Instruments of thunder and lightning

Yale has been using electrical apparatus in classes and in research for almost three centuries. Students have long marveled at the lights, sounds, movements and other sensations which can be produced by currents and sparks! This has remained true from the colonial period of natural philosophy and of the work of people like Benjamin Franklin – to the Victorian invention of science and of important new electrical technologies from lighting to telegraphy – to modern science in a world which in many places runs around the clock under the power of electricity.

One common type of instrument for teaching with electricity was the “thunder house“. These instruments provided a simple but flashy demonstration of the purpose of a lightning rod and of the destructive potential of electricity. We have at least two historical thunder houses and a thunder obelisk in our own collection.

Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of History of Science and Technology, object HST.010387.

This simple wooden thunder house was likely made in the later 1700s or early 1800s in London. At that time, Yale College tended to purchase unostentatious albeit finely-crafted instruments. It was still a smaller institution with more limited financial resources, not that far from its origins as a modest religious college in a British colony.

If the lightning rod on this thunder house is not connected properly or in other words “grounded”, when an electrical current is run through it, the removable square inlaid into the front will fly off – due to the force of the charge passing around it!

Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of History of Science and Technology, object HST.010442.

We also have this brightly-colored metal thunder house from the 1800s. A demonstrator would put gunpowder at the base of its lightning rod, to show how an electrical spark could travel and ignite. They could also put wool there, in order to show how a properly-grounded lightning rod would prevent combustion. A small bottle of gunpowder would be put inside the house as well and connected to the lightning rod with a chain. If the rod allowed a spark to reach the gunpowder, the force of the blast would make the roof and walls of the house fly apart! You can watch a video of this general type of exploding thunder house from our colleagues at the Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica in Florence.

Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of History of Science and Technology, objects HST.010124 to HST.010126

Finally, we have a thunder obelisk rather than a house, although it operates on the same principles. William Ladd, who was an instrument maker in London from the 1840s to the 1880s, manufactured this wooden demonstration instrument – as well as a number of other instruments in our collection.

The brass conductor which represents a lightning rod runs through the different pieces of the obelisk. If the lightning rod is not connected properly, the electrical discharge will make the obelisk fall apart! You can watch this happen in another video from our colleagues in Florence.

Thunder houses hint at how fun natural philosophy demonstrations in the 1700s and physics demonstration classes in the 1800s could be – with instruments producing all kinds of lights, sounds, and movements!

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Racism in science and Ranke’s bronze skulls

Science has never been a purely objective endeavor, despite that being the ideal. It has always been influenced by the beliefs and motivations of specific individuals. It has also often been shaped by, and in turn shaped, human cultures and societies on a much larger scale.

For example, racism has often been embedded in the sciences which study humans, as well as in medicine, over the centuries. It has sometimes affected the design of experiments, the interpretation of results, and medical diagnoses and treatments. In turn, scientific data and interpretations have been used to try to justify racist beliefs, behavior, and legislation.

A late 19th-century bronze cranium used in anthropology and archaeology at Yale and the Peabody Museum. Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of the History of Science and Technology, object HST.130010.

We plan to explore this in our new exhibition gallery through stories like that of Robert Yerkes, whom I previously discussed. He was one of many pioneering scientists who were also horrifically prejudiced eugenicists, including at Yale.

However, we have more objects in the collection than just those related to Yerkes which date to blatantly racist chapters in the history of science. These are invaluable tools for exploring such important themes, not only in displays but also in teaching and public outreach, as well as for helping to challenge and dismantle racism today.

The numbers on one end of our Victorian bronze cranium. Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of the History of Science and Technology, object HST.130010.

One example is this heavy bronze cranium, which was used in anthropology and archaeology at Yale and the Peabody Museum, from at least the late 1800s to the early 1900s. It is marked “No. 38” and “1299,7 ccm”, i.e. 1299.7 cubic centimeters. Bronze crania like these were used to estimate the space for the brain inside human skulls.

The scientists who used tools such as these, as well as instruments for measuring the human body such as our anthropometers, were of course not all racist. However, racist studies and hierarchical representations of different types of people were all too often a part of scientific and social discourse during this period – including at Yale.

A side view of the bronze cranium. Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of the History of Science and Technology, object HST.130010.

Johannes Ranke (1836-1916), a German physiologist and anthropologist, invented these bronze crania and sent them to “the most distinguished cranioscopists throughout the world” in 1884. Water could be poured into the skulls, in order to estimate the internal capacity of real human skulls of a similar size. Professors including William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), who held the first professorship in sociology in the United States, were also teaching anthropology at Yale using Ranke’s publications.

Ranke’s bronze crania including the one in our collection were still in use at the university until at least 1916. George F. Easton mentioned that year that he had to make alterations to our cranium before using it as a “control skull”, during his comparative study of skeletons from the Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru. He found it more accurate to instead use real human skulls made watertight with shellac, rather than “the unnaturally heavy bronze replica”.

