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Science Museum Group

A Brief History of Stuff
Episode 1: Bath Toys
29 April 2021

 

Tracey Williams:

It’s the excitement of being on a beach in the aftermath of a storm, I think. The anticipation of what you might find. You never know what’s going to turn up and it’s the stories behind the things you find that fascinate me. We’ve picked up huge numbers of shoes, in recent years, flip-flops, trainers. There was also a cargo spill of my little ponies.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Have you ever found a rubber duck?

Tracey Williams:

I have found lots of plastic ducks. I think many are escapees from duck races, or lost toys at the beach. So I’ve got a whole shelf of ducks. I’m fascinated in the stories of flotsam. I’ve done a bit of cargo spill tracking myself. So, I am fascinated by the story behind them.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Hi, I’m Nihal Arthanayake and this is A Brief History of Stuff. Each week you’ll hear fascinating stories about the ordinary objects around you in this podcast, all inspired by historic items from the Science Museum Group Collection.

Tracey Williams:

My name’s Tracey Williams and I’m a beachcomber in Cornwall. I live on the North coast and I beachcomb every day. I get up really early, go out with my dog and I’ll pick up plastic all day long, basically.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Hello Tracey. It’s lovely to meet you.

Tracey Williams:

It’s a pleasure to be here.

Nihal Arthanayake:

And then we have another person. Now this person is Alex Rose, Curator of Earth Sciences at the Science Museum. Hello Alex.

Alex Rose:

Hi Nihal.

Nihal Arthanayake:

It’s lovely to meet you.

Alex Rose:

Likewise.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Now, okay. So why do you have rubber ducks at the Science Museum?

Alex Rose:

Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s always a bit strange when you’re like wandering through the museum store and you’re surrounded on all sides by this really high tech equipment and instrumentation. And then you come across a box of plastic ducks it…they feel a bit incongruous. Well, I say ducks actually as, er, there’s a couple of ducks, a couple of turtles, a couple of beavers and some frogs as well. These are all toys that washed up on the coast in Alaska in November, 1992.

So earlier that year, in January, 1992, these toys had been in a container, on a ship called the Ever Laurel, which was travelling from Hong Kong to the USA. And there had been a storm on the 10th of January and 12 containers were washed overboard. And the containers are kind of been ravaged by the waves and the latches were broken. And, um these toys escaped into the ocean. And unlike some kind of bath toys, I guess if you sort of think about as a standard plastic bath toy a lot of them have holes in the bottom. So, if that had happened, they would have kind of sunk and might have disappeared, but these ones are completely sealed. So they were bobbing around on the surface and started drifting with the ocean surface currents. So these friendly floaties, you know, were a very particular design and so on. So they’re relatively sort of easily identifiable. And then 2,000 miles later, they started washing up on the Alaskan coast.

This might’ve just been a kind of quirky happening, but the reason this is a scientific story is that a couple of American scientists saw the opportunity to use this event as a chance to better understand how the ocean circulated and how they moved. So one of these scientists, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an American oceanographer who’s based in Seattle had for some time been using different things that were kind of floating on the ocean surface as a way of understanding ocean currents. So in his previous projects, he’d used oil spills, sewage, nice, and various kinds of flotsam to track ocean currents. He was collaborating with another scientist called Jim Ingraham, who was a fishery scientist.

So ocean current are of massive importance to fisheries because it’s how they can sort of understand how fish eggs and fish larvae move around. And Ingraham had developed this computer model that allowed them to kind of predict these kind of ocean surface currents. They’d previously worked together in 1990 when a consignment of Nike trainers had washed overboard on a ship. And they’d managed to track these as they’d, they’d washed up on various coasts. And this opportunity of these bath toys starting to appear in Alaska was too good an opportunity for them to miss.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Tracey, are you aware when, you know, containers go over the side, is there a, a global Beachcomber community who are aware that things like this are happening?

