Sunday 4 September 2011

Eccentricty exhibition

OK, so I mentioned this a month or so back and today, being a sunny 1 September, and having in tow the boy-with-the-broken-arm, it seemed a good opportunity to take the bus to Oxford and check it out.

As you can see, Oxford's Museum of the History of Science is an august edifice, sharing a row of classical busts with the Sheldonian Theatre next door. We call one of the statues "Uncle Stewart" because of the striking similarity to a family member.

Previously I'd seen a steampunk exhibition there which was  impressive - chiefly for the marriage of craftsmanship with  twisted imaginations. But most of the space is permanent displays of astrolabes, orreries, microscopes, telescopes and gadgets for generally figuring out how the world (and things which creep over it) ticks. The basement was a laboratory some time ago and giants of chemistry and the physical sciences have passed through it. From more recent times, they have a blackboard with notes chalked on it by Mr Einstein when he gave a lecture. That's the kind of place it is.

Clockwork bird scarer
William Stanley Jevons' logic piano
So we had great expectations of Eccentricity as we followed the sign down the steps to the back part of the basement. The first exhibit was a clockwork bird scarer. Hadn't I just seen a bunch of those for sale at an antique market in Villefranche-du-Perigord? 

Hmm, expectations had started to fall in the dimly lit corridor to the next gem, a logic piano! An 1860s device which, at a stretch, could be a predecessor to the computer. The inventor intended it to be used to prove philosophical theories, apparently.

Round the next corner were a beer mat with a sundial printed on it, Marconi's civilian dress sword and cocked hat, an early wooden prototype of a rotary combustion engine and, at last, a few typewriters (why typewriters in an exhibition called eccentricity?) which had been the main attraction, at least for me.

Star of the show was the Japanese Nippontype Chinese language typewriter. I haven't a clue how they work, but it surely must be more of an index machine than a 'true' typewriter. The case of type looks intimidating.

As well as a fairly predictable Oliver No 5, an Imperial Moya-design desktop and a Remington Home Portable, there were some interesting machines which I tried to photograph as best I could (camera set at ISO 3200, deep breath):

Globe index machine, spot the rusty bell
Hammond Multiplex with key cards for Greek, Hebrew and maybe German?
Columbia index typewriter, very cute
So, you can see them here MUCH better than in the exhibition itself. I wish my eyes had an ISO 3200 setting, or the museum had just put a few more light bulbs in.

Wandering through to the old lab next door, I spotted Reverend Dodgson's plate camera. He was a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church college but he's much better known by his nom de plume, Lewis Carroll. Photographing the Liddell girls and writing crazy stories of Wonderland must have been a welcome distraction form dry academe. 
And so up the stairs, out of the rabbit hole and into sunlight and fresh air in search of guitar strings for the young man. 


  1. Thanks for sharing this experience. I'm sure the typewriters look very eccentric to those who aren't familiar with these early designs.

  2. ...I did find myself answering questions about "why QWERTY" etc... hope I didn't let the side down. Interestingly, a lady who was there with her grandchildren told me there used to be a Corona typewriter factory in Porthmadoc in North Wales. Surprising for such a rural location.

  3. Thanks for this. I'm definitely one of those who are not thoroughly acquainted with the early typewriters so these to me qualify as "eccentric." That Nippontype machine is something.