The underside of the bronze cranium. Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of the History of Science and Technology, object HST.130010.

Easton was then the Curator of Osteology at the Peabody Museum. He had also been the osteologist on Hiram Bingham‘s expedition to Machu Picchu on behalf of Yale in 1912. (The Peabody Museum has now repatriated the human remains and most of the artifacts from Bingham’s expeditions to Machu Picchu to Peru.)

Further research into Ranke’s bronze skulls and into the history of anthropology, including at Yale and the Peabody, will give us greater insights into how the nascent human sciences treated different people and populations. It will also help us to better understand how the HST collection can help everyone to comprehend that history and its lasting impacts, as well as to oppose the ongoing prejudice in science and society today.

The top of the bronze cranium. Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of the History of Science and Technology, object HST.130010.

Bones from Bedlam

Archaeology can provide us with some amazing and evocative evidence of technologies from centuries past, as we explored in my previous post. This can range from excavations of historical sites which manufactured technologies or used them on a wide scale, to the discovery of specific instruments which slipped from people’s pockets or were lost in the confusion of battles and sinking ships!

I never thought that I would be lucky enough to have archaeological excavations intersect with my own historical research – nor that it would happen in a cemetery. A few years ago, Museum of London Archaeology contacted me about one of their Crossrail excavations, as I recently related at the 39th Scientific Instrument Symposium.

Crossrail construction for the eastern ticket hall of the new Bond Street station in London in 2012. Credit: Stephen Richards, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

The Crossrail construction project has been building a new 73-mile (117-kilometer) railway line across London since 2009. Since these lands have been occupied for thousands of years, lots of archaeology also has to be done in advance of each stage of construction. This is to try to capture the archaeological record and to preserve artifacts (including human remains) before they are disturbed or destroyed.

Museum of London Archaeology asked me to come see some artifacts from one of these excavations, which they suspected were related to what are today called “scientific instruments”. I have been researching the making, selling, using, and representation of instruments from early modern London for many years. The instrument trade in the British capital was the single largest in the world for about 200-250 years, and it included many famous makers.

Credit: Museum of London Archaeology and Crossrail.

When I visited Michael Marshall and Rachel Cubbitt, and they started to show me finds like you see above, I was amazed! They immediately looked like partially- and nearly-finished bone and ivory components from making different types of optical instruments – i.e. those which employed lenses and/or mirrors, like microscopes and telescopes.

Then Michael and Rachel told me the name of the family of craftspeople they had been able to associate with the excavation site – and I was completely blown away. I immediately recognized the surname, Clitherow, from a unique set of historical records which I discovered while doing my doctorate in the history of science. These were surviving shop account books from the business of the optician and “toyman” George Willdey (baptized 1676 – died 1737).

Closeup of the cartouche on a map of North America which Willdey produced in partnership with John Senex, John Maxwell, and Charles Price – with his prominent dedication to King George I and his trade advertisement below. Credit: Beinecke Library, Yale University.

As you can tell from this advertisement on a map at Beinecke Library, Willdey sold all different kinds of small fashionable luxury goods or “toys” in addition to instruments. He trained as an optician and was the longest-serving Master of the Spectaclemakers’ Company (i.e. optical guild) in the 1700s. He sold and bartered tens of thousands of instruments and instrument components across not just Britain but also many other countries.

However, Willdey also retailed and wholesaled vast quantities of things like jewelry, tea and snuff, maps and prints, and cutlery and chinaware. (If you want to read more about the interesting life and career of this rather flamboyant salesman, you can check out my entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography if you have access, or in my book chapters such as this one currently available on Google Books.)

Closeup of Willdey’s trade advertisement, which illustrates and describes the wide range of wares sold at his shop at the sign of the Archimedes and Globe near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Source: Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Willdey is especially important in the history of instruments because, as I identified during my doctorate, the account books which survive from his business are the earliest known surviving shop accounts from the London instrument trade. They allowed me to research in detail the workings of Willdey’s business and the diverse social and economic relationships behind it.

This brings us back to Museum of London Archaeology’s excavations for Crossrail. It was already extraordinary that they had found such amazing evidence of instrument production, and that they were able to use archives to connect it to a specific family of craftspeople. Then I was able to use the Willdey shop accounts to connect those craftspeople to a specific instrument maker, since Benjamin Clitherow appears in the books as a supplier.

Now we can even say for certain that the Clitherows made the ivory and (mainly cow) bone components for some if not all of the optician’s products – like this telescope! It is rare to be able to identify and connect the different craftspeople and tradespeople who usually had to collaborate to produce early modern instruments. Women as well as men in the Clitherow family practiced turning and thus might have helped to supply Willdey and other instrument makers, just as both male and female Clitherows would make and sell fireworks in the later 1700s and the 1800s.