Tracey Williams:

There is. Beachcombers tend to network. So we’re all on social media. So I’m in touch with Beachcombers in the Azores and Ireland and Scotland and Florida. And so, sometimes a Beachcomber in the Azores will tell me that he’s spotted, flip-flops washing up. And in fact, we’ve recently been mapping a spill of printer cartridges, as they’ve washed up around the world. They’ve been found in Bemuda and Norway and practically every country in between.

Alex Rose:

Networking with the beachcombing community was certainly what Ebbesmeyer did when he was, he was trying to track where these bath toys were going to be washing out. That was really fundamental, right? Cause he was one man. And he couldn’t possibly kind of keep track of where all of these things were appearing. So it was only because he managed to build up his own network who, you know, like Tracey says, could be like looking out for where these things would wash up, that he was able to kind of gather all of this data and then use that to feed it into the models.

Tracey Williams:

So we actually had a Facebook group with 55,000 followers of Beachcombers around the world. So we put a shout out on, out on that and asked people to give us any reports of the ink cartridges. And luckily each ink cartridge had a date on it. And so we were able to track exactly which ones had come from the spill and also the dates they washed up.

Nihal Arthanayake:

How many containers are going over the side of ships, in any given year?

Tracey Williams:

Well, I think there’s been 3,000 in the last few months, 3,000 since November. 2,980.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Which have gone over the side of ships? Wow.

Tracey Williams:

Yes.

Nihal Arthanayake:

I’m surprised I go shopping at all. I should be just hanging around in beaches, shouldn’t I? I could pick up everything from Tommy Hilfiger flip flops, my printer now is out of cartridges. I should be doing this Tracey.

Tracey Williams:

The trouble is many of them are coveting goose barnacles by the time they wash up. So…

Nihal Arthanayake:

Oh, you haven’t seen my printer. [Laughter] Okay. So, okay. So it’s not as what you’re saying is a credible form of free shopping then?

Tracey Williams:

No. For me, what’s interesting is that you never know what’s in the containers that sink to the bottom. There must be millions and millions and billions of items from cargo spills lying at the bottom of the sea. There were 5 million pieces in one container of Lego and there were 62 containers that fell off the Tokyo Express, when the Lego fell off.

Nihal Arthanayake:

But do we know then that once one of these containers has gone overboard that they could reach us years and years later?

Tracey Williams:

Yes. I think many containers often, they don’t know what happens to containers, whether they burst open on impact or whether they carry on fleeting for a while, or whether they sink to the seabed, and they’re still sealed. In fact, with the Christmas lighting decorations that are washing in at the moment they washed in for a long time. And then there was, there was a lull of about three years and they’ve suddenly started coming ashore again. And in fact, the ones we’re finding now are more intact than the ones we were finding three, four years ago. So, it makes you wonder if there are still lots inside the container and perhaps the container has shifted, or it’s corroded or something’s happened. And these Christmas lighting decorations are now escaping again.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Thinking about currents Alex, where would a container have to fall off in the sea in order for its contents to end on the beaches of the UK?

Alex Rose:

In a way the answer is like it could be from any number of places, because even with the friendly floaties, they went overboard in the North Pacific. But because they kind of went through the Bering Strait, got trapped in the ice and then, you know, they ended up in a completely different ocean system.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Just because you find a piece of Lego on the beach, Tracey, does it necessarily mean that it has just washed up?

Tracey Williams:

No, that’s a good question. The, the Lego from the spill is very specific. It was mainly sea themed pieces. And finding a single sea themed piece on the beach doesn’t necessarily mean it’s from the spill. So we tend to look for patterns. If Lego flippers and daisies and life jackets are all appearing on the same beaches; there’s a pretty good indication that they have all come from the spill. And some of it has traveled, you know, long distances Beachcombers in Holland have found it.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Really? Okay. So Alex, is there anything random about it? So, if they end up in two or three different locations, could it be fooling you? You have to be careful about looking at the geographical position of where they end up because it might actually be misleading you.

