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By Ben Russell on

Climate and the collection

Over the last 250 years our way of life and Earth’s climate have changed dramatically. Read on as we explore some of these changes through objects in the Science Museum Group Collection.

In the late 1700s many people lived in the countryside, working the land or making things at home using simple tools.

But the world was changing. The industrial revolution was underway and in the years between 1760 and 1830 Britain became the world’s first industrial nation.

Today’s standard of living, together with the environmental and energy challenges we now struggle with, grew out of this revolution.

In 1777 Mathew Boulton and James Watt design and build Old Bess, now one of the world’s oldest surviving steam engines.

It heralded a new industrial economy built on burning coal and catalysed the building of machines on an industrial scale.

Factories whirred into action for the first time. Mineral mines powered thundering new technologies, driving the development of steam locomotives such as Puffing Billy, and thousands flocked to cities for the first time.

Puffing Billy at work at Wylam Colliery in around 1862

However progress was limited by slow roads and canals which were the only way to transport goods long distance. For people, travel between cities was only possible by horseback.

By the 1820s the world’s first steam-powered public railway had sprung to life in Shildon, County Durham. The mills of Manchester were producing so much cotton that faster and more efficient transport was urgently needed. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway was built to service this need, but the demand for faster locomotives never ceased.

In October 1829 the Rainhill trials were held to find “the most improved locomotive engine” for the railway. Over 10,000 spectators attended as an unremarkable stretch of countryside near Liverpool became the launchpad for revolutionary engineering ideas.

Rocket combined many existing concepts in its remarkable design, giving it the speed and efficiency needed to win the trials. These elements become part of almost every steam locomotive that followed.

Travel to another town, for work or leisure, and returning home the same day was now possible. Passengers become profitable for the railways and soon Britain was in the grip of ‘Railway Mania’. The rise of the railways and growing industrialisation enabled mass manufacturing and travel, altering our climate forever.

It was believed that the climate has always been the same, but throughout the 1800s scientists explored the properties of the air, measured the weather (giving birth to the science of meteorology) and debated what kept the Earth warm.

The pioneering scientific work of Luke Howard, who was inspired by nature from a young age and became an amateur meteorologist, changed the way we understand the climate.

In 1802, Howard became the first person to scientifically name and classify the clouds. Based on detailed observations (and with a little imagination) he created the words we still use to this day: cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Howard captured these transient cloud types in delicate, though scientifically scrutinised sketches.

Howard also became a pioneer of urban climate studies, taking daily observations of temperature, rainfall, atmospheric pressure and wind direction. Howard collected this data using specially made instruments, such as this rain gauge. His observations from 1807-1830 were published in The Climate of London, arguably the first climate textbook.

Bottle and funnel from Luke Howard’s original rain gauge

We think of plastics as a modern material, but the first synthetic plastic – Parkesine – was patented by Birmingham-born artisan-cum-chemist Alexander Parkes in 1862.

A cheap and colourful substitute for ivory or tortoiseshell, this new plastic made items like combs and billiard balls affordable, democratising consumer goods. Also known as celluloid, this remarkable material was vital for the development of the film industry.

But as we are becoming increasingly aware, our widespread adoption of plastics since the 1860s has not been without consequences.

Parkesine brush or mirror with moulded female Grecian figure

We also tend to think of electric cars as futuristic, helping reduce our carbon emissions, but they have a much older history.

On the streets of London in 1897, you could have hailed one of Walter Bersey’s electric taxis. With a top speed of 9-12 mph, the Bersey electric taxi was the first self-propelled vehicle for hire on London’s roads.

Cars began to make their mark in Britain following the repeal of the Red Flag Act in 1896 (which stated a flag must be carried in front of non-horse drawn vehicles). The first car to drive on British roads arrived just a year earlier and since then our obsession with the motor car, a major contributor to pollution, has not stopped.

Panhard Levassor 4hp motor car, the first car to drive on British roads

In the early 1900s research into ultraviolet light being absorbed by the atmosphere led to the discovery of the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful rays and keeps the Earth warm.

University lecturer Gordon Dobson was fascinated with ozone. He built this spectrograph in his shed in 1924 to regularly measure atmospheric ozone and test his ideas.