British engraving of New Bedlam in Moorsfields by unknown 18th-century artist. Source: Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University.

By now, you are probably wondering what all of this has to do with a cemetery. This amazing archaeological evidence of instrument making comes from, bizarrely enough, the former site of the New Churchyard burial ground. This is now recognized as the largest assemblage of bone- and ivory-working waste yet excavated in London.

New Churchyard was a municipal non-parochial burial ground next to Moorfields, which was established in 1569 and used until 1739. It was increasingly known as Bethlem or Bedlam burial ground by the second half of the 1600s, because of the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem and nearby Bethlem or Bedlam psychiatric hospital.

At least four generations of men named Benjamin Clitherow were the keepers of the churchyard from 1635 to 1740, and they were dumping materials from their and possibly other Londoners’ turning of animal bone and ivory in the cemetery! While no one has yet found historical evidence of the family having been censured for dumping , there were complaints about their overcharging for burials and failing to properly bury human remains and about the stench coming from the churchyard….

Some examples from our collection of the types of early modern optical instruments which were made with turned bone and ivory components including spyglasses, microscopes, and pocket-sized “compendia” which combined multiple instruments. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The questionable cemetery management practices of the Clitherow family have opened up an amazing window onto the craft production of early modern instruments, like the examples from our collection you see above! Museum of London Archaeology will be publishing much fuller details of the excavation and of how they think the bone and ivory components were crafted in The Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society. Those of you who are at Yale can also hear me speak about this at greater length and about all of the different types of materials and crafts which went into making early modern instruments on October 21, during a virtual talk for the IPCH. (Contact me or Marcie Wiggins for further details.)

The archaeology of instruments

I recently had a wonderful time at the (virtual) 39th Scientific Instrument Symposium! This included getting to introduce fascinating excavations by Museum of London Archaeology, which shed light on my own historical research.

Archaeology has always offered important and evocative evidence about the making and using of technologies, by countless cultures around the world and over the millennia. Excavations often yield the remains of the technologies themselves, evidence about the places where they were made and used, and sometimes even normally-fleeting materials like related papers.

The technologies illuminated by archaeological excavations include those which people today often call “scientific instruments” – like a lot of the artifacts in our collection. They typically involved some combination of optical components like lenses and mirrors, mathematical components like numbered scales or charts and graphs, and adjacent means of researching and representing the world. These instruments weren’t just used in science but also in all kinds of professions, pastimes, spiritual practices, national and institutional activities, and everyday life.

Source: Museum of London.
Source: Michael Rhodes / Society of Antiquaries.

The instruments discovered during excavations can include one-offs which were lost or discarded. For example, small objects like vision aids were sometimes tossed away when they weren’t going to be repaired or resold, or slipped from owners’ pockets into rivers and middens. The folding bone spectacle frames above from the 1400s were found at Trig Lane in Upper Thames Street in London during excavations in 1974-6. They might be the earliest surviving example of eyeglasses from the British capital.

Sometimes excavations also reveal instruments which were dropped or indeed hidden during times of turmoil such as battles. When British forces raided New Haven during the Revolutionary War in 1779, Yale College itself moved and in some cases buried its “philosophical apparatus”! President Ezra Stiles later noted that the British still managed to steal a “curve glass” and to ruin the first orrery or mechanical model of the solar system ever made in America, by college President Thomas Clap.

Fragment A of the Antikythera mechanism, with its largest gear visible, which is 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) in diameter. Source: Wikipedia.

Some of my favorite instruments found through archaeology are those which emerge like ghosts from the murky depths of shipwrecks, having been used onboard or carried in cargo. One of the most famous examples of these is the Antikythera mechanism seen above, a complex ancient Greek device often described as the first analog computer. It had at least 30 interlocking bronze gears, designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance. Early research into this mechanism was pioneered by the founding curator of our collection, Professor Derek de Solla Price.

Professor Derek de Solla Price with a model of the Antikythera mechanism. Source: Wikipedia.

Shipwrecks have also offered up many of the mariner’s astrolabes which still survive. These metal or wood instruments were more basic and hardy than non-maritime astrolabes, as you can see with the comparison below between a fragmentary mariner’s astrolabe and our Hartmann astrolabe from 1537. This example was identified last year as the oldest known surviving mariner’s astrolabe! It was found in the shipwreck of the Esmerelda, which sank in 1503 off of the coast of Oman, after having been part of Vasco da Gama‘s armada to India.

Source: David Mearns / Smithsonian Magazine.
Source: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.040001.

Here is a really helpful explanation by Dr. Nicolàs de Hilster about how the mariner’s astrolabe was made and used. He says that when using it to make indirect observations of the Sun, navigators would often go below deck with sunlight coming through a hatch – sit down with their arms resting on their knees – and hang the instrument between their legs!

