had been fed quinine. (In case you are wondering, quinine was an important drug for treating malaria and Herapath’s student was, presumably, studying how it was metabolised and excreted by the body.)  Herapath noticed through the microscope that these small crystals were polarising the light, in a similar way to the mineral tourmaline.

A preliminary search in other museum catalogues did not find any other 19th century examples of herapathite so perhaps we had the world’s oldest artificial polariser!

Shortly after my initial excitement I began to get suspicious. The historic descriptions of herapathite say that it was very fragile and hard to grow as large crystals. So why did we have a large lump of it? And it wasn’t the metallic looking green of the description. It did however exactly resemble selenite, a mineral which, as well as more technical uses, gives beautiful colours when thin sheets are placed between two polarising sheets.

Selenite designs made to be used with polarizing apparatus, c.1860

Selenite designs made to be used with polarizing apparatus, c.1860.

So, sadly, we do not have a candidate for the world’s oldest synthetic polariser, but a case of mislabelling which predates the donation of the mineral into the collection. We do, however, have some other very special artefacts relating to the polarisation of light, including the oldest polarising microscope and a nicol prism, a polariser made from the mineral Iceland spar, which was made by the inventor, William Nicol, himself. You’ll be able to see these objects in our new Enquire gallery, which opens at the National Museum of Scotland in 2016.

Polarising microscope. 1823-1829

Polarising microscope. 1823-1829.

Nicol prism

Nicol prism made of two pieces of Iceland spar (trigonal crystal calcite) cemented together with Canada balsam. The prism makes use of the double refracting qualities of Iceland spar to form an optical filter for polarising light. made by William Nicol, Edinburgh, Scotland, circa 1850.

You can find out more about the new science, decorative arts and fashion galleries at National Museum of Scotland here.


A guest post by Anastasia Pipi, student placement at the Department of Science & Technology

Before starting my placement at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, I had visited two or three times. One day was never enough, considering that it houses five different sections, each able to stand as a museum on its own. This is something I really enjoy about it, as a visitor and as an intern, since it offers a holistic approach with connections springing out between topics that might seem unrelated at first glance. Even sharing the morning coffee with staff from World Cultures is a great way to avoid focusing too much on your topic and forgetting about everything else!

I came here as part of my Masters in Science Communication and Public Engagement at the University of Edinburgh. With a degree in biology and most of my work experience coming from research labs, I have to confess the museum environment seemed quite daunting, but an interesting challenge anyway. Most of my placement took place at the Department of Science and Technology (Keeper Alexander Hayward). My main supervisor was Klaus Staubermann, Principal Curator of Technology and co-supervisor Alison Taubman, Principal Curator of Communications.

On my first day, I was introduced to the Science and Technology Department and also to Learning and Programmes, who gave me an overview of what they do, which was very relevant to my studies. I was taken for a tour around the current Science and Technology galleries and got familiar with some plans for refurbishment and new galleries. My first task was to do some research on 3D printing leading up to an event for the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

My core task was to do research on a currently developing gallery about communications, and specifically about recent advances in computing and processing capacity. Here, my background in the life sciences came in handy, since many cutting edge applications (such as the Human Genome Project and the Human Brain Project) depend on supercomputers. I was also encouraged to develop an interactive for this gallery. Walking around the museum and observing to what extent visitors engaged with the interactives was an extremely useful exercise in the process of developing my own.

Klaus and Elsa Davidson (Curator of Technology) were kind enough to take me along to a trip to ARTEMIS Intelligent Power, a University of Edinburgh spin-off engineering company developing hydraulic power technologies. There, a possible collaboration was discussed, and we had the chance to look around, meet many employees and learn about the history and objectives of the organization. I was impressed by how many young inspired people worked there and I believe it should be an example for many workplaces. However, I was surprised by the lack of female employees. Are women so uninterested in engineering? Or are there other factors still keeping this profession male-dominated?

A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.

A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.

An unforgettable experience was visiting the National Museums Collection Centre at Granton. The amount of objects collected as well as the time span that is covered is truly astonishing. Additionally, seeing objects in storage gives you a good idea of the value of exhibiting and interpreting. Without labels telling stories, the objects appear naked and almost meaningless. Realising the cultural wealth ‘hidden’ in storage and how objects on exhibit are only the surface of this treasure was something unexpected.

Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton

Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton.

During my placement, I also had the chance to meet the Communications team and had a chat with Communications Officer Bruce Blacklaw about various roles in the interface between the Museum and the ‘outside’ world (marketing, PR, media and press relations). We also discussed what makes a topic newsworthy and how an interesting and informing press release should look. I wrote my own press release about the Mammoth Poo Detectives workshop planned for the Edinburgh International Science Festival and was glad to know it would actually be used by the Department. I also attended a photo shoot for a newspaper feature on the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which was exciting not least because of the privilege of seeing an exhibition before it was officially launched.

Finally, I had a brief discussion with Development Manager Charlotte di Corpo about fundraising and met Rose Watban, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design in the Art and Design Department, to find out about the history of some of the collections, the challenges of bringing a gallery together and the infinite possibilities for inter-departmental collaborations.

Overall, my experience as an intern at the Museum was very interesting and rewarding. Klaus and Alison ensured I had great guidance and used my time productively, but also Maureen Kerr, Departmental Administrator, made sure my placement ran smoothly. Everyone at the Department of Science and Technology was very friendly and helpful, and people from other departments were happy to give me an idea of the work they do. I have to say I enjoyed my time here, met some lovely people, and enriched my own set of skills. Last but not least, I got familiar with a workplace I knew very little about and will consider further volunteering and maybe even work experience in the museums sector.

ATLAS supercomputer

My ATLAS impression

Becky MumfordBy Becky Mumford, work placement student with the Science and Technology department

If I were to summarise my time at the National Museum of Scotland with one phrase, and I make no attempt to avoid clichés, there is much much more than meets the eye. The Science and Technology department was my base for a five week work placement, where I was hoping to achieve a general feel for what the day to day working life of a curator involved. Alison Taubman, Principle Curator of Communications and my main contact at the museum, as well as the rest of the department, quickly made me feel at home – particularly over the morning coffee/gossip!

My first week was spent generally getting a feel for the place by meeting other members of staff and departments and trying not to get lost in the rabbit warren of stairs, offices and corridors behind the scenes. I was primarily assisting the curators on plans for new Science and Technology galleries due to open in 2016 and it has been fascinating, if not slightly daunting, to see the amount of work and issues that arise when attempting such a huge project.

Moving an 18th century block instrument

Moving an 18th century block instrument.

Every Monday afternoon was spent with Dorothy Kidd at the department of Scottish History and Archaeology. Here I sorted through and archived a huge selection of photos linked to Lochee Nursery and Ancrum Road School, Dundee. Many of the photos and documents appeared to be donated by a particular family in the area – it was amazing seeing the whole family history laid out in front of me marked by births, weddings and deaths as well as a number of family holidays. They were all dated from the early 1910s to 1940s so were a fascinating insight into a way of life now very different from my own.

The Staff and Children of Lochee Nursery School, Dundee

The Staff and Children of Lochee Nursery School, Dundee.

Over the course of my time at the museum I made several trips to the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton, a treasure trove of objects often bizarre and mysterious. The rooms filled with huge machinery, another with bones and another with rows and rows of bicycles were a joy just to wander around. Here I assisted by measuring and taking objects to the Photography and Conservation departments, a process much more time-consuming than I ever expected. The sheer size of not just the whole collections but some of the objects meant a lot of time was just spent moving or searching for items somewhere in the series of shelves and rooms that make up the museum stores. At one point we unearthed a beautiful original drawing of a beam engine by Boulton and Watt from 1786 not seen for years! Another day was spent assisting a crew filming an object created by the art collective Found for Durer’s whiskey – it seems the draw of the museum stores is universal.

Preparing protective wrappings to take objects to photography

Preparing protective wrappings to take objects to photography.

