Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments


Photos courtesy of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.

Housing items dating from the early 15th century to the present day, including a military compass designed by Galileo and apparati purchased for Harvard by Benjamin Franklin, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments is both a critical resource for teaching and research and a public museum promising to enchant scholar and casual visitor alike.

Established in 1948 by David P. Wheatland, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments comprises some 20,000 scientific implements gathered continuously since 1672. Many instruments in the Collection represent Harvard's own rich history of research and teaching; others reflect the generosity of private benefactors wishing to contribute to the study of the history of science. It is now the third largest such university collection worldwide, and includes devices used in fields as diverse as astronomy, biology, calculating, communication, electricity, geology, horology, medicine, physics, psychology, and surveying. As new inventions replace yesterday's technologies, even modern instrumentation of scientific importance is added to the Collection; recent additions include the control console and other pieces of Harvard's cyclotron, demolished in 2002 to make way for the Northwest Laboratory. Notable pieces from the Collection are on display in three exhibit spaces in the Science Center at 1 Oxford Street (free and open to the public; check gallery hours). Online visitors can browse the Waywiser database for a virtual tour.

The Putnam Gallery is a permanent exhibit (located on the first floor of the Science Center, room 136, near the Oxford St entrance), which opened in 2005 to illustrate the scope and importance of the collection. Besides Galileo's compass and Ben Franklin's purchases for Harvard, this exhibit features "a suite of clocks illustrating the development of modern synchronized time-keeping, medical apparatus designed, in part, by Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Charles Lindbergh), and the artifacts of top-secret research conducted during World War II."

The second floor gallery (room 251) features new exhibitions each spring and fall curated by special invitation. Time and Time Again: How Science and Culture Shape the Past, Present, and Future, curated by Dr. Sara Schechner (and produced in collaboration with the new Harvard Museums of Science and Culture) will debut with an opening reception at 5:30 pm on March 6th, 2013: "We find it, keep it, measure it... even kill it.... and yet, do we really know what time is?" Read more and view calendar of events.

Special thanks to Jean-Francois Gauvin, Director of Administration for the Collection, and Samantha van Gerbig, Photographer & Designer, for information and photos for this feature.

(Posted February 2013.)