The history of measuring temperature

The Peabody Museum asked for a selection of our historical thermometers to highlight during its week-long celebration of Earth Day. Measuring temperatures has played an important role in our understanding the environment and humans’ impacts on the environment! I couldn’t resist throwing in one of our historical representations of the Earth itself as well.

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

A wide variety of thermometers have been designed over the centuries. As you can see, they don’t always look like the thermometers we stick outside our windows or use to take our own temperatures.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010032.

Antoine Carcano of Paris probably made this wooden thermometer in the early 1800s. It was inspired by the differential thermometer invented by the Scottish mathematician and physicist John Leslie, who was also the first person to artificially produce ice.

The liquid in the two hand-blown glass bulbs and tubing is probably sulfuric acid. The acid moves if the glass bulbs are exposed to different temperatures. The temperature change can then be read off of the handwritten scales, ranging 80-0-98.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.050018.

The famous Parisian company Secretan made this later version of the Leslie thermometer in the mid-1800s. It probably contained sulfuric acid colored with red carmine.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.050018.

During production, the manufacturer would have filled one of the glass bulbs with acid, had a glassblower bend the tubing into the desired shape, and then closed the second bulb! The movement of the acid could be read off of the hand-painted scales, ranging from -15 to +42.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010109.

The French watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet invented this spiral thermometer in about 1817. His company produced the instrument for decades.

It was more sensitive and higher-range than the thermometers which used mercury or air, because it was based on how metals expand and contract in different temperatures.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010109.

The instrument contains a metal coil, on which a needle is suspended above a 360-degree circular scale. The coil is made up of slender strips of platinum, silver, and gold soldered together.

Those metals expand at different rates, which means the coil will twist differently on the scale depending on how the metals react to the changing temperature. Silver expands the most dramatically when heated, followed by gold, and then platinum. The gold acts as a buffer between the other two.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010264.

Louis Casella of London made this brass mercury thermometer during the second half of the 1800s. It is designed to be used horizontally and has a scale divided from -40 to +130 degrees Centigrade. The British geologist Professor John Phillips designed this style of thermometer, it appears by 1832.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010264.
Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.010264.

Phillips included a small air bubble near the top of the column of mercury. The detached bit of mercury above the bubble would get pushed up as the temperature rose. It would then remain in place even after the temperature fell – making it easier to compare changing temperatures!

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object YPML.001408.

In a final nod to Earth Day, I’ll conclude with a historical representation of our pale blue dot which recently joined the collection. Nicolas Lane of London may have made this three-inch pocket globe in the late 1700s or early 1800s.

The globe fits inside a black spherical case, which contains engraved and hand-colored celestial charts of the Northern Sky and the Southern Sky. The constellations are illustrated as mythological figures and scientific instruments.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object YPML.001408.

The globe also has engraved, hand-colored gores. It depicts everything from the routes of voyages by George Anson and James Cook to the Great Wall of China – which I’ve indicated above with a red arrow!

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object YPML.001408.



 

Microscope artifacts with a Darwin connection

On the occasion of the birthday of Charles Darwin, here are a couple of Darwin-adjacent artifacts from our extensive microscopy collection!

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.040789. Lentz Collection.

First, we have a Cambridge rocking microtome and knife from 1899. Horace Darwin (1851-1928), who was the youngest child of Charles and Emma to survive to adulthood, co-founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company in the 1880s. He designed this “Cambridge Rocker” during the same decade – and it was so popular that it was manufactured until the 1970s!

Unlike earlier microtomes, it cut very thin sections of materials for viewing under the microscope by moving the specimen back and forth rather than the knife. The cast iron and brass apparatus is operated by a hand lever, which advances the specimen holder towards the blade. (We also have other apparatus for much more than just microscopy which was designed and produced by people related to Darwin’s company, such as William G. Pye -a foreman who left to form his own company.)

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.040896. Lentz Collection.

Second, we have a set of eight slides connected to the keen Darwin advocate, Professor Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895). In 1875, while Huxley was naturalist to the Geological Survey, his assistant Edwin Tulley Newton (1840-1930) prepared these slides. There are three slides of Atlantic sea bed mud from 2250 fathoms down, which mention Professor Huxley by name. There are also slides of Norfolk Island Pine, two from the Thames Embankment at the Houses of Parliament. Finally, there is a slide of sections through a sea urchin’s spines.

Credit: Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, object HST.040896. Lentz Collection.

Although they are not in our collection, Newton managed to produce the first satisfactory microscopic sections of coal as well, which Huxley used in a lecture at Leeds in 1870. The slide preparator discussed them in his first scientific paper, published in the Geological Magazine in 1875. Seven years later, Newton was promoted to paleontologist to the Geological Survey, and his responsibilities included naming fossils which had been collected and producing lists of them to accompany maps. There are specimens related to Newton’s own stellar scientific career in the Peabody’s collections of Vertebrate Zoology and Vertebrate Paleontology, like these!

Internship in History of Science and Technology in Summer 2021

The application deadline for this internship is February 15, 2021!

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History seeks a motivated Yale undergraduate student to participate in a six- to eight-week internship in the summer of 2021, with Dr. Alexi Baker in the Division of History of Science and Technology (HST). HST has a nationally-important collection of historical scientific and medical instruments, other scientific and medical artifacts, and technologies of all kinds from across more than 500 years. These fascinating objects tell the story of science at Yale since its foundation in 1701, but also a multitude of other stories about science and technology and all aspects of daily life.

The HST collection will have a dedicated exhibition gallery for the first time when the Peabody Museum reopens after its major renovation in a few years. We are in the process of doing research, design, and feedback activities to create this gallery – as well as other related displays, A/V installations, digital resources, social media, publications, and programming. This also involves collaborating with the other galleries and working groups at the Peabody related to the display of manmade artifacts, to the museum’s relationship with communities from the local to the international, and to modern social justice.

