We love museums. One of our longtime favourites here in Newcastle is the Discovery Museum, our local museum of science, engineering and local history. Before it became a museum in the 1980s, this classic red brick Victorian building was the headquarters of the North East branch of the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Called “Blandford House”, the building first opened in 1899. The domes on the turrets are made of copper and have developed their distinctive green patina over the years.
The contemporary colourful entrance arch leads visitors to the glass entrance hall. The building has been partially modernised inside too, for example, the addition of glass lifts (elevators 😉 ) and a modern open aspect stairwell, but it does also retain some wonderful Victorian features such as the Great Hall on the fourth floor which is now used for special events and some visiting exhibitions.
The modern features contrast with the solid painted brick walls and the old metal painted pipework that is still visible around the ceilings of the galleries. The building still has much of the feeling of a Victorian industrial workshop and this works well as the setting for a museum journey into the history of inventions and the lives and culture of the people of the North East.
In our family, we associate the Discovery Museum very much with the hands-on exhibits in the Science Maze – the numerous interactive science activities that demonstrate electricity, magnetism, light, pulleys, gears or sound. Many happy and informative hours have been spent in this part of the museum. There are also lots of interesting exhibits here, some of which celebrate the bright ideas of some of the North East’s home-grown inventors including Charles Parsons and William Armstrong.
There are some suberb static steam engines that have seen service in industry and training colleges in the region alongside a range of technology ‘relics’ – from mid-20th century TV sets and reel to reel film to mini-disc players and Sony Walkmans. There are 19th century telegraph machines demonstrating the capacity to transfer information using electrical signals – a kind of pre-cursor to the internet, and there are telephones too, including such ‘old-fashioned’ things as car phones and mobile phones from the early years of this century. These exhibits show just how fast the technology aspect of our lives has changed in the last century or so.
The image below shows the huge metal amplifying horn that formed part of Charles Parsons’ early version of a music amplifier – the Auxetophone. The machine worked using an air control valve that was attached to the gramophone needle and then passed the pulses of air through into the horn to amplify the sound. It was extremely loud apparently at up to 90 decibels, with little in the way of volume control! Charles Parsons is rather better known as the inventor of the steam turbine and his first steam-driven vessel, the very impressive Turbinia, stands in her own gallery on the ground floor of the museum. The Auxetophone was merely a hobby project for Parsons. The horn stands around eight feet high (almost 2.5 metres).
The reason for our cultural caper to the Discovery Museum this week was to see a particular exhibition on one of our Victorian inventors from the North East, the chemist, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan. You may not be familiar with the name of Joseph Swan, but you are likely to be familiar with one of his most famous inventions – the lightbulb.
As part of the exhibition, appropriately entitled “A Brilliant Mind: Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, 1828 – 1914”, the Science Museum in London had loaned several items including the original lamp that Joseph Swan used to demonstrate his invention in Newcastle and Gateshead in the early months of 1879. In 1880 Swan asked his friend, the inventor and industrialist William Armstrong, if he could try out his invention to light up Armstrong’s country house at Cragside in Northumberland. William Armstrong had previously created his own source of hydroelectricity using a stream that ran through the grounds of his house. I think it is very interesting that the first house in the world to be lit with electric lamps was also powered by renewable energy – and this was 1880!
By 1883 Joseph Swan had teamed up with American physicist, Thomas Edison, who had also been working to develop a filament lamp. You can see their lamps side by side on this link to the Science Museum. Together Edison and Swan formed the first company to produce lightbulbs commercially – the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company which was located at Benwell in Newcastle. The Discovery Museum’s example of the first commercially available electric lamps of the type used at William Armstrong’s Cragside home is shown displayed as part of the Swan exhibition.
Another of Joseph Swan’s inventions that may be of interest to all you photographers out there was his Carbon Process that allowed photographers to print their photographs in permanent pigments, patented by Swan in 1864. Swan’s process for the first time provided photographers with a permanent printing process that could be carried out with readily available materials. Prior to this, early photographic prints had suffered with fading. The carbon powder was used in a thin film of gelatine and was sensitised with potassium chromate.
Swan’s patent was bought up by the Autotype and Publishing Company in London and the process was used for around a hundred years to produce high quality photographic prints. Here is the example of Swan’s Carbon Process for photographic prints that was on display in the exhibition (with a reflection of my son and Charles Parsons’ Turbinia in the background 😉 ).
All in all, we enjoyed a fascinating visit to the Discovery Museum. From a parent’s point of view it was also interesting to see how our boys have ‘moved on’ from the hands-on interactive exhibits to being keenly interested in studying the technological developments displayed in the exhibition cases. My youngest son’s only criticism was that he wanted more information on each of the exhibits! Museums and art galleries are such a fabulous educational experience and I always consider us very fortunate to have access to so many of these education treasure houses locally to us, free of charge – though we do post a voluntary donation in the strategically-placed collection boxes, as we know such places do not run on fresh air. Thank you to Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives service for these wonderful resources!
This post is my entry for Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge on the theme of Buildings this week. Please do check out other entries to the challenge.
J Peggy Taylor