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Archives for September 2010

Eric Robson's Allen Scythe

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 11:35 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

We're incredibly happy that, tomorrow, Gardeners' Question Time will be putting their own unique horticultural stamp on A History of the World.

The team will be discussing the gardening objects which they each treasure and considering the influence they may have had on the way we all look after our patch of soil.

However, not all their choices have been a force for good. There wasn't room on the object page for all of Eric Robson's thoughts on his fearsome Allen Scythe. But fortunately we have space to share them with you in full here:

An Allen Scythe


In a corner of one of my sheds is a machine which I keep as a rusting reminder of the fallibility of professional engineers and designers. What my object demonstrates is that failure as well as success has changed the way we do things. For me the Allen Scythe is quite simply the worst horticultural machine ever made. OK, a quarter of a million of them were sold between 1935 and 1973 but that just goes to prove that one is born every minute.

I can, of course, feel the vibes already. In the furthest corners of the land men with missing fingers and dodgy backs are muttering and attempting to leap from their bed of pain to the Allen Scythe’s defence. Like the Reliant Robin and the earth closet it has its aficionados. But you wouldn’t want to let your daughter marry one.

So let me put them right. The Allen Scythe was a monstrous and useless machine. To make it start needed divine intervention. It wasn’t just a mower; it was a saw bench, compressor and hedge trimmer, a generator and strimmer. It did none of these things well. It mowed worst of all. Its reciprocating knife blades either ripped grass out by the roots (if you were lucky) or piled cut grass onto the front of the machine turning it into a travelling haystack. It had a very nasty habit of running away and you could guarantee that the moment it did was exactly when the metal rod which released the clutch stuck. In this mode it was particularly good at chewing its way through garden fences.

But to be fair, no machine is all bad and the Allen Scythe has one, inescapable redeeming feature. With its dangerously unguarded blades and eccentric ability to ignore the wishes of the man at the controls it’s perfectly placed to give the health and safety branch of the nanny state nightmares.

I think I’ll try to get mine started which will take about a month.

Take a look at all the Gardeners' Question Time objects on their profile page.

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Rory Cellan-Jones's 100th object

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 16:23 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


What's your 100th object?


Rory Cellan-Jones published a nice post this morning on his technology blog about his ideas for the 100th object in our series.

His choice of a simcard is a very clever one because it gets around having to pick any particular model of mobile phone.

Mobile phones and wifi connected technology, such as the iPad, have been popular suggestions so far. However, I like the suggestions that try and dig a little deeper into their circuitry for the thing that lies at the heart of what they deliver.

The simcard is definitely one of those, but my favourite so far is from James Simcock, one of the BBC’s mobile gurus, who has nominated the IP Packet Switch. It sounds like a con trick from from The Real Hustle but he describes it as “the enabling technology behind the internet revolution.”

Essentially it’s the device that lets your pc or smartphone send and receive data over the internet; chopping huge files into tiny little pieces that can be delivered independently and then reassembled.

The router in your home would be an example of a packet switch. And as most of us know from experience of the little green light fizzing out one day: no router, no internet.

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Weekly theme: Tolerance and intolerance

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 11:41 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


Detail from the Reformation broadsheet


One of the key qualities of being human is that we’re all of us capable of thinking for ourselves. On the one hand that’s a blessed freedom, on the other it has the potential to result in serious disagreement and tension.

This week in A History of the World in 100 objects you’ll hear about how tolerance, or intolerance of the beliefs and faith of others affected the world some 400 years ago.
British Museum curator Barrie Cook, one of the studious minds responsible for the series, sets the scene:

The early modern world, by and large, was not a tolerant place and little value was placed on the eccentric, the uncooperative, the misfit and the outcast. The rulers of the world - monarchs, aristocrats or patricians - generally had a straightforward view about conformity: my way or the highway.

From their perspective, division was a threat to the vital unity of the state; difference was disloyalty and thinking for yourself practically sedition. This is a bit of a caricature, but not much of one.

Yet it was also a world that tested the limits of intolerance and the objects this week all make this point in their different ways.

