Scienceworks makes science an adventure. Located in Spotswood (7km from the Melbourne CBD), you can discover everyday science through interactive exhibits, programs and shows at this award-winning, interactive museum. 

Travel by tube...or is that tubes?

by Kate C
Publish date
8 November 2013
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Can you imagine zipping around your city – or even between cities – via vacuum tubes? The idea of using air to push or pull people through tubes is familiar from sci-fi shows like Futurama, but could we really travel by tube from Melbourne to Perth, say?

Futurama Tube Transport System Characters in the TV show Futurama zoom around New New York City Tube Transport System.
Source: 20th Century Fox Television

For over a century, pneumatic (air-driven) systems have transported small parcels, cash and documents quickly and securely over short distances. You may have seen pneumatic tubes in supermarkets that provide change or send money from the till to a central depository. Several European cities, including Paris and Prague, once had pneumatic postal systems. These days, many hospitals use air tubes to transport drugs and tests between pharmacies, labs and wards far more quickly than a human could carry them. Stanford Hospital's network is so extensive that it earned a listing in the Atlas Obscura and features in this video made by the Exploratorium. 


But would the idea work on a grand scale for transporting people? Elon Musk, inventor and chief executive of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, thinks it could. Earlier this year he released his concept for the Hyperloop – a superfast, solar-powered, city-to-city elevated transit system that he says could take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes.

Concept drawing of the Hyperloop Concept drawing of the Hyperloop transit system.
Source: Tesla Motors

Air tubes have moved people before; America’s first subway in New York City was actually a prototype pneumatic train built in 1870 by Alfred Ely Beach that ran for just one block. Other pneumatic railways operated in various cities from the 1840s, including London, Paris and Dublin. None traversed more than a few miles or survived longer than a few years simply because steam and electric trains proved more practical. However Elon Musk now estimates that the cost of building tubes across California would be far less than building above-ground rail tracks.

Beach pneumatic tunnel The remains of Beach's pneumatic tunnel photographed in 1899, 30 years after it was built.
Source: Scientific American via

The beauty of pneumatic transport is its simplicity: just by changing the air pressure in a tube, you can shift anything contained within the tube. This principle is familiar to every kid who has used a straw to sip a drink or fire a spitball at the teacher. All you need is a durable capsule, a powerful pump to push air through the tubes, and a way to divert the capsules to their correct destination.

Lamson Pneumatic Tubes brochure Lamson brochure circa 1920. This photograph was taken by a researcher in the New York Public Library - and the librarians sent the access request for this item via the library's pneumatic tube system!
Image: Molly Steemson
Source: flickr user maximolly

To demonstrate the concept, we’re installing a pneumatic system in Think Ahead that was made by Lamson Solutions. This company has built transport apparatus in Australia since 1898; their early retail systems evolved from hollow balls rolling along inclined tracks, through to flying-fox style wires overhead launching spring-loaded capsules of money. In 1908 they introduced vacuum tubes and still make them today for hospitals, stores, manufacturing plants and more. Pneumatic transport for rubbish or recycling collection in big cities is another developing idea; it would certainly take a lot of smelly and fuel-guzzling rubbish trucks off the roads.

The potential of pneumatic transport is just one of the fascinating ideas in Think Ahead, an exhibition about imagining the future, which will be opening at Scienceworks this December. 

1889 tram model

by Matilda Vaughan
Publish date
29 October 2013
Comments (1)

Matilda swapped a life working as an engineer for a life curating the museum’s historical Engineering collection. She’s very curious about how stuff works, how it’s made and why. If a machine’s got a switch, she’ll definitely flick it.

What do you do when a significant part of our local transport history would make a great addition to a new exhibition, but it no longer exists? Well, you recreate it in miniature, of course.

By 1888, Melbourne was already on its way to an integrated suburban rail transport network, and horse-drawn tramcars mingled with cable tramcars. Tramcars propelled by electric motors were very new and developing rapidly. Overseas commercially-operated installations were powered by either on-board batteries or connections to external underground or overhead electrical wiring. The first electric tram powered by an overhead wire in Australia was demonstrated as a fee paying, passenger-carrying attraction within the grounds of the 1888 Melbourne International Centennial Exhibition.

Men on Melbourne's first electric tram Australia’s first suburban electric tramway service at the Box Hill terminus on opening day, 14 October 1889. Do these passengers look excited about their ride on the latest public transport system in Melbourne?
Source: Doncaster & Templestowe Historical Society (DP0203)

While news reports from the time provide basic information about the tramcar and the exhibit, we couldn’t find any surviving photographs. However images do exist of its later use, in the following year, on the Box Hill-Doncaster Tramway Company’s route. This route ran from Box Hill Railway Station up what is now known as Tram Road, towards the Observation Tower and close to where Doncaster Shoppingtown now stands.

