Category Archives: Exhibitions

Leeds’ Hidden Visionary: Louis Compton Miall and Magic Lanterns


Professor Louis Compton Miall, Photo by E. E. Unwin

To most current students in Leeds, the name Louis Compton Miall would mean very little. A few might recognise the name from the LC Miall Building, home of the Faculty of Biological Sciences. Our team certainly had never heard of him before we were assigned to create an exhibition on magic lanterns and their relationship with the University of Leeds.

While carrying out research for the exhibition Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern, we noticed that Miall’s name kept recurring. It soon became clear that Miall and his pioneering work with magic lanterns have long been overlooked. His innovations were not only crucial to the development of magic lanterns, but to teaching more generally. More on Miall later, first a quick history of the lanterns.

First developed in the 1600s by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, magic lanterns were an early form of projection equipment, which used a light source and a series of lenses to show images on a much larger scale than ever before. See this previous blog post for a more detailed discussion of the lanterns’ history and workings.

However, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that magic lanterns started to be used widely in education – although in this context they were often called ‘optical lanterns’ instead as ‘magic’ was deemed not serious enough. In a darkened hall, a lecturer would deliver a talk accompanied by slides displayed by a specially-trained ‘lanternist’. This format was used for the rest of the nineteenth century, despite the obvious drawback of teaching in the dark and the difficulty of coordination between the lecturer and lantern-operator.

Lantern Teaching

Magic Lantern in Use During a Biology Lecture
History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects. Object 20: Magic Lanterns

Here, the intervention of Louis Compton Miall was pivotal. He was Professor of Biology at The Yorkshire College and its successor the University of Leeds from 1876 to 1907. In order to display his biological specimens more easily to his students, he developed a more stable and powerful lantern which could broadcast images that were visible even with the lights on. Miall could then combine the lantern with specialist equipment such as microscopes or liquid-containing ‘tank slides’, allowing the live demonstration of experiments to an entire lecture hall.


A Nineteenth-Century Newton and Co. Combined Lantern and Microscope
A. Pringle, The Optical Lantern for Instruction and Amusement (1899)

Professor Miall also altered the set-up of the lantern so it could be operated by the lecturer unaided. He could now seamlessly teach and operate the lantern, without having to interrupt his lectures to communicate to an operator if there were any difficulties. In an article of May 1890 from the Review of Reviews entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for Teachers’, its author summarises the benefits of Miall’s method:

“The most novel and important points are that the slides are exhibited in a well-lighted room, and all the necessary manipulations are done by the lecturer or teacher without any difficulty.”

Today, in the age of the digital projector, most University staff structure their lectures and seminars around a PowerPoint presentation, which they use to illustrate their points and invite wider discussion. This teaching method, which is so taken for granted today, relies on the innovations of Professor Miall in allowing lecturers to control their own presentations and show them in a lit room.

Without Louis Compton Miall, the whole structure and teaching practices of higher education could thus have been radically different. It is time to recognise Miall’s achievements with magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, and shine a light on this largely unsung educational pioneer.

In the Lighting the Way exhibition, we track the evolution of magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, including highlighting the contributions of individuals such as Professor Miall and other educators to the development of the lanterns’ educational potential. Amongst the objects on display are a lantern produced by the famous Newton & Co. optics; various lenses and accessories used in lecture halls, such as an elbow polariscope; and a small sample of the Museum’s collection of around 5,000 lantern slides, including two mechanical astronomy slides.

Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern has been curated by MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies and MA Arts Management and Heritage Studies students in collaboration with the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. It will be displayed in the Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science Common Room on the 1st floor of the Michael Sadler Building from 13 December 2018.

More information can be found on the use of magic lanterns in education at Leeds here.