Alex Rose:

Yeah, that’s true. And, as Tracey says, like the crucial thing here is to make sure you know, where it’s come from. And there are things that can help in this kind of instance, to verify that. I mentioned before the Nike trainers, the scientists were able to use the logistical systems that Nike had put in place to be able to track their trainers as they were being shipped in order to verify when a pair of Nike, well, not a pair probably, when a Nike trainer washes up on the beach, that it’s specifically that. And obviously what if, you know, it’s from that particular spill, you know, exactly the coordinates where it went in the sea, which is also the other really crucial piece of information.

Tracey Williams:

Except some companies refuse to say where it went in the sea.

Alex Rose:

Right, so this is yeah, this is like quite a key thing here. Like the reason that you don’t hear more about these things is that it’s not in the shipping company’s interests, right, to publicise widely, how many of their containers are disappearing over the side of their ships.

Tracey Williams:

But I think companies reactions vary hugely. Some are very apologetic. They put their hands up and say, this has happened. We’re really sorry. You know, is there anything we can do to help? You know, can we send people to pick up the cargo from beaches? Can we fund beach cleans? Can we set up a recycling service? And some of the really big companies say nothing. They don’t answer phone calls. They just put up a wall of silence.

Alex Rose:

I understand that in the Nike trainer incident, Nike kind of used it as a, as a marketing sort of technique for saying how durable their trainers were. And Ebbesmeyer apparently used to go around wearing them when he found them. So…[Laughter]

Tracey Williams:

If you saw the ones we found they’re not quite wearable.

Nihal Arthanayake:

No, I can imagine.

Tracey Williams:

We’re still finding these trainers. So again, 24 years on the fishermen are pulling them up in the nets and they’re still perfectly recognisable. They’re covered in marine life; each little, each trainer becomes a miniature reef in its own right. And they’re covered with cup corals and tube worm or kill worm, but they’re all still there. One I found actually had a hermit crab living inside it.

Nihal Arthanayake:

So, at a time where we look way up into the sky and satellites help us see the world, is the only real way to predict what ocean surface currents are doing, is to actually have things on the water?

Alex Rose:

I think probably one of the most significant insights that these two scientists kind of managed to make through the Friendly Floatees, the bath toys episode, is that it allowed them to better understand these kind of large scale circular ocean, current systems, called gyres. That was the model built by Jim Ingraham, who is the fisheries scientist. So he’d built this model originally to use wind patterns, to sort of assist fisheries in their work. With the help of this computer model, they were able to kind of work out that a lot of these bath toys were trapped in this circular current that was kind of going between Alaska and Japan around the North Pacific. And a bit like a Catherine Wheel, or something, every, every so often as these things are circulating some of them escape and kind of drift off. And then that’s when they washed ashore. And they found that there were peaks of when they were washing up in particular places, approximately every three years, which then allowed them to work out like how quickly these kinds of big systems were circulating.

Tracey Williams:

There are actually a number of drift experiments going on at the moment, I think, isn’t there? There’s a University in Germany that’s actually put out wooden drifters. I found one actually on the, on Lindisfarne a few years ago, and they’re just little blocks of woods. And if you find one, you’re encouraged to report it so they can test it that way, record it that way.

Alex Rose:

And there are other kinds of projects that allow us to kind of go beyond the surface as well, because obviously, yeah, this kind of flotsam is mostly stuff that’s kind of circulating on the surface. But probably I guess one of the most significant projects looking at ocean circulation over the last couple of decades is this massive international project called Argo, which uses these specially designed floats, which are kind of pre-programmed there, there’s about well, several thousand of them all around the world. And they’re pre-programmed to sync to a couple of kilometers below the surface, and then they drift on the kind of deeper ocean currents. And then every, so often they, they’re programmed to pop up to the surface again and they’re tracked by satellite. So they, they’re also taking measurements all the time, and of temperature and salinity and things. So scientists are able to kind of have this sort of constant readout of what the oceans all around the planet are, are doing.

