Thursday, July 7, 2016

A visit to the Science Museum

If you visit the Science Museum in London — which is really a museum of technology — you can see some fascinating inventions that changed the world. This place is a must-go for steampunks.

First and foremost, appropriately enough, are the displays of steam engines, with a focus on James Watt. His improvements to the steam engine revolutionized British industry, and eventually changed the entire world. Many kinds of engines are on exhibit. Here is just one.

Watt became a national hero, and on his death, his workshop was preserved untouched. You can see its contents at the Science Museum today, including this weird device that was supposed to work as a three-dimensional copying machine, for reproducing sculptures.

Put a steam engine on wheels and you have a locomotive, such as this historic machine:

Other impressive displays include a collection of clocks and watches:

Here are some amazing constructions designed by Charles Babbage that foreshadow the computer age:

The printing mechanism of the Difference Engine No. 2:

Some other very ingenious mid-nineteenth-century inventions include telegraphs and stock tickers:

There are many other inventions and technical objects of every kind, reaching up to the 21st century. For instance, this beautiful wooden model was used in wind tunnels in the '50s during the development of what would become the Concorde supersonic jetliner.

You probably won't guess what this is before reading the caption:

Some interesting printed materials are also on display. 

But what about the typewriters?

The museum has some of its typewriter collection on display, juxtaposing these machines with other items from their historical milieu. For instance, a Noiseless portable is displayed in the context of concern about noise.

This toy typewriter is displayed among a set of models and is connected somewhat fancifully to the Valentine:

Here's an Underwood no. 1 in context:

An Underwood Electric in context:

A 1970s Facit Addo (an imitation of the Selectric) in context:

There's even a Sholes & Glidden in context: 

But the most impressive typewriter on display here is not the S&G.

It was Martin Howard who alerted me to the existence of John Pratt's 1866 Pterotype in the museum. As I commented in ETCetera no. 110:

Pratt’s invention is described well on pages 108-9 of Michael Adler’s The Writing Machine: it uses a typewheel and a hammer that hits the paper from behind, carbon paper being used for inking. The invention got a great deal of attention in its day, and provided a major impetus to the commercial development of typewriters. Sholes was motivated by the Scientific American’s report on the Pterotype in its issue of July 6, 1867, which predicted that “the weary process of learning penmanship in schools will be reduced to the acquirement of the art of writing one’s own signature and playing on the literary piano above described, or rather on its improved successors.” As for James B. Hammond, he took more specific inspiration from Pratt’s design, purchasing the rights to several of Pratt’s patents. Meanwhile, according to Adler, Lucien Crandall “stretched” Pratt’s typewheel “into a sleeve which he himself was able to patent on his own, thereby by-passing Pratt’s control” (p. 110). Pratt’s historic device recently gave Toronto collector Martin Howard a “Wow moment” when he spotted it in a display at the Science Museum in London. Neither he nor I had realized that there was still an extant Pterotype, although some ETCetera readers surely knew of it.

Why is the Pterotype in England? Because Pratt left his home in Alabama during the Civil War to seek a safer and more congenial home in the United Kingdom, where he designed the Pterotype, patented it, and was able to sell some examples of it, without putting it into factory production. As RobertMessenger reported on his blog, we can thank Arthur E. Morton, typewriter examiner for the Royal Society of Arts, for saving the machine that can be seen in London today. According to Morton’s report in a 1902 issue of The Shorthand World and Imperial Typist, “I heard accidentally that a machine similar to my drawing [of the Pterotype] had been left by an old gentleman … at a Typewriting Company for repairs.” Morton posted an ad in a paper that “brought forth a response from a second-hand dealer, who informed me that he had a few weeks before purchased the machine at an auction for a few shillings, adding, ‘He thought the typewriter would be useful for his kids to learn to spell on.’ I at once recognised it as the long-lost model, and considering it worthy of a better fate than being knocked to pieces, I purchased the instrument.” Thank you, Mr. Morton—for saving this piece of history and for feeding every collector’s dream of locating a unique and magical typewriter for sale at some obscure auction or secondhand shop. 

Finally, the museum gives us a retro-futurist glimpse of a writing machine from Enki Bilal's graphic novel La Femme Piège (1986).


  1. Heh, should I add a category for "Pterotype" to the TWDB so you can add this sighting? :D

    1. I was hoping that you would!

    2. I believe it will be the oldest machine on the Database.

  2. Early mechanical inventions are always outstanding to see, and to consider. In an age where everything is powered electrically (and most somewhat mechanical items only use small plastic motors that cant be seen), I'ts nice to remember the hulking behemoths that began it all. Early steam engines are especially fascinating.

  3. That has got to be a very interesting museum. The kind one could spend days exploring. Thanks for the tour.

  4. Great tour, thank you for the pictures!
    The Science Museum has (had at least) a national collection of typewriters. In 1938 they published a book to go with the collection/exhibition. The History and Development of Typewriters by Tilghman Richards, 1938. Sometimes pops up online, like the exhibits you pictured a very interesting read :-)

    1. Thanks for the reminder. I did see that book years ago. I wish I could take a close look at all of their typewriter treasures.

  5. Those electric underwoods really are amazing to look at. Hmmm. Noiseless with a steel platen. Very nice. That's a great collection. Thanks for the tour!