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Think small: Models, makers and technology

Published: 4 March 2021

Making models helps us understand things in new ways. Discover the work of some of the ingenious model engineers in our collection and find out what impact they had on technology in the full-scale world.

These engineers, artisans and inventors—both amateur and professional—came from many walks of life, and often pursued their passion for model-making despite facing obstacles. Read on to find out more about how model engineering has influenced the technology of the modern world.

Henrietta Vansittart: Passion and ingenuity

Henrietta Vansittart (1833–1883) could be described as Britain’s first significant female inventor. Her father James Lowe was a blacksmith and inventor. When she was five, he patented a new type of screw propeller, to drive steam ships quickly and efficiently.

In the 1860s, Henrietta improved the design with curved rather than straight blades for greater efficiency, and her home was filled with the development models she built and tested. She patented her propeller design in 1868, for use on several ships.

Victorian woman stands looking down at the end of a model ship Science Museum Group Collection
In this portrait, Henrietta is holding a tiny model of the propeller, alongside the model ship it was to be fitted to.

The model was important enough for Henrietta to include this picture on the front of her 1882 book detailing its history. The picture reveals the importance of models both to Henrietta personally, and to the development of the new propellers for steam ships upon which maritime trade depended.

Watt, Tongue and Nasmyth: Testing new ideas

Some of the earliest models we have were made by Scottish engineer James Watt, best known for his work on steam engines. Watt’s steam career even started fixing a model atmospheric engine which wouldn’t run.

'James Watt and the Steam Engine', engraving, 1860.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about 'James Watt and the Steam Engine', engraving, 1860.

Watt later built over 400 full-size engines, and he made many models to illustrate his ideas and work out how to implement them. He also encouraged those working for him to build models as tests of their new machine-making skills.

Model of sun and planet gearing, which demonstrates the action designed to produce a rotative motion. Made by James Watt,1782–1784.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Model of sun and planet gearing, which demonstrates the action designed to produce a rotative motion. Made by James Watt,1782–1784.

William Tongue was a young apprentice turner with Watt’s company from 1797 until 1804. This model was made as part of his training.

Model of Watt's rotative beam engine, made by William Tongue c.1805.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Model of Watt's rotative beam engine, made by William Tongue c.1805.
William Tongue's indenture of apprenticeship, showing the strictures a young modeller was expected to adhere to in the late 18th century.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about William Tongue's indenture of apprenticeship, showing the strictures a young modeller was expected to adhere to in the late 18th century.

Tongue’s work is an excellent example of building models to learn best practice in how to develop and refine new engineering ideas.

Other later engineers were equally convinced of the power of models in confirming skills and testing new ideas. James Nasmyth, for example, counted model-making as part of a wider skillset including full-size engineering, astronomy and art. 

Nasmyth steam hammer & model

Model-makers go professional

As Britain’s industrial economy matured in the 19th century, model-making emerged as a profession in its own right, supporting and representing new innovations.

Interior of a scientific instrument-maker's workshop Science Museum Group Collection
19th-century advertisement for Chadburn Brothers, scientific instrument makers, showing inside a workshop

Some of the earliest such modellers were French prisoners of war, trapped in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars until 1815. They were conscripts, rather than having chosen military careers, and had many different skills compared to Britain’s professional sailors. These skills were put to excellent use producing many automatons, working models and ship models from old bones.

[Gallery of POW models/ship models]

In cities, scientific instrument-makers, jewellers and other tradespeople also turned their hand to making model engines to retail. Shipbuilders commissioned superb scale models of vessels for approval before construction began.

The Science Museum employed specialist model-makers too, like Thomas Coates and his brother. Based in South London, the two were perfectionists, producing superb models while complaining the museum was not paying them enough for their labours.

Coates models

Models by T and C Coates Bros from our collection:

London engineer Henry Maudslay left a huge model collection of everything from ships’ engines to cotton printing and even coin minting machines. The company displayed its models at exhibitions to demonstrate the high quality of its products, and when it finally closed in 1900 they were all acquired by the Science Museum. They are among the finest 19th-century models in existence.

Maudslay Sons & Field models

Models made by Maudslay, Sons & Field Ltd:

Women make models

As Henrietta Vansittart’s example showed us, it isn’t just men who model. More women were involved and interested in technical skills and machine or model-making than might first appear. Mary Gascoigne anonymously published her Handbook of Turning in 1842, posing the question:

Why should not our fair countrywomen participate in this amusement? Do they fear it is too masculine and laborious for a female hand?

Mary Gascoigne

Amelia Holtzapffel successfully ran the company of that name from 1847 until 1853, making top-quality machine tools, and even today the top prize for skill in ornamental turning is named for Lady Gertrude Crawford, an accomplished turner. 

Woman in white dress working at a machine Image courtesy of The Worshipful Company of Turners
Lady Crawford working at her lathe

Other women applied model-making to major new innovations. Blanche Thornycroft worked closely with her father on the model testing of new hull designs for ships, recording detailed results in her notebooks. Their test pond still survives, and ship models have recently been found on the bottom—perhaps they were some of the less successful designs. 

A woman in long skirts leaning over a pond containing a model boat Image courtesy of the Classic Boat Museum, Cowes, Isle of Wight
Blanche Thornycroft at work

More successfully, in the late 19th and early 20th century Katharine Parsons worked alongside her husband Charles Parsons, refining the design of steam turbines.

Much of their work took place at home, where scale model turbines were built and tested. Katharine was part of a highly skilled and prominent engineering family – her daughter Rachel became a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society, and her mother-in-law was, among other things, a noted photographer and skilled blacksmith.

Parsons family images

Women were equally surrounded by locomotives and the products of mechanism as male model-makers were. But since many models come with no identification of their makers, they can be difficult to identify—and it’s likely there are many more women model-makers in history than we know about. Nonetheless, the field has been male-dominated and women model engineers have lacked many historical role models.

Today there remains an active interest in amateur model engineering, with modellers producing models of the highest quality. Some of the very best were built by Cherry Hill, based on years of research and preparation, and they are displayed at the Institution of Mechanical Engineering in London.

Modelling to understand and innovate

Model-making remains a powerful way of seeing both how things are, and how they might be. This may take the form of digital models, using computer-aided design (CAD), but a physical model is still highly valuable. If you want to truly understand something, build a model of it! 

Modelling has taken advantage of new technologies like 3D printing to quickly produce static and even working models in tremendous detail. And, while engineering subjects remain very popular, from ships to engines, the range of potential subjects is broadening to cover everything from aliens to buildings. 

3D printed objects

In a world which often seems beyond our control, modelling offers a way of reimagining and working out how we might improve the things around us.

Find out more

  • Matthew B. Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands, Or, Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good, 2009
  • Soraya de Chadarevian and Nick Hopwood, Models – The Third Dimension of Science, 2004
  • JE Minns, Model Railway Engines, 1973