This idea, this technique of using things that drift and sort of float in the ocean as, as a way of tracking how the ocean is moving, it has a really, really long history though. I mean, it’s one of those techniques that’s probably so ancient. It’s probably been going on for thousands of years, in all kinds of cultures. It’s really difficult to pinpoint exactly when it might have started, but it was adopted by Western science in, in the 19th century as a technique that could be used in this way. So we have in the Collection an example of what’s called a drift bottle from the late 19th century, which is basically like a tiny little glass vessel with a little message inside. So these things would be released perhaps in their hundreds, in one place and then hopefully washed up somewhere else. And then the hope would be, people would find them, you’d see inside that there was a message inside, break it and that, that would give you information about who to contact if you’d found it.

So yeah, this technique kind of has this long history, but it’s a little bit, I mean, I hesitate to use the word haphazard, but obviously there’s a lot of barriers to these things, you know. So yeah, these kinds of opportunities where, I mean these bath toys, for example, there were 29,000 of them almost in this container. So, it’s this really extraordinary opportunity to gather huge amount of data about the ocean, which otherwise would be extremely difficult.

Tracey Williams:

We’re hoping to do something similar with the Lego because people love to find it that, you know, they do a happy dance when they find it. So we’ve been getting hundreds and hundreds of reports of where it’s turned up.

Alex Rose:

And that information is is really essential for feeding into our, our climate models. For example, because oceans play such a fundamental role in shaping the planet’s climate. There are changes to the way the ocean circulates as a result of climate change. People kind of talk about these sort of catastrophic changes like the shutting down of the Gulf stream and things like that, which would obviously be a kind of massive tipping point. Scientists are still trying to get to the bottom of how rapidly and how extensive those changes might be, but they’re certainly connected. So this kind of research is really important.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Alex, what does the sun and seawater do to ducks and beavers as opposed to turtles and frogs? There’s a question, I never thought I’d be asking a Curator at the Science Museum. [Laughter]

Alex Rose:

Absolutely. Yeah, it is, it is strange that they didn’t kind of react the same. So, the frogs are green and the turtles are blue and they look propably pretty much like they did when they went overboard, but the ducks, which were yellow and the beavers, which were red have completely bleached in the sun and the salt water.

Nihal Arthanayake:

And while we’re talking about beavers and ducks and turtles, et cetera, there is a very serious and quite dark side to this, and that is what the degradation of these plastic goods is potentially doing to our oceans, Alex.

Alex Rose:

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, on the one hand these things are so, they’re so durable the fact that they can be travelling around the ocean for decades. Yeah, I think we’ve become so much more conscious in recent years of the scale of plastic pollution in the ocean and the negative impacts that has on Marine life and the sort of general ocean health. We’ve been mostly talking about things that are on the surface. And I’m sure we’ve always seen stories of these kind of big garbage patches that form in the ocean as a result of these ocean currents that we’ve been talking about. But actually the majority of plastic pollution is below the surface and we can’t even see it. The other thing that happens as well is that plastic does break down over time. And we hear in the news quite a lot these days about sort of microplastics, um so these kind of very microscopic particles of plastic pollution that we can’t see with the naked eye, but gets eaten by marine creatures. Obviously that’s not good at all for marine life, but it kind of comes back to bite us as well because it accumulates in the food chain.

Tracey Williams:

And I think the long-term effect of that’s not known as it at the moment.

Alex Rose:

Yeah, that’s right.

Tracey Williams:

I went down to the beach one day and there were hundreds and hundreds of packets of organic rice cakes littering the shore. So we picked them up in the hundreds and we were contacted by a loss adjuster actually. And he told us that it was part of a spill. And he said at the same time Ikea furniture had fallen overboard and wine, but we only ever found the, the rice cakes. [Laughter] Everything else is still out there. And it makes you wonder when there is a cargo spill, you never hear about all the packaging that went with it. So there’s all the air bags and dunnage bags or presumably there’s an awful lot of packaging that that comes with these cargo spills.

