How many women scientists can you name?

For me, the answer is surprisingly few, a fact that makes A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention, at once, both inspirational and melancholic. Published by the organisers of Ada Lovelace Day, the book shares the stories of twenty women who researched, invented and utilised science and technology in remarkable ways. In a world where “it’s incontrovertible that there are fewer women than men in fields like science, tech, engineering and maths”, the publication aims to provide a collection of successful female role models that will inspire others to overcome the traditional gender barriers within science.

Inspiring women scientists

Of course, as the book itself points out, the reasons for the low number of women choosing to study science, technology and engineering – or of limited female graduates gaining jobs in the field and progressing to high levels – are complex. This publication won’t solve them overnight, but it might just help people recognise the contributions women have made to science, or acknowledge the very real possibility of being able to combine family life with a successful science career. My favourite examples of the featured women include the astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, high-energy physicist Joan Feynman and the “enchanted maths fairy”, Ada Lovelace herself.

Lovelace is, as most people are now aware, credited as the first ever computer programmer. Despite living over a century before the invention of the first modern computer, she was “the first person to write and publish a full set of instructions that a computing device could use to reach an end result that had not been calculated in advance”. Lovelace is the figurehead for an annual day celebrating the achievements of women in technology, a fitting position for someone whose “understanding of [Charles] Babbage’s Analytical Engine was so deep that it surpassed that of Babbage himself” and who the editor of this volume describes as being “100 years ahead of her time”.

At the age of 25, Payne achieved another first. In her PhD (described by Harvard colleague Otto Struve as “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”) she derived for the first time the composition of the stars. While she later wrote a popular science book and an introductory textbook on astronomy – in which she urged readers to check out paintings in art galleries to search out impossible depictions of the moon – it was this initial work that acted as an inspiration to Richard Feynman’s sister Joan. Seeing a woman’s name on a scientific publication, Feynman realised that – contrary to her mother’s view that “women can’t do science, because their brains aren’t made for it” – it was possible for a woman to become a scientist.

Luckily for Feynman her brother was more encouraging than her mother, sending her university science textbooks when she was still a teenager, telling her to aim higher than she naturally did and even agreeing to stay out of her chosen field of study so as not to compete with her work. She ended up being cited as one of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s elite senior research scientists and also received NASA’s distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal for her “pioneering contribution to the study of solar causes of geomagnetic and climate disturbances”.

Chinese physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was quoted in Newsweek in 1963 saying, “… it is shameful that there are so few women in science… In China there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments yet she remains eternally feminine.”

It’s notable that many of the women featured in the book had, like Feynman, been inspired or supported to think differently about their career choices by others. Whether it was Chien-Shiung Wu’s father setting up an entire “school for girls” at a time when Chinese girls were forbidden from receiving formal education, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s father waking his children up in the dead of night to watch Sputnik sailing across the sky, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin’s intrepid archaeologist mother or Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s high achieving aunts, the idea that girls and women could receive an education, be interested and involved in science and do something other than simply raise a family was instilled in each at an early age.

The melancholy of women and science

However, although the book is not in any way written as a polemic, I couldn’t stop myself from being saddened by the repeated examples of individual, institutional or cultural inequality that appear in these stories. What’s more, while some may be explained away by the historical context in which many of these women lived, plenty are still with us today. I even caught myself (a physics graduate who has been involved in astronomical and physical chemistry research) being surprised by the use of the female pronoun in this sentence from Jemima Kiss’s Foreword: “I want an engineer to explain the provenance of her ideas, a designer to describe her vision for the future.” I was also shocked to meet such a great number of high-achieving female scientists in these pages, most of whom I’d never even heard mention of before.

