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RAF Wroughton: The museum of modern times

By Simon Usborne

From the Swindon road, the RAF base at Wroughton looks like a relic of wartime Britain. Two gargantuan hangars, with paint peeling from their elegant curved roofs, stand close to its entrance. An old concrete runway stretches into the middle distance. Behind a high security fence, you can see the rolling Marlborough Downs.

Here, in the heart of the English countryside, six genteelly decaying hangars, with names like L1 and L2, stand like a sore thumb against their green and pleasant surroundings. Their tennis court-sized doors are rusty in the autumnal drizzle. Grass next to the runway is long and unkempt. Signs are dirty. It's as if no one has cared for the site in over a generation.

But people do care; and in a very big way. Wroughton is no crumbling relic. Instead, it is a site that warrants serious protection. Anyone who arrives there will be greeted by an unsmiling Gurkha veteran, one of a team of guards that patrols it 24 hours a day. Their signature will be digitally scanned before being printed on a security pass below a mug-shot taken by a remote camera.

From the outside, Wroughton may look tired and tatty. But behind that drab concrete exterior, the security staff are safeguarding a collection of priceless historical treasures.

The Gurkha hands me a hard hat and directs me towards L1. As I step through a side door into the dark interior, my only clue to the hangar's cavernous proportions is the sound of jackdaws nesting in the rafters. Then, with a resounding clunk, the lights are switched on and emit a low hum before they flicker into life, revealing an extraordinary scene.

Row after row of steel shelving stretches back more than 100 metres to the shadowy recesses. Every square inch of the building, from dusty floor to grimy roof, is packed with technological relics, a treasure-trove of artefacts that chronicle the cutting edge of British life from Roman times to the present day.

Built to maintain and arm fighter planes during the Second World War, and later used as a Naval helicopter base, Wroughton was acquired by the Science Museum in 1980 as the answer to a storage crisis. Today, the site in South Kensington is able to show just eight per cent of the museum's mammoth collection; the rest is hidden away at another site in the capital as well as here at Wroughton, where about 18,000 exhibits are stored.

Inside L1, a James Bond submarine lies next to Chris Boardman's world record-breaking Lotus bicycle, just a stone's throw from Britain's first cash machine and a lump of 100-year-old reinforced concrete, the first ever made. The scale and breadth of what is hidden here, collecting dust, is staggering. Tragically, most of it rarely sees the light of day.

"Whenever I bring people in here, they are always amazed," says Peter Turvey, my guide and the Swindon museum's senior curator. "We're sitting on a treasure-trove of things to inspire and motivate, but if they can't be seen, why do we bother to keep them?"

The Science Museum wants to change that. Today it launches a campaign to transform Wroughton into a state-of-the art national science centre. The project, called Inspired, is one of six schemes competing for £50m in National Lottery grant aid, to be voted on by viewers of an ITV show in December. If successful, Turvey and his team will dust down, polish and exhibit around 200,000 remarkable relics of science and industry.

In transforming Wroughton into a multimillion-pound visitor attraction, the Science Museum aims to ape the runaway success of London's Tate Modern, one of the world's most admired and popular art galleries. They are certainly thinking big: two of Wroughton's six hangars will be joined with an enormous steel and glass structure to create a museum which, at 10 acres, will be the largest of its kind in Europe. Outside, trees have already been planted to create outdoor classrooms and nature trails, where families and school groups can take part in workshops or watch demonstrations.

For now, Wroughton remains in a sorry state. For more than an hour, Turvey guides me around the hangars. Pulling aside the creaky door of D3, I find myself in the sights of Blue Steel, Britain's first nuclear missile, and a two-stage Polaris rocket. Ahead stands a collection of planes. When the 35m-long Trident airliner arrived, they had to let its tyres down to fit it in the hangar.

Turvey believes it is "absolutely vital" that Inspired wins the lottery money, partly to safeguard the future of the exhibits, which range in age from a 1,700-year-old Roman pottery kiln to a zero-emission fuel cell London bus (c2005). Most of the buildings have leaking roofs and are home to birds and rats. In one, mud brought in by last July's floods still streaks the floor.

But more importantly, Turvey sees Inspired as a means to stimulate interest in science among an increasingly turned-off youth. The number of students signing up for A-levels in subjects such as maths and physics has declined rapidly in recent years. "Unless we engage upcoming generations in science, technology, industry and medicine, we are not going to solve the problems that affect society," he says. "And that would be a far greater loss than that of any of these exhibits."

To find out more or to support Inspired, visit


For most people in Britain, Ernie was the first computer they had heard of, and for many its friendly acronym gave the van-sized bank of wiring and transistor plugs a personality - "he" even reportedly received Christmas cards. Part of a plan by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to reduce inflation and encourage thrift, Ernie gave rise to the "original" lottery - premium bonds.

