Category Archives: Boring looking objects that tell amazing stories

Things that are boring, average, or plain, and the amazingly interesting stories behind them.

The Queen’s 1954 Royal Tour of Australia – a rare surviving memento

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Railway timetable cover from the 1954 Royal Tour of Australia. MAAS Collection, gift of Bruce L. Partridge, 2014. 2014/138/1.

Railway timetable cover from the 1954 Royal Tour of Australia. MAAS Collection 2014/138/1, gift of Bruce L. Partridge, 2014. 2014/138/1.

Many of the objects which come into the Museum have great stories. One of the most delightful over the last few months was the acquisition of this very rare fabric-covered railway timetable. It was used in the Museum’s superb 1901 Governor-General’s railway carriage in which Queen Elizabeth II travelled to parts of New South Wales during her 1954 Royal Tour of Australia.
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Light globe repaired by the Electric Lamp Repairing Company

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Powerhouse Museum Collection object 2012/17/1.

Powerhouse Museum Collection object 2012/17/1.

‘Save your Burnt-out Lamps. Repairs guaranteed equal to new.’ This line appeared in Sydney newspaper ads from 1918 to 1920. The small ads included an eye-catching drawing of a light globe with ‘OLD LAMPS MADE NEW’ written inside it. The Electric Lamp Repairing Company had a receiving depot in the city and a factory in the inner suburb of Redfern. The company could repair both metal filament lamps like this one and the original type of lamp, which had a carbon filament.

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Propeller from Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross

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Sir Charles Kingsford Smith standing in the front of the 'Southern Cross'. Powerhouse Museum collection, P2753, gift of Austin Byrne, 1965.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith standing in the front of the ‘Southern Cross’. Powerhouse Museum collection, P2753, gift of Austin Byrne, 1965. 

I must have walked past the mounted row of wooden propellers in our large transport store dozens and dozens of times without registering what I was seeing. They are all mostly of beautiful polished timber but it’s the broken one that’s should have caught my eye. It’s from Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s famous Fokker Tri-motor, ‘Southern Cross’. But what’s its story?

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Steamfest 2012 Mystery Object Revealed

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Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. 86/741. Gift of the State Rail Authority Archives, 1986.

Would you have guessed the mystery rail object on display in the Museum’s marquee at Steamfest this year? Visitors to this event held in Maitland, NSW, over the weekend of 28/29th April were encouraged to have a go.

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Building a better rechargeable battery

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This blog was written by intern Brett Szmajda, who is researching the vital topic of energy storage.

I’m sure that many of you have heard of the Toyota Prius, the Tesla Roadster or the Chevy Volt. Hybrid and fully electric cars are making a big splash at the moment, promising quieter travel with fewer tailpipe emissions. In time, and with improvements in battery technology, it’s conceivable that electric cars might replace gasoline-powered cars.

Would you be surprised if I told you that the battle between electric and gasoline-powered vehicles is over 100 years old?


Powerhouse Museum Collection.

In the early 20th century, gasoline-powered cars and electric cars coexisted. There were even steam cars. Gasoline cars had greater range and could be ‘recharged’ instantly with a jerry-can of petrol, picked up from the general store. But they were loud, smelly, and difficult – even dangerous – to start: the only way to start them was by manually winding a heavy crank shaft, and if the car backfired the crank shaft could break your arm! By comparison, electric cars offered quiet operation and easier start up, with roughly the same limitations that they have today: once you were out of power, you faced a long wait while the car batteries recharged. The pros and cons on each side were roughly balanced, and because of this an interesting innovation race took off.

One big name, fighting for the electric car, was Thomas Edison. Electric cars, back then, ran off rechargeable lead-acid batteries that were essentially the great-great grandfather of the auxiliary lead-acid batteries in today’s cars. Edison thought he could do better, and that brings me to today’s object.

Pictured above is a B-2 nickel-iron (or ‘Edison’) battery. The sectioning of the battery gives us a nice look at its internal workings and lets us see how it compares with later ‘dry cell’ batteries like the Columbia ignitor. B-2 is simply a model number used by Edison to distinguish batteries used for different purposes, much like today’s batteries are AA, AAA, C, D, and so on. This particular model was not used for electric cars (that responsibility fell to its big brother, the A cell); instead, the B-2 was typically reserved ‘for ignition, and other light work’. Other uses for Edison batteries included telegraphy, and running lamps and signals in mines, trains, and ships. Large nickel-iron batteries were even deployed in submarines in World War I.