So what are these objects?

From Iran, the parade standard allows us to examine how the Safavid dynasty created the world’s first major Shi’i Islam state. A miniature painting of a Mughal prince paying a visit to a holy man in India, allows Neil MacGregor to tell the story of how the subcontinent’s largely non-Islamic population were allowed to worship as they pleased by its Islamic rulers.

This was also a period when Islam and Christianity were still spreading and winning new converts. Through two of our objects we’ll hear how this wasn’t always just a one-way deal as local, older beliefs persisted, in different ways, among the new.

A stunning shadow puppet shows how elements of Hindu stories continued to be told in Muslim Indonesia, and a codex map from newly-conquered Mexico shows how the Catholic faith met indigenous customs.

Yet, our final object tells of a less tolerant approach within Christianity. The mass-media of its day, our broadsheet was made to celebrate the rebellious acts of German monk Martin Luther that led to the Protestant Reformation and to the splitting of Christian Europe into two rival factions.

As Barrie explains, the divisions originally ignited by Luther’s ideas triggered Europe’s final major religious conflict: the Thirty Years War. But eventually, with no outright winner emerging, a greater willingness to accept diversity did so instead:

This war would demonstrate that reality has a habit of beating down the most fervent enthusiast and, after 30 years of devastation, Europe began to learn to live with religious diversity. The never wholly absent voices of toleration began to lay down the beginnings of a consensus that a variety of faiths is not necessarily a threat to the state and diversity can bring strength, rather than weakness. Sometimes.

Looking at the world around us now, I can see his point very clearly. Now, just as then, the line between tolerance and intolerance is a fine one, but the effects of either are always food for fascinating debate.

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Community Pick: Ruth Gidley

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 17:03 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010


Objects from the RAMM collection


We’ve been running a sort of semi-regular feature on this blog called Curator’s Picks, where we ask a curator from a museum to write a few words about objects people have put on the website.

This week's curator: Ruth


This week we have something slightly different: a curator who has been asking other people to talk about her objects.

Ruth Gidley is the curator of the Moving Here project at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM). She explains how letting people from the local community get closer to objects in the RAMM’s collection can help the curators get closer to them as well.


When Richard looked at our 14th century puzzle jug decorated with figures of naked bishops, dancing girls and musicians, and an animal’s head for a spout, he smiled and said: “It manages to get wine, women and song in one pot.”

A couple of times a month, RAMM invites a small group to get close to some of the objects in our collections. The only prerequisite for coming along is to have moved to the city from somewhere else, near or far, from Kabul to Kent.

The Exeter puzzle jug


The idea is to invite fresh eyes on the official museum record, which in the past hasn’t necessarily represented all the communities that make up the city that owns the collections.

People who’ve participated in this project, called Moving Here, have come from places including Algeria, Romania, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Others have been approached from Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, India and Jamaica.

Exeter has always been connected to other places by trade and travel. People come to retire by the sea, to study, to work or to be near family. Many of the objects in RAMM’s collections have also made long journeys. The Moving Here project is an attempt to put these facts together and see what the museum can learn along the way.

A couple of sentences can provide a world of context, like a Chinese woman who looked at a picture of ornate incense burners in our World Cultures collection and told us her grandfather had similar ones in his living room, which he used for prayers to the ancestors.

An 18th century wooden stamp


When Anil Lee saw an 18th century wooden stamp used to mark a sign of quality on a bundle of cloth, it made her think of her childhood in Turkey. Rural women there still weave, she said. “My mother had two looms - one carpet one and one for dyed rags to make rugs.”

Most of us find beauty in other cultures, and see parallels with our own. To me, the Moving Here project, funded by Renaissance, chimes perfectly with A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Just as the radio programmes might invite a curator and an artist to give their perspective on an object from the British Museum, each voice gathered in one of our sessions illuminates the object from a slightly different angle. When all the lights are lit, the object shines with a sparkle that brings it to life for anyone else who cares to take a look.


  • The comments collected by the project will be published on RAMM’s new online catalogue.


