Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1200:
LONDON'S SECRET MUSEUMS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1200.

Today, we visit London's secret museums. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I imagine many of you have been to London, but I'll bet few of you have seen some of London's most interesting museums of technology. Retired curator John Robinson writes about these little museums, scattered through the city.

For example, who's ever heard of the Kew Bridge Steam Museum? It occupies a former pumping house for the London water supply. The centerpiece of this engine collection is the largest surviving walking-beam steam engine. A 7½-foot piston drives one end of an enormous steel beam. The other end once drove a pump. The whole machine stands 35 feet high and weighs 250 tons. London is dotted with delights like this. Another is an old church which now holds a collection of automatic music-making machines.

A museum for the world's first commercial mechanical testing facility might seem arcane to the casual tourist, but consider what it represents. After Scotland's first Tay Bridge collapsed in 1879, killing 75 people, this lab was set up to test building materials independent of clients and contractors. Germany's Krupp iron works sent them steel samples for testing until war broke out in 1914. Now you can visit the great hydraulic testing machines that changed the character of engineering just over a century ago. An apt motto, mounted over the door, says "Facts, not Opinions".

The first tunnel under a river was drilled beneath the Thames by the Brunel father-and-son team. They started in 1825 and finished in 1843. Now a museum in the old bilge-pump house celebrates that tunneling feat with a fine exhibit.

Finally Robinson reaches a museum in the garret of St. Thomas's Church. When this garret, sealed up and forgotten for years, was opened, people found an abandoned hospital operating theatre. Four ranks of stalls form a horseshoe around a wooden operating table.

The theatre, built in 1821, was part of St. Thomas's Hospital until 1862, when a rail company bought the hospital for right-of-way. The church stayed, while the rest of the hospital moved to better quarters across the Thames. Gaseous anesthesia was first used in this room. St. Thomas's was also where Florence Nightingale set up the first nursing school. No tokenism here: Nightingale was a high-level administrator, heavily involved in negotiations with the rail company. She had to've known this operating theatre well.

On its wall is another motto, Miseratione non Mercede -- "We do for compassion, not for pay." If you read that cynically, I suggest you look beyond the business offices of modern medicine. You'll find much of that impetus is still alive, with the ghost of Florence Nightingale riding in its midst.

The next time I see London, I know where I'll go. I mean to find this hidden world of museums where I too can meet the ghosts of James Watt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel -- and Florence Nightingale.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Robinson, J., London's Smaller Technology Collections: A Sampler. Technology and Culture, Vol. 37, No. 1, January 1996, pp. 151-157.

Old operating theatre
The Old Operating Theatre in St. Thomas' Church. Image courtesy of Wikipedia commons.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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