We knew nothing of the Museum of Victorian Science in Glaisdale near Whitby until we received the ecommerce googly of a hand-written letter ordering some Factorylux vintage light bulbs and enclosing a cheque in payment.
The letter was from Tony Swift and, after finding out more about his Museum and Trip Advisor award, we dispatched the lamps – the classic short tube spiral filament bulbs – with a request for an interview. Tony kindly agreed to to show us round his Museum and be interviewed.
Walking into the Museum of Victorian Science in Whitby is like walking into a mechanical antique shop. Amazing wooden and brass contraptions fill the shelves and as you enter further, there are skulls, X-rays of various body parts, crackling electronic equipment, laboratory tubes and numerous other contraptions. It’s like being in the prop store for a series of horror films and I’m intrigued to find out more.
Tony, thank you for inviting me to your Museum of Victorian Science. Can you tell me what the theme of your collection is?
The museum gives visitors the opportunity to see how the Victorians developed scientific knowledge and understanding. Many of the discoveries were made by accident and 19th century physics is the foundation of all modern science. The breakthroughs and accomplishments of today would not be possible without the astonishing and sometimes bizarre experiments that took place in the Victorian era.
Did you always want to set up a museum?
Well no, it happened by accident really. I’ve always had a keen eye when perusing antique fairs, car boot sales and the like. If I saw a piece of functioning science equipment from way back when, I’d swoop in and take it home with me. After a few years, I’d built up an impressive collection but the house was getting smaller and smaller! As I was squeezing my latest find under the bed, my wife, Pat, said ‘you could almost make a museum out of all of these’ and my internal light bulb switched on! That was almost fourteen years ago now.
You’re clearly no stranger to physics, can you tell us a bit about your background?
As a young man I joined the RAF. I was employed as an aircraft engineer which I thoroughly enjoyed. When I left I became a physics technician, it wasn’t a plan of mine, it just seemed like a logical step to take. I later moved on to a job at Boulby potash mine in North Yorkshire as a chemical analyst. I’ve also been making clocks for 35 years now. The museum is really a retirement activity for me.
A retirement activity that’s created quite a stir. Your tours are phenomenally popular, why do you think this is?
I’m quite sure it’s because I keep the presentation diverse and interesting. On the television, you often see people talking about an issue for a long period of time, it can be dull and lifeless. My demonstrations happen in quick succession – no one has time to go to sleep or get bored!
Why are children not allowed?
Despite the buzz of the show, I do need to provide a short explanation about each machine and the theories are relatively complex. I have tried it before but children are just too young to absorb that kind of information, they drift off.
What’s your favourite experiment?
The Thomson tube because it’s the tool J J Thomson used in 1897 to identify the electron, the first sub-atomic particle to be identified. He showed cathode rays are made up of electrons – the negatively charged particles of an atom. He determined that electrons are in all atoms of all elements. I get to experience what it was like to make one of the greatest contributions to modern science, it’s a real high.
Why did you chose the Factorylux vintage filament bulbs and what did you need them for?
I used to use a pygmy bulb, but when I saw some Factorylux vintage filament bulbs in a shop window I thought ‘They are for me!’ The hand-sewn filament light bulbs have the authentic antique look and using the bulbs with a dimmer switch allows me to get the perfect level of illumination.
Tony, thank you very much for being interviewed. We wish you and the Museum continued success.