The Columns

Antique Scientific Instruments Show How W&L Students Used to Learn

— by on November 27th, 2011

An exhibit of 19th-century scientific instruments on the main floor of the Leyburn Library at Washington and Lee University shows how students used to study physics, chemistry, mathematics, surveying and other scientific disciplines.

Yolanda Merrill, humanities librarian and associate professor, originated the idea for the exhibit after noticing similar instruments on display in the library’s Boatwright Room. “I thought they were very pretty, but I never knew where they came from,” she said.

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Tom Williams, who retired last May after teaching physics at W&L for almost 40 years, told Merrill that many more such instruments lay unidentified and uncategorized in the attic of W&L’s Science Center. “Every physics department has an attic filled with this stuff because physicists can’t throw anything away,” admitted Williams. “Some of the items, like those on display in this exhibit, are well worth keeping and chronicling.”

Williams and Merrill collaborated in selecting items for the exhibit, concentrating on those that were most interesting, aesthetically pleasing and practical. “We had to move a lot of dusty items to get to other dusty items,” said Williams.

Merrill, who acknowledges she has no scientific background, cleaned the selected items for exhibit and prepared captions with the assistance of Williams and Tom Greenslade, professor emeritus of physics at Kenyon College, who researches the history of science

“One thing I learned was that hardly any of these are stand-alone instruments,” said Merrill. “They all have to be attached to something else such as a jar or a pump in order to work. That’s why I can’t do demonstrations with them. But all these instruments do turn and move and you’re allowed to touch them.”

Williams said that one of his favorite instruments among those on display is the Wimshurst electrostatic generator. “This device has a crank handle that you turn and through an arrangement of pulleys it turns and rubs metal discs against a brush and generates electricity, the same way you might in scraping your feet against a rug in winter time and touching a doorknob,” he explained.

Williams added that Benjamin Franklin used an electrostatic generator to make public displays of electrical experiments to shock people. “He would have five or six people hold hands and one touch here and another touch there and they would all be shocked. It was also a popular entertainment to show sparks and how things moved because of electricity,” he said.

He went on to describe how in the 1970s he and Taylor Sanders, W&L emeritus professor of history, took this particular electrostatic generator on tour. “Taylor lectured on the college curriculum in the sciences in 18th-century America, and I did a series of electrical experiments. We would put this item in the trunk of our car and carry it around as part of our show and tell,” he remembered.

Both Merrill and Williams pointed out the attraction of another instrument, Thacher’s Calculating Device, on display in a glass cabinet. “It’s quite fun,” said Williams, “It’s a precursor to the slide rule, which is a precursor to the calculator and the computer. It’s not only historically interesting but pretty to look at. We’ve also displayed the instruction book that came with it.”

Other favorites are the optical devices and prisms displayed in a cabinet near the front entrance. “They are gorgeous,” said Merrill. Williams pointed out that such items are still used quite often in class and demonstrations today. “But they are not nearly as pretty as these prisms, which are French and beautifully made,” he said.

Unable to identify one of the items on display, instead of a caption Merrill wrote “What is this?” on a card. Williams noted that one person wrote that the item was a string model of a hyperboloid. “That is correct,” he said. “It was a way of demonstrating a three dimensional surface by simply stretching strings and attaching them to different points.”

Williams explained that although computer demonstrations have displaced much of what used to be the standard way of teaching, many of the instruments on display could still be used in teaching today. Merrill added that she hopes the exhibit will make students curious as to how people 100 years ago used these instruments to try and achieve the same things students do now on high tech computers. “In a way it was a much more joyful way to understand science,” she said.

Student feedback on the exhibit has been positive. “I’ve had several students tell me that this is the most awesome exhibit they’ve seen,” said Merrill.

Merrill is a member of the University Collections of Art and History committee, and she pointed out that one of their missions is to highlight university collections. “This was part of the collections that was sitting in the dark and unseen and I wanted to bring it out,” she said. She is also creating a website as an online inventory of the items on display that will last after the exhibit concludes at the end of the academic year.

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Sarah Tschiggfrie
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