Science blog

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

08 November 2017

121 Discovery Sessions in Science

eference specialists in our reading rooms offer 121 discovery sessions which can be booked through our web site at:

We are all aware of the great advantages of digital access and technologies but not the impact on our individual and public health.


A recent example of such a 121 discovery session explored the research topic of the negative psychological and health impact of digital technologies and the aim to understand the emerging trends for the next decades, of this digital and artificial intelligence revolutions on our mental, emotional, social and cultural well-being.

We can advise our researchers on the stages in which they can follow to create literature reviews and manage their projects:

  • Formulation of initial research questions. List these and value the questions in their own right and that may not have definitive answers.
  • Scoping the areas of interest and defining what is out of remit.
  • Getting into the mind set and language discourse of the literature and its authors.
  • Using the subject specific language terms to search the relevant databases and catalogues.
  • Developing a search strategy and limits e.g. last 10 years, country focus, population group,  material type  
  • Browse e-resources and iteratively refine search terms to re-input into another cycle of database interrogation

The examples given by our researcher of the psychological and behavioural impact of digital technologies induced phenomena that can create mental health issues include:

  • Depersonalisation and objectification
  • Online trolling and abuse
  • The selfie syndrome and online body perception issues
  • Online sexual grooming and predation
  • Rise of Internet junkies, surfers spending up to and more than 6 hours a day online
  • Withdrawal into digital fantasy worlds, are we creating the mental space cadets of the future? What impact does violence online have off-line?
  • Online digital addictions e.g. online gaming and gambling
  • Enhanced social phobias: anxieties around and breakdown of human to human communication and reliance on the intermediation of digital communication technologies
  • Digital exclusion/inclusion and equality issues

We aim to encourage our researchers to ask these key that can challenge and change our future thinking and lifestyles.  Simon Baron-Cohen, in “Zero degrees of empathy : a new theory of human cruelty, questions where are we going as human beings in our era of technological materialism. What impact is this having on our psyche?


The British Library offers a wealth of resources, both in print as books and online in terms of e-resources for researchers of technology trends and their future directions.  How can these risk factors be mapped, evaluated and what interventions devised to ensure digital content and tools support our notions of health and remain our servants and not our masters? Some of these issues are explored in “Irresistible : why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching by Adam Alter, 2017 available in the library collections.

What are the emerging pathologies from these digital technologies and what do the technology utopians, doomers and ludites say about the pros and cons of our current digital revolution? This is a very multi-disciplinary area of research encompassing medicine, mental and psychological health,   social science, economics, business and cultural shifts. Our range of e-resources can open windows into these areas of knowledge through our e-resource directory to be found at:

Recommended databases include: SCOPUS, WEB of Science, PsychInfo and PsychExtrat, PILOTS, Medline and PubMed, ASSIA (Applied Social Science Index and Abstracts), Sociological Abstracts, Business Source Complete, ABI Inform Global, Business and Industry (Gale), Management and Business Studies Portal etc. Most need to be used onsite, a few are free offsite.

Our challenge is to learn lessons from the past and try and predict the pitfalls ahead as we move rapidly from the first industrial revolution in Britain to the global information technology, digital Internet based revolutions of bits, bytes, robots and artificial intelligence.

Paul Allchin, 

Reference specialist, science

23 October 2017

The realization of Star Trek Technologies

Star Trek captured my imagination as a child and I have been a trekkie ever since, so you can imagine my surprise earlier this year when a new book was placed by a colleague on our new book shelves in the science reading rooms, entitled “The realization of Star Trek Technologies: The Science, Not Fiction, Behind Brain Implants, Plasma Shields, Quantum Computing, and More” by Mark E. Lasbury, published by Springer,  2017.

Star Trek 9783319409122

Source: Springer permissions:

The science collections, here at the British Library, often include unusual gems, and this must be one of my favourites. The story was modelled on Jonathan Swifts "Gullivers Travels" and various American wild west and adventurer literature and became a media prism of the times. Many contemporary issues were played out in the scripts including racism, power, politics, warfare, rise and fall of empires, and these always had a moral dimension.