Designed and built in 1957 at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, London, the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment was the world's first random-number generator. It used a gas-discharge neon diode to produce numbers through the random movement of electrons to determine who would win that month's top prize, then just £1,000 (£1m today).

Such is the popularity of premium bonds now that Ernie 1 would take 73 days to complete the draw. Ernie 4, which could fit into a shopping bag, does it in two and a half hours.

Ernie 1 also offers vital clues to the workings of Colossus, a long-since-destroyed machine used for code-breaking at Bletchley Park, whose designers went on to work on Ernie at Dollis Hill. So important is the first machine that curators at Wroughton used saliva-coated cotton buds to remove the residue left by cigarette smoke.

Tucker Sno-Cat type 743

When the British explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs was commissioned to undertake the first overland crossing of Antarctica, he needed a vehicle tough enough to withstand 100 days of travel across more than 2,000 miles of ice and snow.

Capable of operating in temperatures below minus 30C, the US-built bruiser that is the Tucker Sno-Cat was the machine for the job.

Leaving Shackleton Base in March 1958, the Sno-Cat, which had been developed 10 years earlier in Oregon to traverse soft snow and maintain telephone lines, fired up her engines and carried a ton of equipment and passengers inside, hauling another ton of gear in sledges behind her.

The Sno-Cat travelled an average of 22 miles per day and allowed Fuchs and his team to conduct various experiments on their mission across the South Pole. Their seismic survey measured the thickness of the ice cap and established the existence of a solid base of land beneath it.

Ninety-nine days later (a day short of its estimated travel time), the Cat arrived at Scott Base in one piece, earning itself a place in the Antarctic history books.

Whitaker Tunnelling Machine

When the Channel Tunnel was completed in 1994, a rail link crossing the 30-mile divide between Folkestone and Calais finally became a reality.

In 1802, a French engineer, Albert Mathieu-Favier, proposed a tunnel illuminated by oil lamps with a half-way "island" in the sea, where horses could surface. In 1875, a floating steel tube was rejected on safety grounds and later attempts were stalled, opponents citing the vulnerability a land link with an unstable Europe could bring to Britain.

In 1919, the Channel Tunnel Company published a geology report and proposed a pilot tunnel be driven under Folkestone. The iron buckets of a 12ft-high, 31-ton machine, designed by Douglas Whitaker, an engineer from Leicester, only bored about 128 metres in the chalk cliffs of Kent, however, before the attempt was abandoned.

James Bond submarine

Now perched on a dusty pallet looking rather sorry for itself, this one-man sub starred in one of the most memorable 007 action sequences. The 1981 film For Your Eyes Only sees Roger Moore's Bond racing to retrieve the sunken ATAC system (which commands the British nuclear arsenal) off the coast of communist Albania. Joined by the vengeful Greek siren Melina Havelock, played by the French actress Carole Bouquet, he dives in a two-man Neptune sub, but is quickly apprehended by the villain, Aristotle Kristatos, in this menacing 7ft-long Preying Mantis, whose pincer arms and drill fail (naturally) to kill Bond.

The Mantis was developed by the Great Yarmouth firm Osel Mantis and was designed to work at depths of almost 2,000ft. In the film it was operated by its designer, Graham Hawkes, who lay on his stomach in the sub. The world-renowned marine engineer and inventor has designed more than 300 underwater vehicles, which have been used in films and for scientific research.

The Preying Mantis failed to capture the imagination quite like the Lotus submarine car that appeared four years earlier in The Spy Who Loved Me. That car, twice voted Britain's favourite screen car, is on show at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.

Piccard's gondola

When the Belgian cartoonist Herge was looking for inspiration for Professor Calculus, the mad scientist of The Adventures of Tintin, he looked no further than the eccentric Swiss inventor and explorer Auguste Piccard. The Basel-born scientist, who waswell over 6ft tall, had his head in the clouds and in 1930 developed a craft to take him soaring thousands of feet above them.

He built a sealed, pressurised gondola that had a system to recycle its air, and in May 1931, Piccard and a young assistant launched their aluminium creation above Germany. It reached a record altitude of 15,785m (51,775ft) and on later flights he topped a dizzying 72,000ft.

During his flights, Piccard gathered huge amounts of data that contributed to knowledge of aeronautics in the lead-up to the first space flights.

In the mid-1930s, Piccard turned his attention to the deep, using his knowledge of pressurisation to build a series of pioneering submersibles. He died in 1962, but his son, Bertrand, inherited his father's head for heights, completing the first non-stop balloon circumnavigation of the globe in 1999.

Krieger electric car

The Krieger electric car was built in 1904 and and resembles any other turn-of-the-century motor carriage. This model, nicknamed Elsie after its number plate, LC, relies on technology that has changed little in 100 years.

