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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

19 December 2017

James Greathead and the tunnelling shield

Shield instagram
This GREATforImagination post commemorates the development of the tube tunnelling shield by the South African engineer James Henry Greathead. The patent, GB 1738/1874, is not online but you can see it if you visit the Library with a Reader Pass. Tunnelling shields allowed deep tunnels to be driven through soft earth, instead of being dug as trenches and then covered up. The shield protects workers cutting the earth at the tunnelling face. It slowly moves forward, with the tunnel being lined behind them to ensure that it doesn't collapse. They are the forerunners of the modern giant tunnelling machines used to dig the Channel Tunnel and the soon-to-open Elizabeth Line.

The first shield was invented by the British-based French engineer Marc Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and patented as GB 4204/1818. In 1825-41, father and son used it to construct the Thames Tunnel from Wapping to Rotherhithe. First opened as a pedestrian tunnel, it is now part of the London Overground route from Highbury to New Cross.

Greathead's teacher, the engineer Peter Barlow, patented an improved shield in 1864 as GB 2207/1864. Barlow's key innovations were making the shield circular, increasing its strength, and lining the tunnel behind the shield with iron rings instead of Brunel's brickwork, which was stronger and faster. Although this version of the shield was patented in Barlow's name alone, Greathead is thought to have played an important role in the design. Greathead's patent of 1874 further improved the shield by using water or air to force debris back from the shield face into the tunnel, using hydraulic rams to force the shield forwards, and introducing the use of compressed air to further reduce the risk of collapse in very soft soil.

Greathead shield patent
Image from Greathead's patent GB 1738/1874



Greathead planned the construction using his shields of the first three deep-level tube lines in London - the City and South London Railway from Bank to Stockwell (now part of the Northern Line), the Waterloo and City Railway from Bank to Waterloo (now the Waterloo and City Line), and the Central London Railway from Bank to Shepherd's Bush (now part of the Central Line). However, his first main project in London was a now forgotten one - the Tower Subway beneath the Thames from Tower Hill to Tooley Street, which was originally opened in 1870 as a cable railway tunnel, but only lasted as such for less than six months before the operating company went bankrupt. It remained as a foot tunnel until 1898, when it was closed thanks to the opening of Tower Bridge. Since then it has carried water mains and, recently, telecommunications cables. At only six feet in diameter, it was not particularly popular as a foot tunnel.

Greathead died in 1896, before the Waterloo and City or Central London opened. Original Greathead shield parts can be seen in two places in London. One of the shields used to construct the Waterloo and City Railway was abandoned underground when the line was completed, and discovered during reconstruction of Bank station for the Docklands Light Railway in the 1990s. The outer ring was left in place and can be seen, painted red, at Bank in the deep-level passageway between the Waterloo and City Line platforms and the other tube lines and DLR. The outer rings of the shields used to construct the Rotherhithe road tunnel under the Thames were erected as archways before both entrances to the tunnels, from the Highway in Limehouse and Brunel Road in Southwark. A statue of Greathead stands in King William Street in London, near Bank where those three first tube lines all started from. The statue is not just for decoration - the plinth hides a ventilation shaft for the tube station.

Greathead statue
Greathead statue in King William Street



Further reading:
Croome, Desmond F and Jackson, Alan A. Rails through the clay. Harrow Weald: Capital Transport, 1993. Shelfmark YK.1994.b.4557
Maidl, Bernhard, and others. Mechanised shield tunnelling. Berlin: Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, 2012. Shelfmark (B) 624.193
Stack, Barbara. Handbook of mining and tunnelling machinery. Chichester: Wiley, 1982. Shelfmark 82/04476
West, Graham. Innovation and the rise of the tunnelling industry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Shelfmark m05/35230

Greathead statue photo by Dr. Jacqueline Banerjee, first published at Victorian Web.

30 November 2017

Digital preservation and the Anne McLaren Papers

Today on International Digital Preservation Day we present a guest-post by Claire Mosier, Museum Librarian and Historian at American Museum of Western Art: The Anschutz Collection, concerning the digital files in the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202) which have just been made available to researchers. As an MA student Claire worked as an intern at the British Library in 2015 helping to process digital material.


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Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright James Brabazon

The developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren was a great proponent of scientists sharing their work with the general public, and gave many presentations to scientists as well as the general public. Some of the notes, drafts, and finished products of these presentations are on paper, and others are in digital formats. The digital files of the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers are comprised mostly of PowerPoint presentations and images. Digital records are more of a challenge to access, and give readers access to, as they are not always readily readable in their native format. This leads to unique challenges in determining and making available the content. 