We provided these photographs, supplemented with curatorial research gleaned from historical literature such as newspapers, engineering journals, patents and electric tramcar and street railway technology reviews, to model maker Mark O'Brien. He used this information to prepare a digital model using 3D modelling software, carefully deconstructing parts to suit the manufacturing method.

Man sitting at computer showing a 3D digital model The 3D digital model can be rotated and viewed from all angles, to match the viewers’ perspective to the original photographic image.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria

Then came the real art of the project: translating the digital model into an actual object. The miniature parts were crafted with a blend of traditional model making techniques and additive manufacturing technology (3D printing).

parts of tram model Left: assembly of the tram model parts prior to painting and finishing. Right: the truck (or bogie) construction prior to painting, in the hand of the model maker Mark O'Brien.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria

parts of tram model Left: detail of conductor base. Right: electric motor, wheels and axle box, 3D printed and finished to resemble metal.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria

Scanning the tram model into the collection system Upon its arrival at the museum, we checked the condition of the tram model, registered it, tagged it and scanned into the Collection Location System for tracking.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria

When the Box Hill tramway closed down, the original tramcar was sold to H.V. McKay’s Sunshine agricultural implements manufacturing plant and stripped of its electric motor and fittings. The tramcar carriage itself became one of the shelter sheds used for workers’ leisure activities in the nearby parklands. It suffered the fate of most wooden objects left out in the weather for years. In the museum environment however, this miniature representation of the tramcar will live on as part of the as part of the state’s permanent Rail Transport Collection, and will be part of the Think Ahead exhibition at Scienceworks from December 2013.

Da Vinci surgical system

by Kate C
Publish date
21 October 2013
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The da Vinci robotic surgery system was first used at the Epworth ten years ago. Now superseded, this first da Vinci has been donated to MV by Epworth Healthcare for Think Ahead at Scienceworks, an upcoming permanent exhibition about the future. This robot is a great example of how technology is shaping our lives… and, in this case, saving lives.

da Vinci Si Surgical System.  This is what robotic surgery looks like: an operating room featuring the da Vinci Si Surgical System.
Source: Intuitive Surgical, Inc.

Like many robots, the da Vinci needs a highly-skilled human controller – surgeons like Dr Daniel Moon, Director of Robotic Surgery at Epworth. He’s a urologist who specialises in cancers of the prostate, the treatment of which has transformed since the introduction of robotic surgery.

Man at console of machine Surgeon Daniel Moon sitting at the console of a da Vinci surgical system.
Source: Daniel Moon

Treating this cancer involves removing the prostate (prostatectomy). It has always been a very delicate operation because this little gland, buried deep in the pelvis, is very close to important tissues that control urinary and reproductive functions. "With this operation," says Dr Moon, "if you get it wrong by millimetres, you can cripple someone."

So why is a robot so useful in this instance? Firstly, it can operate using much smaller incisions because its 'hands' – or robotic instruments – are much smaller than human hands. Smaller, less invasive incisions mean shorter recovery times. The instruments can perform very tiny, tightly-controlled movements beyond the range of usual human dexterity. Very high-definition footage is sent back to the surgeon which means he or she can see what's going on, and carefully avoid damaging any healthy tissues. "We see anatomy better than we've ever seen it before," says Dr Moon.

The surgeon sits at a console away from the operating table and controls the surgical instruments with sensitive thumb and finger grips. Foot pedals control the camera which, in the new generation of the da Vinci, can include ultrasound. The system is calibrated to the surgeon so that his or her hand movements are robotically scaled down and translated into minute adjustments of the instruments working inside the patient.

Controls of da Vinci surgical robot The surgeon operates the robotic arms with finely-calibrated finger controls.
Source: Daniel Moon

This medical advance coincided with the increasing prevalence of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, which detects potential prostate cancers very early in their development. Previously, prostate cancers usually reached a more advanced stage before medical intervention. "Surgery to remove the prostate before PSA testing was risky and really interfered with quality of life," says Dr Moon. "We'd take those risks when you had a bulky and aggressive tumour, but not, for example, when you have a patient in his mid-50s with early cancer and no symptoms." The da Vinci offers a surgeon the best possible vision, dexterity, and ergonomics to reduce the operative risks.

