To interpret historic scientific instruments there are several
basic questions for which museum curators such as myself seek
answers: What is it? How old is it? When was it purchased? How
was it used? What was the context of its acquisition and use?
Some of these questions are important in cataloguing an instrument.
Others become more important in preparing an exhibition or publication.
It is especially significant when surviving instruments have remained
in the context of their institution of use. In this paper I am
concerned with the background to the surviving collections of
historic scientific instruments at Australia's oldest university.
The University of Sydney has several residual collections of instruments
in departments such as Physics and Psychology.
A lot of information about what an instrument is and when it was
made can be found out from the thing itself and the accumulated
knowledge and experience of the curator. Instruments often bear
names which indicate the maker, the wholesaler or the retailer.
This, in conjunction with the materials and stylistic features
of the instrument - its 'feel' - can give a good indication of
its provenance and age. Sometimes an instrument will bear a date,
a serial number, or a trade label (on the case) with an address,
which can give a very specific date range. Instruments which bear
a patentee's name and patent numbers offer a strong lead for detailed
research. In all this basic documentary research various primary
and secondary references are invaluable; for example, early textbooks
such as Ganot's Physics, original trade catalogues (when
they are available), and the growing modern literature about early
instruments and their makers.
A Handlist of Scientific Instrument-Makers' Trade Catalogues
was published in Britain a couple of years ago. This covered the
period from 1600 to 1914, and was based on the holdings of more
than 100 museums, libraries and other institutions in Britain,
the United States and to a lesser extent continental Europe. Of
the 1570 different catalogues listed, only a single copy was located
for a shade over three quarters of them, 1186. So archivists who
in the course of sorting and weeding scientific papers come across
trade ephemera, catalogues, leaflets, bills and so on, should
recognise that they may be unique even if not of obvious importance
to the material with which they are associated.
Having established the basic identity of an instrument, how is
one to place an individual instrument in its context of use? How
can the instrument be resurrected not just as representative of
a type, but as a part of the past life and work of the university?
Only exceptional instruments will be recorded in original research
reports and can be related to specific uses in teaching or research.
But some approach can be made in reconstructing the role of instruments
in changing styles of teaching and research at different periods.
To begin, one might investigate what can be found in the University
Archives. For the 19th century, Sydney University has Cash Books
and outwards Letterbooks which refer to instrument purchases.
From Cash Book number 2 information has been extracted concerning
the date of a payment, the firm to whom the payment was made,
the departmental vote debited and the amount. Tabulated information
of this kind shows a number of identifiable firms in 1885 and
early 1886. Sydney University was clearly spending a considerable
sum of money on scientific apparatus, and these purchases were
being made directly from manufacturer-retailers overseas.
The information extracted from the University Archives is valuable
but limited. How could a more detailed picture be drawn? Two of
the firms supplying instruments to Sydney University are known
to have surviving archives: Elliott Brothers of London, and the
Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. The Elliott business
began about 1800 and had become a significant concern by the late
1850s when it was run by the sons of the original Elliott and
had diversified its range of products by taking over the long
established firm of Watkins & Hill. The Elliott name has disappeared
with a succession of mergers and take-overs in the 20th century
but a considerable body of archives survives at GEC Avionics at
Rochester in Kent. This material - some Watkins & Hill, mainly
Elliott - contains an extensive series of order books and sales
ledgers from the 1850s to the end of the century, as well as catalogues
and other trade literature. It remains largely unexamined by historians.1
The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company was a new manufacturing
enterprise that began trading in 1881, and grew directly out of
the need for new types of instrument for laboratory work at Cambridge
University, especially instruments for physiology and physics.2
The Company archives are deposited in Cambridge University Library.
In September 1992, with financial support from the Macleay Museum
and the Ian Potter Foundation, I visited Britain, in part to examine
these two collections of archives for evidence of sales to Sydney
University in the 19th century. It proved possible to tabulate
information in the companies' archives to match records in the
University Archives. Most strikingly, there were several orders
from each company made by Richard Threlfall in March-April 1886,
prior to his departure from England to become Australia's first
professor of physics at Sydney University. It is like a timelapse
vision of Threlfall's contemplation of his requirements for teaching
a rapidly changing discipline: physics was undergoing a revolution
from lecture demonstration teaching - indicated in the earlier
orders - to laboratory teaching with workshop support.
The relevance of these English archives for the development of
science at other Australian universities was evident in orders
for Horace Lamb (mathematics/ physics) and E.C. Sterling (medicine)
at Adelaide University. What can we conclude from this evidence
about the role of archives for the interpretation of scientific
instruments? Firstly, that they can be useful - they can go some
way to reconstructing the original context of surviving instruments.
Secondly, the records that survive in proximity to the instruments
- in this case the cash books and letterbooks in Sydney University
Archives - may be very limited in their nature, but with suitable
teasing out can yield valuable information. Perhaps most importantly,
the matching records of the vendors, where they exist, can give
a much fuller picture. The survival of commercial records is an
even more haphazard matter than the survival of institutional
records. For research in the hardware of Australian science the
requisite commercial records will in most cases be overseas, if
extant at all. Some almost unintelligible papers may be a vital
starting point for tracing the sort of links I have outlined here.
Much exploration of archives remains to be done. It is not yet
clear the extent to which surviving instruments can be matched
to these archival records.
1 Two papers given
at a meeting in England in June 1992 have been published since
my paper was presented in November 1992: Gloria Clifton, 'An Introduction
to the History of Elliott Brothers up to 1900', Bulletin of
the Scientific Instrument Society, no. 36, March 1993, pp.
2-7; and H.R. Bristow, 'Elliott, Instrument Makers of London -
Products, Customers and Development in the 19th Century', ibid.,
2 M.J.G. Cattermole and A.F.
Wolfe, Horace Darwin's Shop, Bristol, 1987; and M.J.G.
Cattermole, 'The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company from
1881 to 1968', IEE Proceedings, vol. 134, pt A, no. 4,
April 1987, pp. 351-58.