More recently, what instrument aficionado didn’t gasp when underwater video of the wreck of Franklin’s HMS Terror revealed what appeared to be instrument boxes and tripods – still sitting on the shelves of Captain Francis Crozier‘s cabin after 175 years? (You can follow the diver into Crozier’s cabin at about the 4:10 mark of the video.)

A tripod in Captain Francis Crozier’s cabin in the wreck of HMS Terror. Source: Parks Canada.

There have also been archaeological discoveries made related to sites of production for instruments and for their constituent components. For example, centuries-old metal foundries and glasshouses have been excavated across multiple continents. Sometimes, evidence has even been found of individual instrument makers’ workshops or of larger-scale factories.

There have, perhaps most remarkably, been archaeological discoveries of more fleeting “ephemera” related to instruments as well. Specific environmental conditions have sometimes preserved in archaeological contexts everything from paper advertisements to trade tokens. (These of course have also survived in libraries and collections.)

Here is a trade token worth a half penny for John Radford, an optician with a shop at the sign of the Golden Spectacles outside Temple Bar in London. Radford at one point served as the Master of the Spectaclemakers’ Company (i.e. guild).

Source: Museum of London.

As you can see, fascinating evidence about historical “scientific” instruments has emerged from all kinds of excavations around the world! However, I would never have expected some of the most exciting archaeological evidence which I had ever encountered to come from… a cemetery. Read more about it in my next post – and if you are at Yale, you can also hear me speak about it during an IPCH talk on October 21.

Rocking the microscopic world

We have a number of interesting historical objects related to the microscopic study of thin sections of rocks and minerals! From the 1840s on, this helped to revolutionize geology and mineralogy.

Researchers cut and ground rock samples so thin and flat that light could pass through their grains. They were mounted on slides for closer examination with a microscope. These slides were not only scientifically important but also often beautiful.

This slide of hornblende granite, viewed with polarized light, might have been made by the Scottish geologist Matthew Forster Heddle (1828-1897). Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

This Leitz III M petrographic microscope from 1928, is an example of the type of instrument which would be used to view such slides. Petrographic microscopes were constructed with optical components which would not add unwanted polarizing effects. They were also designed to hold special filters in between polarizers, in order to identify positive and negative birefringence and sometimes the mineral order.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.040795.

Here are more examples of the beautiful and interesting historical slides in our collection which would have been viewed with such a microscope!

An exhibition slide of red granite from Cleopatra’s Needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk which was taken to London in 1878. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Paper-covered slides of crystals from about 1850. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
A set of 30 petrographic slides made in around 1876, by the famous instrument firm of Rudolf Fuess in Berlin. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
A slide of agate from the East Indies made by William Darker in about 1840, viewed under polarized light. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Meteorite slides made in the A. P. Karpinsky All-Russian Institute of Geological Research (VSEGEI) thin section workshop. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
A section of Lepidodendron harcourtii, a fossil tree, in which cells can be seen. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Coprolite (ancient poo) from a dinosaur found at Maws Creek, Texas. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Catching flies with honey (and ale)

People often ask if I have a favorite object in the collection, or alternatively what I think is the most important or the weirdest object! I don’t think that it is possible to choose just one of anything from a collection as big and diverse as ours, and museum people probably have a different perception of what is important or weird than most. However, today I would like to introduce you to one of the objects which I was definitely surprised to find in the collection.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010236.

This is a Victorian fly catcher! It is made entirely of glass, and the only marking on it says that its inventor had applied for a patent. Sweet water, i.e. sugar water, would have been put in the bottom of the bottle to attract flies. They would then crawl in the hole in the bottom and presumably either drown or be unable to get out again. This was a common type of fly trap in the 1800s and earlier 1900s, and it could be hung in the air as well as sat on a surface. Here is a great advertisement from about 1880 for a similar fly catcher at the British Library, which suggests that the flies could also be baited with ale:

Credit: British Library.

Our fly catcher was donated to the collection by Professor Sidney Dillon Ripley (1913-2001) in 1964. This was not many years after our founding curator, Professor Derek de Solla Price (1922-1983), first start collecting together what was then called the Historical Scientific Instruments collection. Ripley was an American ornithologist and wildlife conservationist who, in addition to being a curator and at one point the director of the Peabody Museum, was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for 20 years beginning in 1964. He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for that service. As you can see in this brief record which Price made for the fly catcher, Ripley might have donated it to us as an example of “Yankee ingenuity”….

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010236.

This unusual object came to my attention when John Stuart Gordon‘s class came to see an assortment of glass objects from our collection, in preparation for curating their student exhibition A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2019. They did not end up including the fly trap in the exhibition – but they did include five of our other objects!

Students from John Stuart Gordon’s class examine an assortment of glass objects from our collection including the fly catcher at the Collection Studies Center. Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.

