Science Museum
© Jonathan Perugia

The seven wonders of the Science Museum

From giant steam engines to proto-computers and iron lungs, here are the seven objects to track down on your next Science Museum visit

Chris Waywell

South Kensington’s Science Museum is a temple to technology packed full with amazing stuff, from steam engines to super-computers, rockets, cars and the other products of the greatest brains in history. If you want to know how and why the modern world happened, you should head here. We've picked our seven favourite objects to seek out on your next visit to London's home of science and technology. 

Hunting for more museum treasures? Check out the top ten museum exhibitions on at the moment, or explore after hours with London's late night museum events

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Seven things to find at the Science Museum

1. Iron lung, 1953

The ’50s was the Jet Age: we’d conquered the skies and space was next. Back on the ground, the nearest most poor saps got to the chrome-and-glass dreams of the future was this: an iron lung. Polio was epidemic in Britain, and beautiful pieces of technology like this saved lives. The disease was eradicated by the ’80s. If this all seems a bit downbeat, think: Bond villain.

2. Black Arrow rocket, 1971

While our US cousins sped cosmos-wards at the sharp end of giant Saturn rockets, the British space programmes lobbed satellites into orbit using the rather more prosaically named Black Arrow. It could be a pub, or a darts club, or a pipe-smoking 1950s super-policeman. It embodied a dream though: that one day every Briton would be able to watch ‘Coronation Street’ without having to keep fiddling with the aerial.


3. Mill engine, 1903

If a space rocket is the Science Museum’s blue whale, then its giant steam engines are its dinosaur skeletons. They look prehistoric to us, but at the end of the eighteenth century must have appeared to be the most incredible pieces of alien future technology. They powered the Industrial Revolution and over the course of 100 years changed Britain forever, allowing us to move from being illiterate agricultural workers with incredibly low life expectancy to become illiterate manufacturing workers with incredibly low life expectancy. But hey, look at this great big red one: it’s a beauty!

4. Valve from the Colossus Project, 1943

Alan Turing is finally being remembered for a) cracking the German Enigma code, allowing the Allies to win WWII, and b) being driven to suicide by the State after the war for fancying boys more than girls. Another long-overlooked hero-boffin was a Post Office engineer, the mastermind behind a huge proto-computer at Bletchley Park, the Colossus. After the conflict, he was forbidden to reveal his part in the project, though given that he was called Tommy Flowers, might count himself lucky to have escaped with his life.


5. Foden lorry, 1931

Technology comes in all shapes and sizes, and one of the great things about the Science Museum collection is that it celebrates the humble as well as the spectacular. Hence this early diesel lorry. On the one hand, this handsome vehicle ushered in the era of pollution, congestion and cycle lobbyists. On the other, though, it refers to an earlier age of steam engines and narrow boats. Its delicately glazed cab and load bed as smooth as a ballroom floor are about the best adverts ever for becoming a C2 multi-drop delivery driver.

6. Mobile phone repair sign, 2000s

This street board from Buea in Cameroon says – as much as any other exhibit in the Science Museum – that technology is as shifty as politics or culture. In Africa, mobile phone connectivity is kept alive by ad-hoc geniuses using the most basic tools. It’s a reminder that all over the world, there will always be a man in a shed somewhere soldering two wires together, hiding from his wife.


7. Model of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, 1871

Unfinished at the time of his death, computer pioneer Babbage’s Analytical Engine was the next step in automated calculation after his earlier Difference Engine. Babbage (with the input of Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, about whom the Science Museum has a new display) can therefore be held broadly responsible for 'Angry Birds 2' being a bit crap, though his machines were robustly hacker-proof, being made of brass, and weighing several tonnes.

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