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The ‘Time in the Slime’: not quite counting down to the millennium

Time in the slime

Millennium Clock Source: Pinterest

By Adrian James Kirwan

The Millennium Clock was design to be a significant part of the millennium celebrations in Dublin city. The six-ton, £250,000 clock was sponsored by the Irish National Lottery. The clock was placed underwater at O’Connell Street Bridge in March 1996 and its primary function was to countdown to the year 2000. It consisted of a 1.9 meter deep, 7.8 meter-wide steel frame with luminous green rods that displayed the time. It also included a kiosk, located on O’Connell Bridge which recorded the time remaining on the clock on a postcard, thus providing a unique memento.

However, difficulties with the clock and its position in the river were experienced from the onset. Firstly, as anyone who is familiar with the pristine waters of the River Liffey can testify, the placing of a clock underneath its surface was a recipe for disappointment. Hence the granting of its colloquial title by the citizenry of Dublin: ‘the time in the slime.’ Three days after the clock was switched on it was to disappear. Despite reports in a national newspaper that this may have been the work of the magician Paul Daniels, it was in fact removed to facilitate a boat race. Indeed, it was reckoned that this would be a regular feature of the clock’s future.

The clock was to experience a number of mechanical faults over its short life, including displaying the wrong time. In addition to these mechanical difficulties, there were mounting costs associated with keeping the clock clean. It was removed from the river permanently by the end of the year. The Irish difficulty with electronic devices should have perhaps served as a warning to Irish politicians when they embarked on the electronic voting fiasco a few years later. This was to involve spending €54 million on 7,500 electronic voting machines that were widely unpopular among the public and never used! Perhaps the last word on the clock should go to the National Lottery spokesperson: ‘When it’s up and running, we are confident that people will say it was worth it.’ We will leave it up to you to decide if that was the case.

Further reading
‘The Millennium Clock’ in Irish Independent, 2 April 2016, available at (http://www.independent.ie/unsorted/features/the-millennium-clock-26410316.html) (22 May 2017)

‘Liffey clock to be tock of the town in March’ in Irish Times, 26 Jan. 1996, available at (http://www.irishtimes.com/news/liffey-clock-to-be-tock-of-the-town-in-march-1.25327) (22 May 2017).Evening Herald, Wednesday, 1 May 1996

‘Time in the Slime is the Clock in Dry Dock’ in Irish Times, 20 Mar. 1996, available at (http://www.irishtimes.com/news/time-in-the-slime-is-the-clock-in-dry-dock-1.35492) (22 May 2017).

Evening Herald, Wednesday, 1 May 1996

Adrian J. Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited completed a Ph.D. at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, in 2017. His research focuses on the interaction between science, technology, and society. He is currently researching the history of early research into radioactivity in Ireland. More about his research can be found here.



The Dublin telescope makers and the empire: a short history of Grubbs

File:Great Melbourne Telescope 1869.JPG

Great Melbourne Telescope, 1869, available at WikiMedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Melbourne_Telescope_1869.JPG?useland=en-gb) (23 March 2016).

By Adrian James Kirwan

Thomas Grubb was born to the Quakers William Grubb and his wife Eleanor (née Fayle) in 1800. Around 1832 Grubb established a mechanical engineering workshop in Dublin and began constructing modest reflector telescopes for his own use. Through his interest in astronomy he began undertaking various commissions for the erection and construction of telescopes, including a fifteen-inch reflector for the Armagh observatory. In order to mount this large telescope Grubb designed a system of triangle levers to reduce stress on the mirror. A similar system was employed by William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, in the construction of his six-foot reflector, ‘the leviathan’, at Birr Castle in the 1840s. In this early period Grubb’s work was primarily funded by private individuals.

These commissions soon brought him to the attention of scientific figures throughout the United Kingdom, and he was hired to construct telescopes for the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and the University of Glasgow. He also fabricated twenty sets of magnetometers for Professor Humphrey Lloyd’s (Trinity College, Dublin) efforts to establish a network of magnetic observatories throughout the British Empire. These were to further scientific understanding of geo-magnetism and, eventually, thirty-three observatories were set-up throughout the world on the same model as the magnetic observatory based in Trinity College, Dublin.

A great deal of this research was not driven by ‘pure’ scientific interest. The British state, as a maritime nation, was strongly motivated to fund astronomy and the production of star charts. In fact, George Airy, Astronomer Royal, saw the main tasks of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, as producing accurate stellar and planetary maps and the regulation of ships chronometers, all essential for navigation. Thus, the successful trajectory of Grubb’s business was, in many ways, firmly tied to wider British Imperial and trading interests. As the nineteenth century progressed the British state was to begin funding ‘pure’ research to a greater extend and this was to provide Grubb with much work.

It was the success of the Rosse telescope, which had gone someway to answering the question of the resolvability of nebulae, that was to prompt calls for a similar telescope to be erected in the southern hemisphere. This was realised in 1869 when a four-foot Grubb reflector was installed in Melbourne. Unfortunately, this telescope was to be a resounding failure, probably due to the inability of staff in Melbourne to polish the mirrors (these had been made using polished metal instead of the silver-on-glass method that was becoming popular). Thomas Grubb was to die in 1878 but the company was to remain in operation under the guidance of his son, Howard, who had taken control in 1868.

Howard Grubb was to remain in charge for fifty-seven years and in this time constructed most of the large telescopes erected across Britain and its empire, including five for the Royal Observatory. In addition, the company also constructed telescopes for a number of others, including a twenty-seven-inch reflector for the University of Vienna, 1881. In this period the majority of Howard’s large instruments were refractors. In the closing years of the nineteenth century the company also began making photographic instruments for astronomical observations. The previous system of human observers sketching their observations had been open to error and encountered difficulties when attempting to draw large and detailed star charts. In 1890 the company delivered seven, of thirteen, such instruments that were used as part of the Carte du ciel (map of the sky) project, the rest were constructed by the Henry brothers of France. (It was on one of these Grubb telescopes that Arthur Eddington was to show the distortion of a star’s position when its light passed near the sun, thus providing the first proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity).