Good things come in twenties (in HPS)

DSCF3548-Copy-604x1024This week my attention is turning to the contents of the Gillinson Room cases. As some of you might know, starting in January 2016, the Centre for HPS will be hosting a 20-month lecture series entitled “HPS in 20 objects”. At the risk of sounding like an advertiser; this series will use questions from HPS, along with objects from the Museum of HSTM to explore ideas and practices in science, technology and medicine from the ancient world to the present day. The lectures are for a public audience, and will assume no prior knowledge of the objects or subjects being discussed. Information about each object will be made available online, including podcasts and video recordings of each lecture. More information, dates, times etc will be posted here in the coming months:

By happy coincidence the rearranging of cases in the Gillinson Room, along with the new additions brought up from the store, have given us twenty display spaces (plus two that don’t match but will have information about the museum in them). So we will be designing the displays around twenty questions asked by people working in PRHS. We will then explore *some* of the ways these questions could be addressed by our colleagues and/or how they have been tackled in the past.

The challenge now is to come up with appropriate questions which reflect the school and can be answered using our collection. Equally, if not more importantly, these objects (and the accompanying text) need to be interesting, engaging and visual. And fit into our cases – which aren’t huge.

So, a call out to staff and students working in PRHS, if there are any objects which you think are particularly representative of a field or your own work please let us know so we can think about incorporating them into the displays.


Good Vibrations Part Two.

These Tuning fork tests give qualitative rather than quantitative results. It was not until the invention of the telephone in 1876 that quantitative data on hearing loss could be compiled through the use of the audiometer, which was invented by David Edward Hughes just two years later, in 1879.

The audiometer is an instrument that is integral to many of the themes of my thesis on telephony and hearing loss, as an instrument developed from the telephone in order to measure and classify widespread hearing loss, particularly in the military. Despite being developed at the end of the 19th century however, it was not until after the Second World War that it gained widespread acceptance. This is because it became necessary to test many people quickly and have a numerical result that could be compared before and after service in order to award or refuse compensation for noise induced hearing loss. The audiometer had not been taken up previously largely due to practitioners reluctance to use the more complicated instrument when tests like the watch tick test, spoken voice (Smellen) test or tuning fork test were far simpler. Debates over the utility of these tests intensified in Britain after the First World War, when doctors were faced with treating soldiers suffering from both noise induced hearing loss and temporary hearing loss caused by shell shock.

In 1928, the British Medical Journal devoted an article to a report on the issue of tests and classification of hearing, in which various medical authorities held forth on the subject. Mr Somerville Hasting started the debate with the statement that he was convinced that, from the point of view of scientific advance, arbitrary units of hearing must be given up.’ He was met with the response that, ‘ For distance-tests a watch was useful, but the instrument known as the electrical audiometer, while valuable for research, was, he considered, impossible for ordinary clinical use, owing to its complication and lack of portability. Tuning-forks yielded accurate results.’

The endurance of tuning forks may also lie, as M.Ng & R.K. Jackler imply, in their ‘appeal to other for their elegant simplicity’.In my mind, there is certainly something intrinsically satisfying in the process of striking these cool steel devices against a hard surface to create a resounding and resonating ting.

Tuning fork frequency demonstration.

The tuning forks featured in these videos and photographs are just a small part of the wonderful linguistic and phonetics collection held within the museum of History, Science and Medicine at Leeds (HSTM).  In the background to the video and the featured image in this post are a beautiful collection of books describing the dialects of India, which also contain annotations by Professor Daniel Jones, who was one of the people who inspired George Bernard Shaw to write the character of Henry Higgins (Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s Grandfather has also been cited as inspiring this role).  Professor Daniel Jones was involved with the Leeds phonetic department when it began in 1947.

The tuning forks were also part of the equipment held by the department at its inception and they range over an octave at frequencies 256-512 kHz. This indicates that these were musical tuning forks, possibly used to tune instruments rather than test hearing. Modern concert pitch (or international standard pitch) was only established in America in 1939 so it is unsurprising that this earlier British set does not correspond to these frequencies. The forks were manufactured in Sheffield, an industrial town close to Leeds, famous for manufacturing more conventional crockery as part of its steel industry.

These tuning forks are now on display as part of the ‘Hidden Histories’ exhibition, which is situated, most appropriately for this example, in the foyer between the department of philosophy, religion and history of science and the department of linguistics and phonetics. Check out the exhibition to see why they are my favourite thing in the museum and see more objects that other students have a particular affinity with.