The symbolism of early modern scientific instruments

Recently I came across this adorable and intriguing image of a bat, an owl, and a shrew using early modern “scientific” instruments! It is in an alchemical and Rosicrucian compendium from circa 1760 at the Beinecke Library. A lot of people were captivated when I shared this on social media, so I wanted to explain a bit more about the fascinating subject of how instruments were often used as symbols and not just as technologies in the early modern period.

Credit: Beinecke Library.

Optical, mathematical, and philosophical instruments were used in all types of activities in many parts of the world during the 1500s, 1600, and 1700s. These activities included the research, observation, and experimentation which would today be called science. However, they also included diverse other professions and pastimes, entertainment and fashion, empire-building and exploration, war and national defense, and everyday needs such as vision improvement.

Instruments were pervasive tools of early modern life. Some instruments were owned by almost all types of people – such as vision aids, which came in a wide variety of styles and price points and were even hawked in the street. Similarly, even when people did not own their own timekeepers, they would still consult sundials and to a lesser extent clocks in public places. Instruments which were more specialized, such as tools specifically for navigation or astronomy, were still seen all over the place in representations from shop signs to cartoons – and in many cases in the flesh.

As a result, instruments were common visual and textual symbols as well! They served as a shorthand for mathematical and philosophical learning in everything from paintings and plasterwork building decorations to plays and poems. Instruments like globes could also represent material and territorial affluence or being outward facing. We can see an example of these and many other symbolic themes being evoked by the diverse instruments in Hans Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors.

Hans Holbein the Younger painted this richly symbolic image of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve in 1533.

Optical instruments such as microscopes, telescopes, and eyeglasses were often used to indicate insight or foresight as well. Satirical cartoons sometimes made great use of this by having optical instruments reveal and frame their scenes – for example in this image from Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library.

A cartoon possibly made by Samuel Ireland in the late 1700s after an original by William Hogarth, which satirizes royalty, episcopacy and the law through a lunar scene revealed by the telescope. The caption mimics real advertising language which was often used by instrument makers, such as the telescope’s having been “brought to [the] greatest perfection”. Credit: Lewis Walpole Library.

Optical instruments could alternatively be used to evoke the lack of insight or awareness! For example, it was very common to show an aged astronomer peering intently through a telescope and failing to notice that his wife was being romanced by someone else, as you can see in the example below. They were also frequently connected to voyeurism in both European and Asian artwork.

Credit: National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Instruments such as hourglasses and sundials pointed to the passage of time and of mortal life and concerns in memento mori artwork, alongside other common symbols such as skulls and decay. The amazing example below from the Yale Center for British Art employs hourglasses in the memento mori style border of a burial affidavit from 1680.

GT3243 .A3 1680 Box
Affidavit certifying the burial in wool of Mary Harvey of Cambridgeshire in 1680. Parliament had passed acts that required that the deceased in England only be buried in English woolen shrouds, in order to support the national wool trade. Credit: Yale Center for British Art.

The tools of different mathematics-based professions also appeared alongside their users. This indicated their skill in those professions but sometimes pointed to other types of power as well, as in the case of the many early modern Naval men who were depicted brandishing telescopes as other highly-placed men brandished their staffs of office.

This mezzotint shows Thomas Smith Esq. brandishing a telescope in this manner. Smith was Vice Admiral of the White fleet and Commander in Chief of the British forces on the coast of Scotland in 1746. Credit: Yale Center for British Art.

Many types of instruments were also bound up in fashion and luxury, since they could be crafted from expensive and attractive materials, and since vision aids and pocket-sized instruments were quite wearable. Here is an amusing example of this from the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale:

This satirical cartoon, published by Mary Darly in 1772, depicts a stylish young dandy or “macaroni” using a fashionable magnifier known as a lorgnette to examine a more staid elderly man who is using a traditional spyglass. Credit: Lewis Walpole Library.

I am not yet sure whether that great anthropomorphic image from the Beinecke is in fact a satire of alchemy and similar pursuits, with animals instead of humans using instruments to focus on alchemically important celestial bodies like the Sun and on the natural world. I have reached out to historians of alchemy and will definitely let everyone know if I find out more!

Either way, the charming image also aptly evokes the symbolic meanings of common optical instruments like vision aids. Here are examples from our collection of early modern instruments like those which are being used by the bat, owl, and shrew:

These steel spectacles were made in Nuremburg in the 1600s. Early eyeglasses, which had been around for centuries, simply perched on the bridge of the nose (as you can see on the bat) until Edward Scarlett of London introduced “arms” over the ears in the 1700s. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.040802.

The owl in the image may be using either a solar viewer or a magnifying glass. Here is an English solar viewer or transit of Venus viewer set in hardwood from ca. 1760, and a copper magnifier made in Nuremburg in the 1600s. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, objects HST.000006 and HST.040817.