In the twentieth century the company was to put its optical expertise to military use, designing rangefinders, gunsights and the first submarine periscope. This was to tie the fortunes of the company to the state in an even more obvious manner. Due to its increased importance to the war effort, the company transferred to the south of England in 1918. This move was to prove decisive and, with the end of the First World War, Grubb was unable to meet increasing costs. The firm was sold to Charles Parson, the youngest son of the third earl of Rosse, in 1925 and the new firm, ‘Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Co.’ was to continue in operation until 1985.

Further reading
Ian Elliott, ‘Grubbs of Dublin: telescope makers to the world’ in Juliana Adelman and Éadaoin Agnew (eds), Science and technology in nineteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2011), pp 47-62.
Anita McConnell, ‘Scientific instrument makers’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2015), available at (www.oxforddnb.com) (19 Mar. 2016).
John Burnett, ‘Grubb, Thomas, engineer and telescope builder’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2015), available at (www.oxforddnb.com) (19 Mar. 2016).


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


The first transatlantic telegraph cable


Map of submarine cable between America and Europe (1858), in Howe’s Adventures & Achievements of Americans, available at Wikimedia commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Atlantic_cable_Map.jpg?uselang=en-gb) (21 Aug. 2015).

By Adrian James Kirwan     

The recently approved €300 million transatlantic fibre optic cable to connect Mayo and New York will now doubt provide an important communication link between the US and not just Ireland but also the rest of Europe. While there is always an element of risk with such infrastructural projects, this one can build on a history of transatlantic telecommunications technologies going back to the mid-nineteenth century. The first attempt to construct a telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean was to take place between 1857-8. Given the fact that the first submarine telegraph cable had been laid only seven years before, between Britain and France, the scale of ambition must have been obvious to contemporaries.

However the story of this first cable attempt started much earlier. In 1854 the American financier Cyrus Field backed the construction of a telegraph line that would connect St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the rest of North America’s telegraph network; this line would be completed in 1856. As the distance from here to the British Isles was c. 1,000 miles shorter than from New York, the new cable could seriously impact on the time taken to transmit intelligence across the Atlantic and shorten the length, and hence expense, of any such cable.  Such a crossing would benefit from a natural deep-sea plateau, which would mean that the cable would not have to descend too deep, and, unbeknown at the time, would protect the cable from the mid-Atlantic ridge.

In 1856 Field reached an agreement with John Watkins Brett (who had be responsible for the laying of some of the early telegraph submarine cables) and Charles Bright (the chief engineer of the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company (B&I MTC)) to form the Atlantic Telegraph Company. A high proportion of the company’s shares were bought by directors of the B&I MTC, the chairman of which was Charles’s brother Edward Bright.

The first order of business for the new company was to secure some type of funding from the government. Despite the prevailing laissez-faire ideology, trade with North America was significant and the development of a rapid means of communication would no doubt be of benefit to the British economy. Due to this reason the government agreed to provide ships and the expertise needed to take soundings of the ocean floor, lay the cable and, most importantly, it agreed to subsidise the company’s operations up to the sum of £14,000 for as long as the cable was operational.

The cable having been constructed by the Gutta Percha Company was sent to Glass, Elliot & Co. and R.S. Newall & Co. for the addition of armour (this involved the wrapping of metal wire around the cable to protect it from damage by the ocean floor or anchors of ships). In 1857 this cable was loaded on the British government-supplied HMS Agamemnon and the US government-supplied USS Niagara. The presence of these two ships highlighted that the success of the cable was very much in the interests of both governments and that both were willingly to intervene in private enterprise when it was deemed necessary for the welfare of the state.

Unfortunately the 1857 attempt failed due to technical difficulties, the apparatus for feeding the cable over the edge of the ship failed. The following year however a second, successful, attempt was made. Much fanfare greeted the successful laying of the cable and telegrams were exchanged between Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan. However, within a short period of time it was obvious that the cable was not operating effectively and it was to fail completely in October 1858.

It failure was to be a turning point in the development of telegraphic technology. While prior to this telegraph engineers and electricians were primarily responsible for the design and construction of cable and apparatus, the failure and momentous expense of the transatlantic cable lead to the establishment of a parliamentary committee in Britain. This in turn called upon the expertise of many in the scientific communication, including the future Lord Kelvin, William Thomson. The effect of this was to put telegraphy on a much more scientific footing. Thus, while debates between engineers, who viewed electricity on a similar manner to fluid in a tube, and scientists who wanted to establish themselves as the experts on these technologies were to continue, the failure of this cable helped the scientists to promote their position as the dominant force in the development of electrical technologies.

Further Reading

Anton A. Huurdeman, The Worldwide History of Telecommunications (New York, 2003).


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


Conference review: the British Society for the History of Science, Swansea University, 2-5 July 2015


Title page of Nicolas Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Basel, 1566), available at wikimedia commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:De_revolutionibus_orbium_coelestium.jpg) (23 July 2015).

