MHS Publishes First eBook

The Garden, The Ark, The Tower, The Temple: biblical metaphors of knowledge in early modern Europe, an MHS exhibition held in the Bodleian Library from 2nd February to 2nd May, 1998, had an accompanying book (ISBN 0 – 903364 – 09 – 3). A small print run was made which soon sold out. It can occasionally be found to buy, with the price varying from a few hundred to over a thousand pounds (as I write this it is available for £1,128.75).

The exhibition and book, written by Jim Bennett, former director of the museum, and Scott Mandelbrote, investigate biblical metaphors of knowledge in early modern Europe.

 	 Engraved plate from Ogilby’s 1660 Bible illustrating the state of paradise at the moment of the Fall. The plate was engraved by Pierre Lombart (1620?–1681). From catalogue no.1.

Engraved plate from Ogilby’s 1660 Bible illustrating the state of paradise at the moment of the Fall. The plate was engraved by Pierre Lombart (1620?–1681).


The stories of the Garden of Eden, Noahs Ark, the Tower of Babel, and the Temple of Solomon are among the best known in the Old Testament. They were alluded to frequently during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and were often used at that time to frame accounts of the progress of knowledge. The narrative history which could be found in the Bible presented a coherent story of the growth and decline of knowledge, in which moral and spiritual factors helped to determine natural and practical outcomes.

As metaphors of knowledge, the four stories gave information about both the acquisition and the ideal state of human understanding. But they also issued warnings about the necessary difference between human and divine knowledge and suggested ways by which knowledge might be married to piety and wisdom in order to achieve an improvement in the condition of mankind. The image that they conjured up was thus both hopeful and threatening. It demanded that human beings temper material and intellectual change with spiritual or moral development. The stories seemed to many to allow for the possibility of transforming the world through the application of human intellect and endeavour. Yet they also emphasized the contemporary belief that the earth had once been a better place, and that human ignorance and suffering were themselves the products of disobedience, error, and folly. The knowledge which was needed to change human life and the natural environment for the good depended on an understanding of the dangers of moral frailty as well as of the achievements of intellectual ingenuity. That understanding could best be developed through an awareness of biblical history and a sense of the working of providence, both of which were enhanced by acquaintance with the lessons of the Garden, the Ark, the Tower, and the Temple. …

An online version of this exhibition can be found on the MHS website; a kindle version of the book has been published, February 2013, with the same content plus useful ebook functionality. An interesting and convenient publication which will also help support the Museum’s broad range of work!

A World of Invention

Panagram system of reading and writing for the blind in the Patented exhibition

Panagram system of reading and writing for the blind in the Patented exhibition

Fletcher Wallis is a physicist with a penchant for patents. His collection of corkscrews is formidable and his knowledge of their historical development is gathered in British Corkscrew Patents from 1795, published in 1997 by Vernier Press. It is the ingenuity and imagination of inventors that captivates Fletcher, and in areas far broader than gadgets for opening bottles of wine.

Having given up life as a professional atomic physicist in Oxfordshire, Fletcher has spent the past 30 years or so dealing in antiques from the history of science and technology, with a particular expertise in patent inventions. He buys and sells objects from a stall in London’s Portobello Road, but has also built up an impressive collection of his own; a small museum’s worth perhaps.

It is with a hand-picked selection of some of these inventions, drawn from the 18th and 19th centuries, that Fletcher approached the Museum proposing a small, temporary exhibition on patent inventions. Working with Fletcher, and refining his selection for display, we created Patented, a temporary exhibition running in the Museum’s entrance gallery from 15 January – 10 March 2013.

Patented is a small exhibition – only 14 objects are on display – and so by no means provides a comprehensive account of British patent inventions during the 18th and 19th centuries. But the curious variety of devices on display, along with a few biographical nuggets about their creators, does paint a nice picture of the many ways that inventors sought to make a living by conceiving, and protecting, their ideas.

By granting ‘letters patent of invention’ to an individual, the government aimed to encourage and protect new industrial inventions by giving monopoly rights to produce an invention without direct competition for a period of time. Of course, this didn’t stop people copying, ripping off or just simply lying about their ‘patent’ in order to get a commercial advantage. Not surprising, perhaps, given the onerous bureaucratic hoop-jumping needed to secure patents: up to nine separate visits to various government offices in London, with a substantial fee levied at each, before 1852.

Nonetheless, all but two of the objects displayed in Patented were definitely granted monopoly by the Patent Office. Of the two, a set of facsimiles of horses’ mouths by J. C. Chawner claims to have been patented, although no record exists; and safety stirrups by William Lennan from around 1850 may have been patented in Ireland, but again the record remains elusive, if it ever existed.

The exhibition features an example of the 1784 Bramah Lock, created by Joseph Bramah and displayed in the company’s shop in Piccadilly as a ‘Challenge Lock’. “The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced.” So read the panel in the shop’s window. It was 67 years before American locksmith Arthur Charles Hobbs managed, after 51 hours spread over 16 days, to successfully pick the lock. Hobbs subsequently marketed his own patent inviolable lock. So it goes.