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‘HongKong2003Ethics.ppt’ Page from the presentation ‘Ethical, Legal and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’, 2003, (Add MS 89202/12/16). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Throughout her career, McLaren gave presentations not only for educating others about her own work, but also on the social and ethical issues of scientific research. Many of her PowerPoint files are from presentations between 2002 and 2006 and cover the ethical, legal, moral, and social implications around stem cell therapy. These topics are addressed in the 2003 presentation ‘Ethical, Legal, and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/16), which briefly covers the historic and current stem cell research and legislation affecting it in different countries. A presentation from 2006 ‘Ethics and Science
of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/160) goes into more detail, breaking ethical concerns into categories of personal, research, and social ethics. As seen in these presentations and others, Anne McLaren tried to present material in a way that would make sense to her audience, some of the presentations being introductions to a concept for the more general public, and others being very detailed on a narrower subject for those in scientific professions. 

AM30NovImage 3
‘Pugwash 2006’ Page from the presentation ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’, 2006, (Add MS 89202/12/163). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 From looking at her PowerPoint documents it seems McLaren’s goals were to educate her audience on scientific ideas and encourage them to think critically, whether they were scientists themselves or not. However, this is hard to confirm, as the PowerPoints are only partial artefacts of her presentations, and what she said during those presentations is not captured in the collection. While she did sometimes present her own views in the slides, she presented other viewpoints as well. This is seen in the presentation for the 2006 Pugwash Conference (Add MS 89202/12/163) titled ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’ which presents semantic, legislative, and scientific definitions of the term embryo before a slide reveals McLaren’s own views, then goes back to legislative definitions before the slideshow ends. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were created to ensure the peaceful application of scientific advances, and McLaren was a council member for many years.


Both the newly released Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202), along with the first tranche of McLaren’s papers (Add MS 83830-83981) are available to researchers via the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1965 to 1968 (Add MS 83845) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

10 November 2017

Using science to build international relations: a short introduction to science diplomacy

Today, on World Science Day for Peace and Development, scientists and policymakers attending the World Science Forum in Jordan are discussing the role science can play in nurturing diplomatic relations.

Science diplomacy is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities in which science and technology are leveraged to foster ties between nations. Governments are aware that collaborating with international partners to achieve scientific goals can further their national interests. Consequently they are paying increasing attention to the idea of science as a diplomatic tool.

How is it practised? On a bilateral level diplomats co-ordinate scientific agreements which commit signatories to pooling resources by sharing knowledge and collaborating on research projects. Such agreements can open up opportunities for product development and trade deals, and are becoming an important part of the UK’s strategy to expand its research and innovation horizons post-Brexit.

Jo Johnson Ruth Garber
Jo Johnson (UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) and Judith G. Garber (U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs) signed the first U.S.-UK Science and Technology Agreement on 20 September 2017 in Washington, D.C. The UK is putting £65 million into the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). Photo credit: STFC/FCO

Science is a global enterprise in which international collaboration is the norm. In particular multinational teams are needed to run large experimental facilities such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) which are beyond the scope of individual countries. One of the by-products of these neutral working environments is science diplomacy. Scientists can develop long-lasting, cross-cultural relationships that sometimes help to bridge difficult political situations from the bottom up. Proposals for these huge infrastructure projects are often driven by an incentive to stimulate co-operation as much as for a need to build scientific capacity.

This was the case for the SESAME synchrotron which opened earlier this year in Jordan. The synchrotron’s powerful light source can be used to study the properties of a range of different materials, attracting researchers from across the Middle East, including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians.

SESAME construction
Countries from across the Middle East have come together to build SESAME. Photo credit: SESAME

Science diplomacy also comes into play in resolving sensitive international disputes. When negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear programme stalled, credit for their successful conclusion went to the two physicists, one Iranian and one US, who worked out the scientific details of the 2015 deal.

Four negotiators
The scientists and Ministers who negotiated the Iran deal: US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Vice President of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Dr Ali Akbar Salehi. Photo credit: U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

Scientists and diplomats also work together in addressing global issues such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance or cross-border public health crises. Using scientific evidence is fundamental when negotiating coherent responses to shared challenges, and government science advisers are seen as a key mechanism in getting science into policymaking. Gradually foreign ministries around the world are appointing their own science advisers to channel scientific research into the work of their departments.

Various strategic funding programmes, some of which focus on meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals, support the aims of science diplomacy. These international collaborative projects generate the necessary evidence to inform policymaking while also stimulating partnerships that foster trust between nations.

Climate ready rice Newton Prize
The Newton Fund project ‘Climate Ready Rice’ is being conducted by scientists from Sheffield University in the UK, Kasetsart University in Thailand and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.Photo credit: IRRI

It is unclear how to evaluate the impact of science diplomacy activities, but participants agree that they only work when based around excellent science that generates mutual benefits.

Emmeline Ledgerwood is an AHRC collaborative student with the British Library Oral History department and the University of Leicester. She is preparing a policy briefing on science diplomacy as part of an AHRC-funded policy fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST). The briefing will be published by POST in December 2017.

POST runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities, through which PhD students are sponsored to spend (usually) three months working at POST. Some fellowships are also open to postdoctoral researchers in academia and industry.  

You can follow @EmmeLedgerwood and @POST_UK on Twitter.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone, not of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.