Several of the challenges featured in the book echo my own experience as a nascent scientist, even though I grew up in a time where girls could be educated both at school and in higher education. Where many of these women needed to fight for the right to study a “boys’ subject” like science or maths at school, I had to leave my own London girls’ school (the same one Tony Blair later sent his daughter to) in order to be able to study double mathematics at A Level. Like those women who found themselves in a substantial minority if they studied physics at university, I ended up being the only female physicist in my year at Girton College, Cambridge (a college that had – 120 years before – been Britain’s first residential college for women). While these may seem like minor challenges in retrospect, they both meant I needed a certain level of determination in order to stick with my aim of studying physics at a world class institution – a quality a pupil at the boys’ school associated with mine wouldn’t have required.

I’m pleased to say I have suffered less out and out discrimination than some of the women in these pages – but perhaps that is because I ended up in the female-dominated world of publishing, rather than pursuing a scientific career. What many of these remarkable women found when they finally made it into the workforce was a world of uncertain, temporary – and often unpaid – positions and a community which tended to only take their findings seriously once they had been corroborated by a man. This culture even led to women like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin keeping quiet about some of her findings (which were later discovered by men), since they contradicted her male bosses’ views. Her comment 50 years after this episode was “a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position”.

A group of women staff members at Harvard College Observatory c. 1890, directed by Williamina Fleming (standing). Image: Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard College Observatory

What’s clear from these stories, though, is that it’s not just scientific institutions and scientists themselves that have a role to play in encouraging women to consider – and stick with – careers in the field, it’s wider society. From newspapers only mourning the loss of embryology pioneer Dame Anne McLaren’s husband when the couple were both killed in a car crash, or swapping around Joan Feynman and her husband’s PhDs (on the assumption that she was the anthropologist and he the physicist), to the limited published accounts available on the work of figures such as Victorian geologist Florence Bascom and “one of the most important people in computing” Karen Spärck Jones, the media is also a key factor. Any publishers reading this, I urge you to take up Sue Nelson’s offer to write a book about the life of astronomer Williamina Fleming. I for one would want to read the story of a Scottish single mother who found herself stranded in America in the 1880s, took a job as a maid at the Harvard College Observatory and went on to discover over 300 variable stars, 10 novae and 52 nebulae. The supporting players in her biography include the ‘computers’, a team of low-paid workers (traditionally men, but Fleming ended up recruiting bright untrained women to the job instead) who examined photographic plates looking for stars, and the Director of the Observatory Edward Pickering, who broke with the norms of the time, encouraging his female workforce to attend conferences and present papers.

And of course, as the PinkStinks and Let Toys be Toys campaigns have recently highlighted, wider society also genders science in a way that may influence girls’ interests or choices. After all, if Ada Lovelace hadn’t had the opportunity to amuse herself designing boats and steam-powered flying machines as a child, would she have grown up to be so adept at machine thinking? More fundamentally, as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin put it, “we were scientists, we were scholars (neither of these words has a gender)”. With that in mind, it is fitting that this collection of pieces about the lives and works of great scientists doesn’t feel the need to announce its gender in the title wording or cover design (something I fear a traditional publisher would almost certainly do). These are fascinating stories of people whose work has made a substantial difference to the world in which we live. They just happen to be women too…

A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention is edited by Suw Charman-Anderson and published by FindingAda. Readers of this blog can obtain a 25% discount on the published price of £5.99 by using discount code ‘strategiccontent’ at the checkout. All proceeds go towards supporting Ada Lovelace Day.

 

Who wouldn’t want to build a life-size origami elephant?

It’s not really a surprise that I have a bit of a penchant for elephants. After all, I chose one as my company logo – for reasons explained here. So there’s no way I couldn’t share this rather bizarre – but extremely appealing – campaign to raise money to fold a life-size origami elephant out of a single sheet of paper.

Here’s how professional origami artist Sipho Mabona made a rather smaller prototype come to life:

Mabona intends to replicate the process on a massive scale, in order to “prove that there are no limits to what can be made out of a[n] uncut square piece of paper”.The folding itself (summarised in starkly simple form below) is, he says, “a beautiful process” that has more significance than the final result. His intention is to complete the transformation from paper sheet to life-size elephant within the Art Museum in Beromünster, Switzerland; he’ll also be capturing it with time-lapse photography.