There’s also a very attractive, if devilishly complex, system of reading and writing for the blind, pre-dating Louis Braille’s system by 22 years. Patented in 1813, John Casson’s Panagram uses little wooden blocks, where each face is a different shape and each orientation of the face represents a different letter. If you’re mathematically sharp you’ll already have realised that’s only 24 letters (six faces, four possible orientations of each). The remaining two letters are distinguished by the addition of a little pin. It is not easy to use. But there is a secret message written in ‘Panagramese’ on display in the Museum… Why not visit and see if you can crack it?

And while you’re there check out the strange breathing apparatus, the first stirrups to release the hapless falling horse rider and, of course, the world’s second patented corkscrew, created by the 19th-century Birmingham entrepreneur Sir Edward Thomason.

Fletcher Wallis can be contacted at

By Scott Billings, Exhibitions Assistant.

The acquisition of a WWII nursing handling collection

Michelle and a colleague model the Indoor and Outdoor nurse unifoms from the new handling collection

Michelle and Laura model the Indoor and Outdoor nurse unifoms from the new handling collection

I was very excited when I heard that we had the opportunity to acquire some new objects from the Balfour Museum at the British Red Cross Offices in Winchester, which are to be closed down and the Museum with them. I had been looking for ways to build a Primary school session around our penicillin collection, and the possibility of acquiring some handling objects seemed an ideal way to shape a session, as well as adding to the existing offer for secondary schools about the development of Penicillin. The WWII connection is a great context for the climax of the story of penicillin. Handling objects are useful anyway, for any number of reasons, and education departments are always keen to acquire them, particularly when they are being offered free of charge.

At the end of December 2012, our long list of requested objects was de-accessioned from the Balfour, and found its way to the University of Oxford Joint Museum Education Service. While we will share all the objects (in fact, there is often lending and borrowing between the education departments of all the University Museums), a selection have found their way here, to serve as inspiration and motivation for the creation and promotion of a WWII session for primary schools.

We have been lucky enough to acquire two full indoor and outdoor uniforms, and when one of each came out of the box in the office, how could we resist trying them on? The result can be seen in the photograph above.

The process of acquiring the objects began in October 2012, when I went with a colleague from the Oxford University Joint Museums Service to the Balfour Museum where we found a small room packed with a huge assortment of objects and uniforms, mostly from the period around the Second World War. Armed with a list of the items on offer we viewed a table full of objects selected by the Balfour Collections Manager.

The room was very quiet and we were shy to reveal how many of these objects we would love to have, but just as we were in whispered conversation about how many would seem too greedy, the kind Collections Manager piped up from the corner with “Everything here has to go, so please feel free to take anything that you might like”. It then became a question of reigning ourselves in, and remembering how we were hoping to use the objects for education.

While it was exciting to be choosing objects to take away with us, the rows of uniforms hanging in translucent dry cleaning bags, booklets on topics from first aid to how to deal with gas attacks, bandages, feeding cups, bedpans, first aid kits and myriad other miscellaneous objects hit me with a poignancy that I had not expected.

It was the drawers full of hundreds of medals for service (sometimes engraved with the names of the individuals who had earned them) which particularly struck me. Each of these represents an individual, most likely a woman, and also likely very young, who had no idea of the outcome of the war, nor how long it would ultimately last, nor what post-war England would bring in terms of rationing and hardship.

In a small, blue “British Red Cross Society First Aid Manual No. 1”, inscribed in pencil on the overleaf with “H.G.Rutherford, spring 1939”, I discovered a clipping from a newspaper:

Sniff and Snatch it?

Yes, I mean a gas mask. A hundred letters a day and they all ask me how they’ll know the kind of gas. Here’s a reader’s way.

’Ware Gas!

If you get a choking feeling
And a smell of musty hay,
You can bet your bottom dollar
That there’s PHOSGENE on the way.

But the smell of bleaching powder
Will inevitably mean
That the enemy you’re meeting
Is the gas that’s named CHLORINE.

When your eye begins a-twitching
And for tears you cannot see,
’Tisn’t mother peeling onions
But a dose of C.A.P.

If the smell resembles pear-drops,
Then you’d better not delay,
It’s not the youngster sucking toffee,
But that tear gas K.S.K.

Should you sniff a pungent odour
As you’re going home to tea,
You can safely put your shirt on it
They’re using B.B.C.

If you see an oily liquid
On the road – be on your guard;
It isn’t where a bus was parked,
But that wicked gas MUSTARD.

Peaceful geraniums may
Look pleasant in a bed.
Dodge their scent in wartime;
It’s LEWISITE! You’re dead!

Thank you, Mr. Staniforth, of Nottingham

And grateful thanks must go to the Balfour Museum for their generosity in donating these exciting new objects to our handling collection, and for delivering them to us here in Oxford.


By Michelle Holloway, Education Officer