I visited the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard (CHSI) in July 2019 and March 2020. The collection was established in 1948 by David P. Wheatland to maintain and preserve scientific instruments that Harvard University had been acquiring for teaching and research since 1672. As a research assistant in the Harvard Physics Department in the 1920s, Wheatland often saw and handled many unique and unusual scientific instruments, some of which he recognized and matched to illustrations in ancient books that he enjoyed collecting (https://chsi.harvard.edu/chsi-history). Those “foundlings,” as he called those scientific artifacts, interested him greatly. Therefore, he reached out to faculty members to initiate a historic collection of scientific instruments at Harvard.
The Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard has become one of the three largest university collections of its kind in the world, housing items from the early 1400s to the present day. The collection holds more than 20,000 instruments, and a permanent display is available on the first floor, in the main collection’s room. The CHSI is part of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, which promotes outreach and engagement with the local academic community and the public. While collection items are all connected to science and technology, the collection itself encompasses history and art as well, with clear applications to research, teaching, and exhibits for a greater audience, as shown in the collection’s statement (https://chsi.harvard.edu/mission_statement).
The purpose of the CHSI is to serve as a resource for teaching and research in the history of science and technology. At first, the collection was part of the Harvard library system, and the collection has been under the stewardship of the Harvard Department of History of Science since 1987 (https://histsci.fas.harvard.edu). Currently, the collections are managed by faculty members and collection curators, with ongoing new acquisitions (https://chsi.harvard.edu/contact). The CHSI is aligned with initiatives and associations at the campus level, but also in national and international networks (https://chsi.harvard.edu/about/affiliations). Dr. Peter Galison (Joseph Pellegrino University Professor at the Harvard Department of the History of Science, and CHSI Faculty Director) discusses the history of Harvard’s pursuit of knowledge through collecting, teaching, and safekeeping scientific instruments in a short video available on the collection’s website, with highlights on three artifacts from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries (https://youtu.be/lYw7uAijlzM, 25 March 2020).
To visit the CHSI, I suggest that one should start with the permanent exhibit on the first floor, where a selection of instruments and artifacts is presented from the collection. The CHSI is housed in the Putnam Gallery (room 136), on the first floor of the Harvard Science Center building (1 Oxford St, Cambridge, MA 02138), right by the Oxford Street entrance (https://chsi.harvard.edu/visit-us). If you look for directions on Google Maps, search for “Harvard University Science Center.” When I visited the museum, I was traveling from Boston, so I took the MBTA (T or Commuter rail, https://www.mbta.com) to Harvard Square, about half a mile away from the CHSI. In the Harvard Science Center building, there is also the Science Center Café, in the South Wing (https://scictr.fas.harvard.edu/dining). Just a few steps away from the museum, you will find the Plaza, food trucks and live music (https://commonspaces.harvard.edu/venues/the_plaza/plaza-tent), and a farmer’s market open weekly June through October (https://dining.harvard.edu/farmers-market).
The Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard (https://chsi.harvard.edu) is currently closed. A scheduled reopening is planned in the Fall 2021, temporarily for Harvard students and staff only. Before planning your visit, you should check information on opening dates and times on the CHSI website (https://chsi.harvard.edu/visit-us). The main room is not very big or crowded, and it is a little dark, to preserve historical items. There is not an area to check in coats and bags, but you can leave one smaller item by the entrance. In my experience, the room is staffed by graduate students who are happy to answer your questions and provide you with flyers and more information. The online database, Waywiser, is an accessible catalog to explore the CHSI collections and highlights (https://chsi.harvard.edu/waywiser). Additionally, there are CHSI online exhibits, for example “The Interpretation of Drawings: Freud & the Visual Origins of Psychoanalysis” (https://chsi.harvard.edu/current_exhibitions/freud-interp-drawings). During the current pandemic, the CHSI curators have also designed more resources and a website where you can explore digital content and virtual tours of the collections and exhibits (https://hmsc.harvard.edu/hmsc-connects).
The main CHSI collection is “Time, Life, & Matter: Science in Cambridge” (https://chsi.harvard.edu/exhibitions/putnam-gallery), including scientific instruments ranging from natural philosophy, physics, optics, chemistry, astronomy and time-keeping, geology and surveying, biology, physiology, medicine, and psychology, but also institutional and local history. When you enter the CHSI, on the first floor, you will see a grand orrery made by Joseph Pope, a Boston clockmaker, to model how planets and satellites move in their orbits. Pope’s scientific model was the first of its kind made in Boston (to see how it works, check out this video: https://vimeo.com/217997349/9684faa73a). I find the arrangement of visual and textual information in the CHSI to be well-organized and thought-provoking, as the collection casts light on how everyday objects used by scientists can, and do, preserve knowledge regarding the scientists, lab members, educators, and students using them in their research, but also plenty of information on designers, artisans, and collectors.