All this is much more impressive than my own time-lapse origami efforts, which are displayed in the fundraising video for the HMS Beagle Project below. Maybe someone should create a life-size origami Beagle somewhere?

 

You can find out more about Sipho Mabona and his White Elephant campaign – and pledge your support in return for some origami animal goodies – at Indiegogo.

By |Design, Museums|Comments Off

Keeping up to speed with social media – reviewing Jon Reed’s new edition

Get up to Speed with Online Marketing coverI can’t quite believe that three years have passed since I blogged a review of my former colleague Jon Reed’s first book: Get up to Speed with Online Marketing. Of course, times – especially when you’re dealing with social media – change, so it’s no surprise that publisher Pearson has just launched a new edition. Always keen to be an early adopter, I’ve already got my grubby mitts on a copy – and here’s what I said about it on Amazon:

An accessibly-presented, business-focused, practical (and fun) guide to connecting with customers via social media

The latest edition of Jon Reed’s accessible and practical book Get up to Speed with Online Marketing has all the strengths of the first version and more. When I reviewed the initial publication three years ago, I highlighted the book’s emphasis on the use of third party tools, such as applications, plugins and widgets that help non-technical folk get quick results without the need to brief and pay designers or developers. Writing back then I said, “Of course you could find all these online tools yourself if you had sufficient time. What Get Up to Speed… does really well, though, is help you know what does what and what’s worth spending the time and effort to implement. Some of the best ‘takeaway’ points from the book are simple, but it’s unlikely you would stumble across them unless you’d tried all these things out yourself.” All this useful information, along with constant reminders to focus on your overall goals and measure the impact of your decisions, results in a book that both builds confidence and helps you choose where to concentrate your efforts.

What has changed since the first edition is the place of social media and online marketing within the business world. In the first edition, Reed takes time to persuade us that it’s worth investing in what he calls “the new marketing” in the first place. Now, we’re told, “social media is the mainstream”, a view I certainly share – which makes this book even more of an essential tool for any marketer, and especially for anyone who’s struggling to promote their own small business while also juggling all the other demands on their time.

It may be the norm to use social media now, but the challenge for overstretched and under-budgeted marketers isn’t just about how to create websites, write blogs and set up social media profiles. The key marketing issues Reed focuses on are the need to be findable (in places where your customers already are) and how to build relationships with customers and contacts. There’s no doubt Reed (whose Publishing Talk community has over 280,000 followers on twitter) knows a thing or two about connecting with people. But readers also benefit from the accessible way in which he shares all his knowledge. The real-life case studies he reports on, the checklists and summaries he includes and the links to all those third-party tools make it extremely easy for anyone to see which social media tools they can use to do this, and what steps they should take to achieve their goals. A new ‘best practice’ feature at the end of each chapter provides a handy reference for how to handle each featured approach, a glossary helps you sort your ‘wireframes’, ‘pingbacks’ and ‘hangouts’ from your ‘CMS’, and regular FAQs (again, new to this edition) anticipate some of the key issues people are likely to find difficult.

Reed’s also in touch with the latest trends. For this version of the book he’s dropped the chapters on virtual worlds (a cool development, but not something most people will actually use to promote their business) and social bookmarking in favour of covering Google+ and “one of the biggest social media sensations in recent years” (the visually-based Pinterest). He also features mobile platforms such as Instagram and Twitter’s video service Vine. Never fear, though, if you still want the old stuff you can download the lost chapters from the book’s website.

