Thesis ID: CBB573710314

Getting Down to Brass & Wax: The Material Culture of Physics at Canadian Universities, 1890-1939 (2023)


This thesis explores the scientific apparatus of physics at Canadian universities from 1890 to the onset of World War Two. It is divided into two complementary sections. The first section adopts a collections and material culture approach to analyze the accumulations of historical apparatus that emerged at departments of physics. Through considering how artifacts in these environments avoid destruction, how they come to form collections, and the implications of these processes for the surviving artifacts as evidence of the scientific past, it complicates existing accounts of these narratives. It examines the close and definitive relationship these collections have to their home departments and how they are shaped over time, most notably by technical members of staff. This dissertation concludes that collected sets of surviving artifacts at university departments form a particularly rich historical source due to their shared history, while simultaneously noting the importance of fully considering these collections’ formations and evolution through to the present day. The second section of the dissertation offers a materially-focused history of experimental and practical physics as it emerged and matured in Canada. Informed directly by the material remnants of each university’s physics programme and the discussion in the first section, it traces shifts in thinking about teaching and research in physics relevant to both Canadian and international contexts. This includes the use of imported instruments to establish legitimacy away from scientific centres, the early influence of engineering and technical programmes, the rapid developments in research and teaching in the period following the First World War, and the central importance of department workshops, technical skills, and makers throughout this period. Together, these themes contribute to a history of physics in Canada in which materiality, in the form of equipment and laboratory spaces, played a definitive role. This dissertation demonstrates the ability of large sets of seemingly mundane scientific artifacts help establish a useful narrative history, and reveal new details about less-well recorded elements of the history of science, such as the role of technical staff. As such, it represents a model for future work examining the large quantity of historic scientific material at university departments.

Citation URI

This citation is part of the Isis database.

Similar Citations

Article Greenslade, Thomas B., Jr.; (2004)
Equipping a Physics Laboratory (/p/isis/citation/CBB000650146/) unapi

Article Thomas B. Greenslade; (2021)
American Nineteenth-Century Manufacturers and Importers of Philosophical Apparatus (/p/isis/citation/CBB242529816/) unapi

Chapter Massimo Bassan; Adele La Rana; (2017)
Gravitational interferometers in Italy 1976: a first timid attempt. And a missed opportunity (/p/isis/citation/CBB301389997/) unapi

Article Greenslade, Thomas B., Jr.; (2000)
Collection Profile: Visits to Apparatus Collections II: Transylvania University (/p/isis/citation/CBB000650075/) unapi

Article Marco Cordioli; Grazia Zini; Chiara Beatrice Vicentini; (2021)
Il Corredo “instrumentario del laboratorio di Chimica e Farmacia” nella Libera Università di Ferrara all’indomani dell’Unità d’Italia (/p/isis/citation/CBB536778782/) unapi

Article Greenslade, Thomas B., Jr.; (2005)
Collection Profile: Visits to Apparatus Collections V: The University of Mississippi (/p/isis/citation/CBB000650151/) unapi

Book Wittje, Roland; Heering, Peter; (2011)
Learning by Doing (/p/isis/citation/CBB001024116/) unapi

Article Walters, Alice; (2002)
Importing Science in the Early Republic: Union College's “First Purchase” of Instruments and Books (/p/isis/citation/CBB000650112/) unapi

Thesis Mondschein, Kenneth C.; (2010)
Et hoc scientes tempus qui hora est: Duration, Timekeeping, University, and Society in Late Medieval Paris (/p/isis/citation/CBB001567212/) unapi

Article Cohen, Montague; (2000)
Collection Profile: The Rutherford Museum at McGill University (/p/isis/citation/CBB000650074/) unapi

Article Greenslade, Thomas B., Jr.; (1999)
Collection Profile: Visits to Apparatus Collections I: Kenyon College (/p/isis/citation/CBB000650055/) unapi

Article Kremer, Richard; (2008)
A Time to Keep and a Time to Cast Away: Thoughts on Acquisitions for University Instrument Collections (/p/isis/citation/CBB001024120/) unapi

Book Riccadonna, Gianluca; Tucci, Pasquale; Zaninelli, Mario; Zulian, Marco; (2002)
La Scienza in Collegio: Strumenti scientifici del Collegio S. Francesco in Lodi (/p/isis/citation/CBB000751078/) unapi

Book Pietsc, Tamson; (2013)
Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World, 1850--1939 (/p/isis/citation/CBB001550008/) unapi

Article Viktoria Tkaczyk; (2023)
Early Sound Archiving and the Making of Scientific Resources (/p/isis/citation/CBB028278381/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Greenslade, Thomas B., Jr.
Bigg, Charlotte
Cohen, Montague
Delft, Dirk van
Espahangizi, Kijan Malte
Heering, Peter
Rittenhouse: Journal of the American Scientific Instrument Enterprise
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker, Fachgruppe Geschichte der Chemie
Physics in Perspective
Manchester. University
Franz Steiner Verlag
T. R. E. G.
Fordham University
Pavia University Press
Scientific apparatus and instruments
Universities and colleges
Science education and teaching
Kamerlingh Onnes, Heike
Ockham, William of
Rutherford, Ernest, 1st Baron
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
18th century
20th century, late
Great Britain
Paris (France)
New York (U.S.)
McGill University
Ferrara. Università
University of São Paolo

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment