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London Comms Museum Ticks All the Right Boxes

The UK's first museum gallery dedicated to the communications and IT sectors was opened at the Science Museum in London last week by HM The Queen, who used the occasion to send her first tweet urging all and sundry to visit Information Age. (The message sneaked in three characters under the limit.)

The gallery, part of a long-term and ambitious strategy to transform the 200-year-old museum, one of the most popular in London, occupies the 2,500 square meters previously used to tell the story of shipping, another influential revolution that brought people together and made our world a seemingly smaller place.

Next up, it has been revealed, is a novel Mathematics Gallery, scheduled to open in 2016 and to be designed by one of the world's great architects, Zaha Hadid.

As anticipated in a previous post, the centrepiece of “Information Age: Six Networks That Changed the World” is the reconstructed six-meter-tall tuning coil from the Rugby Radio Station — part of what was once the world's most powerful radio transmitter when it entered service in 1926, and operational until 2003.

The radio station (call sign GBR) started transmitting Jan. 1, 1926, with a 16kHz (VLF) signal. These could bend round the curvature of the Earth, so they provided global coverage via Morse code signals. The radio station also became a hub for encrypted military communications with ships and submarines. A year later, the Rugby Radio Station also was at the core of the first transatlantic radio telephone service, though the receiving station was located a few miles away to avoid interference.

“It looks like a series of huge hexagonal spider webs constructed from wood and copper and was chosen as our starting point for a very good reason,” says Tilly Blyth, the gallery's lead curator. From what looks more like a piece of modern sculpture than a tuning inductor, we are led to six zones that tell the story of ICT technologies over the past 200 years — focusing on the electrical telegraph, the telephone exchange, radio and TV broadcasting, satellite communications, computer networking, and mobile communications.

The 800 objects are backed up by numerous interactive displays. “And what we have tried very hard to do is to tell the many personal stories behind the objects and the amazing breakthroughs and innovations,” Blyth told EE Times.

Many of the objects have been on display before in various guises, but most are on show for the first time in the new gallery. And there are numerous newly acquired (or, more often, donated) objects that tell the full and up-to-date story of developments in communications.

One donation came from Sir Tim Berners-Lee — the NeXT workstation he used in 1989 at CERN to create the World Wide Web. Speaking to BBC News at the official opening of the gallery, Berners-Lee said that it was “staggering” that people “who clearly must have been brought up like anybody else will suddenly become very polarized in their opinions, will suddenly become very hateful rather than very loving.”

As part of W3C, the consortium entrusted by Berners-Lee to oversee the development of the Internet, he is now pushing for adoption of the “semantic web,” an evolution of the Internet that focuses on easy collaboration when working with data, and a more rigorous understanding of who actually has the right to control their own information.

“I don't want big companies who amass [my data] to be able to abuse it,” he said in the interview. “In a way, I'm very happy if they use it to help me find, you know, the perfect present for somebody that they also know a lot about, in a way that's us working together. But I'd like to be able to use my own data better.

“So I'm worried that my hospital data is in the hospital, and it's not in my computer. I've got my fitness data in the cloud somewhere. It's not on my computer. I want to be able to pull all my data and use it for my own purposes, because I think — maybe this is crazy — but I think the value of my data to me is actually greater than the value to anybody else out there.”

The lead sponsor of the new gallery is BT (formerly British Telecom), while the principal sponsor is the chip IP specialist ARM. The main funder is the British Heritage Lottery Fund, with Google being a “Principal Funder.” The total cost of the project was £15.6 million.

Click through the images below.

Tilly Blyth, lead curator, at the opening of the Information Age gallery.

Tilly Blyth, lead curator, at the opening of the Information Age gallery.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II made her debut on Twitter during the opening ceremony at the @ScienceMuseum. Part of the message reads: “I hope people will enjoy visiting. Elizabeth R.”

Initially, the museum management was concerned that the giant radio tuner would not fit inside the gallery.

Information Age tells the story of communications technologies over the past two centuries.

London calling
The BBC's first Marconi 1.5kW radio transmitter — dubbed the 2LO — broadcast its first program in 1922. The words and music came from studios in Savoy Hill, near the Strand. The initial transmissions carried only about 50 miles, so the service was limited to in and around London. Its fantastic hand-crafted glass valves have been wonderfully restored.

You are nicked
Of the many needle telegraphs designed by Cooke and Wheatstone displayed, this is perhaps the most beautiful, with a rich history. A double-needle version dating from 1843, it was used on the Great Western Railway between Paddington and Slough. On Jan. 1, 1845, this instrument was used to send a message declaring that the suspected murderer William Tawell had boarded a train. He was subsequently arrested on leaving the train, found guilty, and hanged.

The episode brought widespread prominence for the electric telegraph, considered the first really practical use of electricity. From the 1840s onward, it transformed the world of communications. After a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866, messages between Europe and North America took just hours to arrive, rather than weeks.

Start the presses
Charles Wheatstone preferred telegraph systems that did not require specialist knowledge of a code such as Morse. He developed a printer for his “ABC” system in 1841 — which is probably the world's first electrical printing machine. The printing head is a “daisy wheel” with individual type letters mounted on spring steel arms around a central axis. More recently, the invention still forms the basis for electric typewriters and at least some computer printers.

On the right track
Alexander Graham Bell was fascinated by speech and ways of transmitting sounds. In June 1875, with this “Gallows Frame” instrument, he managed to transmit speech, though the words were barely intelligible. He could distinguish sounds, and this drove him to persevere. Ultimately, of course, he succeeded with a workable telephone that he patented in February 1876.

To view the rest of this slideshow, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

1 comment on “London Comms Museum Ticks All the Right Boxes

  1. Susan Fourtané
    November 9, 2014

    The radio transmitter looks as if it would have been taken from a chemistry lab. 😀 

    How interesting the story behind that old telegraph and what a beautiful piece of wooden art it is.

    The 1800s were revolutionary in terms of innovation and invention of technologies that changed the world of communications at the time; and served as the pillars to many of today's technologies as well. Fascinating.

    This section of the Science Museums demands a visit. 🙂   

    -Susan

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