By Adrian James Kirwan

The conference was, as usual, a highly enjoyable mix of academic sessions, roundtables and keynotes; with a bit of time reserved for some socialising. The conference was opened by Prof. Iwan Morus on the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Swansea in 1848. The first full day of the conference, 2 July, was packed with sessions, with five parallel panels running at simultaneously. These ranged from early-modern science to Darwinism to the development of hearing technologies by the twentieth -century British Post Office.  The day was finished with the awarding of two of the societies prizes the John Pickstone prize 2014 for best scholarly book (awarded to Graeme Gooday and Stathis Arapostathis, Patently contestable: electrical technologies and inventor identities on trial in Britain (Cambridge, 2013)) and the Dingle prize for the best book on history of science accessible to a wide audience. The Dingle prize was awarded to Martin J.S. Rudwick, Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014). Rudwick’s acceptance speak was a masterclass in the public lecture. He masterfully brought the audience through the evolution of thinking on the age of the earth and the significant impacts this deepening timeframe had on our understanding of not just the earth but also of man’s existence on it and theology. If the book is half as good as the lecture it promises to be well worth the read not just for those with an interest in the history of science but anyone who wants to understand how the natural sciences impacted upon society.

The second full day of the conference brought a plethora of excellent panels on the history of science, technology and medicine. The day included a panel on Science and Religion. This contained perhaps one of the top papers at the conference, Bill Jenkins (University of Edinburgh), ‘Evangelicals and extra-terrestrials: the plurality of worlds debate in Scotland, 1815-55.’ This paper trace the impact of astronomic discovers on Scottish Evangelicals who set out to deal with the possibility of life on other worlds. These evangelicals not only accepted that life existed on other worlds but also engaged in a series of discussions that sought to understand the nature of salvation in an extra-terrestrial context. The paper also explained how these figures combined science and teleology to justify their beliefs.

Perhaps the best panel of the conference was one entitled, ‘the travelling rat, 1850-1950’ which traced the interaction and co-existence of man and his travelling companion, the rat. One very good paper on the co-existences of man and rat, by Kaori Nagai (University of Kent), look at rats as passengers on nineteenth-century ships. The paper highlighted that while rats were considered a problem, they had to be managed rather than destroyed. For example, to stop rats eating into water butts the crew had to ensure that the ships complement of rats were well watered. The highlight of the session was Neil Pemberton’s (University of Manchester) ‘From foreign invader to subterranean fiend: sewer rats, sanitary modernity and Victorian underworlds’. This highly informative and enjoyable paper highlighted the fact that rats enjoyed a status as eaters of waste in sewers and, hence, were deemed important to public health. The paper also looked at the complex relationship between man and rat once it surfaced out of the sewer. By using contemporaneous accounts of rat catchers the paper demonstrated that the relationship between man and rat in the Victorian period was much more complicated than we assume.

The conference reached a crescendo with the Presidential keynote by Greg Radick (University of Leeds). This was based on some fascinating work using the history of biology to produce a genetics course that removes the concentration on Mendel’s famous experiments with peas and inheritance. This allows the student to learn the importance that other factors, such as environment, play, alongside genes, in human development.

Further reading

Further information on the British Society for the History of Science can be found at its website: http://www.bshs.org.

For more information or to purchase Martin J.S. Rudwick’s Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014)  go to: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo19211655.html


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


A short history of the Hubble Space Telescope: 25 years of wonder


Eagle Nebula as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hubble_images_of_nebulae#/media/File:Eagle_nebula_pillars.jpg) (28 April 2015).

By Adrian James Kirwan

2015 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hubble telescope, named after the American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). Astronomers had been well aware that the earth’s atmosphere distorts light coming from stars and nebulae since early in the science’s development. Early astronomers, relying on hand-drawn images to relay their discoveries resorted to multiple observations of astronomical phenomenon in order to produce a reliable image. However this technique could still produce errors, in part due to the observer(s) imaging things they wished were there (or not seeing things that were). This was help by the development of photography in the nineteenth century. It would be many decades before the exposure time was short enough to allow for its use in astronomy but even then this technology had to negotiate with atmospheric interference. Following the Second World War the idea of a space-based telescope began to gain traction. Obviously, such ideas were aided by the development of rockets during that conflict.

Horsehead NebulaHubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)

Horsehead Nebula as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Horsehead-Hubble.jpg) (28 April 2015)

First promoted by Lyman Spitzer, such a telescope would not only avoid the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere but also allow for the observation of x-rays, which are blocked by the atmosphere, from distance objects. Spitzer was to go on to head the National Academy of Science’s committee on the Large Space Telescope which held its first meeting in 1966, just three years prior to the first landing on the moon. Thus the genesis of a large space-based telescope must be understood in the context of the space race and, hence, the cold war.

Hubble lauch

Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Space_Telescope#/media/File:Hubble_01.jpg) (28 April 2015)

The task of launching such a telescope into space had been studied by Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space center in the 1960s. Von Braun had been a member of the German rocket society in the 1920s and received his Ph.D. while developing missiles for the German army. As well being famous as one of NASA’s foremost rocket engineers (developing the Saturn rocket) he also led the team’s which constructed the American Jupiter ballistic missile and, during the Second World War, developed the German V-2 rocket. This demonstrates the strong connection between German military rocket engineering and subsequent developments in American military and space rockets.

The feasibility of a large space-based telescope was significantly improved with the development of the Space Shuttle program from the 1960s. This would not only provide a platform with which to launch such a telescope but would also allow for periodic maintenance and repair of the apparatus. In 1971 NASA approved feasibility studies for a large-space telescope. This was followed by attempts to secure federal funding. However, at an estimated cost of $400-$500 million these proved difficult acquire. The only hope for the telescope would be a reduction in price. The substitution of the proposed 3 meter mirror to one measuring 2.4 meters brought the projected cost down to c. $200 million. With this the project secure partial funding from the European Space Research Organisation (now the European Space Agency) in 1975 and the rest of the funds were approved by congress in 1977.

Hubble deployment

Launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Space_Telescope#/media/File:1990_s31_IMAX_view_of_HST_release.jpg) (28 April 2014).