Later versions of his creation were used to study ozone levels worldwide, with a Dobson instrument in Antarctica recording dramatically declining ozone concentrations in 1985.

Spectrograph designed by Gordon Dobson in 1924

Subsequent research provided confirmation of the ozone hole, ultimately provoking global environmental action to ban ozone-destroying compounds from use in the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Modern versions of Dobson’s instrument are still used today, monitoring the health of the ozone layer as it recovers.

Whilst change in the ozone layer is not directly linked to climate change, understanding Earth’s atmosphere was important for creating effective climate models.

Early computers, such as the world’s first automatic computer EDSAC and Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine, were developed thanks to technological advances made during the Second World War. EDSAC was used to create climate models based on weather and climate data. By understanding the climate we could see how these natural systems worked on a global scale.

Pilot model of the Automatic Computing Engine, 1949

In the 1950s, inventor and chemist James Lovelock developed a device called the Electron Capture Detector, which was many times more sensitive than existing instruments in detecting certain chemical pollutants.

His research provided the first indication that human-made pollution had spread across the globe and revolutionised our understanding of the atmosphere and our environment.

Electron capture detector constructed by James Lovelock

With the opening of Calder Hall nuclear power station in 1956 – the world’s first commercial nuclear power station – a new source of low carbon power had entered our energy supply.

Despite high-profile accidents and concern over nuclear weapons, successive governments supported the use of nuclear power. But nuclear power is not completely carbon free. Carbon dioxide emissions arise from concrete used to build the power station and the storage facilities for spent fuel.

Sectioned model of one of the reactors of Calder Hall Nuclear Power Station

At this time, consumerism was on the rise. Plastics were seen as the new wonder material (again). We craved holidays abroad, the latest technologies and consumed energy like never before.

Air travel became increasingly accessible with the development of the jet engine and the introduction of the De Havilland Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner.

Even a series of tragic crashes caused by flaws in Comet’s design did not slow the demand for jet air travel, now a significant contributor to global warming.

De Havilland Comet 4B airliner taken at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire

Suddenly Earth didn’t seem so big anymore.

Perhaps by studying space, other planets and the Moon we could better understand our own home. Taken in 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17 Mission, the first fully illuminated photograph of Earth went viral. Named Blue marble, it showed Earth’s fragility and sparked a desire to protect our home from harm.

By this time there was a growing consensus that the climate was warming. Making the link to emissions, a shift away from coal and oil to nuclear and alternative sources of energy slowly began. The 1973 oil crisis highlighted our growing reliance on oil and the need for renewable energy.

Just a few years later in 1979, 32 solar-thermal panels were installed on the White House roof by President Carter.

Although not technically ground-breaking, this symbolic act represented increased awareness of solar power and the importance of energy security in global politics.

Section of a solar thermal panel previously installed on the roof of the White House

Our current understanding of the causes of global warming has developed through research conduced over the last forty years.

We have used time-capsules from the natural world – measuring the quantities of greenhouse gases in ice cores and trees over the centuries – to show a direct link between increases in greenhouse gases and average surface temperatures.

Scientific research stimulated growing public interest in the environmental damage we have caused. Following the banning of CFCs due to their damage to the ozone layer, global leaders made the first commitment to reduce greenhouse gases in 1992.

In the UK the 1990s bought the dash for gas, with natural gas becoming our main energy source. Innovations in renewable energy continued and we began to see our landscapes used for renewable technologies.

Renewable Energy, by Phillip Fooks, 1995. Oil on canvas showing landscape and turbines of the Penrhyddlan and Llidiartywaun wind farm in Wales (built 1990-92)

Reducing emissions from cars became a public health issue. This drove leaded fuel to be phased out within a decade and the development of more fuel efficient and electric cars.

The new millennium brought about the introduction of more environmental government policies in many countries. In the UK, the ambitious Climate Change Act committed the country to an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.

The world has now woken up to the devastating effects of the huge increases in energy consumption since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. And as curators, we recognise that we need to evolve the stories we tell about our collection to provide fresh context on what’s come before and fresh impetus for the changes our planet needs.