As with the last edition, it’s the practical tips and “quick wins” that are likely to prove the most useful. Whether it’s setting up a hashtag contest (where you ask users to share images or ideas via a specific platform and keyword) to generate a buzz, using a social media client such as HootSuite to manage your workload or geotagging online images to gently promote your location, even the most social-media savvy reader is likely to learn a thing or two from these. And if all that sounds too much like hard work, Reed is also keen to make it fun. On the final page he exhorts you to “focus on what you enjoy, what you do best, and where you can add the greatest value to your business”. Overall, then Get up to Speed… remains an excellent, practical (and fun) guide to using social media to reach your markets while keeping your overall business objectives in mind.

Find out more at the Get up to Speed with Online marketing: How to use websites, blogs, social networking and more to promote your business website, or follow the book on Twitter or Facebook.

My first ‘author’ experience – in the hands of students

As an experienced publisher and writer, it goes without saying that I’ve worked on many, MANY books, in a variety of guises. My words appear uncredited in texts where I’ve performed serious editorial surgery, on the back of books as part of published reviews, or occasionally in publications where my name is reproduced in an eye-straining list of freelance writers. In some titles I get the honour of a credit on the copyright page, or a reference in the author’s Preface or acknowledgements; searching Google Books for ‘Anna Faherty’ reveals that authors describe me as ‘unrelenting’ and ‘difficult’, but also ‘insightful’, ‘unwaveringly supportive’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘encouraging’ and ‘patient’. The same search reminds me that my own scientific data has been used (and credited) in specialist research publications, and that I once acted as ‘consultant’ for a German construction dictionary – whatever that means. I am also clearly identified as the author of a number of award-winning online training courses. But, until this week, my name had never appeared on the front of a book.

Martinis, Masterclasses and Space Missions: New Frontiers in Contemporary Publishing, an edited collection of writings and reflections about some of the hottest topics being discussed in the global publishing world, changes all that. Published by Kingston University Press, the book includes insights from Kingston University lecturers, students and graduates as well as sharing key learnings from a range of industry-based Masterclass speakers. Aside from having my name on the cover, what really sets it apart is that it was designed, typeset and produced (in two different versions) by students on the Kingston University Publishing MA, as part of a formally-assessed module.

Here are some things this first book-author experience taught me:

  • Publishing folk are extremely generous when it comes to providing quotes and content at extremely short notice – as Steve Jobs says, if you ask people for help, they usually say yes.
  • A group of book production novices can produce a professional-looking product in a matter of weeks – even if things go wrong.
  • Practical, in-at-the-deep-end projects can be ‘challenging’,  ‘eye-opening’, ‘stimulating’ and ‘enlightening’ learning experiences (students’ words, not mine).
  • Students don’t like the idea of appointing a project manager (a view that changed completely after completing the project).
  • Students do like the idea of producing books in a square format (though I have no idea why).
  • Typesetting isn’t the same thing as using InDesign – it’s much more difficult, nuanced and skilled than that.
  • Like some of the authors’ descriptions of me above, student publishers consider me a ‘tough cookie’ to deal with.
  • Even a seasoned publisher gets a kick out of seeing their name on the front cover of a book!

Martinis, Masterclasses and Space Missions: New Frontiers in Contemporary Publishing is edited by Anna Faherty and published by Kingston University Press. You can find out more, and download a free sample, from the Kingston Publishing Blog.

What can publishers learn from the success of Angry Birds?

Four years ago Finnish mobile games developer Rovio was at rock bottom. Long development times and high overheads were pushing the organisation towards bankruptcy; 38 of the company’s 50-strong workforce were let go. Rovio’s next product didn’t just need to sell, it needed to sell enough to save the company. The make-or-break game was ‘Angry Birds’, which became a global phenomenon and catapulted the once struggling company to a $100m revenue business. Here’s how Rovio celebrated smashing half a billion downloads:

 

What lessons can publishers learn from the development process and business decisions behind the most successful mobile game in history? And how will publishers need to change if they want to secure a similar level of digital success? Find out at my talk at The Galley Club on Wednesday 6th February.

