This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
My father’s job and mine appear to have little in common. He’s a mechanical engineer and I’m an illustrator. However, I’ve inherited his engineer’s fascination with the way machines operate. It runs through my work in a rich vein, whether I’m illustrating how SpaceX sends astronauts to the International Space Station or how a virus’s spread is tracked by logging its genetic mutations.
London’s Science Museum in South Kensington is packed with thousands of exhibits conceived by skilled people with the same fascination, and it’s the reason I love visiting it. Here I’ve highlighted a preferred walk through, starting on the third floor, progressing down to the main entrance on Exhibition Road — and illustrated with some favourite items on the way. It can be completed in three hours but, personally, I’d set aside a whole day for it.
My first stop is the Flight gallery. Historic aircraft, such as the first to fly across the Atlantic, accompany a splendid display of aero engines, several of which I’ve drawn over the years, plus a wealth of other artefacts from aviation history. The first British jet aircraft to fly and its engine, illustrated below, are also housed here.
Heading downstairs, I come to Information Age, a guide to human achievement in communications. Momentous pieces of technology such as Marconi’s equipment for the first ever BBC broadcast in 1922, a computer console of the type used to send the first email and the actual computer on which the world wide web was invented (below), share space with more modest but charming items, such as a homemade TV set from 1952, and a 1930 Post Office gramophone record used to teach new telephone users the different tones in their calls.
From here, next comes the Zaha Hadid-designed Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, devised to emulate airflow around the 1929 Gugnunc aircraft at its centre. I use maths and geometry every day at work, so I enjoy seeing its application in other disciplines, from early mechanical calculating machines (below) to a splendidly complicated tide-predicting machine from 1872.
Continuing along the second floor brings me to Science City, which highlights how science, between 1550 and 1800, transformed London from a thriving national capital into a global centre for trade and learning. Featured in this exhibit are important objects like Isaac Newton’s telescope and Joseph Priestley’s microscope (below) — but it’s worth just enjoying the sheer beauty of the experimental apparatus and other scientific instruments on show.
Case after case of more mechanical beauty is on display next, in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. I’m intrigued by navigation; my father-in-law and uncle were both air force navigators, so it’s thrilling to see H5 (below), a chronometer built by one of my heroes, John Harrison. It’s one of the clocks he used in the 18th century to solve the problem of calculating longitude while at sea.
Now it’s down to the first floor to visit Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries. Here you’ll find the first MRI machine, plus the “Jedi” helmets designed to sharpen their imagery (below), and a sample of Penicillium mould presented by Alexander Fleming. Again, the exhibits range from these historic items to the more mundane, but no less interesting, such as a bizarre “pedoscope” used to X-ray customers’ feet in 1950s shoe shops.
On to the ground floor and the extensive Making the Modern World gallery, where the exhibits tell a cultural history of industrialisation from 1750 to the present day, organised by themes such as measurement and manufacturing. The arrangement is clever and, in some cases, witty. A jumper made from the wool of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, sits with other genetics-related objects, and a 1958 Bloodhound missile’s ramjet is displayed close to original artwork for Eagle comic’s Dan Dare strip and Rover’s ambitious attempt at a jet-powered car (below).
Before heading on, don’t miss the Model Walkway, a stunning collection of all types of scale miniatures. Some are functional, such as an original wind-tunnel model of a Spitfire fighter, or a 1693 warship design (below), while others are purely decorative. A scale model of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost that was commissioned by the company for the museum in 1911 was described by The Auto magazine as “one of the most beautiful models ever produced”.
Our penultimate stop is the Exploring Space gallery. As a space-mad child watching 1969’s Moon landings, I assumed I would be an astronaut when I grew up because, well, everyone would be. The rockets and their engines, including one of a type used on the lunar expeditions (below), are impressive. But after a close look at the cramped Soyuz capsule that Tim Peake rode home in from the International Space Station at 27,000km per hour in 2016 — and its horribly charred exterior — I’m rather glad I ended up Earthbound.
Finally comes the Energy Hall, a homage to steam power’s role in the industrial revolution and beyond. Compared with some modern machines — laptops, for instance — inspecting a steam engine can give a pretty good idea of its operation, particularly if it’s moving. I think that’s why as a child I liked watching the cogs and pistons moving back and forth on models such as the horizontal engine (below). And if the models aren’t exciting enough, the huge 1903 mill engine that dominates the gallery is run regularly.
After a day exploring the museum, I turn to thinking about the countless technological innovations — some epic, some modest — that have led to the modern world we inhabit. I consider how this article’s text will be transmitted wirelessly via satellite to a content management system, where it will be edited and formatted. Illustrations created using a digital stylus and drawing tablet, or photographs taken on a smartphone, can also be added. Published to the web, the final page will be accessible globally via a multitude of devices with internet connection, and I think to myself, “You know what — that whole process would make a fascinating illustration.”
What is your favourite museum in London, and why? Tell us in the comments
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