Go back to article: Ventriloquised voices: the Science Museum and the Hartree Differential Analyser

Universal language and the new ‘working model’

Curator Doron Swade made handwritten notes on two letters about the Hartree Differential Analyser received in 1991 and 1997. These notes and the Museum’s response to these letters highlight how, despite the re-display and re-interpretations of the object, past ventriloquised voices continued to create challenges and confuse the new voices with which the object was made to speak.

Swade’s first note was scribbled on a letter written by Jenny Wetton, Curator of Science at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, on 27 November 1991. Wetton wrote regarding an object in the MOSI stores that had been labelled as part of the Manchester Machine.[39] Her letter enclosed a photograph of the object and requested the Science Museum’s help in identifying it. The Museum’s response confirmed that it was not part of the Manchester Machine, but perhaps more interestingly Swade’s note reads: ‘As I recall Diff An. is in process of transfer to Computing but presently remains with Maths.’[40] It is clear from this that the Museum was in the process of separating the Trainbox and the Manchester Machine. Swade also wrote a handwritten note on a letter received on 29 April 1997 from Peter Bunce (a visitor to the Museum and self-confessed ‘Meccano Boy’). Bunce’s letter requested copies of the written materials that accompanied the Trainbox which was on display in the Museum at the time.[41] Again, Swade wrote: ‘I believe that the Meccano Model of the Diff Analyser is in Maths not Computing.’[42] Rather than ventriloquism, Swade’s notes imply that the interpretation of the voices of the objects had changed, with the Manchester Machine moving to the computing gallery to tell the story of analogue computers, and the Trainbox being retained in the mathematics gallery to tell the story of differential analysers. This type of re-interpretation of the stories of objects is a common practice in museums, as curators move objects between different contexts of categorisation and display. Despite this re-interpretation of the Trainbox as a mathematical rather than computing object, its ventriloquised voices – and the incongruities between them – continued to impact the Museum’s understanding of the object, and this is reflected in the Museum’s response to Bunce’s letter.

In responding to his request for documents that featured in the 1997 Trainbox display, the Museum sent Bunce a number of items that described the object at various times since it had been collected. The first document was a copy of the label that accompanied the 1997 Trainbox display. The title of the label described the Trainbox as a ‘Single-integrator differential analyser made from Meccano’, echoing Calvert’s ventriloquised voices that spoke of a ‘working model’ differential analyser.[43] By contrast, the label text explained that the object was ‘…constructed by Hartree as a demonstration model for use in lectures...used to solve problems of tractive force’, echoing the original voices of the Trainbox that Hartree built in 1947. The incongruities between these two aspects of the label are further confused when Swade’s handwritten description of the object as a ‘Meccano model of a differential analyser’ (emphasis added) on Bunce’s initial letter is also considered. The contradiction between these different understandings of the Trainbox demonstrates that despite its re-interpretation, it retained elements of the original and ventriloquised voices created by Hartree and Calvert respectively.

Bunce was also sent photocopies of a 1934 Meccano Magazine article on the Hartree Differential Analyser, an explanatory text on the methodological principles of differential analysis written in 1957, and a Meccano Magazine article from 1973. Taken together, these three reveal the complexity of the identity of Trainbox. The 1934 Meccano Magazine article described a ‘…remarkable Meccano mechanism...that solves complex mathematical problems with uncanny speed and accuracy’, reflecting the voices of the instrumental functions of the original differential analyser (Hawks, 1934, pp 441–444). The explanatory text, written in 1957, describes the Trainbox as: ‘...mainly built from Meccano parts...the first effective general purpose “analogue” computer.’[44] This represents a different set of voices from the 1934 article and the 1997 object label, demonstrating that the Museum’s understanding of the object was still ultimately based on (and confused by) the voices that Calvert had ventriloquised through the Trainbox in 1949–50.

The 1973 Meccano Magazine article sent to Bunce further reveals this confusion over the status of the Trainbox in the Museum. The article discussed the potential location and continued use of both the original machine and the rebuilt Trainbox as if they were different objects:

‘The exact facts are a little hazy...one of the machines – I do not know whether it was the original version – was taken to New Zealand… [and is] believed to be the sole survivor of the years…the first Meccano computer is still in existence, property of the Science Museum in London, although I have heard that the more interesting parts have been loaned to I. B. M.’ (Jelley, 1973, pp 54–57).

The assertion that the more ‘interesting parts’ of the Hartree Differential Analyser were sent to IBM is incorrect. It merely added to the confusing number of different stories and interpretations of the Trainbox based on its different voices.