The original launch in 1986 was aborted due to the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the telescope would not enter orbit until 1990. Astronomers quickly noticed distortions in the images from the telescope due to a fault in its primary mirror. This was repaired during the telescopes first service mission in 1993 and the telescope has been astonishing the world since. However the faith of the telescope is as tied to the space shuttle program now as it was during its conception. With the end of that program there is no platform available to service Hubble and it will eventually fall into disrepair.

Further reading

A Brief History of the Hubble Space Telescope, available at National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA history division (http://history.nasa.gov/hubble/) (24 April 2015).

Dr. Wernher von Braun, available at Marshall Space Flight Center, MSFC History Office (http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html) (24 April 2015).


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


Museum of the Month: Science Museum, London.

Cooke & Wheatstone five-needle telegraph

Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraph

By Adrian James Kirwan

The Science Museum, London, was founded in 1857 as part of the South Kensington Museum, becoming an independent entity in 1909. Its foundation can be traced back to the Great Exhibition of 1851; this generated both the interest and money needed to found the museum. From early in the museum’s existence it was acquiring items of interest to the history of science and technology, including an early Boulton and Watt beam engine and Stephenson’s revolutionary locomotive ‘Rocket’.

Spread over a number of floors the Science Museum is divided into galleries which focus on different aspects of the history of science, technology and medicine. These include ‘Glimpses of Medical History’, ‘The Science and Art of Medicine’ and ‘Making the Modern World’. The displays vary in their focus with some concentrating on the historical collections and providing context to their creation and use while others are more concerned with the museum’s other central aim: the education and promotion of the sciences. Therefore while some displays are concerned with the preservation and contextualisation of the museum’s vast collection of historical scientific, technological and medical instruments and objects, other displays are much more interactive. These displays are more concerned with engaging and entertaining the museums younger visitors. The amount of children who were at the museum, and enjoying the experience, was definitely a defining feature.


NeXT computer which Tim Berners-Lee used in the 1980s to develop the World Wide Web

An example of the many displays on offer is the new ‘Information Age’ gallery. This gallery traces the development of telecommunications technology with displays ranging from one of the first Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraphs to satellites (in this case a real satellite rather than a replicate). Not only is there an amazing range of unique and rare telecommunication apparatus but the gallery is very successful in contextualising their development, use and the impact that these technologies had on society. A highlight is inclusion of the NeXT computer which Tim Berners-Lee used in the 1980s to develop the World Wide Web; for a brief moment in time this computer was the only server in operation and therefore it was the World Wide Web. The gallery uses multiple methods to engage the public including written panels accompanying displays, audio-visual, interactive computer panels and the availability of good, old-fashion guides to expand the visitor’s knowledge and understanding of the role that telecommunications played in the development of the modern world. The ‘Information Age’ gallery has an accompanying website which can be found at http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/online_science/explore_our_collections/information_age.

Entry to the museum is free and it is well serviced by the tube and bus routes. Several other museums are also located in the immediate area. More information can be found on the Science Museum’s website http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/home.aspx.


Review: The British Society for the History of Science, postgraduate conference, UCL, 7-9 Jan. 2015


Boulton and Watt Steam Engine 1786, available at Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boulton_and_Watt_Steam_Engine_1786_(4537762717).jpg?uselang=en-gb)


By Adrian James Kirwan

The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) is the biggest society in the British Isles dedicated to the promotion of scholarly research into the history of science, technology and medicine. It holds two conferences each year: its annual conference (during the summer) and a postgraduate conference in January. This year’s successful postgraduate conference was held by the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at University College, London.

The conference had a range of panels including ‘Histories & Medicine’, ‘Science & Empire’, ‘Science & Public Discourses’ and ‘Philosophy of Science’. There was an excellent panel entitled ‘State Sponsorship vs. Private Reward: The role of the twentieth-century General Post Office in Warfare and Welfare’. This was comprised of presentations by Alice Haigh, Coreen McGuire, Sean McNally and Jacob Ward which looked at the Post Office’s research and development activities in twentieth-century Britain. In particular this panel gave a fascinating insight into the Post Office’s role in the development of hearing aids for the NHS and its role as an R&D centre for the British military during the First World War.

An extremely interesting paper was provided by Michael Guida entitled ‘Sonic therapy: birdsong on the radio during the Second World War’. This paper provided a fascinating look at not only an emerging technology but also an insight into the debate over the use of these natural sounds to alleviate the tensions brought to Britain during the Second World War.

The highlight of the conference, for me, was a paper given by Erin Beeston (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester) entitled ‘A space to congregate, educate and exhibit: sites of knowledge production and consumption at the Camp Field, Manchester’. This paper looked at the social impacts of the construction of a train station at the site. The paper traced the encroachment of the sub-urban Manchester on this site that had many traditional functions including an open air market. The presentation sought to explain how municipal authorities sought to influence the activities happening in the area by the construction of an enclosed market space in which social interaction could be controlled.

The conference keynote was provided by Prof. Hasok Chang (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge). This focused on the relevance of History of Science to both scientists and wider society.

The conference was well attended with a large number of speakers and was a great display of the vibrancy of the history of science, technology and medicine. As well as a large number of presentations from various UK universities, speakers were also present from across Europe including Finland, Spain and the Czech. Republic. As always with a BSHS event there was a welcoming and congenial atmosphere. A lively series of social events and excursions added to this collegiality. These included visits to the Science Museum (London) and the Wellcome Collection. The social events included a welcome reception at the Grant Museum of Zoology and a Bright Club Event. The Bright Club which originated at UCL is a stand-up comedy show where students and lecturers use their research as the bases of a comedy act. Despite reservations this turned out to be a highlight of the conference and a very enjoyable evening was had by all.

The call for papers for the society’s annual conference is now open. More information about the British Society for the History of Science and its annual and postgraduate conferences can be found on the society website http://www.bshs.org.uk/.