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History night

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 15:46 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

What are you doing tonight? Nothing much? How about a bit of history then. If you are around in London tonight The British Museum has an evening of events based around A History of the World.

You can hear talks about some of the objects, including the very sweet gold llama from last week, hear how the objects were chosen, or listen to stories. The theme is trade and travel and I might pop down myself for the sea-shanties. I do like a good sing-a-long Though some people would be keener to direct me towards the navigational skills workshop – if I can find it on the map.

However, if you can’t get to the British museum tonight - which I realise is the more likely scenario – may I draw your attention to a whole night of history on BBC Four.  In fact it’s a night of medieval history, including a repeat of Dr Stephen Baxter’s programme on the Domesday Book.

Check out the blog post he wrote for us last month on why the Domesday Book was a tool of political control rather than taxation – as I always thought.

I’m also keen to see Michael Wood’s new series on the Story of England as told through the history of one village.

History indoors and out and about tonight then. Take your pick.

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That mysterious 100th object

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 18:40 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


What is the 100th object?


If you were listening to Broadcasting House on Sunday you may have heard the launch of a new A History of the World feature around the final object in the series.

Have you ever taken a look at the full list of the 100 objects? If you have, then you must have spotted that the very last one, object 100, is just a question mark.

That’s because when they came up with the series, Neil MacGregor and the producers decided that if they were doing a chronological history from 2 million years BC to the present day, then the final object should be from 2010. So they left it teasingly blank.

But now the British Museum has chosen their 100th object and I can exclusively reveal that I have absolutely no idea what it is. Haven’t a clue. They won’t tell me. And not only that, I haven’t found anyone here that does know. I’ve dropped some hints to my colleagues over on the British Museum website, asked them if the museum has made any new acquisitions recently, but they say they don’t know either.

All we do know is that it’s: “An object that tells the story of the ingenuity and the challenges that shape humanity in the 21st century.”

Now that seems to open up a pretty broad field of thought: one object that sums up our lives right now. One single, man-made thing that we could put in a museum with the label: “What it was like to live in the year 2010”.

Any ideas? We want to know what you think. Yes, it’s a classic ‘answers on a postcard’ question. Except please don’t send us a postcard. Instead we’ve made a page for you to leave your ideas - or you can tweet them using #objectoftoday and we’ll pick them up.

Suggestions so far include the smartphone, GPS satellites, the contraceptive pill, batteries and the vuvuzela.

Add your ideas to our object of today page. We’ll also be asking people who pass through Radio 4 in the next few weeks for their ideas and add them to the page.

But who do you ask to kick off something like this? Something that requires a mind which can synthesise the vast array of human achievement and home in on the single thing that defines us in all our multifarious complexity?

You’d need some kind of 21st century Renaissance man. The kind of man who could fill the Albert Hall twice over with people straining to hear his ruminations and meanderings. A man like Stephen Fry, in fact. Happily he was on Front Row last week and we managed to grab him for 30 seconds.

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Weekly theme: The first global economy

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 11:04 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010


A tall ship on the horizon


Today it’s possible to go to most places on the planet and find common ground with the people you meet – cultural references that mean just as much in Lima as they do in London – or buy products you could also pick up in your local shop.

This week in A History of the World in 100 objects we’ll hear how the long process that led to the world becoming truly globalised started in the sixteenth century AD.

JD Hill, Lead curator of the series, explains how our five objects this week show the world coming together as the kingdoms of Europe set sail in search of trade:


The Portuguese reach South Africa in the 1480s and Columbus ‘found’ the Americas in 1492. Within a generation, in the 1520s, Magellan had sailed around the world.

Yet if you were looking at the world in around 1450-60 and you asked the question: in 100 year’s time where will the balance of power lie? The answer would probably not be Western Europe, and that’s why this is such a great turning point.

The world was quite quickly a smaller place, thanks in no small part to Europe’s enthusiasm for shipbuilding – a story told through our mechanical galleon.

The galleon is a symbol for Europe’s new found sense of itself – great princes built great ships and it was these ships that enabled maritime empires to be made.