One particular highlight was a departmental trip to Stanley Mills, an 18th century textile mill in Perthshire. I drove up to Stanley Mills with Alex Hayward, Klaus Staubermann and Emma Webb from Learning and Programmes to look at their impressive array of interactive exhibits for inspiration with regards to future displays. The museum did indeed have a great number and variety of interactive displays. This included a series of games to give children a feel for the concentration, quick reflexes and the tedium involved in working at the mill and interactives to divert water flows to manipulate different styles of waterwheels, ideas that we would hope to draw on as the plans for the new galleries develop. The day was topped off by a visit to Stewart Tower dairy for lunch and giant ice creams all round – if only this could happen every week!

Fiona Davidson explains an interactive display at Stanley Mills

Fiona Davidson explains an interactive display at Stanley Mills.

To get as broad an overview of the different work involved in running the museum as possible I spent some of my time among other departments. On one afternoon I helped carry out visitor consultations for Scotinform to gather data and opinions on the plans for the new galleries. This was an excellent reminder that a museum is as much for public engagement as it is about collecting and preserving and research. More time was also spent in the Development and Marketing and Communications departments, helping with museum events – yet another aspect of backstage museum life I had failed to consider.

Over the past five weeks I definitely feel I’ve started to grasp the complexities of museum life and the work involved for the curators here. I thank Alison and the team for making me feel so welcome and my time so enjoyable. I now can’t wait to come and visit the museum once the new galleries are up and running!

By John Hutchinson, volunteer with the Science and Technology department

I have been a volunteer at National Museums Scotland for about five years now and work within the Science and Technology department; not at the Museum on Chambers Street but in the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton. This in itself gives a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the museum and its collections.

National Museums Collection Centre

The National Museums Collection Centre in Granton.

I thoroughly enjoy my time there and although the work, if described to an outsider, might be considered as repetitive and never ending as we are recording 19th and 20th century engineering drawings, it is far from that possible impression.

The drawings in themselves are the working ‘patterns’ that were used to create many intricate machines, some very large machines (such as a machine for putting the pattern onto lino) and to see the detail to which all were drafted is incredible. Precision, clarity and attention to detail are viewed by us on each drawing we are dealing with. I find great enjoyment and honour to be one of a very few who can see these now and understand how they came about. I think I must have had some encouragement from my father, who was an architect and created plans almost free-hand to design houses using a beautiful set of drafting pens with ink on a large drawing board.

But other than this main thrust of my current work and the S & T project to ensure the future safety and cataloguing of all drawings, I often do other things. This includes finding machines within Granton, identifying parts of machines and then locating the actual machine that they belong to in the stores, taking and returning items that need to be photographed and seeing and handling (carefully and with gloves on!) the first sewing machine to be made.

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias  Howe of the United States of America

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias Howe of the United States of America.

Life is not boring or repetitive and when you come across an item that is the same as one that you also owned (as I have done), then perhaps that is the time that you realise that you are also a trainee fossil! It is fun and I love it, long may it continue.

Sam FairbairnBy Sam Fairbairn, Scotland Creates volunteer

On Thursday 28 November 2013, our Scotland Creates volunteers launched three animated films presenting objects from our Science and Technology collection in a new and exciting light. The launch formed part of Museum Takeover Day, a national initiative to celebrate the contribution made by children and young people to museums. Special events at National Museum included performances of science show Alex’s Amazing Adventures by Holy Rood High School and a song-writing workshop with Scottish rock band Miniature Dinosaurs. The animated films, devised and directed by the volunteers, can be seen in the Connect and Shaping Our World galleries until 21 April 2014. The Scotland Creates project is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Creative Scotland.

My summary

How do I sum up the exhibition? It was an amazing sight, seeing all the ideas that we started with come together to create something awesome. It was hard work but it paid off seeing the people who came along to see the animations.

How the day went

The day started off with a lot of last minute preparations while waiting for people to arrive. Then at two o’clock the guests started arriving and we were in charge of seeing that the guests were all in the room so that the introductions and the animations could be screened. Once the guests were all seated there was an introduction by the Community Engagement Manager, Christine McLean, who introduced what we had been doing and then the lights were dimmed, signalling the start of an introduction to what we had been doing in the build-up weeks leading to the opening. And then the animations started!

The first animation shown was Dolly the Sheep, then Bionic Arm vs iPad and finally it was the film about Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell. You can see the opening to Bionic Arm vs iPad here.

