A distinctive collection of historic scientific instruments gives students a rare opportunity
In these days of plasma screen televisions and wireless computer networks, a visit to Dartmouths Allen King Historical Scientific Instruments collection is a bit like entering a time machine.
Meticulously gathered by the late Professor of Physics Allen King, the thousands of items in the collection are here for students to discuss, handle and, in some cases, even use. The instruments testify to periods of time and ways of thinking that are hard for us to imagine today. Brass globes perched atop hand-blown glass tubes are the principal components of the massive Electrostatic Machine, built around 1850, with which Dartmouth professors could make electricity real for their students by creating miniature lightning bolts and loud snaps as the sparks flew. Fabulously tilted lenses protrude from the wood case of the early 19th-century Lucernal Microscope, where one could view tiny objects on an early projection mechanism. Its purpose was to demonstrate the difference between opaque and transparent items.
With few exceptions, these instruments are indigenous to Dartmouth, explains Associate Professor of History Rich Kremer. They were used by faculty members to conduct research in what was then the field of Natural Philosophy, and to display for students the phenomena of the natural world. Kremer recently taught a seminar for first-year students, Reading Artifacts: The Material Culture of Science, where students examined, researched and described some of the instruments in the collection. The exhibit created by the students is now on display at the Rauner Special Collections Library.
This summer, Dartmouth will bring selected apparatus from the collection together in an exhibit at the Hood Museum of Art for an international conference, Scientific Instruments in the University, funded by the National Science Foundation. Most gatherings of collectors have focused narrowly on the instruments and their makers, says Kremer. The King Collection allows us to examine the thick history of these objects in the university setting, places where they were used by individuals pursuing specific inquiries and where they trained generations of scientists by their presence in labs and classrooms.
Thanks to Professor Kings efforts, Dartmouths collection is one of the most extensive at any North American college or university. So when students today have a chance to use the collection, they are becoming engaged with the material culture of science on more than just an intellectual level.