Short telescope
The shrew appears to be using a telescope with just one drawtube – so perhaps the tiny animal is using a small spyglass like this, made of green shagreen (ray skin) and brass in England in the 1700s. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object 040825.

Long telescope
Here is an example of a larger telescope with more drawtubes, made of vellum and horn in Venice in the early 1700s. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.041022.

The Boardman School, Yale, and “Town and Gown” Relations

This is the second of two blog posts about the Boardman School written by Clarisa Merkatz, a Yale sophomore who has been doing great historical research related to our collection since Fall 2019! Read the first post here. This summer, Clarisa was my museum intern, and she has uncovered a lot of interesting things related to the relationship between Yale science and the local community and to the involvement of people of different genders, races, and socioeconomic status in STEM at Yale. You will be reading about these interesting finds in blog posts such as this on the local Boardman School, which was connected to Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School from which we have a lot of artifacts, but also in future texts and media related to our new exhibition gallery.


What did it mean to have a manual training school located directly adjacent to Yale?


The Boardman Manual Training School’s construction completed the educational locus in New Haven known as the York Square “urban campus” that also included Hillhouse High School and Commercial High School. The success of the Boardman School’s manual training program, in which over five hundred pupils were enrolled at one point, meant that space started running out in its building. This led to its temporary merger with Hillhouse, an academically traditional high school, in 1903. Walkways constructed between the two buildings allowed students to take classes in both facilities.


Boardman School Location
This photograph shows the proximity of Boardman Manual Training School, Hillhouse High School, and Commercial High School. Payne Whitney Gymnasium is also pictured. Credit: Yale Manuscripts and Archives Digital Library (RU 703, Record #6554).


These paths also likely facilitated interaction between students from different walks of life. Boardman possessed a seemingly more diverse student body than its two counterparts, partly due to the nature of its curriculum, as well as because administrators relocated so-called “ne’er-do-weel” students from the other New Haven institutions to Boardman. These were students underperforming academically or behaviorally in the eyes of school administrators. Not all students were New Haven residents, however. Some tuition-paying students from local towns also chose to attend. By the second decade of the twentieth century, its urban campus welcomed students from a myriad of backgrounds including Italians, Russian Jews, and Blacks – minority groups often facing public discrimination in the city.


The public school campus abutted that of Yale College, which retained a much more homogenous (male-only) student body until later into the twentieth century. There is little evidence of the two student bodies having intermingled. However, the relationship between Yale and the Boardman School did go beyond physical proximity. Lucy Boardman established “The Boardman Scholarship Fund” worth $10,000 at the Sheffield Scientific School to encourage Boardman students to matriculate there who otherwise lacked the financial means.


Yale and Sheffield professors also gave free open afternoon lectures at the Boardman, that were “not to be overlooked by Yale men”. This popular regular series encompassed a broad range of subjects, from “Explorations of the Deep Sea Bottom” to “Seeds and their Development”. The speaker schedule was routinely published in the Yale Daily News. In addition, Yale’s Silliman Professor of Geology, Dr. Herbert E. Gregory, headed the Boardman’s Advanced Evening School. This was a nighttime study program mandated by the state for all cities of over 10,000 residents. Gregory’s direction is credited with this program’s success and with deepening the connection between the two schools.


shef-boardman lectures feb 16 1898
Advertisement of the Boardman public lectures in the Yale Daily News, 16 February 1898.

As you can see in the advertisement, the important mineralogist Samuel Lewis Penfield (1856-1906) gave a Boardman lecture on “Geysers of Yellowstone Park” on March 23, 1898. Penfield studied chemistry and mineralogy at the Sheffield School and then became a professor of mineralogy there. Here are some of the artifacts which we have from his career – specimens of Herkimer quartz which he identified at the Mineralogical Laboratory of the Sheffield. Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Division of the History of Science and Technology, object HST.040744.


By 1913, the Boardman building also housed the new Boardman Apprentice Shops, a separate educational entity which consisted of twelve departments operating six days a week. Students enrolled there to learn one particular trade discipline, with machine shop practice (45 boys) and the domestic sciences (33 girls) being the most popular. According to New Haven’s then-Director of Education Ralph O. Beebe, 


Its purpose was to offer to the large and rapidly growing number of New Haven boys and girls whom the urge of economic necessity was driving into gainful occupations as soon as the law would permit them to leave school, aid to choice of the kind of work for which they were best adapted, and a direct fitting for that work. It was to serve the further and not less essential purpose of offering an inducement for a year or two years of further continuance in school, with the general education and training that might accompany the special education, of hundreds who were hesitating between school and work, and liable to choose the latter in following what seemed the line of least resistance.