Harvard history is also illustrated, for example, through colonial science and items purchased to replace the original scientific equipment that had been destroyed in a fire at Harvard College in 1764. While in Europe, Benjamin Franklin purchased and collected scientific instruments – some of which have entered Harvard collections starting in 1765. Visitors can also see President Edward Holyoke’s collection and 18th-century apparatus. Additionally, there are scientific instruments that Harvard scholars applied to military and industrial technologies, and government contracts and classified research at Harvard from World War II.
Furthermore, science applied to technology is evident through mathematics, geometry, and war techniques, for one item that I was particularly excited to see – Galileo’s geometrical and military compass (ca. 1604, http://waywiser.fas.harvard.edu/objects/3608/galileos-geometrical-and-military-compass?ctx=37a9f908-5b7a-4f22-a803-698a85f48ce3&idx=0). Galileo, who was interested in theoretical and applied mathematics, had invented a calculating instrument, the geometrical and military compass, also known as a sector. I am probably partial to this item that I discuss here, as Galileo’s geometrical and military compass was an important scientific instrument that I investigated in my doctoral dissertation on early modern science. The geometrical and military compass has graduated lines that would help users for a variety of purposes, including mathematical operations, measurements, and ballistics. Making instruments was a source of revenue for Galileo, and he also wrote a treatise which circulated as a user’s manual to instruct his students and clients who bought the compass.
While scientific instruments are evidence to the scientists, lab members, educators, and students using them in the past, there are also bigger scientific debates emerging through items such as the 18th-century air pumps. Scientists used air pumps to create a vacuum, thus contributing to discover air pressure, electrical matter, and the structure of matter more broadly, so that the collection label for air pumps presents them as “theory embodied in instrument design.”
Another integration of science and technology is shown in astronomical instruments, models of the heavens, and time-keeping devices at the CHSI. Ways to keep track of time are presented historically, from ancient sundials to special instruments called chronographs. In the nineteenth century, for example, clocks at the Harvard observatory tracked the apparent position of the stars and calculated the time that was, then, communicated locally and nationally. As a result of that shared information, train stations and local villages could coordinate time, and consequently synchronize clocks based on ‘Harvard time.’
The transit of Venus is another thematic section of astronomical instruments with greater implications to understand the heavens and nature. John Winthrop, professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Harvard College, was the only person to observe the transit of Venus in 1761, in North America. When the disk of the planet Venus crossed across the face of the Sun, it was important to track and report such rare astronomical phenomenon, which occurs every 243 years – there are pairs of transits eight years apart, with longer gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. Since it was not possible to see that phenomenon from Cambridge, MA, Winthrop traveled to Newfoundland (http://waywiser.fas.harvard.edu/collections/618/transit-of-venus). The transit of Venus interested astronomers globally because it is such a rare phenomenon, which would also help scientists calculate astronomical distances in the universe, based on relative distances.
In addition to the permanent collection on the first floor, there are temporary exhibitions in the Special Exhibitions Gallery on the second-floor gallery (room 251). I was fascinated by the exhibition on “Visual Science: The Art of Research” (https://chsi.harvard.edu/exhibitions/special-exhibitions), which showcases the importance of visual observations and visualizations in science.
If you are interested in scientific instruments, you can find high-resolution images and an introduction to the collection’s history in Kris Snibbe’s article and photographic essay: “A Collection of Knowledge,” in The Harvard Gazette (9 December 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/12/collection-of-historical-scientific-instruments-continues-to-amaze). For those interested in reading and exploring recent scholarly publications related to CHSI collections, you can find out more on the CHSI website (https://chsi.harvard.edu/chsi_publications). Researchers interested in exploring the museum’s collections can reach out to the museum staff with inquiries, and visit the center’s library (https://chsi.harvard.edu/research). For research and teaching purposes, guidelines are available online (https://chsi.harvard.edu/guidelines).
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Caterina Agostini earned her Ph.D. from Rutgers University (2021), where she specialized in early modern science and digital humanities methods and tools. She is currently a Eugene Garfield Fellow at the American Philosophical Society. Follow her on Twitter: @CateAgostini.