Science Week for history enthusiasts

Nicholas Callan's Induction Coil

Nicholas Callan’s Induction Coil, available at Wiki Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Callans_1863_induction_coil.jpg?uselang=en-gb) (7 Nov. 2014)


By Adrian James Kirwan

Science week provides a unique opportunity for those with an interest in the history of science and technology in Ireland to visit many institutions and locations that might not be accessible during the rest of the year. While there is much interest in current scientific endeavours, Ireland’s rich scientific and technology heritage is often forgotten.

A good starting point for anyone seeking a greater understanding of the history of science in Ireland is one of Ingenious Ireland’s walking tours (of Dublin). During science week Ingenious Ireland will be hosting walking tours entitled ‘Irish Ideas and Inventions that Changed the World’, see here (fees apply). The founder and lead guide of Ingenious Ireland, Mary Mulvhill, will also be giving a talk at Portlaoise Library on Irish scientist and inventors (12 Nov., 7.30 pm).

A number of Irish Science and Technology museums will be opening their doors for the week including the Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio, located in the Martello Tower overlooking Howth Harbour, Dublin. This museum concentrates on the history of telecommunications. Also opening its doors is the National Science Museum, at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth (15 Nov., 2.00 pm to 3.00pm). This museum contains one of the largest collections of historical scientific instruments in Ireland. (More about the museum can be found here). The National Print Museum will have an open day entitled ‘Printfest’ (15 Nov., 12.00pm to 4.00pm). A particular highlight of the week will be an exhibition entitled ‘The Eighth Continent’ at the Edward Worth Library (Dr Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin 8, opposite Heuston Station, 13 Nov. 10.00 am to 4.00pm). This will centre on a display of early-modern texts on the moon and for anyone with an interest in early-modern science the ‘Worth’ is well worth a visit (please excuse the extremely bad pun!).

Lecturers during the week include: ‘The King Under the Carpark- Where Science Meets History’, by Dr Cas Kramer, University of Leicester which was part of the group that found the body of King Richard III in 2013 (Waterford IT, 10 Nov. 7.00pm); a lecture on the Irish Scientist John Desmond Bernal will be given by Professor Paul Barnes, Birkbeck, University of London (Nenagh Arts, Centre Banba Square, Nenagh, 11 Nov. 8.00pm); Professor Etienne Parizot, Professor of High Energy Astrophysics, Université Paris VII, France will give an presentation entitled ‘Cosmic Rays: A Century of Adventure and Mysteries!’

For those with an interest in Science Communication and the difficulties that can arise from its misrepresentation might be interested in a lecture by Professor Brian Hughes, entitled ‘Adventures in Science Communication’ (Maynooth University, 10 Nov. 7 pm, Theatre 2, Hume Building).

Hopefully, our readers will have a chance to attend at least one of these exhibitions. Events such as these provide a great opportunity to demonstrate the wealth of science and technology heritage that Ireland possesses. In addition, for those with an interest in more contemporary scientific discoveries there is plenty on offer during the week. More information can be found on the Science Week website here.


Review of the Irish Network for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine’s 2015 conference ‘Science in the City’


Earl of Rosse’s 72-inch (1.8-meter) telescope at Birr Castle, Ireland. Robert S. Ball: The Story of the Heavens, 1886, available at Wikimedia Commona (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosse_72_inch_telescope_Birr_Castle_Ireland_1886.png?uselang=en-gb) (14 Oct. 2014).

By Adrian James Kirwan

The 2015 conference for the Irish Network for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine was held on the 3 October in the Edward Worth Library, Dublin. The theme for this year’s conference was ‘Science in the city’. This produced a number of excellent papers. Dr Ida Milne (NUI Maynooth/QUB) provided us with an overview of the 1918 flu outbreak in Dublin and with the municipal authority’s attempts to deal with it. This was followed by an excellent paper from Dr Tomas Irish (TCD) which focused on the role that academics in Trinity College played in the First World War. This was primarily concerned with academics who attempted to use their scientific knowledge to further Britain’s war efforts. The paper highlighted the perception that the war could be an event where academic scientists could prove the worth of their discipline in comparison to the study of Classics that had been such a feature of university education up to this point.

The afternoon session produced a fine paper by Tanya O’Sullivan (QUB) based on her recently completed PH.D. thesis. This looked at different academics’ view of the ongoing debate about the origins of handedness in nineteenth-century Dublin. This session was finished by Mary Mulvihill of Ingenious Ireland (who runs historic tours of Dublin with science, technology and medicine themes). This presentation was not only highly entertaining but also highlighted the interest in the history of science, technology and medicine amongst the general public.

The day was finished with the foundation of the Irish Network for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. This network will be a focal point for those interested in the study of science, technology and medicine. We shall aim to give our readers more information on the network and its activities in the coming months.


Book review: Roland Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization (Cambridge, 2013).


The Eastern Telegraph Co.: System and its general connections. Chart of submarine telegraph cable routes, showing the global reach of telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century (A.B.C. Telegraphic Code 5th Edition, 1901), available via Wikicommons (click here).

By Adrian James Kirwan

The first thing that is obvious on reading this book is the author’s training as a social scientist. Much of the introductory and first chapter of the book is taken up with the social theory of technology. While this is an essential task for a history of technology study, in places the author’s use of detailed explanation and examples in striving for clarity can be excessive and detract from the empirical and narrative flow of the book. This makes the book an excellent starting point for students seeking to understand the sub-discipline that is the history of technology, as well as providing an excellent source of further readings. But it does make reading certain sections difficult and would deter the average readership without a strong interest in the history of communications.

