We were so excited when the BBC invited us to be part of their Civilisations project, which launches today. The stories that we tell on the site here at the museum—about industry, travel and invention—are such a huge part of what changed society and the world, that we really wanted to be a part of it. We have so many great objects that it was difficult to whittle them down to any sort of reasonable shortlist to be included in the augmented reality app, so I don’t envy the BBC editors who had to choose the final items to be scanned.
The sundial is an iconic object in our collection because it was not only part of the world’s first-ever passenger railway station (which you can still visit at the museum today), but it also tells a story about how the advent of the steam train fundamentally changed the way we thought about time. As a very put-upon commuter today, it’s a story that I relate to on a daily basis!
The sundial was made in 1833 for use at Liverpool Road Station, the Manchester terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first purpose-built passenger and goods railway, and—as fans of our museum will undoubtedly already know—the site where the museum sits. You can still visit the original first-class waiting room and booking office in our Station Building at the far end of the museum site—nowadays it’s very peaceful, but 150 years ago it was a major transport hub and would have been filled with the hustle and bustle of people going about their business.
The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway heralded a new transport era, but the new railways also brought other changes. In the 1830s, clocks were set to local time taken from sundial readings, which meant that railway timetables had to allow for local time variations. There is a good explanation of what ‘local mean time’ is here.
This practice continued until the 1840s, when railway companies campaigned for a system of ‘universal time’, presumably as they felt their customers had a right to know exactly how late they were going to be. When Parliament chose to ignore their requests, many railway companies decided to adopt ‘London time’ for their timetables. Manchester Corporation was ahead of its time—installing a clock regulated to the time at the Greenwich Observatory in 1849. Greenwich Mean Time actually only became British standard time in 1880 when Parliament passed the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act.
Until universal London time was introduced, local times for London, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester could differ by as much as 20 minutes. Once timetables became widespread, our national obsession with train punctuality took hold, a clock was installed at the station and the sundial became merely decorative.
As Press and PR Manager here at the museum, I oversee a lot of filming. However, this was the first time I have seen an object being 3D scanned, and it was remarkably straightforward. Alex, from the BBC’s amazing Connected Studio, part of the BBC Research and Development team, arrived with an item that looked very much like an electric whisk. The scanner flashes a laser light very quickly to collect data points as it is moved around the object. Many layers are built up—our sundial was apparently quite difficult because of the shine on the brass causing a reflection, but Alex assured me it wasn’t the most difficult thing they’ve ever done!
It was possible to see the shape of the sundial emerging on the computer screen as it was being scanned, but the BBC team later clean up the scan to build a realistic recreation of the object, which is then added into the app. Then users can view the objects in their own home, and find out more about them before hopefully visiting them in museums. Other items in the app include an Egyptian mummy from the Torquay Museum and the Umbrian Madonna and Child from the National Museum of Scotland.
Come back to the blog later this week to find out how the sundial played a starring role in an “unofficial” museum that existed on the site of the railway before it became the Museum of Science and Industry.
Updated March 29, 2018: The sundial is now in the Civilisations AR app! Download from you Android or Apple app store to discover more about this fascinating object, and about other incredible museum objects from around the world.