The Science Museum is about to takes visitors on a 250-year journey through London with Science City 1550-1800, revealing show how the city became a world-renowned hub for trade, exploration and scientific enquiry
The gallery will explore how London scientists and artisans transformed our understanding of the world via groundbreaking works like Sir Isaac Newton’s famous Principia Mathematica, Robert Hooke’s microscope, which revealed the secrets of the natural world, and the fascinating collections of scientific objects commissioned by King George III to investigate scientific principles.
Between 1550 and 1800, London transformed from a modest commercial centre to a major world city and science was integral to this transformation, both shaping and shaped by the capital’s ambitions and preoccupations.
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Designed by artist Gitta Gschwendtner, the new gallery will immerse visitors in a cityscape of historic London where they will discover treasures like the beautiful celestial globe from 1599, designed by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, a cartographer for the Dutch East India Trading Company. The globe was created at a time when Amsterdam eclipsed London on the world stage and the gallery will chart the changes that repositioned the city of London as a world power.
Science City unites objects from three extraordinary collections: the Science Museum Group Collection; King’s College London’s King George III collection; and objects and artworks lent by the Royal Society. Together these collections chart the birth of experiment and a growing desire for precision measurement that became the basis of modern science. Effectively London fostered its own particular brand of scientific enquiry.
The Principia Mathematica, written by Isaac Newton, arguably the most famous figure in British science at the time, lays out the laws of universal motion and optics, and is displayed alongside his own reflecting telescope of 1671, which he used to illustrate the principles of light and reflection.
One of the microscopes on display was designed by Robert Hooke, the Royal Society’s famous Curator of Experiments and was used by him to create exquisite drawings of insects and plants.
The images captivated the scientific community when they were published in Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) which became the first scientific best-seller and in which he coined the term “cell”. The microscope reflects not only his curiosity and ingenuity, but also the close relationships he cultivated with London’s talented artisans in order to realise his aims.
The relationship between science and the monarchy at this time is explored through a range key objects commissioned by King George III upon his coronation in 1761. An air pump and ‘Philosophical Table’, made by leading London instrument-maker George Adams, enabled the monarch to carry out a wide range of pneumatic and mechanical experiments for the education and entertainment of himself and his family.
These included trials with pendulums and colliding objects, and the king was known to be particularly fond of a ‘central forces machine’ which was used for conducting experiments concerning tension, while a tidal motion model was used to explain the rise and fall of the sea level.
The instruments, along with many others in the Royal Collection reveal the King’s enthusiasm for these explorations and he built an observatory at Kew in west London, where he kept his instruments. He appointed the astronomer and natural scientist Stephen Demainbray, one of his former tutors, to the role of Superintendent.
A range of models of machinery used by Demainbray to demonstrate mechanical principles include a model of the James Vauloué’s pile driving machine which he designed to help with the construction of Westminster Bridge during the 1740s. Three horses turned the capstan, which lifted an 800kg weight six metres into the air. On release, the weight drove the foundations (piles) deep into the river bed.
The model and others showed spectators the engineering feats that were transforming the city around them.
Another important item from the George III collection is the exquisite terrestrial globe, made by George Adams in 1766, as one of a pair of globes made for the King. One showed the route of George Anson’s voyage round the world between 1740-44, while the other, a celestial globe, revealed the constellations in the southern hemisphere, based on Nicolas de Lacaille’s observations at the Cape of Good Hope between 1750-52. Newly discovered constellations were named after scientific instruments, which enabled Adams to represent them with images of his own instruments.
The new gallery is part of a drive by the Science Museum to have have over 3,500 m2 of new galleries open to the public by the end of 2019. Science City 1550-1800: The Linbury Gallery will be followed closely by the Medicine Galleries which open in November.
The gallery is funded by the Linbury Trust, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund and The John S Cohen Foundation. Additionally, the book Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550-1800 edited by curators Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough will delve further into the stories behind the fascinating objects.
The museum is collaborating with youth groups in local boroughs to develop creative responses to key themes in Science City 1550-1800. The initiative is designed to inspire young Londoners with the city’s history of combining scientific thought with artistic endeavour.
Science City 1550-1800: The Linbury Gallery is free to visit and will be open to the public on Thursday September 12 2019.
London, Greater London
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