The central aim of Wendzlhuemer’s book is to examine the role that the telegraph played in the process of globalisation during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The book begins with the now near-obligatory comparison between the telegraph and the internet. This section concludes that there were similarities and differences between both technologies, in particular the ability of both technologies to ‘dematerialise’ information, i.e. physically separating information from a physical carrier. The book argues that to understand the development and application of these technologies we must look beyond the socio-, or technological-determinist understanding of technological development to what has been termed a ‘post-humanist’ approach. Thus, while technological systems are socially ‘shaped’, the technology has agency and impacts on its use. Bearing this in mind the book aims to understand how the forces of globalisation ‘shaped’ the global telegraph network and in turn how the availability of this network was utilised by those involved in the formation of a global economy.

The book is very successful in tracing how the development of global communication impacted upon temporal distances; that is the time it took to communicate between different regions of the world. The author through detailed research and analysis, using social network theory, is able to demonstrate that important financial and mercantile centres such as London developed significant links to regions like the east coast of the United States and India and this allowed rapid communication. However, in contrast, as these regions were becoming temporally closer other parts of the globe, due to poor telegraphic connectivity, were bypassed. In chapter six the book traces the development of international telegraphy and the author attempts to correlate the development of telegraphic connectivity with increases in trade, however while he maintains that this was the case in some regions it did not happen in others. The author, aware of the limitations of reliance upon telegraphic and trade statistics alone, is quick to point out that a study of the wider economic and structural factors behind these is needed to integrate the benefits of telegraphic connectivity within wider commercial interests.

As well as a global study of telegraphic development the author dedicates a chapter to the development of the telegraph in Britain and another to India. Again the use of social network theory allows an analysis of the use of this technology.

While the product of a substantial amount of work which provides a considerable amount of data of use to historians of the telecommunications this book at times presents this information without enough contextualisation. It is here perhaps that the book is too ambitious and by concentrating purely on international telegraphy could have allowed itself room to explore the wider factors influencing telegraphic development and its impact on globalisation in more detail.

In conclusion, for anyone researching globalisation, telegraphy and international trade in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this is a must read, but the density of statistics would deter the average reader.


Review of the annual conference of the International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC), Brasov, Romania, 29 July-August 2014

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

By Adrian James Kirwan

The International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC) was formed in 1968 as a forum for scholars of technology from both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’. The society has had an annual conference most years since 1970 and has published an annual peer-reviewed journal, ICON, since 1995.

This year’s, 41st annual, symposium was held at the Transylvanian University of Brasov, Romania, from the 29 July to the 2 August. The theme of the conference was ‘technology in transition’ with presentations on both technological transition and technology in times of transition. There was an extensive array of speakers covering many aspects of the history of technology ranging from technology and medicine, to telecommunications, to nuclear power. Forty-nine panels with over 150 presentations took place between Wednesday 30 July and Saturday 2 August. Highlights of the conference included a panel on ‘“The dark side of technology”: technology and illness since the nineteenth century’. The presentations in this panel ranged from a study of the rise of repetitive strain injury due to the telegraph (Amelia Bonea, Oxford University); to the development and marketing of Overbeck’s Rejuvenator (James Stark, University of Leeds), a device which supposedly use low current electricity to improve health. This was an interesting presentation which highlighted the position of electrical health products and how mainstream medical organisations such as the British Medical Association dealt with them. It demonstrated how Overbeck through the use of advertisement was able to make a considerable sum of money despite the private disdain of many professional medical bodies. The highlight of this panel was Dr. Jennifer Wallis’s (Oxford University) paper on the use of technology in the asylum. Though a case study of the use of the syphymograph (a device design to give recordings of the pulse by being strapped onto the patients arm) the paper investigated how the introduction of technology to the asylum could lead to difficulties in the treatment of already nervous patients. The paper also highlighted how perceptions of pulse rate were linked to certain mental conditions and how through the development of the syphymograph and its ability to record pulse rates new therapies were developed.

In line with the conference theme Dr. Mauro Costa da Silva (Federal Institute of Colegio Pedro II, Rio de Janeiro) presented an excellent paper on the transition from landline-based telegraphy to aerial telegraphy in Brazil. This was not only a presentation that demonstrated extensive archival research but also highlighted the impact that factors outside the purely technological had on the development of telecommunications in Brazil. In addition, the paper was instructive on the different roles that British-funded submarine cables and the inland cables funded by the Brazilian government played.

Other important aspects of an ICOHTEC conference are the social events. These were extensive with tours taking place before, after and during the conference. In addition a different social event took place each night including an opening reception, traditional music night, ICOHTEC’s renowned jazz night and the conference dinner. All these were excellent opportunities to mix with others interested in the history of technology.

In conclusion, the wide mix of presenters, including historians, scientists and engineers, gave some excellent presentations on a range of topics. The conference was an enjoyable experience from both an academic and social perspective.


Atmospheric Railways, expansion and failure

By Adrian James Kirwan

Three other railways were to follow the example of the Kingstown to Dalkey line in using atmospheric pressure for propulsion. The first of these was the earliest stretch of the London, Croydon and Epsom railway. While initial problems on this line were overcome, a major valve failure led to the temporary closure of the line and its conversion to locomotive power. Isambard Kingdom Brunnel, who had visited the Kingstown to Dalkey line, was to advocate the use of atmospheric pressure to power the proposed South Devon Railway due to doubts of the ability of locomotives to traverse the steep gradients on the line. Several engine houses were constructed and the first section of this line was opened in 1847. The South Devon Railway was eventually converted to locomotive power for several reasons. These included, as in Ireland, leaking seals and difficulties in controlling the operation of the line. The other atmospheric railway was the Naterre-St Germain line which opened in 1847. In many ways this line was similar to the Kingstown to Dalkey line: it was short, had only one engine and, therefore, only propelled the carriages in one direction. It was to remain under atmospheric power for several years of its existence. In Ireland the Kingstown to Dalkey Atmospheric railway was to remain in operation until 1854. This continued use demonstrated that the technology could be used successfully despite its faults. However, proposed railway extensions that would see the construction of a continuous railway line from Dublin to Wexford lead to the conversion of the line to locomotive power signalling the end of atmospheric railways in Ireland.