One of its most desirable features was that the Edison battery was nigh-on indestructable; workers at Edison’s factory performed wear testing by repeatedly throwing the battery out a third-floor window. It was also rugged electrically; the cells could withstand being left uncharged for decades, before working just-like-new after a fresh charge and electrolyte top-up. Detroit Electric Car

Edison batteries were used to run another item in the Powerhouse collection: the Detroit Electric car (see right). In fact, Edison himself owned one. The Detroit electric boasted a range of about 130 km (if driven conservatively) and a top speed of around 50 km/h. There was a surge of popularity for such cars again during World War I, when the price of petrol rose sharply. A public charging point was even installed at Palmer Street in the Sydney CBD, allowing you to recharge your electric vehicle for a modest fee. (I find this revelation quite funny, as a century later, we’re having debates about ‘range anxiety’ on electric cars and how to recharge your electric car while on vacation).

So whatever happened to the nickel-iron battery? Why do we have a lead-acid battery under the hood of our car nowadays? It was probably a combination of things. The electric starter motor was invented in 1911, eliminating one of the biggest drawbacks of petrol cars. Part of it might be the limitations of the Edison battery: it cost more to manufacture than a lead-acid battery; it was greatly inefficient at low temperatures, rendering it almost useless in winter; and it performed poorly in situations where a high discharge or high recharge rate was required. I’d also speculate that the market also played a role: petrol car manufacturers likely had business agreements with certain battery companies. Because of its wide range of other uses, the Edison battery was produced for over half a century, with production only stopping after Edison Storage Battery Co. was acquired by Exide Batteries.

So if you happen to be digging around in the grandparents’ tool shed and find an old Edison battery, you can tell your friends that you’ve found a part of one of the first electric cars. Hell, if you feel like fun, replace the electrolyte, and try (carefully!) giving it a charge. It’ll probably still work.

Black box inventor David Warren: a tribute

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The black box flight recorder was invented in Australia – and championed into production and use – by chemist and aeronautical expert Dr David Warren, who was born in 1925 and died this week. He was curious and clever (qualities needed to be an inventor) – and persistent (the extra quality needed to be a successful innovator).

Tragedy struck David’s family when he was nine years old. His father died in an aircraft crash, when a De Havilland plane travelling from Launceston to Melbourne was lost over Bass Strait. There were no survivors and no clues as to why the plane went down, leaving just an oil slick and unidentifiable pieces of wreckage floating briefly on the water’s surface.

The last gift from his father was a crystal set, a basic type of radio receiver. One from our collection is pictured below.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This gift led to David’s lifelong interest in electronics. He studied chemistry to PhD level and in 1949 went to England for training in rocket science. While he was there, he saw the world’s first jet airliner (the first jets having been made for military use), the De Havilland Comet, at Farnborough air show. The Comet promised faster travel and a shrinking of Australian’s sense of isolation from the rest of the world; David must have been impressed.

In 1953, he was working at the Australian Government’s Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne when the first Comet set off for Australia. The plane crashed on take-off from Karachi airport en route. Other Comet crashes followed. David, now an expert on aviation fuel, was involved in the search for reasons for these disasters.

His deep interest in electronics came into play at this point. He had recently seen a neat device: the world’s first portable sound recorder, which used steel wire as the recording medium. He imagined such devices being installed in plane cockpits, recording the words spoken by the crew, giving investigators vital clues for crash analysis.

David later worked out how to record instrument data, converted to dots and dashes like Morse code, as well as voices. However, his brilliant ideas and the research he did to back them up were not applauded by local aviation officials; they thought that all they would hear was pilots swearing. This is where that third quality, persistence, came into play – along with interest from English officialdom. The road to regulatory approval and successful manufacture was tortuous, but by 1963 one English company was ready to go into production: S. Davall and Sons.

Visitors to our Success and Innovation exhibition can see a black box flight recorder that was made by Davall in the 1960s. It is the ‘red egg’ in the photo above: red so it’s easy to find after a crash, and rounded to give it some chance of rolling away from burning wreckage. Despite its colour and shape, the name ‘black box’ has stuck.

‘Black box’ is a metaphor for a device whose workings we don’t understand or need to understand, but whose output is interesting. We are thankful to David Warren, who did work hard to understand difficult concepts and create a clever new device. His bright idea did not make him wealthy or bring him much fame, but it has contributed immensely to the safety of flight by helping investigators to understand crashes, regulators to introduce new standards, and manufacturers to improve their planes.

Thanks also to Janice Peterson Witham, whose book ‘Black box: David Warren and the creation of the cockpit voice recorder’ tells his story so well. I am indebted to her for much of the information in this blog.

Leeches, honey, tamarinds

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In the basement recently three highly decorated jars caught my eye – and transported me to a nineteenth century pharmacy. I imagined dozens of beautiful bottles arrayed on shelves, labelled with arcane text – and these three apothecary’s specie jars taking pride of place on the counter, ready for the pharmacist to dip in and dole out their contents.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

One jar is designed to hold leeches, with holes in the lid to provide air for the bloodthirsty little suckers. The second is for honey, a handy-cure-all. But the third (unfortunately lacking a lid) is for tamarinds. Where do these tropical fruit fit in the picture?

