Joe Hendren

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Travels: London

Visit to the Science Museum

Friday October 18, 2002

The museum is on three large floors, with sections devoted to just about every aspect of science and engineering. Suffice to say the museum had some really neat stuff, including a full working model of Charles Babbage's difference engine, Robert Stevenson's original 'Rocket' steam locomotive and the original Apollo 10 crew module.

I spent just over a whole afternoon there, and only managed to have a decent look at two sections, the section devoted to the history of rockets and space travel and the half a floor devoted to the history of mechanical and electronic computers. Although it is a science museum I thought there was a heavy weight put on the engineering aspects, and on some subjects I thought it did not give enough time to theoretical advances. That said theoretical issues are a little harder to put on a display, but some more explanation of their importance would have been nice.

The room devoted to Charles Babbage's life and work is really neat. Charles Babbage (1791-1871) has been called the father of computing as he designed the first fully mechanical calculator/computer that could handle a carry (ie what to do when 999 becomes 1000 etc). While Babbage was able to demonstrate a cut down version of his difference engine in his own lifetime (1832), his efforts to build the machines he designed nearly always lead to frustration and failure. As a way of commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1991, the museum started work in 1985 to build a complete difference engine (No. 2) to Babbage's specifications. No one knew if it would work, but it did (unfortunately I did not see it going - I don't know if you can). The museum also includes a small part of Babbage's second machine the Analytical Engine. This machine included many concepts included in modern computers, such as a separation of memory and 'processor' and the concept of a stored program. If it was built the analytical engine would be the size of a steam locomotive, and would at that time had to have been powered by one.

The rest of the history of computing exhibit followed the traditional version that the Americans played the leading role in the early development of electronic computers, mentioning little of the British efforts apart from the Manchester University computers. I was a little suprised that there was very few references to Alan Turing and no mention of his work on designing the codebreaking computers at Bletchley Park during WWII, especially as most of this information was unclassified some time ago. It also soley credited Von Neumann with the idea of a stored program computer, when it appears that Turing came up with the same idea around the same time. I guess those of us who have been exposed to the 'Jack Copeland' version of the history of computers remain in the minority.

The Rockets and Space Exploration section had heaps of neat stuff. I really enjoyed the sections on Von Braun and how his early work with the V2s lead to rockets capable of getting to the moon. I was somewhat surprised there was so much material on the V2s, given that they were so feared in London during the last half of WWII. Von Braun also pioneered work on surface to air, air to air, air to surface and surface to surface missiles - there were some neat old films showing the testing of the prototypes.

I was also mildly amused by a 1985 NASA video that claimed that the space shuttle offered a less expensive means of reaching space, when they would have well known by 1985 that launching throwaway rockets was cheaper. Russia abandoned their own 'shuttle' the Butan in 1988-9 for this very reason (incidentally there is a replica of a Butan sitting in Gorky Park in the middle of Moscow). The Russians built 5 Butans, made a successful unmanned test flight and went back to rockets. There is a similar story about how NASA spent squillions of dollars developing a pen that would work in space....the Russians just took up pencils instead!

I look forward to going back, as there is plenty more to see.  Best of all the main exhibition is free - yay.

Current Mood: interested
Current Music: ceiling fan