Brunnel’s atmospheric railway

Source: “Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brunel%27s_Atmospheric_Railway.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Brunel%27s_Atmospheric_Railway.jpg

Atmospheric railways were to fail for a number of reasons. These included the fact that engines even though in use only when there were carriages on the line, had to be kept powered in preparation leading to considerable expenses, the leakage caused by the leather seals added to difficulties, technological difficulties were encounter in the production of working valves and the addition of several stops on bigger lines made them much harder to control. Another important reason for the failure was the locomotive promoters’ success in not only improving their designs but also the reputation of steam propelled trains. However the very fact that atmospherics were constructed is an insight into railway expansion in the period. While a reverse reading of the railway development would see a direct and inevitable succession from the Stevenson’s Rocket to steam-power locomotives and then the diesel-powered trains of today, this was not the reality. Before the technology became what social theorists would call ‘black boxed’ multiple technologies were deemed by contemporaries to be potentially the best method of propelling trains.


Further reading:

Hadfield, Charles, Atmospheric railways: a Victorian venture in silent speed (Newton Abbott, 1967).

Buchanan, R.A., ‘The Atmospheric Railway of I.K. Brunel’ in Social Studies of Science, xxii, no. 2, Symposium on ‘Failed Innovations’ (1992), pp 231-243

Atmospheric Railways and Ireland

By Adrian James Kirwan

The idea that comes to mind when one is asked to think of a railway is most likely a steam or diesel locomotive pulling a series of carriages. However, in the early years of railway development many methods of propulsion were experimented with and promoted. Even during the famous ‘Liverpool and Manchester Railway Trials’ of 1829, which in popular memory pivoted on the success of George and Robert Stevenson’s steam-powered Rocket, the competitors included a horse-power carriage and a locomotive using John Ericsson’s ‘heat engine’. However, among the main competitors of locomotive propulsion were the many types of fixed engine railways. Fixed engine railways used a stationary engine to pull carriages along the tracks, normally using rope or cable. These had many perceived advantages: they used tried and tested stationary engines, did not have to propel the engine as well as carriages and were considered much safer. In addition to these perceived advantages, stationary engines were seen as particularly useful on steep gradients where they were often used either instead of or to supplement locomotive power.

The idea of using atmospheric pressure to propel railway carriages was first promoted by engineers in the early part of the nineteenth century, with probably the most well-known being Samuel Clegg and the Samuda brothers, Jacob and Joseph. These railways would use atmospheric pressure derived from a stationary engine to propel carriages. Much experimentation was undertaken on the proposed atmospheric railway system which was used as much to ‘prove’ the technology to potential investors as to improve upon it. This included the erection of a half-mile track at Wormwood Scrubs, London.


Figure 1 Kingstown to Dalkey Railway

Source: Illustrated London News, 6 Jan. 1844

Atmospheric powered railways made an early appearance in Ireland, where the first commercial atmospheric railway opened on 29 March 1844. This new Kingstown to Dalkey atmospheric railway line was an extension of the Dublin to Kingstown Railway line. It consisted of a railway track between which was laid a pipe with a slit running down the centre. This was sealed with overlapping leather to create an airtight tube which was connected to a stationary engine at Dalkey. This large engine had a thirty-six foot flywheel and three boilers measuring four foot three inches in diameter and thirty-six feet in length. It would remove the air from the tube to create a vacuum. The front carriage or ‘leading car’ on this line had a piston which when connected to the atmospheric pipe in the centre of the tracks would propel the carriages to Dalkey. As the route had what was considered to be a steep incline the use of atmospheric pressure was deemed the best method of propulsion. In addition, the gravitational pull of the decline would propel the carriages on the return journey thereby removing the need for a second stationary engine based at Kingstown.

The fastest speed achieved on this line was eighty-four miles an hour when the ‘leading car’ was tested without any other carriages. In order for the carriages to start their accent to Dalkey the attendants at Kingstown pushed the carriages down a short decline at the station until the piston on the leading car connected to the atmospheric pipe between the tracks. Once the carriages reached a certain point on the track power to the engine would cut power thus allowing momentum to bring the carriages into Dalkey, aided by the drivers brake. This system was not without problems and the carriages were known to have stopped short of the station. Unfortunately other more serious issues were encountered; the main one being the failure of the leather to reseal properly after the ‘leading car’ had passed, leading to a loss in pressure.

In our next instalment we shall trace the application of this technology beyond Ireland.


Further reading:

Hadfield, Charles, Atmospheric railways: a Victorian venture in silent speed (Newton Abbott, 1967); Scannell, James, ‘From Kingstown to Dalkey by air’ in Dublin Historical Record, lxii, no. 1 (2009), pp 83-97; Murray, Kevin, ‘The atmospheric railway to Dalkey, in Dublin Historical Record, v, no. 3 (1943), pp 108-20.


Conference Review: The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS), St. Andrews, Scotland, 3-6 July.