From the first da Vinci operation in Melbourne ten years ago, surgeons  performed over 3500 prostate operations robotically in 2012, and da Vinci systems are used in dozens of hospitals across Australia. The types of operations are increasing, too – Dr Moon lists removing tumours from the uterus, bowel and kidneys, and repairing cardiac valves, as other kinds of operations suited to this tool. An added benefit is that the ergonomics of operating is much kinder on the bodies of the surgeons; instead of many hours on their feet, bending awkwardly, the surgeon sits comfortably at the console.

This kind of machine was born from technology developed for two similar, yet different, purposes: the need for astronauts to repair satellites from within the safety of a space shuttle, and an idea to operate on wounded soldiers in the battlefield without placing surgeons on the front line. Both applications require instruments that can be minutely controlled from a distance, and excellent images of the procedure sent back to the operator. These space-age developments are now benefitting Earth-bound civilian people too, and one day a robot might help to keep you healthy.


Think Ahead at Scienceworks


by Kate C
Publish date
11 October 2013
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Excellent news for urban stickybeaks – we've just released the first three walking tours for the new MV TOURS app. If you’re the kind of person who likes to look up at the older bits of Melbourne, download these free, self-guided tours to your smartphone or device: Spotswood Industrial Heritage, Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, and Melbourne's Golden Mile. Think of the app as having a curator in your pocket, telling you stories on demand.

MV TOURS app This chap is on the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens walking tour, and learning about the Hochgurtel Fountain. This was a top spot for promenading in true 1880s society fashion.
Source: Museum Victoria

I had a chat to one of those pocket curators, Dr Charlotte Smith, about her favourite parts of each route. She led the curatorial team developing the three tours and she's proof that there is always more to learn about the city, even if you’re already an expert historian. She’s particularly smitten with the strange corrugated iron annex hung from the side of the Gothic Rialto Building in Flinders Lane – urinals from the 1890s. "They’re just beautiful! I had no idea they were there," says Charlotte. "In those times they didn't have internal plumbing, but an office building still needed to provide a place for men to relieve themselves."

Melbourne's Golden Mile tour app Screenshot from Melbourne's Golden Mile app showing the Rialto Building urinals.
Source: Museum Victoria

This urinals are a stop on the Melbourne's Golden Mile walking tour, which is based on Professor Graeme Davison's original booklet guide to accompany the path of circular metal disks embedded in city pavements. "We've neatened it a bit, but we follow the Golden Mile disks except where footpaths have been resurfaced and the disks are gone." This tour traces the boom era of Melbourne when the young city was flush with gold money and eager migrants.

Charlotte describes the Spotswood Industrial Heritage walking tour as "fabulous. I’ve really fallen in love with Spotswood." Among stories of manufacturing – fuses, agricultural equipment, glass bottles and more – is the sense of a place that evolved a distinctive character.

Says Charlotte, "we’ve tried to tell the story of it as a suburb with an old soul. There are stories about migration and changing manufacturing needs. The reason why the suburb is so important is its location – it is slightly lower than Melbourne, the river flows past it, and the first train line passed through Spotswood  to the main port at Williamstown." The walking tour also features items of notoriety produced in Spotswood: the glassworks made the suburb the 'Home of the Stubbie', while bushranger Ned Kelly's armour was fashioned from ploughs made by local firm Lennon and Company.

Stubbie Stubbie
Image: Laurie Richards
Source: Museum Victoria

All three tours are richly illustrated with hundreds of photographs and images drawn from MV's collections and other important sources, such as Wolfgang Sievers' photographs of industry and Mark Strizic’s beautiful photos of Melbourne in the 1950s. Charlotte particularly loves "a photograph we found for the Fuse Factory on Hall Street, of women working with their heads covered in scarves to protect themselves from flying bits and pieces." These and other images show how places have changed over the years, and in many cases, places that no longer exist.

While Charlotte expects that the Spotswood tour will be most used by local residents, international visitors are a big audience for the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Garden tour, requiring certain concessions for those unfamiliar with the damage that possums can do. Those strange rings of metal around trunks of trees? Possum guards. (That grey furry mound in a tree hollow? Possum.)

The REB tour also includes exquisite drawings by builder David Mitchell of the Exhibition Building. "They’re at the University of Melbourne archive and not often seen. It's fascinating to look at one of the historical drawings then look up at the building and see how it has been realised." 

These three tours are the first instalment in what we hope will be a library of tours of Melbourne and regional places. Download one or all of the tours to your device through either the App Store or Google Play, and let us know what you think! 


Walk through History support page

View all Museum Victoria apps

Immigration Museum: Melbourne's Golden Mile

MV Blog: A golden morning

Celebrating Space Week

by Tanya
Publish date
10 October 2013
Comments (1)

World Space Week is a celebration of curiosity and determination. It’s about what can happen when we dream big, and use cutting-edge science and technology to realise those dreams.

