Visiting the Science Museum

Great Britain is one of the most inventive countries in the world. I have spoken in this blog about great medical discoveries that took place in London. However, there are so many more inventions that come from this island – some have estimated that 40% of the world’s inventions and discoveries were made in the UK. And London’s Science Museum is a great place to discover these great advances.

The Science Museum came into existence in 1909 when it split away from what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. As you enter the museum you come face to face where it all began, the Industrial revolution. It is here that we see a collection of some of the oldest steam engines in the world including Old Bess: a Boulton and Watt steam engine, one of the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution. James Watt developed it in the late 17 hundreds with support from Matthew Boulton in Birmingham.


Watt’s beam engine Old Bess, dating from 1777 and built by Boulton and Watt. Image by Geni (CC BY-SA 4.0)


We then move through the Exploring Space Gallery. With lots of rockets and a full-sized replica of Eagle—the lander that took astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin to the Moon in 1969.

Pietro Zuco, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


As you arrive in the Making of the Modern World Gallery, you can see objects that tell the story of the last 300 years of inventions. It is here you become face to face with Puffing Billy the world’s oldest surviving steam locomotive. The first steam engines were used to haul waggons of coal as part of a mine. It was during the Rainhill Trials, a competition in 1829 that it was demonstrated that locomotives would be more efficient than stationary steam engines pulling carriages along a railway.

The Rocket, when it was still on display in Science Museum. Image by Clarissa Donda


The winner was Robert Stephenson’s Rocket would run on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway the first inter-city railway in the world. The Rocket used to be here in this gallery but has now been moved to become the pride of place at the National Railway Museum in York. As you enter the gallery there are planes, cars, Apollo 10 landing module and even the models used to test the shape of the Franco-British Supersonic Aircraft Concorde.

However, it’s the smaller objects that also have amazing stories. For example, Joseph Lister’s first achromatic microscope. The wine-merchant and amateur scientist Joseph Jackson Lister the father of the renowned surgeon Joseph Lister developed an ‘achromatic’ lens which compensated for a distortion found under the microscope that resulted in a coloured edge improving microscope observations substantially. You can also see a wooden 8 Day Clock made by John Harrison in 1715 at the age of 22, before he began his celebrated project to build a chronometer accurate enough to find a ship’s longitude at sea.

Many of those amazing watches can be found in the museum’s Clock Gallery. Also made of wood is the late 18th century Newtonian reflecting telescope. Made by the famous astronomer, William Herschel for his sister Caroline. She was William’s lifelong observing assistant and an astronomer in her own right having discovered eight comets and assisting him to discover the planet Uranus in 1781 in the City of Bath.

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens (probably a mirror); 1896 lithograph. Image is part of the Wellcome Collection Gallery, Public domain.


The Science Museum has a gallery devoted to the story of computing. Part of the Modern World gallery preserves early computing machines such as the Old Spitalfields programmable handloom used for silk weaving. A forerunner of the Power loom of Edmund Cartwright. The Difference Engine No1 is an example of mechanical computer developed by Charles Babbage. His Difference Engine No. 1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time. However, this is just a fragment as the full-scale version was never built in his lifetime being completed in the 1991.

On the left, the London Science Museum’s difference engine, the first one actually built from Babbage’s design. Image by Clarissa Donda


No museum of science would be complete without glass tubes.  The first practical electrical incandescent lamps or lightbulbs  were invented independently in the late 1870s by Joseph Swan in England and Thomas Edison in the USA. A burning filament in a vacuum tube led by significant advances in glass-blowing led to the rapid refinement of the lamps and the popularity of electric lighting. In the same cabinet is the simple Cathode ray tube that J.J. Thomson showed that all atoms contain tiny negatively charged subatomic particles that we now call electrons.

Some of the early electrical incandescent lamps or lightbulbs that you can see in the gallery. Image by Clarissa Donda


The gallery has lots of plans and sketches from the engineering achievements of the 19th Century.   One notable example is the Drawings of the Great Eastern steamship, the largest ship of time built by Brunel, completed 1858.  Sadly, the ship no longer survives today, although you can see the earlier SS Great Britain fully restored in Bristol today. It is possible to see the very slipway used Great Eastern in London Docklands and the ships Topmast or flag pole survives at Anfield Stadium home to Liverpool Football Club. We can also see objects from major breakthroughs in medical science such as Penicillin lozenges, Penicillin mould fermentation vessel of Alexander Fleming.


The Reconstruction of the DNA double helix using some original metal plates. If you have time, it is great to take the lift to the 3rd floor to see the Aeronautics Gallery, where you can see early flying machines and the Whittle W. 1 & WU the First Turbojet engine. Frank Whittle was from Coventry and his achievements are commemorated by a statue and the Whittle arches that can be seen in the City Centre today. His invention would be the start of the jet age.


About the Author:

Dr Aaron Hunter is a scientist with the University of Cambridge and a qualified Blue Badge Tourist Guide for London. He is a Palaeontologist who gained his PhD from the University of London on the Jurassic rocks and fossils of Bath, the Cotswolds and the Jurassic Coast. He very much likes guiding all ages but especially families and specializes in guiding the Natural History Museumthe British Museum, and the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. You can check his London tour around scientific discoveries here.