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
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
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
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