This is the beginning of the modern world. It’s about Europe’s maritime adventure. All of the objects are, in one way or another, about the expansion of trade and, in some cases, conquest undertaken by small Western European countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As these maritime connections brought continents such as Europe and the Americas together, different cultures encountered each other for the first time and the results were varied

The arrival of Spanish explorers in Mexico led to the destruction of the Aztec Empire, a story we explore through the Double-headed serpent.

In contrast, Portugal’s first encounters with the major West African kingdom of Benin would be of mutual benefit. The Europeans provided, among other things, the brass to craft the stunning plaques that decorated the oba’s – king’s – palace, and commodities such as ivory and palm oil went the other way.

Massive trade across vast distances, requires massive enterprise. So it’s no surprise that in this period we see the first multinational conglomerates emerge. Organisations like the Dutch East India Company, responsible for shipping goods, such as our porcelain elephants, from East Asia to the well-appointed homes of Europe’s elite.

And fuelling, or should I say funding, much of this global trade was silver; mined in the newly-conquered Spanish territories of South America and transported around the world in the form of the planet’s first global currency: pieces of eight.

These infamous coins have been popularised in tall tales of piracy, treasure and adventure but, in truth, their influence on the world at the time was much, much more significant than that.

In fact, they’re still with us in perhaps the most potent symbol of global economics and trade. Pieces of eight were the original silver dollar, which evolved into the American currency of the same name.

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Herding up the AHOW animals

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 12:31 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Inca gold llama

Have you seen today's object yet? It's a small, gold llama and I expect that it will turn out to be one of our more popular objects in this third and final part of the series.

This hunch is based on the reaction to the previous animal objects. The swimming reindeer from the very first week remains one of the favourite objects on the site and there was a similar reaction to the North American otter pipe.

I think the llama is even more endearing than those two - and probably pips my favourite animal so far, which had been the Egyptian clay cattle. Take a look at that face; he looks amazingly pleased with himself, as if he's just been elected head of the pack.

Mind you, anyone tuning into the programme expecting to hear how this little llama was the cute plaything of some spoiled, royal child may have got a bit of a shock because this was one of the more grisly episodes.

I wasn't entirely prepared for the eye-witness account of an Inca sacrifice, involving pulling the viscera, in one long, bloody string, out of a live llama. Perhaps our llama is smiling because he's just heard that it's not going to be him.

It doesn't look like our next animal had a very happy ending either. Without wanting to spoil anything, it seems that Durer's rhinoceros - this Friday's object - was not a natural swimmer.

But I don't want to leave you on a down note. So, in anticipation of Friday, here's a video of a baby rhino just born at Whipsnade Zoo. It's the same species as the one in Durer's engraving: a one-horned Asian rhinoceros.

Aw... he looks completely confused at everything. Can I get one in solid gold, please?

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Weekly theme: Threshold of the modern world

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 09:45 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

Suleiman the Magnificent

Many great stories have what we might describe as a turning point: a moment when a decision or an action means that nothing will be the same again. It's a fairly standard, but very powerful narrative tool.

History is not often so straight forward, but in the first week of the latest series of A History of the World, we find ourselves at just such a turning point.

The time is about AD 1450 and a string of great empires dominate the world but, as lead curator of the series JD Hill explains, things are about to change:

The great powers shaping the world at this time are in some ways similar to the empires we saw in the previous 2,000 years; they're in China, South Asia and the Middle East, for example. But what's about to change is that western Europe - up to now basically an interesting place, but not a driver on the world stage - is going to become pivotal.

Imagine global history as a series of hotspots. These historical hotspots move around, but Western Europe hasn't been one yet. It's at this point that it becomes one.

But, as is more often the case than not in world history, this didn't happen overnight. The process took hundreds of years. Our five objects this week reveal the great powers that shaped the world at this time.

First up is the signature - a tughra - of Suleiman the Magnificent whose Ottoman Turkish Empire, which held dominion over the eastern Mediterranean, was pushing hard into the Middle East and tapping increasingly loudly on Europe's door.

