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Modern Wonders
Wonders of the World is a subject matter I return to frequently. A wonder of the world is just that, something to marvel at. In 1938 Churchman produced a set called Modern Wonders.
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Modern Wonders

We now laugh at the hokey names given many inventions of the 30's-50's

Often I would be travelling to different parts of Blighty and whenever I went into a new town a trip to the library was in order. More than anything else you can tell a town from its library. Everything is there, every socio-economic and demographic indicator will be lined up on those shelves. A library full of Catherine Cookson and Barbara Cartland is a warning that only the foolish would dismiss.

A collection of wonders is like a cultural library in many respects.

The Churchman set is a snapshot of our aspirations and belief in what the future hopes to offer. I am always wanting to compile my own 'modern wonders' set. By the time I have thought of four or five it is quite obvious what the obsessions of middle class western culture is at the back-end of the twentieth century. In that world, small is beautiful, the constant drive for miniaturisation. If it is small, make it smaller.

This set of cigarette cards reminds us that big was beautiful, the cards even came in larger packs of cigarettes. This is a world 30 years shy of a man stepping on the moon and in the jaws of war. Despite the fact someone born in 1939 is only going to be in their sixties, it is a different world they were born into.


In 1939 we had not got to the moon but we had achieved an altitude of 53,937 ft. This was attained by Flt-Lieut Adam by means of a sealed flying suit. Card 4 sees him stepping out of the aircraft in a suit 'made of rubberised fabric.' In two parts, sealed at the waist, as air pressure dropped externally it was maintained internally, with the air being chemically reconditioned. Now of course we have aircraft that skip along on the very edge of space.

Keeping with the space theme for a moment longer, we have cards 36 & 37 which deal with the 200 inch mirror and Greenwich's largest telescope respectively.

Modern Wonders

The 200 inch mirror was the largest mirror, made of fused rock crystal, weighing about 17 tons. It obviously was quite a feat. The first casting went wrong but the second was successful. It was cooled over a ten month period to avoid any internal strains. The mirror was destined to be set up an Mount Palomer (Southern California) where it was capable of making a star 640,000 times brighter than it appears to the human eye. Today it remains the largest succesful single-mirror telescope which is quite incredible really.


From the highest to the lowest. Card 8 shows Dr Beebe's Bathysphere which was built to resist the enormous pressures of the ocean depths. Basically a large ball of steel with two small windows of fused quartz it could descend to a maximum depth of 3,028 feet. The card notes the thing was painted blue 'to render it inconspicuous to denizens of the deep.'

By 1960 the bathysphere concept remained the same but a Dr Jaques Piccard & Lt Donald Walsh attained a depth of 35,813 feet. No mention of the color of the sphere at this stage of development though.

Keeping with the spherical theme for one more card. Card 11 depicts the Dynasphere. Invented by Dr JA Purves it was an experimental motor vehicle. Basically a steel sphere, with the sides cut off, the driver sits in the centre of the arrangement from which point they can drive. Steering was attained by tilting the sphere rather like a bike. Total madness.


Many of the cards have the words 'massive' or 'immense' in them, or words of similar attribute.

Card 13 drags us back to 1939 when it mentions a 'Gigantic Steam Roller'. Just amazing to think a steam driven machine would get into a set called 'modern wonders' as late as the eve of the Second World War.

Things were changing though and card 15 has the 'Giant Electric Shovel'. The card mentions the bucket (capacity 11 cubic yards) was made by Ransomes and Rapier (a case of an Ipswich, UK advertising another Ipswich, UK firm).


We laugh now at the hokey names given to many inventions of the 1930's-1950's. It probably reached its zenith with the 1950's 'B' movies. The mad scientist always had something with a ludicrous name which would save the day. Laugh not. Larger manufacturers of shampoo and the like have divisions of people which just sit down and think up vaguely scientific names for their products and we all rush out and by them, without a single clue what 'glop molecules' are doing to our hair, apart from they make it shiny/curly/silky/bouncy etc etc.

Anyway this set has its fair share of 'zappatrons' Card 21, 'The Ignitron' Tube. By the description it seems to be a mighty close relation to the strobe light, but far better named. Certainly the scientist is grave enough faced to gie weight to this flashing light. The 'photograph' for the card was given by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co USA. Even more impressive then, if it is foreign as well.

By card 22 is another one of theirs, this time the 'High-power grid-glow tube.' This one rather defeats me, it is a tube of mercury vapour which illuminates when electricity is passed through it but is in fact completing an electric circuit, effectively a mighty sensitive relay.

More electrikery follows with the million-volt x-ray tube. X-rays a rather frowned nowadays. I am not sure you would go to hospital and they would proudly announce a million volts of x-ray were going to be passed through you. The card does make mention of the large blocks of lead everyone else is going to be hiding behind whilst you slip of your jacket. I do not know much about these things but I suspect you were better of letting the broken bones mend themselves than get under this thing.

Card 25 combines gigantic and electricity so a sure-fire winner. Again the Westinghouse group; This time they have created a light bulb which appears to be about 4 foot tall and capable of 100,000 watss illumination. The card notes it has never been lit. 'Perhaps it forecasts a lamp of the future' says the card. Not without a lot of sun cream and dark glasses it doesn't.

Westinghouse are at it again, this time (card 29) with the 'Stroboglow' now this is a strobe lamp.

Continued overleaf: Crime, Entertainment and Super-calculating machines

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Related pages
World Wonders
Engineering Wonders

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Westinghouse pioneered Alternating current at the time Edison was pioneering Direct Current. Something of a corporate battle ensued. At the time the US judiciary was looking for more humane ways of killing prisoners. What luck then electricity appeared. Edison put his weight behind the campaign but rather cleverly promoted Westinghouse's Alternating current as the most efficient way of doing away with people. He even wanted to call the act of electrocution, Westinghousing. The AC current was used in the first execution but was something of a 'disappointment' to Edison as the AC method was not quite as efficient as he had hoped. Edison had hoped it would be so efficient that Westinghouse electricity would be forever associated in people's minds with death. An early example of negative advertising.

Saturday, 5th July 2008