The cultural impact of Star Trek was enormous as it spawned a dedicated fan base over decades, who campaigned to keep it going in difficult times and ensuring it was a commercial success in the good times. The philosophy behind Star Trek enshrined values of hope, humanity, equality and the search for new knowledge and wider horizons.    

Spock and Kirk

Source: Leonard Nimoy - Wikipedia, Wikipedia 1507 × 1911 Search by image, Nimoy as Spock with William Shatner as Captain Kirk, 1968. Nimoy and Star Trek ...

Star trek, the US sci-fi franchise was created by Gene Roddenberry and the original series was launched in 1966 on the NBC TV network and followed the adventures of the explorer star ship “Enterprise” led by Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the 23 rd century. Gene created a new world in the imagination of generations of fans and this evolved into a wealth of characters, narratives,  TV series, films and even a constructed or artificial language, Klingon. We even hold a 1992 “Klingon dictionary : English/Klingon, Klingon/English” by Marc Okrand in our collections.

Image of Enterprise Star Ship

Mark Lasbury’s book explores the science behind this Star Trek world and helps us understand where the line between todays actual science and our science fiction is transforming into science fact as the decades roll by. He explaims the science of cloaking and invisibility, the variety of replicators from nanobot micro engineers, to 3D and 4D printers, to organic and cellular fabrication of human tissus, blood vessels and food.

Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1906 and detected in 2017 by the physicist Nobel prize winners, Rainer Weiss, kip Thorne and Barry Barish and the author speculates on the nature of gravitons as both space time curvatures warped by celestial bodies and multi-dimensional points within the energy strings of superstring theory.  The author explores gravitons that could be used as deflector shields and tractor beams, the use of plasma and electromagnetic shields, the technological state of play of computational linguistics and the Universal Translator (UT).

Star Trek team


Harvey P. Lynn, (1921-1986), was the honorary science consultant in the early days of Star Trek, who graduated as an electrical engineer and worked at the RAND Corporation as a liaison officer between RAND and projects for the U.S. Air force. It was his critical input that adapted scripts to be both technically plausible and as it turned out, quite prophetic. Lynn is often credited with inventing the term "phaser", based on laser technology.

Lynn served for almost a year and a half receiving a nominal $50 per episode. Andre Bormanis followed in his footsteps for the the modern spin-off Star Trek live-action productions, while Jesco von Puttkamer also served as as science adviser on the earlier Star Trek:The Motion Picture. Each helped root Star Trek into science fact while launching our imaginations into science fantasy.

The British Library collections include much of this biographical, media business and socio-political background in key references such as:

  • The making of Star trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry. Written by Stephen E. Whitfield, Ballantine Books, New York, 1968, shelf mark 72/27150 and 75/8853 (copies avilable via inter-library lending),  
  • Inside Star Trek : the real story,  by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, Pocket Books, US/UK, 1996.  (Shelfmark: YK.1996.b.15904, reference copy),
  • Star trek. I’m working on that : a trek from science fiction to science fact William Shatner with Chip Walker, Pocket Books, London/New York, 2002. ( Shelfmark: YK.2003.a.28505 reference copy)
  • Otherworldly politics : the international relations of Star trek, Game of thrones, and Battlestar Galactica by Stephen Benedict Dyson,  Johns Hopkins University Press,  Baltimore, 2015 (Shelfmark: YC.2016.a.2351, reference copy) in which Dyson explains how these shows offer alternative histories and future possibilities for humanity.

For the Star Trek devotee and researcher The British Library holds both in-depth academic and scholarly works but also a variety of popular cultural resources found in comics, fanzines and science fiction publications. Entrance to the reading rooms is free upon registration, see our web site for further details and check our "Explore" catalogue for collection items of interest.

British Library registration:

 Star Trek official web site:

The Internet Movie Database:

Written and posted by Paul Allchin, Science reference specialist


13 October 2017

Local Heroes: Alphonse Normandy. Pure water and impure food

Alphonse Normandy was born in Rouen in 1809 as Alphonse le Mire. He became a medical doctor but was more interested in chemistry, studying at Heidelberg University with the well-known chemist Leopold Gmelin (now famous for the database of inorganic compounds named after him, which grew out of an 1817 textbook he wrote). He moved to London in 1838. From the 1840s he changed his name to "Normandy" after the region where he was born. He lived for some time in Judd Street near the British Library, where he has a blue plaque at number 91. He died in 1864.