In 1917, the Boardman also became the first trade school in the country to operate a painting and decorating program. Whether pursuing woodworking or bookbinding, the apprentice shop students often worked on projects that benefited the New Haven school system. According to A Modern History of New Haven and Eastern New Haven County, “all the finished material produced and the work done by the apprentices from this school either brings in or saves the city money amounting in the year to between $15,000 and $16,000, a very appreciable portion of its cost of maintenance” (Everett Hill, 1918).


Alfred Marder, a longtime New Haven resident and social justice advocate, enrolled in Boardman’s printing division in his thirties, when most of his fellow students were pre-teens. He chose this route to earn a living for his family, stating in an oral interview with me that, “the school system was really encouraging those who weren’t going to go to college to go to Boardman and learn a trade”. He added that his daughter was born while he was a Boardman student, and so he printed and sent out the announcement of her birth from the school!


Surviving records indicate that Boardman students were generally successful after graduation, either entering the workforce or continuing their education at “the Sheff” and other institutions. Marder noted that, “for the immigrant company from which I was a member, Yale was the pinnacle of success for their children. They knew that if their child could go to Yale that they would leave their present environment and become successful”. However, in 1955, Yale bought the York Square campus that housed the Boardman and two other New Haven high schools for three million dollars, converting the property to university use instead. (Most of that money was donated to Yale by John Hay Whitney, who was then the United States Ambassador to Great Britain.) The Morse and Stiles residential colleges now occupy that land, yet the college websites only vaguely recount its local history.


Although the Boardman School has closed its doors, the Peabody Museum’s Division of the History of Science and Technology will continue to research and illuminate the important roles which it played – including as a conduit between the local community and STEM at Yale and as an institution which afforded a unique educational opportunity to a wide range of students.


If you know more about the Boardman School, including because your relatives went there, please feel free to comment below or to get in touch with Alexi Baker at Yale! We are continuing to collect information about the Boardman and also its association with Yale and to record oral histories when possible.

The Beginnings of the Boardman Manual Training School

This blog post is by Clarisa Merkatz, a Yale sophomore who has been doing great historical research related to our collection since Fall 2019! This summer, Clarisa was my museum intern, and she has uncovered a lot of interesting things related to the relationship between Yale science and the local community and to the involvement of people of different genders, races, and socioeconomic status in STEM at Yale. You will be reading about these interesting finds in blog posts such as this two-part series on the local Boardman School, which was connected to Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School from which we have a lot of artifacts, but also in future texts and media related to our new exhibition gallery. Read part two of this blog post here.


The end of the nineteenth century saw an evolving societal attitude toward science and education that also manifested locally in New Haven. In 1892, city resident Lucy H. Boardman donated $70,000 – the equivalent of just under two million dollars today – for the creation of a manual training secondary school in honor of her late husband, the Hon. William W. Boardman. As a politician, he had served in myriad roles including as Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, as a member of the Common Council of New Haven City, and as founder and Vice President of the General Hospital Society of New Haven (now Yale New Haven Hospital). Lucy Boardman’s donation was remarkable on two accounts: first, for the sheer size and generosity of the gift; and second, for the stipulation that the school include female students. To help see the school to fruition, the city of New Haven gave a parcel of land located between Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium and York Street, and General E.S. Greeley (who had deep ties to the area) donated high-quality electrical apparatus.


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The Boardman Manual Training School at the corner of Broadway and York Square Place in 1907.


Although the Boardman Manual Training School was a New Haven public school, its development was very much a family matter – as was its connection to science at Yale. The Boardman family papers at Yale Manuscripts & Archives (MS 89) include correspondence about this between William Boardman and his sister-in-law, Florence Sheffield. Florence was the daughter of Joseph E. Sheffield, the major benefactor of the Yale Scientific School for whom it was later renamed as the Sheffield Scientific School. From its incorporation in 1847 until it ceased functioning as a school in 1956, “the Sheff” as it was known, became nationally important for its emphasis on a comprehensive scientific and engineering education. The educational framework of the Boardman Manual Training School complemented this pedagogy, in contrast to the curriculum of the humanities-minded Yale College.


full boardman schedule
These were the classes available to the male and female students of the Boardman School in each year of their education in 1894.


The vision behind the Boardman Manual Training School was not to create a trade or vocational school. Rather, it was to include the learning of manual skills alongside the typical “academic” courses. The manual skills included such subjects as mechanical drawing and woodcarving. The Boardman’s first principal, Thomas W. Mather, wrote in 1889 that a manual training school “should be the embodiment of the times”. In this vein, the school offered a general “academic” set of courses alongside a more specialized scientific one. Only boys enrolled in the more specialist scientific courses – and only the girls studied sewing and cooking, which reflected the traditional stereotype that housework was a woman’s task. However, everyone received the same basic education in subjects including plane geometry and chemistry regardless of gender.


sewing boardman school

mechanical drawing class boardman
Classes in sewing and in mechanical drawing taking place in the Boardman School in 1894.