The battery-driven ride was certainly green, but well-to-do drivers bought the Paris-built car because of its nickel-iron batteries, which were more reliable than early engines, and not because of its eco credentials.

With a top speed of 18mph and a 50-mile running time, the car, which was intended to be chauffeur-driven and maintained horse-drawn-carriage styling, became popular in America, where ladies used it as a glorified golf cart to tour their country estates. It only fell out of favour when petrol-driven engines became more efficient, and with the introduction of push-button ignitions.

Now equipped with new batteries, Elsie still runs beautifully. At a recent open day on the runway at Wroughton, the Krieger was one of three contemporary vehicles to take part in a time trial. Despite weighing in at three tons, it finished second behind a steam-powered car, but beat its petrol-driven counterpart.

Wood Press

Occupying the entire far end of hangar L1, the Wood Press is, at 140 tons, the heaviest exhibit the Science Museum has acquired, and one of Wroughton's star attractions. The last surviving Fleet Street printing press, built by New Yorker Henry Wood in 1934, it operated at Northcliffe House, home of the Daily Mail and Evening News from 1827 right up until 1987, when the last national newspapers fled Fleet Street for Wapping and beyond.

In its heyday the Wood Press would have created a staggering din as it churned out as many as 50,000 newspapers an hour, making it the fastest press in the world. After it stopped printing, it lay dormant in the basement of Northcliffe House, at least escaping the fate of some other presses that now form the foundations of the coffee shops and juice bars that line modern-day Fleet Street.

In 1999, industrial archaeologists began the painstaking task of dismantling the press over a period of four months. Rebuilding it at Wroughton took a further five; in the process, engineers discovered a collection of fag ends, empty beans tins and shoes left by its inky operators.

Blue Steel

Collecting dust in a corner to the left of the rusty doors of hangar D3 lies one of the most potentially destructive objects ever conceived. The 7-ton Blue Steel missile carried Britain's nuclear deterrent during the Cold War between 1964 and 1975 and, had it been launched, would have reached its target at speeds above Mach 2, soaring at an altitude of 80,000ft.

The unmanned missile was planned in 1954 in a memorandum by the Ministry of Supply, which subsequently furnished the three armed forces with equipment and arms. Ministers predicted that by 1960, Soviet air defences would make it too dangerous to drop nuclear bombs from V bombers. The solution: a rocket-powered, supersonic, long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Blue Steel entered service in 1963 and, strapped beneath Vulcan and Victor bombers, would have powered along a predetermined course to the target at around Mach 1.5, speeding up to Mach 3 on approach. There, the engine would have cut out and the missile have entered free-fall before detonating its nuclear warhead as an airburst.

Newsham's manual fire engine

In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666, insignificant blazes had to be prevented from consuming the streets of the capital. The Parish Pump Act of 1708 ordered that every community keep a water pump in case of fire, but they proved to be woefully inadequate.

Step forward Richard Newsham, a London button-maker with an eye for innovation. In 1721, he patented "a new water engine for quenching and extinguishing fires".

Comprising a tank on wheels as its frame, a water pump operated by long handles, and directional hoses, the world's first effective fire engine could race to a blaze and pump 400 litres of water per minute at flames more than 40 metres away.

Newsham's pump proved so successful that he started his own company and, a canny marketer, he posted adverts in newspapers as far away as America. His ads reportedly claimed that King George II himself used a Newsham to protect the royal palace, and they worked: in 1731, New York City imported several engines.

Newsham's carts quickly grew more sophisticated and later models could be operated by as many as 16 men. Passing the company down the generations, Newsham's engines remained in operation right up until the 1930s.

SRN1 hovercraft

The story goes that when the hovercraft was first proposed, its designers wrangled over the kind of licence its operator would need: a driver's, a captain's or a pilot's? Inventors from Britain, Finland and Russia had toyed with idea of travel on a cushion air to reduce drag from as early as the 1870s, when Sir John Thornycroft filed patents for "air-lubricated hulls", but it wasn't until 1955 that the first practical model was built, the SRN1.

The Cambridge-born inventor Sir Christopher Cockerell had experimented with his early hovercraft concept on the Norfolk Broads between 1952 and 1955, using a Heath Robinson-style assembly of vacuum cleaners and metal cans. He was the first to devise the deep, flexible skirt that makes hovercrafts so versatile, and his simple design (downward-facing fans force air under the craft, filling the skirt and lifting it off the ground, rear-facing propellers kick in to push it forwards) became the standard.

In 1958, the National Research and Development Corporation paid Sir Christopher £1,000 for the rights to his prototype and completed SRN1 in 1959, using it to cross the Channel a year later. He coined the word "hovercraft" to define his invention.

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