He is mostly remembered for his invention of desalination devices, distilling seawater to produce fresh water. He patented his still design as GB13714/1851 with one Richard Fell. The patent is not online but you can see it if you come to the British Library with a reader pass. It uses two-effect distillation where the heat released in the condensation of the initial steam boils a second load of water, using energy more efficiently and effectively doubling the output. The device also captures formerly dissolved air released during the heating of the water and reintroduces it to the steam, creating aerated distillate and reducing the "boiled" taste. In 1863 an Amendment to the Passengers Act of 1855 declared that passenger ships were allowed to reduce the amount of fresh water they carried if they had a desalinator of the Normandy or the rival Winchester-Graveley design.

Normandy still
Normandy's water still, illustrated in his patent

Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Co. was incorporated in 1858. After a few years it moved to a large building near Victoria Docks, which finally closed in 1910. During the later years of his life Normandy clashed with the directors and shareholders of the company due to his only assigning the GB patent to the company but retaining the US patent himself, forcing the company to use him personally as a sales agent for distribution overseas. His sons, however continued with the company. Alphonse's son Frank Normandy wrote what was probably the first book on desalination - A Practical Manual on Sea Water Distillation, which is held in our collections at 08767.aa.5, or 628.16 3395.


A surviving Normandy distiller has been found at Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West.

Normandy held many other patents, of which the most notable was hardening soap with sodium sulphate (GB9081/1841). He kept a private laboratory and taught chemistry. He was elected a fellow of the Chemical Society (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) and council member, and was a member of the Royal Institution.

In 1855 he was one of several chemists, doctors and activists to testify to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on food adulteration, a series of hearings that scandalised the British public and led to the first laws against it, although the fight would not truly succeed until much later in the century. Normandy reported that practically all the bread sold in London had been adulterated with alum to make it whiter and to absorb water and bulk it out. He described adulteration of various other foods, in particular the adulteration of coffee with chicory and beer with the neurotoxic tropical plant cocculus indicus. He also briefly described the grossly unhygienic conditions of many London dairies. Ironically, his hardened soap had been banned from sale for some years because the Excise considered the process to be adulteration, which was brought up during the Committee discussion.  

Cruikshank drinkers
Image from "The House that Jack Built" by George Cruikshank, 1853


In 1850 he wrote A Commercial Hand Book of Chemical Analysis (shelved here at 1143.h.26), a very interesting book covering most chemicals that were used or sold industrially at the time, and various procedures to check for food adulteration. The book notably described early quantitative colorimetric assays of dyes and spices, and microscopic examination of flour to determine adulteration with other products.

Further reading:
Birkett, J and Radcliffe, 2014, D. Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Company: a family business for 60 years, 1851-1910. IDA Journal of Desalination and Water Reuse, 6(1), pp.24-32. Available digitally in BL reading rooms.

House of Commons Reports from Committees, 1854-5, vol. 8, pp. 221-530. BS Ref 1. Also available digitally in BL reading rooms.

16 September 2017

Staff Visit to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Library

On 6 th September a group of staff from the British Library visited  ZSL and found a rich diversity of zoological collections that complements and overlaps with our own.

Contact: Ann Sylph/Emma Milnes, Library. The Zoological Society of London, Regents Park, London, NW1 4RY ( )

History of the ZSL: The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and London zoo was established by Sir Humphry Davy and Sir Stamford Raffles and founded in 1826.

Daily Occurrences:  The Library includes items on the history of ZSL, the most fascinating is a series of volumes called “Daily Occurrences” that record the comings and goings of animals at both London and Whipsnade Zoos, from both of the zoos foundation to the present day.

 These early daily zoo diary entries in print and more recently e-format, document the life and professional practice of the zoos. Dr Beryl Leigh, a ZSL member and former BL curator has recently sponsored the digitization four of these early print records that could become a valuable data set for future researchers to analyse. ZSL are seeking funding to digitise more to make them available online.

Role of the ZSL: librarians, curators and scientists work together on research projects across the globe to advance our knowledge of wildlife, nature conservation and zoo management.

The ZSL has published it’s zoological research since 1830 in the proceedings of  the Zoological Society of London, along with other key titles and reports:

Historical semina papers are available free at;

Building: ZSL Library moved from a central London site to its present location in 1910 and this shell was refurbished in the 1960s and includes the main library and 2 floors of basements with rather precarious rolling shelves.

Collections: focus on zoology and animal conservation, comprises 200,000 items on our shelves, including 40,000 books, 5000 journal titles, the archives of ZSL. The  collections include rare books, illustrated folios, lithographs, paintings and these historical and descriptive type specimen  information remain of great scientific value even today. More about the ZSL archives can be found at:

Online Catalogue: many prints, drawings  and paintings are digitised as thumbnail images on the catalogue in order to enhance the records : Books, journals and archives can be searched using the online catalogue. It also contains links to digitised resources

Social media: Library maintains a monthly blog and tweets about events and new acquisitions of note and the diverse blogs created by the library staff and curators illustrate the wide range of work carried out by the ZSL. For further details see: and follow @ZSLLibrary

Library services: ZSL Library is one of the major zoological libraries in the world, along with the zoological collections of the Natural History Museum (  )and British Library (  )

There is a free access (with proof of address and photo ID on your first visit), and free scanning and copy service after researchers agree to sign a copyright form.


Ann gave an erudite talk on the library and its collections and shared with us representative examples of their historical and contemporary collections. The watershed date for the historicals is prior to 1940 and are reference only while members can loan the modern collection items.

The library is also open for visiting scholars:

the library online catalogue at:

Some memorable items from the show and tell display included the following:


1560 Historiae animalium by Konrad Gessner (1516-1565).

Conrad Gessner: a Swiss naturalist, who attempted to describe all of the animals, actual and mythological at the time, and his 5 book work, Historiae animalium, is one of the oldest in the collection.  These books describe mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, some accurate, but some hybrid, like this ‘giraffe’ below. This is also one of our oldest books in the library includes the unicorn.

The US National Library of Medicine has digitized these texts online under historical anatomies on the web at:

One of the first librarians, a Mr Fish of the ZSL Library organised its collections using an adapted BLISS classification scheme ( ) These eary items need to be brought out of storage so we felt very privileged to be able to survey these illustrations and leaf through the pages. An appointment is needed to view such rare items.


1560 Historiae animalium: Giraffe’ picture by Konrad Gessner (1516-1565).

Brian Houghton Hodgson: (1800-1894),spent most of his life investigating and drawing the birds and mammals of Nepal, the Himalayas in general and Northern India. He wrote more than 140 zoological papers, ranging from descriptions of single species to checklists of the fauna and donated most of these to the ZSL. Further details at:

The British Library curated and offers public access to the Hodgson’s papers through the Asian and African Studies reading room , papers can also be found at the Royal Asiatic Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Hodgson papers preserved in the African and Asian Studies Reading Room of the British Library were deposited in the India Office Library in 1864 following earlier deposits (between 1838 and 1845) of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts and the complete Tibetan Kanjur and Tanjur.


Digitised catalogues of these collections can be traced through the Digital Himalaya project designed in 2000 by Alan Macfarlane and Mark Turin as a strategy for archiving and making available ethnographic materials from the Himalayan region and based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.  From July 2014, the project has relocated to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and is engaged in a long term collaboration with Sichuan University,


Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae, or parrots, the greater part of them species hitherto unfigured… / by Edward Lear (1812-1888). – London : Lear, 1832. Labelled as Platycercus stanleyi (Stanley parrot)

 Edward Lear: is better known for his nonsense poems, including “How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear” “There Was An Old Man in a Tree” , “The Owl And The Pussy-Cat” , “The Jumblies, ”The Pobble Who Has No Toes etc  yet he was a renowned zoological artist and created numeruos lithographic prints to be found in the ZSL collections. As a talented artist his skills influenced the style of others, such as the ornithologist John Gould and his wife Elizabeth.  One of Lear’s most beautiful works is his volume on the family of parrots, of which the illustrations were based on the birds in ZSL’s parrot house

 Further details and illustrations by Edward Lear can be found at:


Lions by Joseph Wolf

John Gould FRS (1804–1881), the artist, scientist, ornithologist, taxidermist and collector, collaborated with Charles Darwin in identifying the birds from the second voyage of HMS Beagle and from the Galápagos Islands. His work was published between 1838 and 1842 as part 3 of “Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle”, edited by Charles Darwin and held in the library.

