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>  News Releases >   2003 >   March

Dartmouth's science history on display

Posted 03/01/03, by Kathleen McDermott '03

Tracey Fung '06 and Khanh Do Ba '06 work with an eye muscle model.

Alex Roussos '06 and Krista Pery '06 look at an 1860 Azimuth Compass.
(photos by Joseph Mehling '69)

In the 1760s, Eleazar Wheelock used a surveyor's chain to measure the town of Hanover in preparation for creating the Dartmouth campus.

More than 200 years later, the chain sat hidden away in the basement of Wilder Hall along with thousands of other old, outdated scientific instruments used by the College.

Accumulated over the centuries, Dartmouth's collection of historical scientific instruments is one of the oldest and largest collections among colleges throughout the nation, according to Visiting Curator of Historical Scientific Instruments David Pantalony.

With the assistance of the Hood Museum and Pantalony, the collection is now being catalogued and prepared for exhibition at the Rauner Special Collections Library starting March 6.

The exhibition, however, is organized not by the Hood Museum, nor by Pantalony himself, but by the group of 10 first-year students who have enrolled in a seminar team-taught by Pantalony and Professor of History Rich Kremer, titled "Reading Artifacts: The Material Culture of Science."

Pantalony said he is eager to engage the campus with the collection and to help students increase their understanding of the history of science by examining the instruments crucial in shaping such a history.

Twenty-four artifacts — selected from the collection of more than 4,000 — will be shown, under the theme of "Is It Hot or Not?"

"A lot of the objects look like very common, everyday objects, but have great stories attached to them," Pantalony explained. For example, one of the most mundane-looking objects, a set of ordinary-looking light bulbs, are in fact some of the first handmade light bulbs by Thomas Edison.

Among other remarkable items, the exhibition will show an 1896 X-ray machine that took the first clinical X-ray photograph in North America, on Jan. 20, 1896, in Reed Hall.

"They're actually doing an exhibit. They'll remember this for the rest of their lives."

-David Pantalony

"It gives a new perspective, you get to see the actual instruments that were used in scientific experiments. It makes the subject matter come alive instead of just reading about it in textbooks and pictures," said Anthony Papadopoulous '06, a student in the seminar.

Although Dartmouth has other courses examining the history of science, this is the first and only class to incorporate the hands-on study of scientific instruments into the curriculum, Pantalony explained. Similar in many respects to an art history class, the course involves students in actively examining and describing the instruments. By researching the individual instruments in depth, students are able to critically examine the artifacts and understand their role in history, Pantalony added.

The study of scientific instruments is "a vast and yet unexplored resource for historians of science," he noted. Colleges around the nation are only now beginning to utilize their collections and incorporate them into their teaching. The field, however, is growing, and there is a deep interest on the part of many historians and scientists to further the study of scientific instruments, Pantalony added.

Along with Kremer and Visiting Professor of Anatomy Frank Manasek, Pantalony is organizing a conference at the Hood Museum for the summer of 2004 on these "hidden university collections." Pantalony said the conference will draw scholars from across the world and help to build a network among scientific historians engaged in similar projects.

By then, Pantalony explained, Dartmouth's own collection should be fully catalogued with the museum, serving as "an ideal resource for teaching and research on campus."

For the freshmen currently planning the inaugural exhibit, the hands-on work has motivated them to look further in their research and learning, Pantalony said. "They're actually doing an exhibit. They'll remember this for the rest of their lives."

-Kathleen McDermott '03

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