A quick search reveals their laxative properties. In a modern pharmacy, you’d probably find several products boasting the same effect. They’d be tightly wrapped in foil inside a sealed cardboard box, or encapsulated in gel and packed in a tamper-proof plastic jar. Much more hygienic! Maybe it is this raising of hygiene standards that means we rarely need the services of a leech today.

The leech jar was donated by Harold Jones of Ashfield in 1957. The other two jars are part of our John Watson Pharmacy Collection, which was purchased in 1980 with funds donated by Sydney pharmacy chain W H Soul Pattinson. The Museum’s pharmacy collection allows us glimpses into a world of scientific remedies and folk cures; strychnine, belladonna and more modern toxins; chemical and physical (and occasionally biological) treatments; and measured dispensing of prescribed drugs alongside the commercial reality of needing to satisfy all manner of customer whims.

Old battery reveals its secrets

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Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Have you ever chopped up a battery to see what’s inside? I certainly did as a child (but please note this can be a dangerous activity). Years later I was delighted to find this carefully sectioned 1920s Columbia Ignitor on a shelf in the Powerhouse basement.


Collection, Powerhouse Museum

I thoroughly enjoyed researching this wonderful didactic object. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I find its multiple shapes, layers, colours and textures visually pleasing. And it took me on an interesting journey into the worlds of chemistry, materials, invention (by Leclanché), commercialisation (by Gassner), brand names, iconography, technological history and the social impacts of technology.

We all know that technology transformed daily life in the twentieth century, and that batteries were crucial for the move to portable devices. Batteries themselves have been progressively reduced in size. At 160 mm tall, this one would be useless for powering an iPod or Xbox, but it was well suited as an ignition source for two transformative technologies: the motor car and the landline telephone.


Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

These initial applications explain the name Ignitor, but what are the origins of Columbia and the National Carbon Company? I was surprised to learn that Columbia is a feminised version of Columbus – today this seems a strange way to commemorate such a man, but the name was coined in a more poetic, less prosaic, age.

On the other hand, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the National Carbon Company (later to become part of Eveready, which morphed into Energizer) started out as a supplier of carbon rods for arc lamps, the first form of electric lighting.

Note the fluted form of the carbon rod at the centre of the battery. Fluted carbon rods were first used to maintain constant timing of the light pulses produced by lighthouse arc lamps despite changes in current and voltage (which had to be increased to produce brighter light in poor weather). As this timing ‘signature’ is used by mariners to identify individual lighthouses, the introduction of the fluted rod was an important safety measure. In the battery, fluting serves to increase the surface area of the electron-collecting rod – that is, in comparison to a plain cylindrical rod such as the one in the battery I investigated as a youngster.

Boring plastic flowers

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BORING…was my first thought when I saw these flowers in the Museum’s basement when I was researching our collection of early plastics. They looked sad, and like they had been sitting on a shelf for about 100 years.

BUT wait… further reading in the old Museum Archives uncovered something interesting!

These plastic flowers were purchased by the Museum in 1939, because they were an exciting new type of plastic (Rhodoid) that had just entered the market. They went on display, to show industry how they could use this new plastic in manufacturing and advertising.

So what was so special about these kind-of ugly plastic flowers?

They are fluorescent! Further reading discovered they were displayed in the Museum for a few years under a black-light, which allowed them to fluoresce, and probably looked quite amazing.

And with the help of talented photographer Kate Pollard here are the flowers restored to all their original glory…


Photography by Kate Pollard © Powerhouse Museum all rights reserved

This project brought up some interesting museological issues. Using UV light to photograph the flowers in this way is a museum conservation ‘no-no’, as it damages the plastic. It would be safe to say these flowers will never be displayed in the Museum under this kind of light, however their ability to fluoresce is the reason they were acquired in the first place.

So while we may have damaged these museum objects by taking this photo, the digital image will now become one of the only ways we can see these flowers in their true glory.

The Traeger Pedal

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Imagine, you’re at the weekly pub trivia quiz, it’s the final round and you need 2 points to win.

Question 1. Which Australian Icon appears on the back of the Australian $20 note?
a tough one! but some may know that it’s the Reverend John Flynn, who started the world’s first air ambulance service, The Royal Flying Doctors. He is pictured next to The Victory, the plane to fly the first mission for flying doctors.

The final question: (if you answer this one you win and take home the meat tray!) What is the funny looking pedalled device pictured under The Victory?
Well, that’s another amazing story of Australian ingenuity, listen to curator Matthew Connell tell it…