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By Laura Büllesbach on

One more bite of the apple: Juicy stories from the collection

Marking Halloween and the tradition of bobbing for apples, Assistant Curator Laura Büllesbach searched for the juiciest apples in our collections and uncovered some unexpected stories.

The history of apples begins in prehistoric times. Approximately 750,000 years ago, food gatherers discovered sour crab apples in the forests of modern-day Kazakhstan. For most of this time, apple consumption was limited to the gathering of wild fruit until people began to cultivate them for the first time about 8,000 years ago. Later, it travelled to Europe along the Silk Road. On the way, different hybrids of apples were created by ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The latter eventually spread them to the British Isles, where they planted the first ever British orchard. Soon, the fruit became immensely popular in Europe, from where it was imported to the Americas by European colonisers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Apples have made appearances in art, history and mythology around the world. The Norse gods are said to have gained immortality from eating the golden apples of Idunn; in Greek mythology, an apple set off the Trojan wars; a magical apple from Samarkand is said to cure all human disease in ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ while the forbidden fruit of Eden is often depicted as an apple. Even in the Science Museum Group’s collection, apples feature in exciting ways.

‘An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away’: Apples and Health

Etching, ‘apples five a ha’penny’ by Walter Geikie

Most people are sure to have been told, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ at least once in their lives. The phrase first appeared in The Bradford Observer in March 1866. Mentioned as a proverb from Pembrokeshire, Wales, it recommended that readers: ‘Eat an apple on going to bed and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread’.

Although the saying is comparatively new in the fruit’s history, apples have been considered healthy for much longer. Especially for the rural poor, they were an important crop. Apples kept through winter when other produce was rare, and cider made from the juice was often safer to drink than dirty water.

Apples are found in different medical traditions throughout time, from Indian ayurvedic texts to traditional Chinese medicine. Their cooling, soothing, cleansing, diuretic and anti-inflammatory qualities have been recommended to circumvent numerous ills, ranging from constipation to a dry throat and kidney stones.

Italian syrup jug, 18th century, used for apple syrup

The pectin fibre they contain can have a cholesterol-lowering effect while their richness in polyphenols and protective plant compounds can help lower the risk of several chronic diseases. Apples also have a low glycaemic index, which together with high flavonoid context, may help to improve insulin sensitivity and in turn help prevent diabetes.

However, despite their numerous benefits, it must be said that a study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine Journal in 2015 found no evidence that an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, when comparing the amount of doctor visits of apple eaters and non-apple eaters.

‘How’d you like them apples?’: Ways of eating an apple

Apple scoop of bone carved from sheep’s tibia, from Witney

Just as there are a lot of benefits to eating apples, there are also a lot of ways to do so. This 19th century apple scoop from Witney in Oxfordshire is carved from a sheep’s tibia. Apple scoops date back as far as the 17th century and had several uses, such as removing apple cores and scooping away and eating the flesh until only the skin was left.

These scoops proved to be an especially useful utensil for people with tooth decay or loss. Dentures were expensive and rarely an option for the working class, until well into the 20th century. Apples and sheep bones on the other hand were affordable and scoops could easily be made at home. Often intricately carved with beautiful designs, their popularity only declined as dental care improved and dentures became cheaper.

Space food, made in collaboration with Heston Blumenthal for Tim Peake’s journey to the International Space Station

Legend has it that Isaac Newton was inspired by a falling apple to discover the law of gravity; but chef Heston Blumenthal was inspired to take apples into zero gravity. All food that can be eaten in space must be prepared in advance and sealed, which does not always make it look appealing. Blumenthal wanted to change this and demonstrate the impact that good food can have on people’s mental health.

He created seven recipes as ‘bonus food’ for British astronaut Tim Peake’s 2016 mission to the International Space Station. While still adhering to ESA’s strict criteria, the goal was to make the dishes look, taste, and smell better and remind Peake of his home and family. Because of the ways gravity impacts the body, food created on Earth loses its good taste when eaten in space. To ensure that Peake’s stewed apples were still delicious, Blumenthal created them in zero-gravity conditions and monitored salt thresholds, acidity, sweetness, and moisture migration.

Fruit of knowledge: Apples in science and technology

Apple Mac Colour Classic, with dust cover, keyboard and mouse, boxed software and manual, 1993.

When searching the internet for ‘apple’, the first result is not the fruit but one of the world’s leading technology companies. There are several theories on where Apple got its name and logo. One of the more interesting, but likely false, speculations is that it was chosen to honour mathematician Alan Turing, a pioneer of modern computing. He died in 1954 and an apple laced with cyanide was found next to his bed. Another suspicion is that it relates to Isaac Newton as the first logo designed by Steve Jobs pictured the scientist under the apple tree.

The explanation most likely to be true, however, is that Jobs just really liked apples. It also conveniently situated the company alphabetically ahead of its rival Atari in the telephone book – a clear benefit.

Reconstruction of the double helix model of DNA, using some of the original metal plates, by Francis Crick and James Watson, England, 1953

Recently, scientists have tried to code apples for data storage. As researchers at the Harvard’s Wyss Institute found, a single droplet of DNA is capable of storing 700 terabytes of data – the equivalent of 14,000 Blu-Ray discs. DNA is more stable than other data storage methods and can survive for thousands of years. In 2014, artist and scientist Joe Davis and his team started their project ‘Malus Ecclesia’. Using their DNA as storage space, they are creating literal trees of knowledge by inserting Wikipedia entries into the non-essential genetic strands of apples.

For this to work, English Wikipedia articles are translated to DNA’s four nucleotide letters A, C, G, and T and inserted into saplings through bacteria. Once the saplings grow into trees, the apples they bear contain the new DNA and the Wikipedia entries. Because only non-essential DNA is changed, the resulting crop looks, smells and tastes the same as normal apples!

Each bacterial carrier can only cope with a few thousand words and the whole of Wikipedia would thus require an entire forest of apple trees. As a start, the team therefore chose to decode the top 50,000 pages, which make up 50 percent of the most visited pages.

From data storage to business names and as a food source, apples have shaped people’s lives in many different ways. What do they mean to you? Get bobbing and share your experiences.