Despite this lack of clarity, the creation of the Model Walkway in 2000 as part of the Making the Modern World gallery changed the Museum’s approach to the Trainbox and led to the development of a new set of voices that were subsequently ventriloquised through the object. The permanent Making the Modern World gallery was created in 2000 and is still open today. It places historical objects as part of a presentist chronological narrative in which objects are situated as part of the development towards modernity, rather than displayed within their original contexts. The Model Walkway is a long, raised display corridor overlooking the main gallery. It is one of four strands in gallery, the other three being Technology in Everyday Life, Iconic Objects, and Themed Displays based around a chronology of technology from 1750 to the present day (Woodcock, 2000).

The Model Walkway policy document describes a characteristic of models as things that speak a ‘universal language’ (Woodcock, 2000). The Walkway displays objects from eighteenth-century fire engines and nineteenth-century steam trains to twentieth-century Barbie dolls, representing a miniature microcosm of the main Making the Modern World gallery below, and encouraging visitors to think about the changing role of technology over time (Woodcock, 2000). The notion that all models share a universal language – as things that have ‘many of the characteristics of the real objects’, albeit in miniature form – corresponds with the wider literature on models, which asserts that the general trend in museums has been a move towards using models in exhibits because they represent accurate reconstructions of larger or unobtainable objects and machines (Kavanagh, 1990, p 43). The Model Walkway effectively ventriloquises a new voice through objects, implying that all models speak with a universal language, which conveys the ways that they have changed, from tools of education and interpretation to forms of commercial persuasion and scientific confirmation. These models – whether historical or newly commissioned – serve a useful purpose in the Science Museum as they are understood to communicate realities of the material world that are too large or too small to be understood at a glance.[45] The distinctive mode of representation offered by models – as objects that have been employed in a variety of settings – invoke different ways of seeing, which allows audiences to appreciate the features of larger machines in miniature (de Chadarevian and Hopwood, 2004, p 39:110). However, critics of the use of models in museums argue that taking models outside of the laboratory context can ‘lead to powerful fictions being constructed’; they argue that the lack of proper contextual information for models – when on display – can lead to a wide variety of interpretations that deviate from the original intention of the object (Lightman, 2016, p 577; Vergo, 1989, p 31). Though not included directly as part of the interpretation of the Model Walkway, this new universal language of models was discussed and accepted among Museum staff and became part of a set of voices that the Trainbox was made to speak within its own display.

With the Trainbox now on permanent display, the Science Museum sought to formalise the terms of its stewardship of the object and potentially acquire it for its collections. A loan request form was initially sent by David Chalkley (Documentation Section of the Science Museum) to Douglas Hartree’s son Richard in 2003 and the object’s new voices can ‘be heard’ within the form. In it, Chalkley designated the Trainbox as a ‘working model of a differential analyser constructed from the construction toy Meccano’.[46] In contrast to Calvert’s own use of the phrase ‘working model’, which referred back to the physical and instrumental aspects of the original 1934 model, this new use of the phrase ‘working model’ related to the universal language of the Model Walkway, which framed the Trainbox as a working model representation of the Manchester Machine, albeit on a smaller scale. This idea of the Trainbox as a smaller working model of a larger object echoes Pugh’s description of the ‘small meccano d.a.’ in 1974.[47] It is also possible to discern elements of Calvert’s ventriloquised voices in Chalkley’s designation of the Trainbox as a working differential analyser rather than the ‘portion’ that Hartree had originally intended the object to be when he rebuilt it in 1947. This ventriloquising of the universal language of the ‘working model’ through the object is another example of how the Museum has changed the voices of the Trainbox. However, compared to previous voices, those relating to this new ‘working model’ were the first example of a set of ventriloquised voices that were external to the object. Hartree’s voices were based on the changes he made to the object in 1947; Calvert’s ventriloquised voices were a response to the need to make the object tell a certain story in 1949; and Pugh’s voices were an attempt to better understand the provenance of the object in 1974 due to the contradictions of Hartree’s and Calvert’s different object voices. The Model Walkway ventriloquised curatorial voices that emerged in the context of new museological concepts.

The final section of this paper will approach the Hartree Differential Analyser as it sits in the Information Age gallery today, establishing that through re-interpreting the object within this context, the Museum has also ventriloquised a new set of voices. It will demonstrate that the Hartree Differential Analyser speaks with all of its various voices today in the Information Age gallery, supporting the idea that it is a material polyglot object.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181005/006