Once the previews had finished we then watched a flash mob dance by pupils from Craigmount High, Forrester High and Leith Academy. Then to finish of the day there was a live performance by Miniature Dinosaurs, which finished the official opening for the exhibition.

Pupils gave a surprise dance performance in the Grand Gallery

Pupils from Craigmount High, Forrester High and Leith Academy gave a surprise dance performance in the Grand Gallery.

Miniature Dinosaurs performing in the Grand Gallery

Miniature Dinosaurs performing in the Grand Gallery.

My final thoughts

The day went well, no problems came up and it all ran smoothly which was good, and the guests had good feedback on the animations. The exhibition runs in the Science and Technology galleries at National Museum of Scotland from 28 November to 21 April 2014 if you’re interested. I would certainly go see it.

A guest post by Kirke Kook, National Museums Scotland Collections Volunteer and Community Collector for the Science Museum telegram project

In February this year I was offered a unique opportunity to be involved in an exciting project initiated by the Science Museum in London, which aims to narrate British history through telegram messages.

Whilst museums, when displaying the history of communication, usually concentrate on the thrilling machinery used to send telegrams, the stories that telegrams tell have remained largely unexplored.

Constructing their new Information Age gallery, London Science Museum has decided to display not only the machines, but also the spectrum of messages that were sent through them. During the past few months, I have been involved in preparations to record telegrams not only for the benefit of the Science Museum’s collection, but also for the National Museum of Scotland.

I am currently contacting local museums, societies and associations in Scotland which could help spread the word about the project in their communities. After establishing my contacts, I will invite people to bring in their telegrams, which I will then scan. People have an option to either donate the original telegram to either of the museums or to allow me to add a digital copy to their preferred museum’s collections.

Telegram sent to the Royal Scottish Museum

Doing business: telegram announcing the dispatch of a new addition to the museum’s collection in 1924.

Telegram drama

Telegram drama: a message delaying a museum visit to the Wanlockhead Lead Mining Company due to an accident in their mining shaft, also in 1924.

Although the official collecting campaign is taking place in July, I have already scanned some great telegrams brought in by the staff and volunteers of National Museums Scotland. I have got a flavour of British India in the 1890s, and experienced life in the roaring ‘70s via telegrams sent by a staff member’s father (a member of a rock band) to her mother (a Lionel Blair girl), both touring the country with their troupes.

Sending love: message from Lloyd to his girlfriend, a Lionel Blair girl, sent in 1973

Sending love: message from Lloyd to his girlfriend, a Lionel Blair girl, sent in 1973.

Some other telegrams, however, have more intimate stories to tell, for example, a grandmother announcing her arrival from France to help to care for a grandchild gravely ill with meningitis.

Lending a helping hand: telegram from a grandmother announcing her arrival at Heathrow, 1976.

Lending a helping hand: telegram from a grandmother announcing her arrival at Heathrow, 1976.

Earlier in May I had a fantastic opportunity to travel to Aultbea in the Scottish Highlands to introduce the project to the veterans of the Russian Arctic Convoys. Anna McKessock, daughter of one of the men serving in the Arctic Convoys in the 1940s, holds the train ticket and telegram sent to her father, Stanley, to inform him of the death of his mother. However, the return trip from Aberdeen turned into an adventure of its own:

“His mother died when he was based in the South of England and he had gone home to Aberdeen for her funeral. He was sitting on the train from Aberdeen back down south and… a group of lassies got on the train somewhere outside Newcastle and started talking to him. The next thing he knew, they pulled him off the train and he ended up spending the day at their work – a Newcastle brewery! They were brilliant lassies… he got free beer all day. He made it back to his ship but he cannae remember how…” tells Anna.

Telegram stories with tea & cake: meeting the Russian Arctic Convoys veterans in May 2013

Telegram stories with tea & cake: meeting the Russian Arctic Convoys veterans in May 2013.

Talking to the veterans and local villagers in Aultbea showed me how unique the riches can be that so many people hide at home! I am very happy that I can be part of unveiling Scotland’s telegram stories and I hope that people will continue to help me share their experiences, whether personal or wrapped in local or national history.

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