An ethical decision-making framework

Issues related to ethics and morals are never far from the news. In the past few months alone we’ve seen David Cameron describe comedian Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs as ‘morally wrong’, the morals of publishing topless images of the Duchess of Cambridge called into question, the entire moral ethos of the BBC challenged and claims that we’ve living in a time where public behaviour is at its most detached from a moral framework.

It’s in this context that I wrote an article for this month’s edition of International Accountant magazine, discussing Ethical Dilemmas for Accountants.

Ethics are the moral principles by which we live our lives. If we all lived by the same morals, we’d never encounter an ethical dilemma; in reality the deep-rooted values that drive our behaviour differ from person to person, and also often differ from the law. Making decisions about ethics is ultimately difficult because:

  • you may end up damaging a person or group in some way;
  • the outcomes following from your decision are equally unattractive;
  • there is more at stake than simply legal or business issues; and
  • there is a contradiction between what you naturally feel is the ‘right’ choice, and what you actually want to do.

So how should people make decisions about ethical issues? The answer is to use a decision-making framework. Many companies and organisations have their own, but the one featured in the article is based on the five-step framework outlined in the Handbook of the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants. Try it out next time you’re struggling with an ethical dilemma:

1.   What are the facts?

  • What are the relevant facts about the situation?
  • Are you making any assumptions? Could you replace these with facts instead?
  • Who is affected by the situation and in what way? What are each stakeholder’s values and their desired outcomes?

2.   What are the ethical issues?

  • What professional, organisational or personal ethics are involved?
  • How might they affect your practice, the profession, the public interest or your personal reputation?

3.   What are the fundamental values and principles?

  • What aspects of the code of conduct relate to the issue?
  • Which of your personal, professional or organisational values are under threat?

4.   What are the established decision-making procedures?

  • What factors or perspectives should take priority?
  • Who needs to be involved in the decision?
  • Who will make the final decision?

5.   What are the alternative options?

  • To what extent does each alternative minimise harm to those involved?
  • To what extent does each alternative uphold the values and principles within the code of conduct?
  • How practical is it to implement each option?
  • Are there any underlying motives influencing your decision? Would you make a different choice if you suppressed these?

To boost your knowledge about ethics, and develop your own decision-making skills, you can take my online learning course on Professionalism and ethics for accountants

 

Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum

I’m currently working with the Design Museum on their Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum exhibition.

The exhibition features installations from fourteen designers, reflecting on the concept of memory in the digital age. It’s an interesting project for two key reasons:

  • writing about works that are closer to conceptual art than functional products has some serious challenges. There’s a fine line to tread between trying to answer the questions visitors are most likely to ask about the exhibit and being overly prescriptive about what they should think…
  • the entire show looks like it’s going to have that ‘wow’ factor that will get visitors talking. I can’t wait to see the Design Museum full of crystals, lasers, video installations and even a house designed to hold just a human head.

Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum opens on 5 September 2012.

Why politics and science don’t mix

Like oil and water, politics and science simply don’t mix. Why? Because, as I say in my recent review of Mark Henderson’s The Geek Manifesto book, “politicians and scientists think very differently and value different things”. Here’s an extract from the post:

“Changing your mind is de rigeur for scientists who come across new evidence; it’s a sign of weakness for a politician. Scientists value experiments and what they can learn from failure; politicians won’t admit that most new policies are in fact experiments and therefore fail to learn anything from them. Scientists want to answer questions; politicians want to talk about solutions. Scientists think their work, and “the numbers”, should do the talking; politicians want qualitative narratives about outcomes and impact. Scientists value evidence-based policy; politicians want policy-based evidence. And so on…”
These fundamental differences are the cause of many instances of ‘evidence abuse’, as well as poor policy decisions. The Geek Manifesto is an excellent summary of how science works, why it’s important and how evidence is often abused, miscommunicated or full-on ignored at the general public’s expense; it makes a great companion to Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.
You can read my full review of a book I describe as “shocking and inspirational in equal measure” on the Beagle Project blog.

