The Science Museum - Science Icons

14 June 2009

Interview with 

Chris Rapley, Science Museum Director; John Liffin and Katie Maggs, curators of the Science Museum; Lord Peter Mandelson


Kat -  Now it's time to join Meera Senthilingam.  She's been in the Science Museum in London this week to celebrate its 100th birthday and to mark the occasion, as with all great parties, the museum has launched a special exhibition showcasing ten iconic inventions from the history of science such as Stevenson's rocket, the Pilot Ace computer, the Apollo 10 capsule and the DNA double helix.  So, Meera went along to find out more.

A real representation of StephensonMeera - 2009 marks a 100 years since the opening of London Science Museum.  So, this week, I've come down to the museum in Kensington for the launch of centenary celebrations.  Now to mark this special anniversary, the Science Museum is launching its centenary journey trail, which identifies ten scientific icons. In addition to this trail there's a public vote to identify the most significant object in the history of science.  Today's event was launched by the Secretary of State for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Lord Peter Mandelson.   Here's what he had to say about the importance of science and Science Museum in society today.

Lord Peter Mandelson -  The road from late night brainwave to scientific breakthrough then commercial success is a long, hard and rocky road. But it does start with the thirst for knowledge and a love for innovation. Over the last 100 years the Science Museum has helped feed and nurture that spirit for countless British innovators.  It has helped explain and show the role of science in our lives in all its glory.

Meera -  That was Lord Peter Mandelson discussing the importance of science in society today. Now, today's centenary celebrations were also launched by the museum's director, Chris Rapley.  So, Chris, tell me a bit about the origins of the Science Museum.

Chris Rapley -  We can trace our origins right back to the 1851 Great Exhibition, which was a celebration of Victorian industrial design and production. In fact, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband was really one of the driving forces behind that.  It was hugely successful something like the equivalent of about 1/3 of Britain's population at the time visited that exhibition. They had 6 million visitors in 5 months and they set up an organization called the South Kensington Museum so that's what we trace our origins to.

Meera -  What would you say the original kind of role of the Science Museum was?

Chris Rapley -  Okay, it was really important that you always find historic champions and the historic champions at that time were the astronomer, Norman Lockyer in particular who actually established Nature magazine which is still, you know, the premier science magazine.  He and others saw the science collection as hugely important to both the scientific, cultural and industrial benefit of the nation and our view of course is, you know, plus ca change. It's exactly the same today.  We're using those objects not just to engage people with something interesting but hopefully to engage them we're thinking about how they can change the future because ahead of us lie great challenges. Science and technology will play an enormous role in either solving those or not. We want everybody to play a part in that.

Meera - Chris Rapley, Director of the Science Museum discussing the origins of the museum and the role it plays in inspiring science in society today.  Now, two people showcasing some of the scientific icons on display here are John Liffin, the curator of communications and Katie Maggs, the curator of medicine.  So, John which icon are you representing?

John -  As a curator of communications, I suppose I really have to go for a Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraph.  This really represents the beginning of electrical communication.  The world exists today on communication.  For the last 150 years, it's been part of what's been making the world as a smaller place. It all started back in London in 1837 with the demonstration of a simple device where magnetic needles pointing to different letters.  You could send a message over a distance.

Meera -  And Katie, you are here supporting the x-ray machine so what makes this the most important icon?

Katie - Well, x-rays have absolutely changed the way we visualize and understand the world and our bodies.  Before the discovery of x-rays, only surgeons could really sort of understand the mess inside our bodies. It's revolutionized medical diagnosis and also it changed science in the way we understand materials.  We wouldn't even know about other icons on the list such as the structure of DNA without x-ray crystallography.  Also, unlike all the other icons which were made by adult scientists and expert engineers this was made by precocious 15 year-old and his father.just a matter of days they're inspired after they first heard about Roentgen's discovery when he was publishing it in 1896. I'm voting for it on behalf of all sort of amateur scientists performing cutting-edge research at home.

Meera - Katie Maggs and John Liffin, both curators here at the Science of Museum.  Now, back to Chris Rapley.  Chris, why were these items chosen above the so many other inventions in the history of science?

Chris Rapley - Well, of course we went through an exercise here with our own staff saying what do you think had the biggest impact on the last 100 years. So, you can see why Stevenson's rocket which completely transformed  expectation of transportation around the country both with goods and people. The Apollo 10 module, you know the pinnacle of human achievement in many ways. It's still marvellous that humans manage to send small numbers around the moon and indeed on the surface of the moon. Penicillin, how many people's lives had been changed, you know, saved by penicillin.  So, there a lot of different ways of looking at this but of course, we're open to debate and discussion. If somebody listening to the program thinks they got it wrong and thinks they should have chosen something else.  We'd be very happy to enter that debate.

Kath - You can look through the remaining icons chosen by the museum by visiting  You can vote for your favourite or even suggest something you think they've missed.  That was Meera Senthilingam there talking to Katie Maggs, Lord Peter Mandelson, Chris Rapley, and John Liffin.  Now, I personally think in the top ten should be pasteurization, DNA sequencing and the jet engine.  How about you Chris?

Chris - Do you want the list? The list that they've got on there is steam engines, Stevenson's rocket, electric telegraph, x-ray machine, Model T-ford, penicillin, V2 rockets, Pilot Ace computer, the double helix and the Apollo 10 capsule.  So, ..

Kat - None of mine then?

Chris Smith - No, they didn't pick up on your one.  What about you, Dave?  What would be on your icon list?

Dave - I think for me the biggest thing would be the printing press because the only way science can keep on going forward is if you can learn from other people and the rest of the world on what they've done until you got a printing press that's very, very difficult.

Chris Smith - Well, I sort of thought in the same vein and I thought modern-day impact on people: similar sort of idea, I go for the internet.  I felt that everyone thinks the museum should have old things in it but that's not necessarily the case. The internet, I think has been the greatest leveller and the biggest communications tool and the biggest conduit for information that we've ever seen in the history of mankind.  Well, I definitely put that as an icon. I also had radio and the radar and transistors because without transistors, we couldn't have an internet, connect computers and we don't have anything so William Schottky's transistor. I had on my list as well.


Add a comment