By Adrian James Kirwan

The British Society for the History of Science was founded in 1947 and is the largest society dedicated to the history of science, technology and medicine on the British Isles. It aims to stimulate and facilitate research into the history of science, technology and medicine and to promote these disciplines within the wider research and teaching communities.
This year’s annual conference was another great success with a high academic standard on display at presentations covering a wide range of topics and subject areas. In addition, as anyone who has attended a BSHS event before can testify, a highly enjoyable time was had by all.
The variety of session themes included: Colonial and Imperial Science; Images of the Sciences; Interdisciplinary Approaches to Early Science and Medicine; and ‘Race,’ ‘Ethnicity’ and Research on Human Genetic Variation, 1930s-Present. The first session for example produced an excellent paper from James Poskett (University of Cambridge) entitled “‘The minds of men are on the move”: phrenology in Bengali print culture, 1845-1850’. This explored the transmission of phrenology to a colonial setting and how Bengalis used it to assert their own cultural and scientific objectives.
For historians of technology –such as myself- there was also plenty of scope. Session themes included two sessions on technology and communication, covering the nineteenth and twentieth century respectively. Highlights of these sessions included a fascinating paper, by Ales Materna (University of Ostrava) on the Vitkovice Ironworks of Austrian-Hungary and the role of the Rothschild family. Using this main theme the paper opened up a broad range of topics covering technological development, Austrian naval improvements in the lead up to the First World War and the wider political factors that saw Vitkovice employ the patents of Krupps in the production of their iron. The second session covering technology and communication in the twentieth century was also quite enjoyable, with a paper by Thomas Lean (British Library) using material from an oral history project to trace the factors that influenced the development of the British electricity supply system from nationalisation to privatisation. This was very successful at portraying the sense of public service that drove much of this development.
The conference which was spread out over four days –unfortunately I was unable to attend the whole event- combined a good mix of traditional presentations, round-table discussions, workshops for postgraduates, tours and social events.
What was most encouraging was the wide range of topics and the obvious interest in the history of science, technology and medicine that was on display. While the history of medicine in Ireland has been thriving in recent years one would have to wonder why the same interest has not been taken in the history of science and technology. There are few historians who would argue that both areas did not play a large part in shaping the history of this country but there seems, in comparison to Britain, to be little research in these areas. A look at the BSHS’s website http://www.bshs.org.uk/ and conference page will alert those with an interest to the many areas of research currently being undertaken and perhaps help those hoping to pursue research in the field. The next BSHS meeting will be the annual postgraduate conference to be held at University College, London, in January, 2015. For those interested in submitting a paper keep an eye on Holinshed’s events guide or the BSHS website for the call for papers.


Dublin mean time

Time Ball on Lyttelton Timeball station, New Zeland

By Adrian James Kirwan

As Britain’s naval power increased the need for proper navigation at sea became a pressing concern. In 1761 John Harrison manufactured his H4 chronometer which would enable British ships to retain accurate time. An accurate chronometer regulated to a fixed meridian (Greenwich) combined with the measurement of the local meridian would allow for the establishment of a ship’s longitude.
The Astronomer Royal, George Airy, was busy establishing Greenwich observatory as the prime authority on astronomical observations. In advancement of this, the Observatory began, using telegraph lines, to transmit a regular time signals in 1852 to time balls in docks, firstly in London and then throughout Britain. These time balls would consist of a ball mounted on a pole that would drop at 1 pm and thus allow any ships in port to regulate their chronometers.
In Ireland a separate centre of scientific knowledge based at the Observatory of Trinity College (the Royal Observatory, Dunsink), began in 1866 to regulate a time ball in Dublin docks. While initially this ‘regulated’ time was transmitted using a portable chronometer, this was eventually replaced by a telegraphic signal in 1873. This signal was used to regulate not only the time ball at the docks but also clocks at numerous other locations across the city. Thus Irish scientists sought to challenge the monopoly on time that was being asserted from Greenwich, whose signal was transmitted to Dublin by the Post Office. Therefore, two separate systems of time regulation developed in Dublin: one regulated by Dunsink and one by Greenwich.
Until the nineteenth century local time across the British Isles was based on the local meridian, for example Galway time was eleven minutes behind Dublin. With the development of rail networks across the United Kingdom each town on the line used a different time. This proved to be problematic for networked and spatially dispersed systems such as railways to operate in. To solve this, railways operated a standard time (GMT) across the network. This often led to a situation where the time displayed on the clock inside the railway station was different to that displayed outside. Hence the famous story of John Pentland Mahaffy (a professor at Trinity College, Dublin) who upon missing a train made a complaint to the railway clerk that the clocks outside and inside the station had two different times. To this the witty clerk quickly replied that there would be no need for two clocks if they both showed the same time.
While time signals were originally introduced to regulate ship’s chronometers, they were quickly adopted as a method for regulating the clocks of those with access to the new ‘regulated’ time. Initially this was done manually with a portable chronometer corrected visually by a time ball and then brought to individual homes to correct their clocks; eventually many premises were provided with a telegraphic time signal. ‘Regulated’ time was of growing importance in a society whose labour patterns had changed from task orientated, e.g. sowing crops, to a time orientated, e.g. factory production.
In order to standardise time across the United Kingdom and ‘to removed certain doubts as to … expressions of time occurring in Acts of Parliament’ the government passed the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act, 1880. This abolished local time across the British Isles replacing it with GMT (Greenwich mean time) for Britain and DMT (Dublin mean time) for Ireland -thus, Leopold Bloom’s reference to ‘Dunsink time’ in Joyce’s Ulysses. Henceforth, there would be a c. 25 minute difference in time between Britain and Ireland. The government introduced the Summer Time Act, 1916 which continued the separation of GMT and DMT. Later in that year a second bill stated that on the 1 October, Irish time instead of going back one hour would instead be put back thirty-five minutes in order to bring it in line with GMT, where it has remained since.

Further reading:
Patrick A. Wayman, Dunsink Observatory, 1785-1985: A Bicentennial History (Dublin, 1987).
Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, Mass., 2003).
David Rooney and James Nye, “‘Greenwich Observatory Time for the public benefit’”:
standard time and Victorian networks of regulation’ in The British Journal for the History of Science, xlii, no. 1, pp 5-30.

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