Gould was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, son of a gardener and in 1818 Gould became foreman in the Royal Gardens of Windsor.He visited Australia with his wife in 1838-40 which led to the publication of “The Birds of Australia that included 600 plates in seven volumes, describing 328 species new to western science and named by Gould himself. He also published “A Monograph of the Macropodidae”, Family of Kangaroos (1841–1842) and “The Mammals of Australia (1849–1861) in 3 volumes.

Gould’s links to Austrialia are honoured by the Australian Museum based in Sydney, itself part of the google digital and virtual  tour platform which explores natural history artifacts and specimens  in museums around the world, including the Natural History Museum, London, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin. Further details can be found at:,

A contemporary book in the show and tell display was the book entitled “Women in science: 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world” by Rachel Ignotofsky, published by Wren & Rook, London available in print and online, which focused our attention on the interesting role of women scientists at the ZSL.

A leading light was Joan Procter, curator of the zoos reptiles from 1923, who died very young at 34.  Dr Joan Beauchamp Procter (1897-1931) was a brilliant student who kept exotic reptiles as pets, including a crocodile and later contributed to the design of ZSL London Zoo’s aquarium and Reptile House and discovered and described a new species, namely the Peninsula Dragon Lizard. She adopted and tamed one Komodo dragon as a pet and would walk around the zoo with it greeting visitors.

These examples show case the wealth of knowledge and biographical stories hidden in the archives and collections of the ZSL which I would encourage researchers and students of the biosciences to explore further.

 Photographs and text by Paul Allchin,

Reference specialist,

British Library, Science reading rooms

31 August 2017

Edgar Burr and the grooved golf club head

Golf Grooves Twitter

Today's GREATforImagination patent is GB19988 of 1902, the grooved golf club head by Edgar Burr (1866-1908). The grooves allow water and debris to slip away from the ball, so that it can be spun as effectively as a clean and dry one. Adding spin to a golf ball can change its trajectory and cause it to roll in a specific direction once it hits the ground. According to the golfer Edward "Ted" Ray, in his 1922 book "Golf Clubs and How to Use Them", grooved clubs did not become truly popular until the early 1920s, and there was considerable argument in both the UK and USA as to whether they were permitted under the laws of the game. Burr freedom

Very little about Burr's life is recorded in golf history books, but our curators have searched census and births, marriages, and deaths records, and digitised newspapers, to discover some details. Burr described himself on the patent as a stockbroker, but he was also an amateur golfer at the Bushey Hall Club, and wrote a column on the game for the Globe newspaper. His father was a leather worker, and he married in 1896. He was granted the Freedom of the CIty of London in 1900. Unfortunately, his invention does not seem to have made him much money, as he was declared bankrupt in 1906. He died suddenly from gastritis in Sandwich, where he had gone to compete in a golf event.

Thanks to Margaret Makepeace of our East India Company Records team and Untold Lives blog, for her work in researching Burr's life.

Philip Eagle

29 August 2017

I4OC: The British Library and open data

In August the British Library joined the Initiative for Open Citations as a stakeholder. The I4OC’s aim of promoting the availability of structured, separable, open citation data fits perfectly with the Library's established strategy for open metadata which has just marked its seventh anniversary. I4oc logo

In August 2010, responding to UK Government calls for increased access to public data to promote transparency, economic growth and research, the British Library launched the strategy by offering over 16m CC0 licensed records from its catalogue and national bibliography datasets. This initiative aimed to remove constraints created by restrictive licensing and library specific standards to enable wider community re-use. In doing so the Library aimed to unlock the value of the data while improving access to information and culture in line with its wider strategic objectives.
The initial release was followed in 2011 by the launch of the Library’s first Linked Open Data (LOD) bibliographic service. The Library believed Linked Open Data to be a logical evolutionary step for the established principle of freedom of access to information, offering trusted knowledge organisations a central role in the new information landscape. The development proved influential among the library community in moving the Linked Data debate from theory to practice.

