On the afternoon of Friday 13 July 1866, Isembard Kingdom Brunel’s mighty steamer, the Great Eastern, shadowed by the Royal Navy’s HMS Terrible, set sail from the far south-west of Ireland, carrying in her hold thousands of tonnes of telegraph cable, to cross the Atlantic to Newfoundland.
On 6 August 1991, almost exactly 125 years later, a CERN computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee published a summary of his worldwide web project on an internet newsgroup, marking the formal debut of the web as a public service.
These stories are just two of those being told at a new exhibit at the Science Museum in London, part of a radical revamp of a number of the institution’s galleries currently taking place.
Information Age: Six networks that changed our world was a project four years and £16m in the making for the Science Museum.
Besides the stories of the Great Eastern and Tim Berners-Lee, the country’s first permanent and free exhibit on information and communication technologies will explore the stories of broadcast networking and the history of the BBC; Alexander Graham Bell and telecoms; Alan Turing and the first computers; satellite communications; and mobile networking.
Diverse objects, diverse voices
With assistance from numerous bodies, including BT, which donated 80 items to the exhibition, the Science Museum has brought together a diverse collection of objects never before assembled in one place.
Some key highlights include a scale model of the Great Eastern; the NeXT computer on which Tim Berners-Lee created the web; a collection of oddly shaped Cold War telephone handsets; a Cameroonian mobile phone kiosk; an actual communications satellite, not a replica; 2LO, the first BBC radio transmitter; and the gallery centrepiece, the Rugby Coil (pictured), a vast wood and copper aerial tuning inductor that was in service from 1926 until 2002.
For BT, networking history is important because it distinguishes it from the 500 or so commercial competitors it has in the UK, said David Hay, head of heritage and archives at the telco.
“There are so many touch points in people’s lives that they have with BT – the K6 telephone kiosks [Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic red phonebox], the 999 service, the speaking clock, and things like that,” said Hay. “Although we’re by no means a monopoly, we’re still an important part of the UK’s social landscape and proud to be part of that.”
Exhibition curator Tilly Blyth explained that the project had two objectives. The first of these was to make visitors think beyond the familiar everyday infrastructure of mobile phones and televisions to how connectivity is made possible, hence the selection of the Rugby coil as centrepiece.
The second objective was to highlight the voices and stories of lesser-known innovators and users alongside the well-known names of Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird and Tim Berners-Lee.
Digital advocate Martha Lane-Fox said the gallery reminded her of the extraordinary ambition of so much of the UK's past – from laying the transatlantic telegraph cable to the invention of the web.
"It throws down the gauntlet for the future and provides fabulous inspiration," she said.
The Rugby Coil
Built in 1926, the Rugby Coil was donated to the Science Museum in 2005 after being taken out of service in 2003. This is the first time it has been on public display.
A six-metre high assembly of timber and copper resembling a spider's web or ferris wheel, the aerial induction coil connected the transmitter at Rugby to 12 outdoor aerial masts, each 800ft high and containing 25 miles of copper cabling between them.
According to David Hay, BT’s head of archives, it was the largest transmitter in the world at the time.
“The most basic comparison I can make is it is similar to the dial in a transistor radio – it fine-tuned the frequency of the aerial outside,” he explains.
Despite burning down in the 1940s and having to be rebuilt, the Rugby Coil played a critical role during the Second World War, sending encrypted Morse code radio signals to the British fleet and the French Resistance.
It was also used during the Cold War, to communicate with submarines that would rise up from the ocean depths to receive radio signals from the Admiralty.
It may even have been the means by which nuclear submarines would have listened out for the BBC’s Today Programme to tell whether or not London had been bombed.
“There is an apocryphal story that the message to sink the General Belgrano [during the Falklands War] went over it, but BT never knew what the signals were because they were encrypted and we were just the carrier,” said Hay.
“We were keen to preserve it because it’s such a monumental piece. It exemplifies the pride people have in BT and what we’ve done over the years.”
Information, education and entertainment
In setting up an exhibition about networks, the museum’s curators were forced to push the boundaries of how the gallery is presented to make the experience both emotional and personal.
Jen Kavanagh, audience engagement manager at the Science Museum, has taken pains to help ensure that visitors are better able to connect with and understand the significance of the technology on display.
“A lot of these objects are incredible but challenging to engage with, so we worked with many communities to represent more voices,” she said.
“We have a section of the Enfield exchange – the last manual telephone exchange in London, which closed in 1960. We conducted interviews with the women who used to work as operators to get a sense of their working life – how they worked, the calls they got, the naughty stuff that happened behind the scenes – and put together an interactive exhibit where you plug in, mirroring how you used to plug into an exchange, and listen to them through headphones.”
The Science Museum will also be working closely with school parties to bring visiting children into contact with some of the more compelling objects on display, which are not always the most attractive or engaging to look at.
In its arsenal is a new smartphone app, designed to encourage people to slow down and consider the objects on display, and 45-minute radio and coding workshops developed through consultation work with computer science and ICT teachers to enhance the coding curriculum.
“We’ll be using laptops in the workshops to do drag and drop programming and push out that information through a USB cable to a robot, which moves based on the instructions you give it,” said Kavanagh.
“A lot of teachers are trying to find ways in which they don’t need to have huge amounts of kit in the classroom to be able to teach computing – to be able to sit a class down and do something bespoke and different, and hands-on and engaging.
“We wanted to offer the opportunities to have access to things like robots, and use kit that’s different to what you’d have in a classroom,” she explained.
Simon Segars, chief executive of exhibit sponsor Arm, said: "The future is always nurtured in the minds of children, and a gallery such as the Science Museum's Information Age can inspire them to unleash their ideas.
"If just some of the young people coming to see the exhibition go on to become engineers and scientists, then we've succeeded," added Segars.
Image courtesy of the Science Museum.