This photographic gem is straight from the archives of Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. I understand it’s a pressure chamber, designed to take the strain off Winston Churchill when he was jet setting around the world. I think it dates from the mid-1940s. The aeroplane he travelled in didn’t have a pressure cabin – but lying in this chamber, Churchill could breathe a steady supply of air (and maybe smoke a cigar or two).
Hitler had something similar, apparently. Chambers like these were a must for any VIP traveller as they also offered extra security in an attack. I don’t know if there’s any evidence of Churchill using this contraption. His aircraft was once in danger but never came under serious attack.
Cold War – Hot Science
I unearthed this wonderful image when I was digging through the archives for ‘Cold War Hot Science’, an exhibition I put together with Tim Hunkin, Robert Bud and Science Museum staff, early 2001. The exhibition marked the launch of a book by the same name. Among the many other extraordinary and alarming delights in the archive was a bomb switch for the Vulcan bomber (the aircraft designed to deliver our nuclear bombs, before we had intercontinental ballistic missiles) and some old laboratory glassware, used by Porton Down scientists to cook up Britain’s stock of the deadly Marburg Virus. Marburg is a Category 4 disease – like Ebola and Lassa Fever, it’s deadly, incurable and highly contagious.
Putting together the exhibition, I also remember encountering what might be the world’s most historic pieces of Sellotape. They were holding together the original ‘drop models’ (small, balsa wood aeroplanes) that were used by engineers to figure out the best design for Concorde.
Working around 1962, long before the era of Computer Aided Design (CAD), engineers dropped these models, just like paper aeroplanes, from the top of a ladder or from helicopters. They watched them gliding to the ground as they were looking for an aeroplane shape that wouldn’t roll over dangerously, as it approached the runway, despite being contoured to travel smoothly through the sound barrier. After extensive drop model tests, Farborough engineers opted to give Concorde its famous ‘ogive’ (curvy, triangular) wing shape.
When Science Museum conservators prepared these drop models for public display, they took great pains to conserve the fragile remains of Sellotape that engineers had stuck to the models, all those years ago.
We juxtaposed artefacts from the labs with press cuttings about Farnboough workers, gleaned the local papers. Somehow, these very British local newspaper cuttings made the researcher’s undercover defence work seem all the more extraordinary.