Currently NASA has over 20 spacecraft exploring our Solar System and beyond. Here are just three of my favourites.

Voyager 1 : What is there not to love about this spacecraft?  Like me, you may have grown up with the Voyager missions - I was a young child when they launched, watched them show us new views of the outer planets during my school years, and now, 36 years on, Voyager 1 is exploring unknown territory as it journeys through interstellar space. Its twin, Voyager 2, is set to do the same in the next few years.

What’s remarkable is that this goal has been reached while the spacecraft still has the capacity to tell us about it. The faint signals from Voyager 1 have about the same power as the light bulb in your refrigerator and that’s before they travel the 19 billion km across space to provide a daily briefing of what conditions are like out there. The two Voyagers are expected to last until at least 2020, so there’s a good few years of space exploration ahead of them.

Voyager 1 Earlier this year it was announced that Voyager 1 had officially crossed into interstellar space on 25 August 2012.
Source: NASA

New Horizons : This will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto. What the Voyagers did for our understanding of the gas giants, New Horizons is set to do for Pluto and the other worlds of the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft was launched back in 2006 and has been in hibernation for most of the journey. It has almost two years to go before reaching its destination and is expected to deliver fantastic photographs and insights on its Pluto flyby.

New Horizons spacecraft New Horizons will provide the first close-up views of Pluto. It will take one year to beam all the data back to Earth, 7.5 billion km away.
Source: NASA

International Space Station : Every day for the last 13 years visiting astronauts have woken up to a day in the office, floating 400km above Earth, on board the International Space Station. The space station is a floating laboratory built to progress science. Certainly seeing how things behave on the space station, gives a great insight into how things work. Like this demo on youtube of trying to wring out a towel in weightlessness. But if you’re like me, you’ll end up following all of Chris Hadfield’s videos and they’ll draw you into the human side of working in space. Be sure to finish up with his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

  Dinosaur in space The space station is not only a science lab, it’s a home. Astronaut and crafter Karen Nyberg made this dinosaur for her son, crafted from material salvaged onboard the space station.
Image: Karen Nyberg
Source: NASA

New field guide apps

by Nicole K
Publish date
2 July 2013
Comments (0)

When we blog about Museum Victoria's Field Guide to Victorian Fauna app, we usually talk about its content (animal descriptions, sounds, images, etc). But behind all this content are hundreds of lines of code – the instructions that determine how the app functions.

This code was developed by Museum Victoria's app developers. In 2011 we published it online under an open source licence. This means that anyone can use it to produce a similar app, for free. (For more information see our Field Guide to the Field Guide blog).

And people are using it! Over the past two years, we've learned about a number of projects using our code. Some app developers have contacted us to ask questions and share ideas; others have charged ahead on their own.

This is exactly what we hoped would happen, so we're very excited to announce that three apps using our code have been released in the past month:

Field Guide to Pest Animals of Australia
This app contains 31 of Australia's 56 vertebrate pest species, such as Cane Toads, Carp, Foxes and Mynas. Created by the Invasive Animals CRC, it includes information about the biology and origin of these introduced pests, as well as the damage they cause. Wondering how a tiny Asian House Gecko can harm our native wildlife? Check out this app.

Field Guide to Pest Animals of Australia app screens (iPad & iPhone) Field Guide to Pest Animals of Australia app screens (iPad & iPhone)
Image: Invasive Animals CRC
Source: Invasive Animals CRC

New Zealand Marine Life Field Guide
Produced by the Auckland Museum, this app holds descriptions of over 130 of New Zealand's most common marine plants and animals. All common names appear in both English and Māori: from Haku (Yellowtail Kingfish) to Honu (Green Turtle) to Rimurimu (Neptune's Necklace).

New Zealand Marine Life Field Guide app screens (iPad & iPhone) New Zealand Marine Life Field Guide app screens (iPad & iPhone)
Image: Auckland Museum
Source: Auckland Museum
Grand Canyon National Park Field Guide
Produced by ParksConnect, this app highlights common plants and animals found in the Grand Canyon National Park, such as Coyotes, Californian Condors, Tarantulas and Banana Yuccas. Hear the roar of a Mountain Lion, the call of a Hummingbird and the thunder-clap of head-butting Bighorn Sheep!

Grand Canyon Field Guide app screens (iPhone) Grand Canyon Field Guide app screens (iPhone)
Image: ParksConnect
Source: ParksConnect

About this blog

Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.