The summer intern will be able to make vital contributions to these activities, to be determined not only by our own needs but also by the intern’s interests and previous relevant experience. It would be useful but is not required for applicants to have previous experience related to one or more of the above mentioned activities. This could include, for example, previous experience with history, science, museums, community groups, public communication, social media, website design, or animation.

Being interested, motivated, adaptable, and dependable are the most important qualities for this position! Potential applicants are welcome to discuss their ideas and any previous relevant experience with Dr. Baker before the deadline. Just as an example, the previous HST intern in summer 2020 researched women and people of color and local communities in the history of science at Yale, recorded related oral histories, helped with focus groups for the new gallery, and blogged.

The state of the Covid-19 pandemic by summer 2021 will determine whether or not this internship is conducted partly or wholly in person, or whether it will need to be completed remotely. We were able to successfully and engagingly carry out an entirely remote internship in summer 2020. If onsite work does become possible, this could include work at the HST collection at Yale’s West Campus, at the university libraries and archives and other collections, and with local focus groups and oral history subjects.

Our goal with the new exhibition gallery and other current activities is to communicate the discoveries and technological innovations associated with artifacts in the HST collection, but also “the human stories”. People and communities have been involved in, excluded by, and affected by knowledge creation and other technology-based practices in diverse ways over the centuries. Despite the modern ideal of scientific objectivity, this has included science and technology being influenced by and supporting horrifically prejudiced ideas and institutions – as well as impacting the environment around the world.

We also want to emphasize the global origins, and not just the global impacts, of science and technology. Because the HST collection originally emerged out of Yale’s own apparatus, the majority of its objects were made in Europe or North America. However, many of the types of objects which we have – as well as the knowledge-making and technology-based practices which employed them – have much longer and more global histories. Some of these stretch back millennia around the globe.

Click here for more information and to apply by February 15, 2021!

Talk on magic lanterns on February 4

Our Graduate Research Assistant, Sarah Pickman, is giving a virtual talk about magic lanterns on February 4, 2021! Register for free here to attend through the Peabody Museum at 4:00 P.M. EST (9:00 p.m. UTC).

For centuries, lanterns were a common method of projecting still and basic “motion” pictures for all sizes of group – from families in the home and classes in settings like Yale to packed audiences in giant theaters. They were used for all manner of education, entertainment, and even for providing thrills and chills with the assistance of special effects!

Our collection includes a variety of lanterns and their accessories, as well as hundreds of fascinating “still” and mechanical lantern slides on all different subjects, from across the centuries. (In a previous post, I shared how some of these slides recently helped astronomers to study the Sun’s behavior stretching back to the 1800s.)

Sarah Pickman is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Yale History of Science and Medicine Program. Her research focuses on material culture and British and American early explorations of the Arctic and Antarctica. Her dissertation examines gear developed for these expeditions, and how images and descriptions of exploration were used in advertising, literature, and other media.

Internship in History of Science and Technology in Summer 2021

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History seeks a motivated Yale undergraduate student to participate in a six- to eight-week internship in the summer of 2021, with Dr. Alexi Baker in the Division of History of Science and Technology (HST). HST has a nationally-important collection of historical scientific and medical instruments, other scientific and medical artifacts, and technologies of all kinds from across more than 500 years. These fascinating objects tell the story of science at Yale since its foundation in 1701, but also a multitude of other stories about science and technology and all aspects of daily life.

The HST collection will have a dedicated exhibition gallery for the first time when the Peabody Museum reopens after its major renovation in a few years. We are in the process of doing research, design, and feedback activities to create this gallery – as well as other related displays, A/V installations, digital resources, social media, publications, and programming. This also involves collaborating with the other galleries and working groups at the Peabody related to the display of manmade artifacts, to the museum’s relationship with communities from the local to the international, and to modern social justice.

The summer intern will be able to make vital contributions to these activities, to be determined not only by our own needs but also by the intern’s interests and previous relevant experience. It would be useful but is not required for applicants to have previous experience related to one or more of the above mentioned activities. This could include, for example, previous experience with history, science, museums, community groups, public communication, social media, website design, or animation.

Being interested, motivated, adaptable, and dependable are the most important qualities for this position! Potential applicants are welcome to discuss their ideas and any previous relevant experience with Dr. Baker before the deadline. Just as an example, the previous HST intern in summer 2020 researched women and people of color and local communities in the history of science at Yale, recorded related oral histories, helped with focus groups for the new gallery, and blogged.

The state of the Covid-19 pandemic by summer 2021 will determine whether or not this internship is conducted partly or wholly in person, or whether it will need to be completed remotely. We were able to successfully and engagingly carry out an entirely remote internship in summer 2020. If onsite work does become possible, this could include work at the HST collection at Yale’s West Campus, at the university libraries and archives and other collections, and with local focus groups and oral history subjects.

Our goal with the new exhibition gallery and other current activities is to communicate the discoveries and technological innovations associated with artifacts in the HST collection, but also “the human stories”. People and communities have been involved in, excluded by, and affected by knowledge creation and other technology-based practices in diverse ways over the centuries. Despite the modern ideal of scientific objectivity, this has included science and technology being influenced by and supporting horrifically prejudiced ideas and institutions – as well as impacting the environment around the world.

We also want to emphasize the global origins, and not just the global impacts, of science and technology. Because the HST collection originally emerged out of Yale’s own apparatus, the majority of its objects were made in Europe or North America. However, many of the types of objects which we have – as well as the knowledge-making and technology-based practices which employed them – have much longer and more global histories. Some of these stretch back millennia around the globe.

Click here for more information and to apply by February 15, 2021!

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!

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.