A helping hand for interactive storytelling

While I may spend most of my time writing seemingly conventional non-fiction, I’m actually very interested in the mechanics of interactive storytelling – whether used in fact or fiction. That’s partly due to time spent reading those old Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. But it’s more because of my professional adult life.

I’m used to developing textbooks that readers dip in and out of at will, online learning courses designed specifically so users can choose their own path through different experiences, and exhibitions where you can’t control the route your visitor will take, what they choose to look at, or in which order they will see things. In all these instances, however, there will be communication aims, learning objectives or affective outcomes you want or need to get across – the challenge is doing so even if your reader/visitor doesn’t read/interact with everything, or if they explore material in an ‘unexpected’ order.

That challenge was especially tough when I worked as Content Manager for the Science of Spying, an interactive exhibition designed for families, which launched at the Science Museum, London in 2007 and travelled to other venues in the US, Canada, Spain and the UAE. Unusually for a museum exhibition, we chose to use a fictional narrative as a thread running through the entire experience. Because visitors explored the topic of how science helps people to spy through interactive exhibits, we often needed someone or something to spy on. Rather than inventing different targets for each exhibit, we decided to link everything together in one story. You started the exhibition in training, testing out your skills by spying remotely on a suspicious organisation known as OSTECK. If you did well, you received a mission to go undercover within OSTECK. There you were tasked with tracking down a secret codeword in order to steal the antidote to a world-threatening communications virus. Finally you had to make your escape.

How were we to communicate all this information when we printed hardly any gallery labels (on the basis that most people never read them anyway) and didn’t hand anything out except for a swipe card needed to access some of the interactives? More importantly, how did we get the message across through visitors’ on-screen experiences without either annoying them by repeatedly stating it or under-informing them if they failed to play certain games?

As with the development of most exhibitions, we used evaluation panels to test many of our early ideas and exhibit prototypes. I therefore spent a long day or two preparing a detailed paper-walkthrough of the entire exhibition, with the narrative reveals hidden under paper flaps that visitors could choose to explore or not. We trialled this on helpful visitors in the Museum, some of whom found the experience rather confusing. However, most people did pick up the fact that OSTECK was up to something, and that a hirsute figure named Mr Grant might also be involved – no matter which exhibits they had explored, or in which order. Encouraged, we ploughed on, though with some trepidation; evaluation can be a very powerful tool, but lifting flaps on a paper walkthrough could never simulate the experience of working your way through an exhibition abuzz with over-excited children and crowds waiting to access exhibits.

When Science of Spying launched, it polarised opinion. Some, mostly tweens or families including them, loved it. They enjoyed tackling the different interactive tasks, picked up the story as they went, and were really keen to complete their mission in the ‘undercover’ zone. Others were disappointed. Adults who had come along expecting facts about historical spies, and who didn’t participate fully, picked up some aspects of the story, but were frustrated by not having the whole picture.

While our exhibition storyline clearly wasn’t interactive fiction on the scale of Profile Books and inkle’s recent Frankenstein app (trailed below) – where you can choose on every page how to proceed, sometimes from several options – it  does share some of the same logistical issues. In particular, how do you make sure certain key pieces of information are communicated without ramming them down your reader’s throat, how do you keep people engaged in a potentially disjointed story and how can you provide meaningful different responses so readers feel they are getting a genuinely personalised experience? These are also issues I’ve faced when working with Full Beam Visual Theatre to devise themes and content for a ‘promenade’ theatre performance inspired by the life of Charles Darwin, The Lesser Spotted Collectors’ Club.

If the new inklewriter tool for “telling interactive tales with the minimum of fuss” had been available before, maybe we’d have had less headaches about how to spread our narrative across the Science of Spying exhibition or the theatre performance. Or maybe we’d just have got carried away and ended up writing our own more detailed OSTECK or Darwin-themed story (there’s two interesting ideas….).

