By Laurence Scales, but with abridged extracts from a contemporary Indian journal.
On 12 October 2016 Wonderlab, a new interactive science gallery, opens at the Science Museum, but science has long been entertaining Londoners. 178 years ago, submarine explosions were an attraction at London’s foremost science gallery. In 1869, giant electric sparks as long as your arm were added to the gallery. These excitements were not in South Kensington but at 309 Regent Street.
We're talking about the Royal Polytechnic Institution, led by Sir George Cayley (1773–1857), the first aeronautical engineer, who was renowned for flying one of his servants in a glider. Its successor, the University of Westminster, still hosts films in the 1848 auditorium, once the venue for the most spectacular magic lantern shows that glass, paint and a few levers could contrive.
The serious business of the Polytechnic was to provide courses such as chemistry, printing, photography and ‘the proper instruction of railway engine drivers’. A notable lecturer for 20 years was John Pepper, famous for the theatrical illusion known as Pepper’s ghost, in which an actor is seen to be partially dematerialised by casting a reflection on to glass. More usually, Pepper performed feats of analysis such as detecting poisonous adulterants in beer, a hazard of the time.
Before literally plunging in at the deep end, we glance at the 1843 catalogue of exhibits and wonder if people were thrilled at the sight of agricultural items such as Beatson's Scarifier, Smith's Sub-soil Plough, an Improved Sluice-Cock, Morton's Revolving Harrow with Extirpator, and a Bone-Crusher with Double Rollers. But this was a world in which even the fire escape was exciting.
Young Prince Albert visited the Polytechnic and was dunked in the great show piece, a diving bell. It's hard to imagine that world where there was something new and promising at every turn but we are helped by two Indian visitors, Jehangeer Nowrojee and Hirjeebhoy Merwanjee, who left us their impressions of the bell and other attractions:
"Proceed to the great hall, 120 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 40 feet high; in the centre are two canals with a surface of 700 feet of water, attached to which are all the appurtenances of a dock yard, with a great many locks to keep up a head of water upon canals, and a series of water wheels in motion. At the end of the canal is a deep reservoir of water into which a diving bell containing four or five persons is lowered to a considerable depth, air being supplied by pumps, so that visitors may descend with convenience, and we saw several persons go down, among whom were some ladies, the only inconvenience experienced under the water is a great pressure inside of the ears.
"A diver, clothed in a patent water and air tight diving dress, goes down a ladder to the bottom, and he then presents a most laughable appearance; he is obliged to load himself with heavy weights, otherwise his buoyancy would cause him to float on the surface, but thus loaded down he goes, and will pick up money or any small thing thrown down to him; a model of a ship containing a small charge of gunpowder is sunk under the water, to which the diver attaches wires, which when connected instantly explodes and the vessel is shattered to pieces, thus illustrating Colonel Pasley's clever method of destroying the wreck of the Royal George at Spithead."
Albert gave 2 guineas to the diver, ‘to keep out the cold.’
"We are quite sure that there is not in any country to be procured so much intellectual amusement for a shilling. A band of music plays daily. There are 30 different rooms. The whole building is 320 feet in length.
"We saw in the lecture room numerous living animalcules in water, exhibited through Cary's Oxyhydrogen Microscope, upon a screen containing 425 square feet, and to see the hundreds of monsters of horrid shapes in a drop of water magnified so as to appear several feet long, and to see a flea made to look as large almost as an Elephant, and the myriads of live eels in a bit of sour paste no bigger than a pin's head filled us with wonder and awe.’
Round the next corner the Indians’ jaws dropped for a different reason:
"There was a remarkable model of a portion of the Isle of Wight, modelled according to a scale where every elevation or declivity, everything upon it for nine miles is shewn with precision; we were told it was the work of many years, and we should think that an individual, who was capable of producing so finished, so laborious a piece of art as this, could have been much more beneficially employed, and regret that so much valuable time should have been consumed in so valueless a production.
"We saw a pneumatic telegraph which, by means of air in a tube, will convey signals many miles; and Dr. Arnott's hydrostatic bed, upon which sick persons can move readily, and are not liable to become sore from lying.’
Yes, Dr. Neil Arnott had just invented the water bed.
"There are two most amusing machines, called Phantasmascopes, one on each side the gallery. A large circular plate is perpetually revolving; and when you look through the apertures in the one, the optical deception is so arranged that, from the quick revolution of the disc, all the figures appear to be rapidly playing on the fiddle, and in the other "playing at leap frog,". There is a very ingenious model of an apparatus to rescue persons from the upper windows of a house, the lower part of which may be in flames; it is called a Fire-escape.
"Here is a model of a carriage to be put into motion by electro-magnetism, and also Taylor's electro-magnetic motive machine, and it is seriously thought by this method vessels and machinery may be set in motion without using steam.
"This however by most persons is laughed at…"