20 February 2012

Why the 1948 Olympic torch tells a story

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British Future interviewed Museum of London director of collection Cathy Ross at the thinktank’s launch event, where an original torch was being displayed.

On a day when British Future called for our forgotten Olympic heroes from 1948 to be honoured, Dr Ross explained the history of the iconic torch, and why it mattered.

She said that the 1948 London Olympic torch was a feat of British craftsmanship.  It had to stay alight through all weather conditions, and be cheap for a war damaged Britain to make. But it also had to be something Britain could be proud to display to countries across Europe as the runners made their way from Olympia to Wembley – across the Mediterranean, Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France and finally across the English Channel.

One of the original torches was on display at the Museum of London Docklands for the launch of British Future,  attracting a queue of interested spectators.

“This torch was given to us in 1948 by the Organising Committee of the 1948 games, and, like all of the artefacts of the time it tells you quite a lot about British identity in the late 40s. Its very plain, a functional torch.” Experiments on the design began in early 1947 but, during a time of austerity in the wake of World War 2, “the plainness is no surprise”, said Dr Ross.

However the mechanism inside is less plain. Designed by the government Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the torch carried a spring mechanism that fed flammable tablets up an internal rod as each burnt away from the top; a “device that ensures the flame stays alive.”

“It reminds me of British boffins”, said Dr Ross. “It’s quite a scientific thing that speaks of British boffins and scientific British ingenuity”.

To hear Dr Cathy Ross talk about the 1948 Olympic Torch, watch the video here.

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