What happens when you collect together 1950s comics and science magazines, acoustic modems, 5.25-inch floppy disks, a Sinclair C5 and a Commodore C64?

You have a correspondent getting misted up with nostalgia.

The Transport Museum in Covent Garden has put on a display, entitled Sense and the City which, according to the official blurb, looks at the development of technology and its integration into the – social, economic and political fabric of the city.

Magazines and drawings

The exhibition is split into two halves, with one a display of old gadgets in cases and opposite, a wall of pictures from the past imagining what our future would be like.

Gadget displays

The other half being a series of touch-screen displays (that are far too sensitive) and generally looks at how information is changing how we look at the city – such as plotting the movement of taxis, twitter messages or boris bikes onto maps.

'Helicopters for everybody' by Frank Tinsley, Mechanix Illustrated issue January 1951Much of the touchscreen information is stuff I have seen elsewhere before – mainly on websites showing how Open Data can be used to by people in unexpected ways to generate information we didn’t even know existed.

If you haven’t seen that before, it will probably be very interesting.

However, for me, it was the other half of the display that I found the best – the displays of old computers, gadgets and the bizarre visions of a future where everyone owns a personal helicopter and massive motorways would be built through cities, and yet were always shown with just a few cars using them.

Annie Mole of Going Underground got a bit excited to see a Dan Dare comic featuring the London Underground, and it reminded me of a guest blog post I wrote about how the Underground network appeared in Thunderbirds.

Being a transport museum, it was possibly not a total surprise to see a Sinclair C5 on display, a bit too close to the displays of “future ideas that failed” for comfort as I quite liked them, and still itch to own one. I was very tempted to climb over the rope and sit in it. Very tempted indeed.

Sinclair C5

On the theme of communications, one display showed the different ways information has been transmitted over time. Not just the range from typewriter heads, an acoustic modem (sigh, nostalgia) and floppy disks, but also (slight squeal), a tube from an early hydraulic document sender.

In offices, you would put your document in the container, and then tubes running around the building would shuttle the document to the other office. The whole thing was usually powered by high pressure water pipes lain under the pavement throughout the City of London that delivered hydraulic power to the offices before electricity was common place.

Amazingly, after the death of the hydraulic power company, the pipes remained there unused until brought by a telecoms firm in the 1980s, and turned into conduits for fibre optic cables.

Victorian pipes used to send documents around buildings are still being used to day, to send emails and documents.

Communications across the ages

In the touchsreen room, is a wall with displays of tech-words, and their meanings. One was wrong though – really, really wrong. So wrong on a scale of wrongness that it is painful to think about it.

I leave the following below – and any decent programmer will wince when they see it.

Java is not Javascript

Hint: Javascript is NOT related to Java. Not even close.

Entry to the exhibition – which runs until next March – is free with the £13.50 entry to the Transport Museum, which in turn gets you unlimited return visits for a year.

As an older gadget geek, I really enjoyed it.

Finally, although I must have missed it at the display, the press photos from the Museum included a photo of the rare spiral escalator which was very sadly one of those futuristic visions that ended up being a bit of a failure, but I think needs to be rebuilt somewhere – it would be one heck of a tourist attraction.

Spiral escalator at Holloway Road Underground station, 1906 - 1907


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  1. Kit Green says:

    I am not that old but I do remember department stores in London using hydraulic tubes to send money to the cashiers and waiting for the change to come back with the receipt.

    I even think that Woolworths in North Harrow still did this in the early 60s. At the same time I was marvelling at the bright silver trains that were replacing the grubby brown ones. At least the freight trains that crawled past still had steam on the front!

    • IanVisits says:

      The huge Next flagship store on Oxford Street that opened in the 1980s reintroduced them as well – I never saw it, but apparently they were in transparent tubes as they wanted to show the money flowing around the shop.

  2. Adam says:

    Loads of shops still do this, though. I can think of a few Tescos, Sainsburys, Boots which have various tube-based cash systems. None have transparent tubes, but it’s still a used system.

  3. swirlythingy says:

    But what happened if somebody was trying to send a document to your office, at exactly the same time?

    As for Java: I invariably find that, whenever somebody writes about a subject I know quite a bit about (usually a journalist), when I read it, I spot at least two glaringly obvious clangers which never should have got past proofing, if the proofers were any less ignorant. It’s by no means restricted to technical stuff; when the Guardian did an interview with Terry Pratchett they referred to one of his creations as the “Nac Nac Feegle”.

    The really sad thing about this is that I have absolutely no idea, when reading about a subject I don’t know about, which of the many statements presented as fact which I am taking entirely for granted are in fact similarly humiliatingly wide of the mark!

    Moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you read.

  4. Alan says:

    There are a few spiral escalators around. I’ve been on this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9epUGcZtJDY

    I can remember trying out a C5 as a kid too, they were lethal round corners, turn too sharply and it just rolled over!

  5. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Ian, you must take a look at my friend Lizzie’s Flickr set about the pneumatic tube system at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, CA, which she got to visit recently.

  6. Andrew says:

    Hydraulic document sender? Or pneumatic?

    Perhaps some kind of technological mash-up of the London Pneumatic Despatch Company (the rather unsuccessful pneumatic underground railway) and the London Hydraulic Power Company (a somewhat more successful system of high-pressure water pipes to power machinery around London)?

  7. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Pneumatic tubes.

    There is a clickable link in my previous comment.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks, Lisa, but my comment was aimed at Ian, who said “also (slight squeal), a tube from an early hydraulic document sender.” [emphasis added]

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