Nihal Arthanayake:

How do you feel about how little is known about the oceans, Alex? Because we feel like we’re heading out into space, but yet we know so little about the oceans, don’t we?

Alex Rose:

Yeah, that’s really true. And as time goes on we’re obviously we’re learning more and more and we’ve got more and more techniques for finding out more and more about the ocean, but there’s also lots of parts of the ocean that are just really hard to access. It’s very difficult to get there. It’s very inhospitable because the pressures are so high. Scientists are using, like, all sorts of new and exciting kinds of technologies and techniques for, for getting to these less accessible places. So, autonomous technologies have become really important in oceanography in recent years, essentially like ocean going robots basically, which allow us to get to places like the floor of the ocean or things like studying the ocean under ice sheets, for instance.

Tracey Williams:

I think it’s really interesting how old some of the plastic that we find washed up from the seabed is. So, sometimes we find toys which are quite datable so not Lego, but things like Sindy accessories that we’ve been able to date back to the sixties and cereal packet toys that were given away in the fifties, which gives an indication of how long things might last at the bottom of the ocean. I think it’s very interesting about how far the rubber ducks could have traveled, could have drifted. And I’d love to know if the Lego could potentially have travelled those same distances. And I’m hoping that in time, as word gets round about the Lego spill, more people will look out for it. I’m also really interested in what was in all the other containers that fell off. When the ducks went overboard, there were quite a few containers that were lost that day, weren’t there?

Alex Rose:

We know that 12 of them washed overboard, but I don’t know what was in the others. So that’s such a great question. It would be amazing to find that out, wouldn’t it?

Tracey Williams:

I’d love to know, yeah.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Thank you. We will let you go now, absolutely, Alex. Thank you very much, indeed, for being part of our conversation today, it was superb. I was fascinated by how science can use something as random as these containers, just washing overboard and say, actually, we can use that…just a bunch of ducks floating on the water, which to the untrained eye would just look, I don’t know, like pollution. But science will say, actually, how can we use this to tell a story about the world that we live in and to understand the world that we live in, just that little bit more. I think that’s fascinating. When we think of course of science as being all about technology, and using technology, and spending millions of pounds to try and understand or know…some rubber ducks, some Ikea sofas and some rice cakes is all we need. In fact, I’m really looking forward to finding a Lego octopus, Tracey, at some point.

Tracey Williams:

Gosh, we might have to wrestle you to the floor.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Okay. So is that a highly coveted piece of debris? [Laughter]

Tracey Williams:

They are described as the Holy Grail of beachcombing finds, the Lego octopuses.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Is that right, okay?

Tracey Williams:

There were 33,000 dragons, but there were only 4,200 octopuses. So they are, highly sought after.

Nihal Arthanayake:

I’ll never look at a piece of flotsam and jetsam on the beach again, in quite the same way. If you would like to discover more stories about the everyday objects around you, all you need to do is visit sciencemuseum.org.uk and search for Everyday Technology. Tracey, thank you as well for joining us today.

Tracey Williams:

Thank you very much for having me on.

Nihal Arthanayake:

Now A Brief history of Stuff is a Storythings / Science Museum Group production. Each week, we feature a different story inspired by the incredible items the Science Museum Group cares for on behalf of the nation. This collection contains more than 7 million items. So one down 6 million, 999,999 to go. It’s a long podcast series, this – illustrating the impact of science, technology, engineering, and medicine in all our lives. As I said, thanks to our guests, Tracey Williams and curator Alex Rose in the Science Museum Group.

The series producer is Will Stanley, executive producer is Hugh Gary, script editor is Ian Steadman. Research for this episode by Alex Rose and Will Stanley, audio editor is Kenya Scarlet. Our artwork was designed by the Science Museum’s design studio. And you can find out more about the objects we’ve featured in this episode on our website. So as I said, one down, 7 million to go.

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