Article ID: CBB583013797

The Lab in the Museum. Or, Using New Scientific Instruments to Look at Old Scientific Instruments (2023)


This paper explores the use of new scientific techniques to examine collections of historic scientific apparatus and other technological artefacts. One project under discussion uses interferometry to examine the history of lens development, while another uses X-ray fluorescence to discover the kinds of materials used to make early mathematical and astronomical instruments. These methods lead to surprising findings: instruments turn out to be fake, and lens makers turn out to have been adept at solving the riddle of aperture. Although exciting, in some ways this is neither novel nor particularly unusual. After all, lab techniques have been used in art and archaeological collections for a very long time. In fact, scientific instruments themselves have been examined in this way since at least the 1950s. What, then, is special about the use of new instruments to examine old instruments? We argue that the answer has less to do with measuring historical innovation or establishing priority, and more to do with networks of craft know-how that, typically, have left no other historical traces than those embodied in surviving instruments themselves. We show, in particular, how collections of objects can be mobilised within wider histories of knowledge, placing instruments within a dynamic interplay of craft knowledge, expertise, labour, commerce, and material exchange, over the longue durée. Finally, we suggest that these kinds of lab analyses can be given an extra dimension through the use of computational modelling, and we introduce the “Tools of Knowledge” project, which is designed to bring together XRF with techniques from the digital humanities, in order to tell a new story about the development of scientific instruments from the 16th to the 20th century.

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Article Martin Grünfeld; Karin Tybjerg (2023) Collections, Knowledge, and Time. Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (pp. 213-234). unapi

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Authors & Contributors
Bilak, Donna
Braga, Marco
Burke, Peter
Cretney, Rosanna
Dalen, Benno van
Ellison, Katherine
History of Psychology
Technology and Culture
Ambix: Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
American Historical Review
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science
Bloomsbury Academic
Columbia University Press
Virginia Polytechnic Institute
The MIT Press
Digital humanities
Historical method
Crafts and craftspeople
Social networks
Morland, Samuel
Wilkins, John
Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain
Time Periods
21st century
Early modern
20th century, late
16th century
17th century
18th century
Great Britain
Florence (Italy)
Gotha (Germany)
Royal Society of London
National Library of Medicine (U.S.)
Wolfenbüttel. Herzog August Bibliothek
Linda Hall Library
Galleria degli Uffizi (Florence)

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