Scientific Instruments for Sydney University in the 19th Century


By Julian Holland


Reprinted from

Tim Sherratt, Lisa Jooste and Rosanne Clayton (eds),
Recovering Science - strategies and models for the past, present and future
(Canberra, 1995), pp. 83-85

(Proceedings of a conference on science archives held
at the University of Melbourne, October 1992)


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 about what an instrument is and when it was made can often be found out from the thing itself and the accumulated knowledge and experience of the curator.  Instruments often bear names which may 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 &c, 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 set 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?  It is only exceptional instruments that 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 university archives.  For the 19th century, Sydney University has Cash Books and outwards Letterbooks which refer to instrument purchases.  From Cash Book number 2 it is possible to extract information 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 was shown in the conference talk for 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.  Facsimiles of several pages from the two companies' order books were illustrated at the conference giving precise details of individual orders in the 1870s and 1880s.  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 - evidenced 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 illustrated with facsimiles of 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:  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; H. R. Bristow, 'Elliott, Instrument Makers of London - Products, Customers and Development in the 19th Century', ibid., pp. 8-11.

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.




Copyright Julian Holland 1995-2005