World Smile Day: ten faces found in museum objects

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Today is World Smile Day, a day devoted to smiles and kind acts throughout the world.

Taking place annually on the first Friday in October, World Smile Day is the creation of Harvey Ball.  Harvey Ball is also the recognised creator of ‘the smiley’ face, the bright yellow circle with some simple eyes and wide grin.

To celebrate World Smile Day, I decided to take a quick walk around the new Science and Technology galleries looking for some smiles in our museum objects. Have you ever seen a face in an object? It starts perhaps by noticing a couple of eyes, perhaps a nose and if you are lucky a big wide mouth.

I first came across a small book called Faces about 12 years ago, loved its simplicity and bought it immediately. It’s a photographic book by Francois and Jean Robert, with practically no text inside. In many ways, it doesn’t require any words, as the photographs of faces they have found in many everyday objects speak for themselves. Once captured by the idea that every object hides noses, eyes and mouths – it’s hard to stop looking for them, and hard to stop seeing them.

Not every object was smiling for me today, but I have selected ten technical museum objects that have some good expressions on them, if you look hard enough.

1. Bulging happy eyes on this telephone

Telephone wall mounting, with a hand-generator, made by Sterling of London, 1905 - 1910
Telephone wall mounting, with a hand-generator, made by Sterling of London, 1905 – 1910.

The first thing I see when I look at this wall-mounted telephone is a a wonderful open-mouthed and open-eared face. It’s hard to define it specifically as a smile, but it definitely seems to have bulging happy eyes and seems to me to mimic a face, which considering the function makes sense. You can find this welcoming object in Communicate, on Level 3  of our new Science and Technology galleries.

2. A toothy grin on this Electric Typewriter

'Executive' electric typewriter with bold-face type and dull grey crackle finish, by I.B.M., 1957
‘Executive’ electric typewriter with bold-face type and dull grey crackle finish, by I.B.M., 1957.

You can find this ‘Executive’ typewriter peering out at you from Level 5 of the brilliant Window on the World display at the National Museum of Scotland. It’s not alone, there are three other typewriters alongside it, each with a unique expression. However, I thought this ‘bold-face’ was the most cheerful. I see some eyes in the upper switches, then the keyboard looks like a big toothy grin.

3. An inquisitive smirk on this model

Reute ophthalmotrope model, used at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, maker unknown, late 19th century
Reute ophthalmotrope model, used at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, maker unknown, late 19th century.

I guess the facial resemblance here is intentional, as this model is supposed to highlight some of the movements of the eyes in response to muscles. The curve in the base gives this object a brilliant expression. It’s so cheerful that just looking at it makes my eyes widen and the corners of my mouth start to expand to smile back at it. See it in Enquire, on Level 5 of our Science and Technology galleries

4. A beaming set of measures

Steel wire gauge with forty measures, in fitted oak case, Board of Trade standard used by the City of Edinburgh, made by Sir Joseph Whitworth and Co. Ltd of Manchester, 1884
Steel wire gauge with forty measures, in fitted oak case, Board of Trade standard used by the City of Edinburgh, made by Sir Joseph Whitworth and Co. Ltd of Manchester, 1884.

I had to look a couple of times at this box of measures to be certain that I see a face in it. But the subtle spacers in the lid of the box certainly could pass for a set of eyes, with the measures making a wide set of shiny teeth. See this in Making It, on Level 1 of our Science and Technology galleries.

5. A friendly open-mouthed Edison

Edison loud-speaking telephone. Designe dby Thomas Edison, USA, 1879
Edison loud-speaking telephone. Designed by Thomas Edison, USA, 1879.

In this Edison I see two small eyes, a large honking nose and and open mouth. It even has a hint of a body, with the arm waving on the right and one leg dropped down. What a delightful fellow. Again as this is a form of early telephone, which was connected by the operator, it seems appropriate that there are human elements in the design. Say hello in Communicate, on Level 3 of our Science And Technology galleries.

6. A sweet electric switch

Electric main switch, porcelain covered with large wooden handle, found during alterations to the Scotsman offices, originally wired by The Scottish Electrical Engineering Co. of Edinburgh, early 20th century
Electric main switch, found during alterations to the Scotsman offices, originally wired by The Scottish Electrical Engineering Co. of Edinburgh, early 20th century.

It may say it is currently switched off, but I think the face in this switch from the Scotsman offices looks decidedly ON. With a little open mouth and two sweet brass eyes, it’s one of the favourites that I found on my walk. See it in Energise, Level 5  of our new Science and Technology galleries.

7. Sneering Speaker

Acoustic coupler model AC.350.OM, rectangular wooden box that opens to reveal two speakers, by K and N Electronics Ltd, Maidenhead, England, 1970 - 1980
Acoustic coupler model AC.350.OM, by K and N Electronics Ltd, Maidenhead, England, 1970 – 1980.

The components of a smile seem to be present, but I see something more like a grimace upon this object’s face, as if we’ve surprised it by opening up the rectangular wooden box that conceals the two speakers. You can cheer this speaker up in Communicate, on Level 3 of our Science and Technology galleries.

8. Happy yellow plane

Wing section, part of a flying model 6/10 scale, of the Ferranti Phoenix, built by Ferranti joiners at Robertson Avenue, Edinburgh and used for initial trials work
Wing section, part of a flying model 6/10 scale, of the Ferranti Phoenix, built by Ferranti joiners at Robertson Avenue, Edinburgh and used for initial trials work.

There’s something about this plane that certainly has a happy expression. This may just be a model, but if it were flying above you it does look like it would be smiling down at whoever it passes. Smile up at this wing section in Technology By Design on Level 3 of the Science and Technology galleries.

9. Teleprinter with colourful eyes

Telex teleprinter no. 7 on table with power pack, this was a development of earlier telegraph systems, General Post Office, United Kingdom, 1960s
Telex teleprinter no. 7 on table with power pack, this was a development of earlier telegraph systems, General Post Office, United Kingdom, 1960s.

When you see this Teleprinter in Communicate on Level 3 of our Science and Technology galleries, you’ll see that it is nicely juxtaposed with the bulging-eyed telephone above. Linked to the telephone network, teleprinters were used to send and receive typed messages between offices. Again, it’s nice to see there are some hidden faces amongst this more industrial communication element.

10. A thoughtful robot

'Freddy' the world's first thinking robot to combine an 'eye' and tactile 'hand', University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1970s
‘Freddy’ the world’s first thinking robot to combine an ‘eye’ and tactile ‘hand’, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1970s.

Say hello to Freddy! He currently lives in Explore, on Level 1 of our Science and Technology galleries. As the world’s first thinking robot to combine an ‘eye’ and ‘tactile hand’, he definitely has an inquisitive expression.

Perhaps next time you are in the museum, you should set yourself the challenge of seeing how many faces you can see in the objects on display. If you spot any further ones, then do share them with us.


Communications, transport, industry, engineering, energy and medicine: how have scientific and technological inventions changed our lives? Explore the history of innovation in Scotland and across the world through interactive games and thought-provoking Science and Technology displays at the National Museum of Scotland. 

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