London Blog

The Scientific Tourist in London: #4 King George III Collection

Exploring London’s scientific museums, statues, plaques and locations.

Where? Third floor of the Science Museum, next to the Launchpad children’s gallery.

What? The Science Museum, for all its wonders, can be a noisy place, especially during the school holidays. But if you move away from the blockbuster galleries and head upstairs, you can find any number of quiet retreats where tourists fear to tread. One such chamber houses the George III collection, an assortment of astrolabes, orreries and other scientific instruments from the 18th Century. A few decades after the founding of the Royal Society, natural philosophy was evolving into science as we know it. New technologies such as Harrison’s marine chronometer were finding serious application, and advances in engineering would soon lead to the industrial revolution. It became fashionable to surround oneself with scientific apparatus. A learned gentleman’s study was not complete without the latest barometer, microscope or armillary sphere supplied from a dedicated manufacturer such as George Adams of Fleet Street.

The greatest patron of these new technologies was the king himself. As regent and then monarch, George III amassed an impressive collection of scientific instruments, many of which can be inspected on the third floor of the Science Museum. The room is also home to a fine collection of 18th century lecture props. Scientists such as Stephen Demainbray would tour the country giving public demonstrations on magnetism, electricity and pneumatics. His apparatus is simple and pedagogical, in contrast to the opulence and showiness of the king’s acquisitions.

A microscope fit for a king.

The instruments of Demainbray and George III have been together since 1769, when Demainbray took charge of the royal collection at Kew observatory. The Science Museum took possession in 1927, and still displays the two sets alongside one another.

The joy of this gallery is trying to work out the function of each object before reading the description. The globes, telescopes and thermometers are obvious, of course, but why would someone put an alarm clock in what looks like a rotary evaporator, and what’s the purpose of the wind chimes made from delicate pulleys? So next time you’re in the Science Museum, forget the rockets and the hands-on displays and visit this underappreciated resource – a reminder of a time when anyone, even a king, could understand the cutting edge of science.

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    Stephen Curry said:

    What a gem, Matt – thanks for that! Must pop in one lunchtime.

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