Alexander Graham Bell, Alfred Vail, Charles Babbage, Charles Wheatstone, communications, computers, exhibitions, Google Earth, Guglielmo Marconi, information history, information society, information technology, internet, James Gleick, John Logie Baird, mobile phones, MONIAC, museums, networks, Queen Elizabeth II, radio, Samuel Morse, Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring, satellites, Science Museum, talking drums, telegraph, telephone, television, Twitter, William Fothergill Cooke
On Friday, I decided that the best way to make use of the absence of lectures brought about by reading week was to read no books at all, but instead to head to the Science Museum’s new gallery on the Information Age. Once I’d torn myself away from the excitement of fast cars, moving steam engines and space travel downstairs, I made my way to the second floor of the museum to see a facility that was opened on October 24 with a royal visit.
This included the first tweet authored personally by Queen Elizabeth II (the official BritishMonarchy Twitter account is run on her behalf as a general source of information about the activities of the Royal Family).
The gallery is divided into six themes: Cable (the telegraph); Exchange (the telephone); Broadcast (radio and television); Constellation (satellites); Web (computing and the Internet); and Cell (mobile devices). Instead of going through the exhibition in detail, I will focus on a few of what I thought were the most interesting objects on display.
Anyone who has read The Information by James Gleick will recall that he begins with a chapter discussing the “talking drums” that for centuries existed in African cultures before the invention and introduction of more effective, electrical methods of communication. A skilled drummer could produce a range of tones and timbres on his or her instrument, and an equally skilled listener could distinguish the messages in each pattern of performance over a distance of up to several miles. Although more limited than a vocal language, the drummers made up for this by converting each word they wished to send into a longer phrase or formula, in order to distinguish it from other words with a similar intonation. Gleick uses the example of
Come back home.
which the drummers could render as
Make your feet come back the way they went, make your legs come back the way they went, plant your feet and your legs below, in the village which belongs to us.
in order to ensure that the meaning was fully comprehensible.
This is probably the most ingenious of a large selection of galvanometers and proto-electrical telegraphs. It has a wire representing each letter and relies on a complicated apparatus—that includes a pivoting spoon—to be read. There are also a range of models using a series of needles which point to the letter desired, devised by the partnership of William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, but all were rendered obsolete by the elegance and simplicity of the “on-off” switch and its accompanying code, devised by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail.
As the telegraph increased in popularity, teleprinters were devised to enable messages to be sent and received by those who did not know Morse Code. The piano-derived keyboard (which predates the modern QWERTY layout) allows the user to input characters. The machine on the right is a specialised telegraph machine which prints stock exchange information onto ticker-tape.
The transmission of potentially sensitive personal and economic information using the telegraph led many to encrypt their messages, a practice that has continued through various media to the present day.
Numerous attempts to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable were undertaken during the 1850s and 1860s. These were soon upgraded as the technology improved, and sections of the original cables were retained as souvenirs—undersea fauna and all!
As the telegraph revolutionised written communication, so the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell heralded a profound change in oral communication. Some of his patent models for telephone transmitters and receivers are also on display in the museum.
The museum also features a number of radio parts developed by Guglielmo Marconi and his peers, but the centrepiece of this section of the gallery has to be this colossal array of equipment, as used for the BBC’s first radio broadcast on November 14, 1922.
At around the same time, John Logie Baird was experimenting with a “televisor” to transmit moving images using the same principles. This is one of his demonstration models.
The Space Race that took place in the second half of the twentieth century developed the technology that allowed television to be broadcast from the Earth’s orbit, via satellite. This is a model of Telstar 1, which was the first to do so after its launch in 1962.
The key development within information technology during the second half of the twentieth century was the invention and inexorable spread and growth of the Internet and World Wide Web. This is one of the computers that formed part of ARPANET, an early network and precursor to the Web that was run by the US Department of Defense in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Bringing the collection right up-to-date, the gallery also features a Google Earth tricycle as a symbol of the company’s ongoing efforts to digitise and disseminate as much information as it possibly can, and the potential ethical issues that this raises.
Adjacent to the Information Age gallery is located a separate Computing exhibit, which features several works and reconstructions of machines devised by the polymath Charles Babbage, a pioneer who constructed—or at least, attempted to construct—mechanical engines whose purpose was to solve complex mathematical problems.
This machine is the fully-realised version of Babbage’s second Difference Engine (1847-9), which was never finished due to a shortage of funds needed to build such a complex machine and its thousands of highly-detailed component parts. Nevertheless, the modern construction, built to Victorian-standard tolerances by the Science Museum, works perfectly.
Finally, this section also boasts mechanical computers from much later on, even as the digital electronic computer was taking over. This eccentric device is called the Monetary National Income Analogue Computer (MONIAC)—also known as the Phillips Hydraulic Computer—and it uses fluid dynamics to simulate a the workings of a national economy. Yes, that really does mean that its computation is carried out by water sloshing around a network of tanks, tubes and other apparatus.
This is just a small selection of the objects on display. I highly recommend visiting the gallery to my fellow LIS students, and the exhibitions that make up the remainder of museum are worth making the trip for as well.