First Time Out: Ancient dishes, Chinese puzzles, bone guillotine and the earliest lightbulb

By Ben Miller | 10 June 2013

Between now and July 31, ten weird, wonderful and beautiful previously unseen objects go on display at ten venues. In a twist, they then swap venues halfway through the run for a re-interpretation by their new hosts. Here’s part two of the inside track from the venues...

Model bone guillotine made by POWs at Norman Cross prison camp, (early 19th century)

A photo of a small model carriage
© Vivacity Culture and Leisure
Peterborough Museum:

“This working model guillotine is made of cow bone crafted by prisoners of war held at Norman Cross prison camp near Peterborough during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

The prisoners made objects from bone, straw and wood for sale at a local market. As well as working models like this they made chess sets, jewellery boxes and toy ships.

Model guillotines, which decapitate a model ‘victim’ when a lever is moved, were particularly popular. They appealed to English people’s morbid fascination with the French Revolution and all things gory.

The intricate models were made by candlelight from the remains of animal bones in the prisoner’s meals – in this case beef.

They used handmade tools, even using broken glass for cutting, as knives were forbidden.

Peterborough Museum has a collection of around 700 items made by Napoleonic prisoners of war, the largest public collection of prisoner of war craftwork anywhere in the world.”

Natural History Museum, London:

“Carving animal products for fun rather than function is a skill which appeared about 50,000 years ago, around the time modern humans emerged from Africa and began their domination of the world.

These sophisticated people crafted bone, tusk and ivory into jewellery, figures and musical instruments, among them flutes from cave bear bones and drawings of horses etched into mammoth bone. It’s the perfect material to carve, long-lasting and in plentiful supply.

Because the bone used to build this guillotine no longer shows any of its original shape or size, it’s very hard to identify the animal it comes from.

But we know from written records it is likely to have been one of the animals given to the prisoners as food.”

Set of ten ivory mathematical puzzles in a black lacquer box, made in China (1800s)

A photo of various small puzzles inside a collection box
© Science Museum
Science Museum:

“What pleasure do you get from puzzles? While we do not know who owned this particular set, puzzles like these have intrigued both adults and children for over 200 years.

Whether you find them fun or sometimes frustrating, puzzles are valuable tools to train the mind in creative and logical thinking.

They can also pose profound problems in mathematics. Changes in a shape’s position or appearance are explored by mathematical disciplines such as geometry and topology.

As trade opened up between China and Europe during the early 1800s, items such as these were brought back as gifts and souvenirs from Canton, China.

Tangrams were the world’s first puzzle craze – they became a sensation when introduced to Europe around 1817, much like the Rubik’s cube fad of the 1980s.

Tangrams are made up of several pieces - known as ‘tans’ - which form a square.

These pieces can be reassembled to make different shapes, according to problems posed by a picture book.”

Discovery Museum, Newcastle:

“Here we see the beauty of ivory, a natural material, and can admire the wonderful craft skills demonstrated by its makers.

Ivory can be carved into accurate, detailed shapes. In appearance it has a pleasing, soft colour and a subtle texture. It is ‘warm’ to the touch.

Ivory objects are made of dentine from the teeth and tusks of animals, such as elephants. Elaborately decorated works of art and religious objects have been made of ivory for many centuries.

With the growth of world trade those skills were applied to the production of gifts and travellers’ souvenirs.

A trade also developed in ivory as a raw material for mass-produced items such as knife handles, piano keys and billiard balls.

Widespread hunting led to near-extinction for some species. Now illegal, the ivory trade has become a complex international challenge.”

Early Joseph Swan carbon filament lamp, with Swan patent lampholder  (1881) and quick break switch made under John H Holmes’s patent no. 3256 (late 1880s)

A photo of an old lightbulb against a black background
© Discovery Museum
Discovery Museum, Newcastle:

“When we switch on a light we seldom spare a thought for the inventors of two of the world’s most common devices.

On October 20 1880, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Joseph Swan demonstrated that his experimental light bulb was ready for practical use.

A young man in the audience, John Holmes, was so inspired by its potential that he asked Swan if he could be his assistant.

The two men never worked together but, in 1883, Holmes started a successful domestic electric lighting business on Tyneside by promoting the advantages of Swan lightbulbs over gas lamps.

Holmes soon saw that electric switches were a serious fire hazard. They sparked when users turned them halfway to try to dim light bulbs like they would a gas jet.

In 1884 he patented a ‘quick-break’ switch which could only be either ‘on’ or ‘off’. Ever since then nearly all switches have used the ‘quick-break’ principle.

New technology is replacing the light bulb, but we will be using the quick-break switch invented by John Holmes far into the future.

The Incandescent Electric Lamp (light bulb) and lamp holder is the first type of light bulb to be made for use in the home. It cost 35 shillings – roughly equivalent to £130 today.

Early switches worked by turning a central knob or a small handle, because they were modelled on a gas tap. There is a small spring inside which activates the quick-break mechanism."