Over 1,700 organisations in 123 countries now use the Library’s open metadata services with many more taking single files. The value of the Library’s open data work was recognised by the British National Bibliography linked dataset receiving a 5 star rating on the UK Government site and certification from the Open Data Institute (ODI). In 2016 the Library launched the platform in order to offer copies of a range of its datasets available for research and creative purposes. In addition, the BL Labs initiative continues to explore new opportunities for public use of the Library’s digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways. The British Library therefore remains committed to an open approach to enable the widest possible re-use of its rich metadata and generate the best return on the investment in its creation.

I4oc users
I4OC users by country


As the example of the British Library’s open data work shows, opening up metadata facilitates access to information, creates efficiencies and allows others to enhance existing and develop new services. This is particularly important for researchers and others who do not work for organisations with subscriptions to commercial citation databases. The British Library believes that opening up metadata on research facilitates both improved research information management and original research, and therefore benefits all.

The I4OC’s recent call to arms for its stakeholders is therefore very much in tune with the British Library’s open data work in promoting the many benefits of freely accessible citation data for scholars, publishers and wider communities. Such benefits proved compelling enough to enable the I4OC to secure publisher agreement for nearly half of indexed scholarly data to be made openly accessible. This data is now being used in a range of new projects and services including OpenCitations and Wikidata. It's encouraging to see I4OC spreading the open data ideal so successfully and it is to be hoped that it will also succeed in ensuring open citations become the default in future.

Correction: Image shows users of BL open data services by country, not I4OC

11 August 2017

James Blyth and the world's first wind-powered generator

GREAT_for_Imagination_Social_post_ Wind Power

Today's GREATforImagination invention is the first ever wind-powered electrical generator, created by the Scottish engineer and physicist James Blyth (1839-1906). Blyth was the son of an innkeeper, but took advantage of a scholarship to gain a good education and an academic career. In 1887, while a professor at Anderson's College in Glasgow (an ancestor of the modern Strathclyde University), he constructed a windmill attached to a dynamo to light his cottage in his home village of Marykirk. He may have been inspired to use wind to generate electricity by negative comments on the subject by his fellow Glaswegian, the now more famous physicist William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin. He offered to allow his current to be used to light the main street of the village, but superstitious local residents reportedly considered the mysterious electric light to be "the work of the devil"!

Blyth patented his windmill design, which had a vertical axle and cup-like structures to catch the wind, as GB19401 of 1891. Unfortunately, this is not available free online, but you can read it here at the British Library if you have a reader pass. He argued in his patent that this design had aerodynamic effects that would prevent the mechanism from being damaged by overspeed in strong winds, although it was still vulnerable to damage from very powerful gusts.

Blyth turbine
Blyth's windmill design, from his patent (crown copyright)


Blyth subsequently constructed a larger wind generator to provide electricity to the Royal Asylum mental hospital at Montrose, which lasted until 1914. He strongly supported renewable power, although environmental science and pollution were little understood at the time. His main argument was that wind power was cheaper than fossil fuels.

As well as his work on wind power, Blyth was prescient in arguing that gas discharge lamps were more efficient in creating light than filament light bulbs, although the technology of the time was not really up to constructing useful ones. He also contributed to the development of microphones and telephones. The University of Strathclyde continues to be a significant centre in wind energy research.

Further reading:
Blyth, J. (1892) On the application of wind power to the production of electric currents, Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 25th January, pp. 1-2
Price, T. J. (2005) James Blyth - Britain's first modern wind power pioneer, Wind Engineering, 29(3), pp. 191-200. Available online in BL Reading Rooms.

09 August 2017

Charles Parsons and the steam turbine

Parsons header

Today's GREATforImagination patent is Sir Charles Parsons' invention of the modern steam turbine. In a steam turbine, expanding steam is used to drive a series of rotating vanes, similarly to wind mills. They are much more efficient than reciprocating steam engines such as railway locomotives. The patent, GB1735/1884, is too old to be freely available online, but you can see it if you have a Reader Pass and come to our Business & IP Centre.

