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Science Museum Group

With Christmas approaching, Harriet Jackson explores some of the stories behind the toys in the Science Museum Group Collection.

At Christmas many of us are left searching for the perfect presents.

While most of us won’t be as laden down as this young man, toys are big business at this time of year.

In 1991, the Game Boy was the most popular Christmas toy in the UK; a decade earlier the Rubik’s Cube had been the bestseller.

Magic Cube, made in 1978, later sold by Ideal Toy as Rubik's Cube
Magic Cube, made in 1978, later sold by Ideal Toy as Rubik’s Cube

Many of us have our own treasured childhood toys (Yellow Teddy, my childhood favourite, still holds a special place in my heart), but how many of us expect these everyday objects to end up in a museum, particularly a science museum?

So perhaps it is surprising to learn that there are hundreds of toys in the Science Museum Group Collection. Each has its own story of how and why it came to be here.

Toys are an important part of scientific and medical practice.

This toy set is used as part of the Symbolic Play Test. This assessment is used with children from around 1 – 3 years old to see how their language skills are developing. It doesn’t actually assess how well children can speak. Their interactions with the toys are used to see how much they understand the world around them. It’s assessing the skills that come before and develop alongside speech.

In the 1940s, Margaret Lowenfeld, a British paediatrician and psychiatrist, pioneered using toys when working with children. She understood that using play could be more effective than just talking to young children and used a wide range of toys in her work.

Some of these toys are on display in the Science Museum’s Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries.

Toys used for Lowenfeld's 'World Technique' therapy
A selection of toys used for Lowenfeld’s ‘World Technique’ therapyy, now part of the Science Museum Group Collection

For many children, toys are also one of their first introductions to the excitement and potential of science. Using objects to engage children with science has a long history.

In Victorian schools, object lessons were a common way to teach science. Teachers either used objects found in their surroundings, like pebbles and feathers, or pre-prepared object lesson boxes. Children could look and feel the objects – learning about the objects themselves and the wider world.

Science education toys also move with the times. This toy computer was sold in the 1960s and was a way for children to begin to learn programming. It’s hard to imagine now that programming could be learned from a plastic model of a computer. But as much as anything this toy taught the logic that programming requires.

Photograph of First plastic operational computer.
DIGI-COMP 1 Model 101, First plastic operational computer.

It introduced children to binary numbers and by moving the logic tubes, children could programme the Digi Comp 1 to do a range of things.

This included addition, subtraction and answering riddles. At a time when computers were enormous, expensive and inaccessible to most people, this toy got children excited about and familiar with computing.

Celluloid toy in form of red devil.
Celluloid toy in form of red devil.

The little guy above is scientifically interesting because of the material he’s made of. Humans have been using natural plastics like keratin in animal horns and rubber for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that the first semi-synthetic plastics were developed.

Alexander Parkes invented Parkesine in 1862 and it’s this material, also called celluloid, which this toy devil is made of.

Celluloid had a wide range of different uses from making combs that looked like tortoiseshell to film for still photography and motion pictures. Therefore, this small and unassuming toy represents an important development in the materials we use.

We also make toys to remember important events, including those related to science.

Donald Campbell followed in his father Sir Malcolm Campbell’s footsteps and devoted his life to setting world speed records. Between 1955 and 1964, Donald Campbell set seven world speed records on both land and water. In 1964, he became the first person to set both a new land and water speed record in the same year.

Model (Scale 1:25, approx.) of the 1956 designed Bluebird CN7 racing car, by Cherilea UK Limited. The actual Bluebird car was made for an attempt on the World Land Speed Record in 1960.

This toy model of his Bluebird car was made in 1960 and is a scale model of the car Campbell used when he set his land speed record of 403.1 mph in 1964. Who wouldn’t have wanted to imagine they were recreating that feat at home?

Toys really are an everyday wonder and as the toys in our collection show, they can tell an awful lot of different stories, from cutting-edge chemistry to teaching the fundamental logic of computer programming.

So next time you look at the toys in your home or the shelves this Christmas, think about the science that goes into them and what they represent.


To see more toys from the Science Museum Group Collection, check out: