Visitors to the Science Museum are often either delighted or slightly bemused by the contrasts provided by its exhibits. The oldest gallery, containing delightfully old-fashioned dioramas of agricultural machinery at work, faces one of the newer, on plastics. Both the topics and their method of display are entirely different, and entirely of their time.
Another striking juxtaposition is provided by the positioning of the noisy, and packed, hands-on Launch Pad, aimed at 8-14-year-olds, next to the sedate, and usually completely empty, display of the Science in the 18th Century. It had always seemed odd, and rather unjust to the beautiful 18th-century instruments, that the gallery entrance should be placed on a landing through which parents are quickly dragged by their impatient children to the more enticing activity beyond, and where child-free adults almost fear to tread. On my last visit, however, I finally got it. Trying to persuade my son – put off, I assume, by the evident unpopularity of the place – to let me look just quickly at the display, I explained to him what the instruments were for. He’s only three, so I’m not sure he quite took it all on board, but he did admit that he would rather like to have an orrery.
- The point is, of course, that much of the George III Collection is an 18th-century Launch Pad for young princes. Lucky Frederick, William, Edward, Ernest, Augustus and Adolphus (for I assume it was mostly the boys) had the chance to play with instruments – designed by top makers, such as George Adams, explained and demonstrated by an eminent tutor, Stephen Demainbray – that would demonstrate established physical laws and display the orderly workings of the solar system. The spectacular Philosophical Table alone could be used to display a whole host of fundamental principles. For these privileged boys, these objects, when at Kew Palace and Kew Observatory, would have been as hands-on as the interative displays in Launch Pad – only rather less crowded. Here, then, is a nice contrast: a democratisation of learning. What, once, only princes might enjoy is now made available to all visitors to the Science Museum for free.
That said, part of the story of the George III Collection is about an earlier response to widening audiences for science. The definitive catalogue of the collection, Alan Morton and Jane Wess’s Private and Public Science (1993), quickly reminds us of this fact. Many of the instruments, although they came to Kew in 1769, were made by Demainbray for the kind public lectures popularised by his teacher John Desaguliers, in a period when lectures on natural philosophy were an attraction among fashionable, wealthy and leisured audiences. This was, of course, some way off the 19th-century movement for working class education but was certainly a new chapter for scientific exposition and demonstration (see Larry Stewart’s The Rise of Public Science for more on this extraordinary period and the rise of popular Newtonianism).
The Collection as a whole enjoyed a different kind of public, and pedagogical, life before it reached the Science Museum in 1927. In the 1840s, when Queen Victoria was trying to decide what to do with the royal palaces, gardens and observatory at Kew, the instruments were brought to King’s College London and displayed in the George III Museum, opened by Prince Albert in 1843.
At King’s, the instruments and apparatus were put in the care of Professor Charles Wheatstone, famed chiefly for his work in telegraphy. It had, already, significant historic interest, but it was part of its intended purpose that it should be updated to reflect recent science and became both a teaching tool and a working, “hands-on” collection. The image above shows Prince Albert inspecting a portion of Charles Babbage‘s Difference Engine, now also at the Science Museum, and Wheatstone ensured his own immortality by including examples of his own work, including an improved version of the speaking machine invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen. The opening event was to be rounded off with a whizz-bang demonstration, spectacular enough to impress even today’s jaded Science Museum audience. In front of crowds and a band of the Guards, Wheatstone was to demonstrate his electro-magnetic telegraph by sending a signal across the Thames to discharge a cannon on the shot-tower at Lambeth.
Sadly it didn’t work. Albert was, according to this biography of Wheatstone, gracious enough to “accept the principle involved”. I hope the kids at Launch Pad show the demonstrators and interpreters as much indulgence!