Instructors of the scientific classes aimed to make their curriculum suitable for getting the students admitted to “the Sheff” at Yale, as well to the nation’s other select institutions promoting scientific inquiry. This was an exceptional opportunity for New Haven public school students from different backgrounds, as many other Sheffield students (who came from all over the nation and in some cases the world) previously attended prestigious preparatory schools. In 1899, six out of seven of the Boardman students who went on to the Sheffield even achieved the first division of scholarship! Yale students earned this honor for recognized academic excellence. The pipeline from this unique local school to the university was a success.


There are a wide variety of artifacts from the Sheffield School in our collection representing different disciplines of science, mathematics, and engineering. Here are a few examples:


A brass meridian circle which was made by Ertel and Son of Munich in 1838, and later bought for the Sheffield School’s observatory. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.041301.


The components of a hydraulic cube root machine invented by William A. Granvill while he was mathematics instructor at the Sheffield School in 1894-1910, and constructed by his student E.W. Brown. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.050051.

A wave motion demonstration apparatus made by E.S. Ritchie & Sons of Boston and designed by Chester Smith Lyman in the 1860s, while he was a professor of Industrial Mechanics and Physics at the Sheffield School. Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010392.


Read the second post in this series, which goes into more detail about the unique relationship between Yale and the Boardman School!

Victorian instruments for navigation by triangulation

Edited on 8/8/2020: Many thanks to Janet McClure for providing some corrections to the biographical information about her grandfather, Edwin Pugsley!


Here are two interesting and finely-made navigational instruments from the Victorian period, intended to help navigators triangulate a ship’s course. Both reflect how over the centuries, all kinds of inventors tried to get new technologies taken up for use in navigation. Some inventors were mainly motivated by the potential financial gain, while others did seem to truly want to improve safety at sea and the success of maritime commerce and defense. Most of these myriad inventions did not achieve success.


Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.060002.


The first of these two nineteenth-century triangulation instruments is a Harrison’s coast navigator. This is a silvered brass analog computer mounted on a mahogany panel. It was patented by Norwood Harrison, who it appears might have been a master mariner on English merchant ships.


The coast navigator was sold by Henry Hughes and Son of London, a maker of chronographic and scientific instruments which had been founded in 1828, and which would survive into the twentieth century in different permutations. This instrument does not appear to have ever been very successful.


Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.060004


The second instrument is a Lowry-Bower telemeter, or triangulating calculator for determining the distance of a stationary object or the course of a vessel from two points of observation. It was made by the Lowry Manufacturing Company of Boston and has patent dates of 1887, 1892 and 1896. Ambrose Constantine Dunn of New York took out the last patent on May 5, 1896 (pat. no. 559,689).


Lowry appears to have briefly supplied telemeters to different maritime organizations during the late 1800s, but the technology did not gain much traction in the market. For example, in 1893 the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service heard testimony that the instrument would not be of much use at sea, since navigators could perform the same calculations themselves with relative speed. Lowry published a pamphlet about the instrument with positive testimonials in at least 1896, to try to win over the public and purchasing institutions.


HST_060004 closeup 1

HST_060004 closeup 2
Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.060004

The telemeter has two calibrated five-inch brass discs, divided 0-90 in four quadrants, with fleur-de-lis and thirty-two points corresponding to the points of a marine compass. One disc is fixed and the other has read-outs. There is a carriage designed to slide longitudinally in a groove between two scales calibrated 0-18, both with pivoting brass arms and corresponding scales.


These two navigational instruments came from Edwin Pugsley’s large collection of historical artifacts including timekeepers and scientific and musical instruments. Pugsley was an influential employee of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company then based in New Haven. He also designed sundials and an armillary sphere on display at Mystic Seaport.


Edwin Pugsley standing with one of the instruments which he designed for Mystic, Connecticut.


Professor Derek de Solla Price, the founding curator of our collection, corresponded periodically with Pugsley. In 1960, Price wrote to him about his new professorship in the history of science. He explained that a Mr. Ripley had also donated a large storeroom and workshop to him in the mansion at 55 Hillhouse Avenue, where he could start collecting together Yale’s historical scientific instruments.


Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.


Pugsley donated some of his instruments to us in 1968, including these two navigational instruments but also a microscope by Chevalier and an octant made by Gilbert & Sons of London. Price sometimes tried to convince him to donate more, including by telling him when an alumnus had generously dated an astrolabe made by Georg Hartmann in 1537, perhaps to try to stir up competition. However, much of Pugsley’s collection was ultimately auctioned off when he passed away in 1975.


Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.


You will be able to see almost all of Pugsley’s donations to our collection in person when the Peabody Museum reopens in late 2023 after a major renovation, with its new History of Science and Technology gallery!