[Event Summary] A Curator’s Guided Tour of the Museum of the History of Science

Dr Elizabeth Bruton gave us a brilliant guided tour, she made the exhibits come alive for us, drawing on her deep curator’s knowledge of the objects and a fund of anecdotes to make the personalities behind the exhibits truly human for us.

The Marconi story is a fascinating one in itself and we were taken from the early designs through to later iterations and the uses to which they were put. In a wireless receiver made by Marconi around 1896, first used to demonstrate utility, components were hidden in a black box so it would not be realised that others’ inventions and apparatus were being used. It is said that Marconi was an innovator rather than an inventor but perhaps better described as a great engineer and entrepreneur.  He was a man of extraordinary organising abilities and charm, bringing people together from the worlds of science, academia, business, government and the armed forces. This cross disciplinary collaboration publicised the usefulness of his wireless communications causing it to be quickly taken up in WW1. He also had the cheek of the devil and could be quite ruthless. He reneged on an understanding of future business collaboration with his champion, William Preece, engineer-in-chief of the General Post Office, who didn’t talk to him for three years after.

The ‘Dear Harry . . .’ story is a touching biography of a brilliant young scientist who would surely have won the Nobel Prize, for his work on the Periodic Table, had he survived WW1. This is also the story of the Gallipoli disaster. Arrogant leaders who thought one ‘Tommie’ was better than four Turks and who took little account of the waterless and daunting terrain. Harry had been encouraged by Ernest Rutherford, his former supervisor at the University of Manchester, not to volunteer but Elizabeth says that would have been un-thinkable, given his background. Elizabeth felt she got to know Harry really well during her research and putting on the exhibition. One of our group was a twelve year old boy who has yet to the meet the Periodic Table at school, but he has seen Henry (Harry) Moseley’s own graph produced from his research on X-ray spectra of the elements and the actual equipment on which the results were produced, what a privilege.  The wobbly entry in Harry’s mother’s diary stating that ‘Harry died’ must move anyone. The exhibition was due to end in October but because it has been so popular it is now on until the end of January.

How could we leave without paying homage to the Babbage difference engine? Ada Lovelace has her cabinet of exhibits too. Elizabeth brought our attention to three small objects, that we could well have overlooked, an early small calculator showing its evolution. This was in the process of design by Austrian engineer Curt Herzstark in the 1930s. Herzstark’s father was Jewish and so he was taken into custody in 1943, eventually finding himself at the Buchenwald concentration camp. When the Nazis found out about his considerable skills they made him work for them. He did not finish his work before the end of the war and was liberated before the Russians before travelling to Liechtenstein and persuading the Prince of Liechtenstein to get a consortium together to fund the manufacture. This little calculator was widely taken up and could compute to 16 decimal points, so very sophisticated for its time, and remained one of the most popular calculators until the development of electronic calculators in the 1970s.

We all love stories and Elizabeth told three very good ones, thank you Dr Bruton.