The good news is that the inklewriter is here now – and it’s free to use. If you want to give it a go, why not enter inkle’s Future Voices competition for interactive storytelling? Personally, I can’t wait to see what clever plots, twists, turns and personalised experiences people come up with, which is handy, since I’ll be one of the judges tasked with reading entries. I’m also hoping it might give me some inspiration for my next big museum project – whatever that may be…

Future Voices is open for entries now. Just submit your piece using inklewriter by September 15th and you could end up with a published story and $250 in your pocket. Full details are avaliable at inkle.

Thames trivia for the Jubilee

If you’re following the route of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant today, here’s a handful of boaty Thames facts to impress your friends with:

Battersea park is built from mud and ballast

Brainchild of ship’s carpenter turned master builder Thomas Cubitt, Battersea park opened in 1854. The marshy land was reclaimed by filling it with 750,000 tons of silt and mud excavated from the Surrey Docks. The park’s walls include ship ballast stones salvaged from the river at Greenwich. Sailing ships in the early nineteenth century dropped these stones in the Thames before travelling upriver to unload their cargoes in the Port of London.

 Wordsworth saw ships everywhere

Wordsworth’s 1802 sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge describes the view from the Thames at the time: ‘Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky’.

 A Roman ship was found under the Sea Life Aquarium

The remains of a rounded-bottom Roman vessel, thought to be a 60-ton merchant ship from 300AD, were excavated during the development of the County Hall building in 1910. Made of oak, the fragment was 12m long; the full vessel would have been around 20m. A stone found embedded within the ship’s planks is thought to have been propelled at it by catapult.

The County Hall Roman Ship.

Nelson was buried in an enemy ship’s mast

After his death on HMS Victory at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Nelson’s body was placed in a cask filled with brandy – later replaced by spirits of wine. On arrival in England a surgeon removed the musket ball from the body and, after a spell in a brandy-filled lead coffin, Nelson was finally placed in his final coffin, which was made from the mast of a French ship sunk at the Battle of the Nile. This, in turn, was placed within two other coffins – one made of lead, another of wood.

Nelson lay in state in the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital for three days and was visited by almost 100,000 people. On 8 January 1806 the coffin was taken upriver by the King’s Barge, followed by two miles of boats. He was buried in the centre of St Paul’s Crypt.

Nelson’s funeral procession on the Thames (National Maritime Museum)

Shakespeare’s Globe is built like a ship

The theatre’s distinctive curved oak timbers are sourced from the same Surrey forest that supplied the Navy’s medieval dockyards with oak frame supports for ship hulls.

Shakespeare’s Globe under construction

The Tooley Street fire led to the establishment of the London Fire Brigade

In June 1861 a warehouse full of jute caught fire on the south bank of the Thames. The worst peace-time fire in the city, the Tooley Street fire spread to other warehouses, wharves and ships and caused more than £2m damage. It was two weeks before the fire was completely extinguished.

Before the fire, the London Fire Engine Establishment was run by insurance companies. Afterwards, they put their premiums up and forced the government to take control. The 1865 Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act created a publicly-funded London fire brigade.

The Tooley Street fire (National Maritime Museum)

Tower Bridge operators used semaphore

Formally opened in June 1894, Tower Bridge was designed so tall ships could pass through to London’s busy upper pool port. It took eight years to build and cost approximately £1m. Each time the bridge’s arms are raised a total weight of 2400 tons must be moved – in just 1-2 minutes. The bridge operators communicated with ships and traffic via semaphore or signal lights, gongs and steam whistles.

Tower Bridge with Jubilee lighting

The Design Museum reeks of bananas

The current site of the Design Museum was once a banana warehouse. As a boy, Museum founder Sir Terence Conran visited the docks on the site with his father (a dealer in gum copal resin) to watch freighters from Africa unload their cargoes.

Bananas unloading at Butler’s Wharf (English Heritage)