A jade cup - thought to protect its owner from poison - helps tell the story of the Timurids, rulers of central Asia and Iran. While at the other end of Asia, the Ming Dynasty ruled an economically buoyant China, whose experiments with the idea of coin-less economy produced this banknote.

Across the Atlantic a tiny, gold llama helps us explore the world's largest state at this time: South America's Inca Empire, which ruled some 12 million people across 5,500 kilometres of what is now Peru, and parts of Equador, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

In Europe, there was no such dominant empire. In contrast, the continent was something like a bunch of argumentative cousins fighting it out for a place at the top table. The print made by Albrecht Dürer of a rhinoceros explores the new global connections that Portugal and Spain were beginning to create, and the power that the printing press was beginning to have across Europe.

European efforts to establish trade overseas, connected up the world's continents for the first time (think of Columbus setting sail to find an alternative route to the spices of the east and running aground on what would turn out to be the Americas). This seaborne enterprise would bring massive maritime empires to Europe's fragmented kingdoms, and with them great wealth, great power and great consequences.

Without wishing to sound too dramatic, this really is the moment when the modern world starts to look like the one we live in, and things would indeed never be the same again. But that's next week's story.

Summer's gone - but AHoW's back

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 16:21 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

There's no easy way of saying this: the carefree days of summer are over. But though pencils are being sharpened, and unsuspecting children squeezed into uncomfortable new uniforms, it's not all bad... A History of the World is back.

With days to go until the series starts on Radio 4 again, I negotiated my way into the inner sanctum - the scripting room - to find out from Barrie Cook, one of the principle curatorial brains that support Neil MacGregor to produce the series, what we're going to hear about in the next six weeks.

The answer is, after 70 programmes and around two million years, we'll hear about how the modern world we live in was made.

Barrie started off by explaining how the final set of objects - from the signature of a sultan who went by the name of 'the magnificent', to a credit card - took us into an unprecedented age.  

In the first week back we start off in the fifteenth century, which is the last moment when the world is divided into regions, discreet areas like the Americas, Europe, Africa, where different great powers don't necessarily know about each other. By the second week everyone knows everyone else and it's chaos! Global money, trade, exploitation, and massive movement of people, populations and goods like tea, sugar and porcelain.

For Barrie the pieces of eight is particularly well-placed to tell this story:

It's when we become global, and organised for global interaction on a massive scale, for the first time. Everything else comes from it. It describes the uncontrollable nature of money and what it can do to societies.

Telling a story of relatively recent times has its difficulties and differences to those earlier in the series.

A lot of the stories we are telling are not finished. We are often providing a historical insight into something that is still being played out today.

Let's take The Wave, a print made by Japanese artist Hokusai in the nineteenth century, which is still one of the most popular and well-known images in world art. Yet this print also provides a window onto an East Asian country that would emerge as a rival to the dominant industrialised empires of Europe and the USA at the turn of the twentieth century. Fast-forward 100 years and East Asia's seat at the top table of global economic and industrial powers is well and truly secured.

Yet at the same time, exploring recent history has its advantages. As Barrie explained:

We don't have to go into the basics as with the third millennium BC where so much of the history we were telling was unknown to most listeners. We can concentrate on offering different perspectives, and a lot of the stories we are telling are the unexpected ones.

As ever in A History of the World, the programmes aim to approach the past in ways that might surprise many of us.

So, through the brass plaque from Benin you'll hear how the first relationships between Europe and African powers were about trade - not the pattern we often expect. You'll discover how Islamic Indonesia absorbed ancient Hindu traditions into Java's shadow puppet theatre. Plus, through a sixteenth century map, we'll reveal how Spanish Catholicism and local religious traditions were integrated in colonial Mexico.

As we trace the recent past right up to the present day, some of the objects featured in the coming weeks will be unusual, rare and of great complexity. But many others will be more familiar - credit card, tea set, bank note, penny - the kind of common, ubiquitous type of object many of us use everyday in the modern and globalised world they helped to make.

  • A History of the World in 100 Objects returns to Radio 4 at 9:45am Monday 13 September.
  • The photo of the girl looking at the globe is by frenkieb and it's used under licence

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