Parsons was born in 1854 to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family with a scientific tradition. His father, the third Earl of Rosse, was a notable astronomer who owned the largest telescope ever constructed in the nineteenth century, first identified the spiral shape of many galaxies, and named the Crab Nebula. Parsons studied maths at Cambridge and then worked as an engineer in Tyneside and Leeds.

He designed and patented his turbine in 1884, initially to generate electricity. Earlier turbines had been impractical and fragile due to their extremely high rotational speed, and Parsons' breakthrough was to design a system which could progressively draw the energy out of the steam in several stages of expansion, making it much slower, more controllable, and less likely to wear out or break under the strain. Parsons first licensed his patents to the Westinghouse company before setting up his own firm and works in Newcastle. Within Parsons' lifetime, turbines of the type he had developed were used to run generators in almost all heat-based electric power stations.

Turbinia_At_Speed compress
Turbinia at speed in the North Sea. Photo by Alfred John West

In the 1890s he came up with the second major use for his turbines, as engines for propeller-driven steamships. This patent, GB11223/1897, is online. In a famous publicity stunt, Parsons built a small, turbine-powered steamship called the Turbinia, and gatecrashed the Royal Navy Review for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at Spithead in her, literally running rings around the slower reciprocating-engine powered Navy boats that tried to intercept her. By 1905 the Navy had decided that all of its future ships would be turbine-driven.

Parsons continued to invent, in particular in electricity generation, ships, and glass manufacture. He died in 1931, aboard a steam turbine-powered ocean liner during a trip to Jamaica. His company, after a series of takeovers, is now part of Siemens.

27 July 2017

Geology of and in the British Library

Eric Robinson, consultant to Sir Colin Wilson, our architect, and a former University College London lecturer and urban geologist produced a free BL booklet several years ago entitled “A Geology of the British Library” in which he drew our attention to the beautiful geological and paleontological features of the stone, marble and building materials used on both the interior and exterior of the library building at St. Pancras.


A walk around the site or formal tour will offer the opportunity to look at the fascinating fossils and geological patterns visible in the marble, on the floors and in the public areas:

Key features and types of stone to be found, include:

  • New red sand stone from the Permian period around the piazza and main entrance gate.
  • Handmade red bricks that characterise the building and courtyard, are made from southern England clay, high in alumina and at high kiln temperatures with controlled oxygen to create the impressive red colour.
  • Fossilized sea sponges can be seen in the French Hauterville limestone located outside the conference centre.
  • Creamy white Portland stone squares contrast with the darker Purbeck limestone slabs that can be found on the upper ground floor around the reader registration entrance and 3D library model. This Purbeck limestone,  on closer examination, reveals dark fossilized bivalve sea shells and fresh water molluscs.
  • Antony Gormley’s Planets installation in the piazza, consisting of 8 similar sized rounded glacial boulders from Malmo, Southern Sweden, reflecting the impact of the ice ages on their surfaces over the last 2 million years.  

A PDF of Eric Robinson’s guide can be found on the UK Web Archive Organisation’s site at:

and whets our appetite for his other publications on London urban geology, readily found on our Explore the BL catalogue ( ) including Greenwich, Westminster, St. Paul’s, and the church yard tombstone trail around St. Mary’s Hornsey, London.

The following  canned search on the Explore catalogue below lists Eric Robinson's publication titles:

URL is;jsessionid=B22843284F239948080E1B85A236C223?fn=search&ct=search&initialSearch=true&mode=Basic&tab=local_tab&indx=1&dum=true&srt=rank&vid=BLVU1&frbg=&tb=t&vl%28freeText0%29=008796217+OR+008796200+OR+008796214++OR+013514925+OR+008796205+OR+008796204+&scp.scps=scope%3A%28BLCONTENT%29&vl%28488279563UI0%29=any&vl%28488279563UI0%29=title&vl%28488279563UI0%29=any


The British Library also houses a graduate and post graduate level science collection with current journals, books and conferences in geology on the third floor reading room plus research tools and e-resources such as the Georef, Web of Science, Scopus, Engineering Village  databases for keeping up to date with all aspects of this subject (reading room onsite access):

Whether you are a British Library member of staff, a registered reader or a visitor, both the building and it’s collections can be full of surprises and open to everyone to explore. 