Science Museum:

“Look closely at this light bulb made by Joseph Swan. At the top of the bulb is a spike or ‘pip’ where the air inside the bulb was pumped out to create a vacuum before the glass was sealed.

Inside the bulb is what looks like a loop of wire, known as the filament. In fact it is made of cotton thread and appears black because it was ‘carbonised’ – a process of heating it in a furnace.

Carbon was one of the few affordable materials then available that could withstand the heat as electricity was passed through it.

Carbon caused bulbs to blacken and Swan developed a method to reduce this. Heating the filament as air was removed from the bulb improved the vacuum so that fewer carbon particles travelled from the hot filament to the cool sides of the glass.

Fire was one of the risks of early electric lighting. People were used to gas lights that featured taps which could adjust the level of light by regulating the flow of gas.

When they tried to adjust an electric light switch in the same way, electricity would spark between the points of the switch and lead to fires.

John Holmes designed this switch with a spring mechanism that snaps the switch to either an on or off position. This ‘quick break’ prevented electricity from arcing.

The ceramic exterior of the light switch further reduced the risk of shock and fire."

Cigar holder representing the coronation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Munich, Germany (1864-1867). Meerschaum, unknown maker

A photo of a long white instrument in a black case
© Science Museum/Wellcome Library
Wellcome Collection:

“Ornately carved from meerschaum – a versatile clay like material typically used in traditional pipe making – this extravagant cigar holder was made in 1864 to celebrate the coronation of Ludwig II (1845-1886).

Ludwig was the monarch of Bavaria until his death, and was renowned for his passion for building fairytale-like castles; he was also a significant patron of the arts.

The exquisitely delicate carving of the majestic coach and six horses provides a fascinating insight into the unusual life of Ludwig and his somewhat flamboyant tastes. It also exemplifies the rich diversity of Henry Wellcome’s collection and his eclectic approach to acquiring extraordinary objects.

The history of smoking dates back to as early as 5000 BC as part of religious or cultural ceremonies, and the use of tobacco for medicinal purposes has ancient origins.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the adverse health effects became more noticeable and statistical evidence emerged linking tobacco with lung cancer.

The Wellcome Library holdings include many smoking and tobacco related items, including the archives of the anti-smoking charity, ASH.”

Waddesdon Manor:

“Waddesdon was built slightly later than King Ludwig’s fairytale castle at Neuschwanstein and required similarly drastic measures to level the top of the hill for the foundations.

It also incorporated many of the technological features employed by Ludwig, including steel construction, central heating and hot and cold running water.

While Rothschild collecting taste is usually associated with the French 18th-century decorative arts, the family originated in Frankfurt and never forgot their humble German roots.

At the Dairy on the Waddesdon estate, Baron Ferdinand created a Curio Room which he filled with German stoneware and furniture made of antlers.

Although she abhorred smoking, Ferdinand’s sister, Alice, collected pipes at her Villa Victoria at Grasse in southern France. Many of them were German, in extraordinary shapes and materials.

On her death, she left the collection to the local museum, but a few pipes returned to England and are in the private family collection.”

Oval dish from 'New Dulong' pattern service (late 18th century). Hard-paste porcelain. Meissen manufactory, Germany

A photo of a white porcelain dish with floral designs on it
© The National Trust, Waddesdon
Waddesdon Manor:

“Each piece from this service is painted with flowers surrounded by birds in gilt-edged compartments. Founded in 1710, the Meissen factory, outside Dresden, was the first in Europe to discover the secret of hard-paste porcelain.

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild was furnishing Waddesdon in the 1880s and was a major collector of 18th-century porcelain. Services from Meissen and Sèvres were used for dining and carefully washed and stored in the Housekeeper’s room.

Birds particularly appealed to Ferdinand and appear in many decorative forms at Waddesdon, on textiles, in paintings and in porcelain, modelled from life.

Ferdinand built an Aviary in the gardens around 1889. Stocked with exotic species, visiting the Aviary was part of the experience of house party guests.

The Aviary fell into disrepair in the early 20th century, but was restored in the 1960s. Today it is home to endangered species of birds with an active breeding programme."

Wellcome Collection:

“This dish forms part of an extensive collection of porcelain, amongst innumerable treasures acquired by the Rothschild family over several generations at Waddesdon Manor.

The Rothschild tradition for collecting on a grand scale reflects the equally impressive collecting ambitions of Sir Henry Wellcome, who by the time of his death had amassed around 1.5 million items related to the history of health and medicine.

The various birds depicted include several well-known species such as the Great Tit and Bullfinch, as well as other more exotic species.

While Ferdinand de Rothschild created his own personal Aviary at Waddesdon, his cousin Lionel Walter Rothschild later established a Museum of Zoology in Tring, now home to the Natural History Museum’s ornithological collections, including Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos.

These distant relatives of the Bullfinch were thought to have sparked Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

However, recent research has revealed that mockingbirds, also collected by Darwin, were in fact the key.”

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