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By Kate Campbell-Payne on

The 12 Days of Science

To get you into the festive mood, here's a trip into the Science Museum Group collections to find a very random but very *us* 12 Days of Christmas…

12 drummers drumming

Talking Drum from Cameroon

Hello! Can you hear me now?! Long before Alexander Graham-Bell and Elisha Gray were battling it out over who invented the telephone, humans found other creative ways to communicate over long distance, including drumming. This talking drum is from Cameroon, where drumming was used to warn about strangers or to call a meeting, and they’re still used in ceremonies today.

Talking drum, unknown maker, Cameroon, 1990-2010. Used for communication with villagers in the quarter of N'tabwe, in the village of Bafut near Bamenda, Cameroon. Drum plus two beaters.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

11 pipers piping

Pipe from 1850

Okay, so this might be the wrong kind of pipe, but bagpipes can get pretty annoying—especially 11 of them. This pipe is part of our archaeology collection of everyday things that really tells the story of workers’ lives in Victorian Manchester. This particular one was excavated when Spinningfields (just round the corner from the museum) was being redeveloped, and could have belonged to one of the 1830 Warehouse workers. It’s now on display in our Textiles Gallery.

Clay pipe. Photographed from above on a white background.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

10 lords a-leaping

Portrait bust of Lord Kelvin

There are quite a few lords (probably more than 10) in scientific history, but this bust of Lord Kelvin celebrates a mathematician, physicist and engineer whose work helped change world communications, determined absolute zero (and had the Kelvin unit named after him), and contributed to formulating the first and second laws of thermodynamics. With a CV like that, we’d be leaping too.

Bronze bust of Lord Kelvin with original stand by A. McFarlane Shannan, Glasgow, 1894-1915.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Nine ladies dancing

Beyer, Peacock and Company Limited Printing Block

No-one’s quite sure what these printing blocks in the Beyer, Peacock and Company Limited collection are for, but these ladies look like they’re well up for a dance. They’re probably workers at the foundry in Gorton, where nearly 8,000 locomotives were made for railways all over the world. You can find out more about the company and its history here, and if anyone has any bright ideas about what printing blocks like this one were used for then please do tell us in the comments.

A printing block with a surface image of six ladies in a group
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Eight maids a-milking

London Midland & Scottish Railway United Dairies milk wagon, 1937

You’d need a lot more than eight maids to fill this tank up. Built in 1937, it was used on the London, Midland & Scottish Railway, which collected milk from Cumbria and North Wales to distribute the white stuff all around the country. In 1923 alone, 282,000,000 gallons were transported by rail. The tanks were often attached to passenger trains so were a common sight right up to the 1960s. This one is now at our Science Museum Group sister museum, the National Railway Museum in York.

Tank wagon, No ADW44057, six wheeled United Dairies milk wagon with glass-lined tank, London Midland & Scottish Railway, built Derby 1937. Length over buffers: 23' 11"; width 8' 7"; height 12' 9".
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Seven swans a-swimming

Edison Swan electric bulb, John Rylands Library

This Edison Swan lightbulb is currently on display in our exhibition Electricity: The spark of life but it spent its life in one of Manchester’s most beautiful buildings, John Rylands Library. Founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands, the library was one of the first buildings in the city to be lit electrically and it generated its own power until 1950. Half of this bulb has been darkened to create a dimming effect.

Edison Swan electric bulb with bayonet fitting. Half of the glass lamp has been darkened to create a dimming effect. Removed from the John Rylands Library around 1993.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Six geese a-laying

Poster promoting mass X-ray screening, England, 1945–1959

This very cute poster featuring a family of very confident geese—is there any other type?—has a serious purpose. It was used to promote mobile screening programmes that detected pulmonary tuberculosis in large groups of people. Early diagnosis meant lower risk of infection to others and a higher chance of recovery. The image would have been part of many public health programmes during the early days of the NHS.

Poster promoting mass miniature radiography with illustration of three geese. Copywork against grey background.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Five gold rings

Gold-plated BBC Micro personal computer, 1985

While we do have some gold rings in the collections, this bling-tastic computer simply couldn’t be ignored. This gold-plated BBC Micro computer was offered as a competition prize for The Micro User magazine’s second birthday way back in 1985. Entrants had to describe five articles that they would expect to see in the magazine in three years’ time. It was won by Ron Self from Sea Palling in Norfolk, and while we don’t have a record of his winning entry, he must have felt like a king with this new shiny toy. It’s on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery.

Gold plated BBC Micro computer with two 1-megabyte disc drives and keyboard, made by Acorn Computers Limited, Cambridge, England,1985. From 'The Micro User' competition.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Four calling birds


This bird call was used by John William Strutt, a British scientist in theoretical and experimental physics, whose work, among other things, helped to explain why the sky is blue. He was also a keen researcher into sound, which is where this bird-call might come in. Rather than being used to lure birds during hunting, Strutt probably used it along with other sound instruments we have in the collections like this resonator and this tuning fork, in experiments for his book The Theory of Sound (1877), that’s still used by acousticians and engineers today.

A device to call birds
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Three French hens

Hen-feathered male Sebright bantam

These two fine looking chickens were bred by American Nobel Prize-winning evolutionary biologist, Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945). They are both male Sebright bantams that Morgan was using to investigate the genetic inheritance of plumage. One male has the plumage and feathering normally associated with hens; the other has the plumage associated with cocks. Through observing this mixture, Morgan found that the dominant gene for plumage is the female hen feathering. Whatever their heritage, we think they’d look pretty good in berets…

Group shot from left to right: 1996-136 Pt2 - Cock-feathered male Sebright Bantam and 1996-136 Pt1 Hen-feathered male Sebright bantam. View of whole objects on black background
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Two turtle doves

The Sopwith Dove

This postcard of a Sopwith Dove is part of a unique collection the Science Museum Group holds. It’s just one individual item from the around 2,800 cards collected by Miss Winifred Penn-Gaskell from the 1890s to the 1940s, all to do with aviation and aeroplanes. The Sopwith Aviation Company traded from 1913 to 1920. It designed and manufactured several First World War fighter planes, including the Sopwith Camel, which became the most iconic plane of the war.

Postcard for The Sopwith Dove, 2-seater biplane, Published by Alphalsa Publishing Co. Ltd of London.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

And a Partridge in an amp-li-fi-er

The Williamson amplifier became the standard for high-quality audio power amplifiers, despite the fact that the design was published in a magazine and ones like this were all home-made. This particular model uses (you guessed it) Partridge brand transformers. Well known for their great sound reproduction, these transformers were used in guitar amps and are still sought after today for rockers after an authentic sound.

Home-constructed Williamson amplifier, c. 1949.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum


We’re unsure though if this Partridge could use the amplifier with his midi hi-fi system, apropos achieving surround sound…



All images are © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

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