Paul Allchin,

Reference specialist - science

19 July 2017

William Perkin and mauveine

We’ve been blogging and tweeting a lot about the historical inventions in the GREATforImagination campaign, with links to the key patents involved. Unfortunately, most British patents from before 1895 aren’t available free online and can only be seen if you come to our building at St Pancras. We’ll be making full blog posts about some of these, to give you some more detailed information than can fit into a Tweet or the Instagram post.

Not every invention is made by people who see a problem and set out to find a solution to it. Curiosity-driven science can produce useful inventions that the scientists involved never anticipated. A classic example of this took place in 1856, when William Perkin tried to make an artificial anti-malarial drug, and instead discovered what would become the first totally human-created molecule to become the centre of a profitable business.

The eighteen-year-old Perkin was a student of the chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry in London (eventually merged into what would become Imperial College). Hofmann had speculated to Perkin that on the basis of the atomic formulas then assigned to the chemicals, it would be possible to create the drug quinine by somehow combining two molecules of napthylamine with one of water. Perkin decided to try to synthesise quinine by oxidising allyltoluidine with dichromate. It is now known that the complex structures of organic molecules make such a naïve approach based purely on atomic formulas useless. When Perkin failed, he decided to try oxidising aniline with dichromate (it was subsequently discovered that the aniline he used was contaminated with toluidine, with mauveine being created by the oxidation of both together), and discovered that the product obtained was a useful dye. Mauveine, as it became known, was the first cheap and stable purple dye, and when Perkin commercialised it a colour that had been traditionally associated with the richest in society became accessible to all. It was the first of the so-called azo dyes, which were among the first products of the modern chemical industry.

Perkin patented his dye and persuaded his relatives to fund him in creating a factory, near Greenford in west London. He continued to work in chemistry, discovering the “Perkin reaction” to make cinnamic acid from acetic anhydride and benzaldehyde, and developing a way to commercially synthesise the natural dye alizarin (from the madder plant) from coal tar. Unfortunately, a rival German team simultaneously developed the same process and patented it one day earlier! Perkin’s lasting fame can be gauged by the fact that the Perkin Medal, the most important American prize for organic chemistry, and Perkin Transactions, for many years the British Royal Society of Chemistry’s main scholarly journal on organic chemistry, were both named after him. Mauveine

Perkin’s mauveine is a mixture of up to twelve different compounds containing N-phenylphenazinium ring systems with additional amine and sometimes methyl groups. The structures of the most important two were not clearly discovered until 1994, because an incorrect structure of unclear origin had been repeatedly cited in the literature and assumed to be right. They are seen in the diagram, with the group "R" being a hydrogen atom in one of them, and a methyl (CH3) group in the other.

Further reading at the British Library:

Perkin, W.H. (1901). The origin of the coal-tar colour industry, and the contributions of Hofmann and his pupils. In Memorial lectures delivered before the Chemical Society 1893-1900 (pp. 596-637). London: Gurney & Barrow. Shelfmark W1/9939 – Perkin’s own description of his famous first synthesis of mauveine, the discussions that provoked the experiment, and his later career in the chemical industry.

Perkin, W.H. (1879). On mauveine and allied colouring matters. Journal of the Chemical Society, Transactions, 35, 717-32. Shelfmark (P) JB 00-E(8) – Perkin’s description of the physical properties and chemical reactions of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1858). On the purple dye obtained from coal-tar. In Report of the twenty-eighth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Paper presented at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Leeds, September 1858 (p.58). London: John Murray. Shelfmark Ac.1181. – Perkin’s first brief scholarly announcement of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1856). Producing a new coloring matter for dyeing with a lilac or purple color stuffs of silk, cotton, wool, or other materials. GB1984/1856. Shelfmark IP Reserve South – Perkin’s patent for the creation of azo dyes and dyeing techniques using them.

Meth-Cohn, O. and Smith, M. (1994). What did W. H. Perkin actually make when he oxidised aniline to obtain mauveine? Journal of the Chemical Society, Perkin Transactions 1, pp. 5-7. Shelfmark (P) JU 00 –E(9), also available in online subscription – the first investigation of Perkin’s preserved original samples of mauveine under modern spectroscopic techniques to determine the exact structures.

Written by Philip Eagle