Good Vibrations Part One


[1] Newby. H.A & Popelka G.R, Audiology ( Prentice Hall Inc, 1985)p.104-105

[1] J. Blauert, The Psychophysics of Human Sound Localisation, (MIT Press, 1997)

[1] M.Kay, ‘Making uses for telephone instruments: the health, safety and security innovations of medical, mining and military users’ in Inventing telephone usage: debating ownership, entitlement and purpose in early British telephony.

[2] BMJ Nov 17th, 1928

[4] M.Ng & R.K. Jackler, ‘Early History of Tuning Fork Tests’ p.105

Good Vibrations Part One.

‘Theoretically there was no normal hearing power, but practically there was, and was found to vary from 32 to 35,000 vibrations per second. This could be tested by properly constructed tuning-forks, as oculists tested by lenses the normal visual range.’  – Professor Marcel Natier in the British Medical Journal, 1904.

University of Leeds Phonetics Department Tuning Forks.

University of Leeds Phonetics Department Tuning Forks.

The tuning fork is a fascinating object because its history reveals how theories of sound, music, hearing loss and communication have intersected in the past to inform the way we measure hearing loss today. The possibility of hearing through bone conduction by vibrations travelling through the bones around our ears had been discovered in 1550 but it was not until 1711 that the tuning fork was invented to utilise the potential of this discovery. John Shore, trumpet and lute player in the Royal Court, was attributed with its invention as a musical instrument, which allegedly came about because he had split his lip and was unable to play his trumpet.Tuning forks became widely used in music for tuning purposes and for establishing pitch rather than as instruments in themselves because they produce pure tones.

In 1827, Sir Charles Wheatstone was the first to use the tuning fork to assess hearing and realised that when both ears were blocked, sound lateralised (travelled) to the side nearest to the origin of the sound. Wheatstone is famed for his work with telegraphy and for inventions like the Wheatstone bridge and the Cooke -Wheatstone telegraph yet there is less known about his role in establishing standards for hearing testing. He grew up in a musical family however and was for some time apprentice to a musical instrument maker, which may indicate his interest in tuning forks. His interest could be explained further by the fact that studies of acoustics were proliferating in the late nineteenth century, especially as comparative pieces to the more widely studied subject, optics, as the epigraph to this piece also suggests. The late nineteenth century is notable furthermore because it was a time in which measurement and standardisation became of defining importance to science and tuning forks were used in this way to define standards of pitch and frequency, which were then related to speech and to hearing.

Wheatstone’s essential role in developing hearing tests as well as pioneering telegraphy further points to the close link between hearing loss and communication. It is well known that Alexander Graham Bell attributed his invention of the telephone to his work with the deaf and more recently historians like Mara Mills have described how measuring and classifying normal hearing and hearing loss was essential to the development of the telephone network.

The Weber Test.

In 1834, Ernst Heinrich Weber realised that Charles Wheatstone’s discovery could be used to differentiate between conductive and sensori-neural hearing loss when there is either a unilateral hearing loss or a difference in hearing between one ear and the other. This works by placing the handle of a vibrating tuning fork in the centre of the skull. If the sound is heard in the better ear this indicates sensori-neural hearing loss but if it is heard in the worst eat, this indicates conductive hearing loss. This works because when someone has sensori-neural hearing loss, the sound is localised through bone conduction in the better ear but for someone with bone conductive hearing loss the sound travels (is localised) to the worst ear. Although various kinds of tuning fork hearing tests proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Weber Test and the Rinne test were the most common and remain in use today.

Weber test demonstration.

The Rinne Test.

Heinrich Adolf Rinne developed this hearing test in 1855 in order to differentiate between conductive hearing loss and sensori-neural hearing loss. This works by measuring how long the tuning fork tone can be heard thorough air conduction (by holding the fork close to the ear) compared to bone conduction (by placing the handle of the fork on the mastoid).  If the fork is heard longer through bone conduction then this indicates conductive loss but if it is heard longer through air conduction then this indicates sensori-neural loss.By 1985, it was established that these tests were to be conducted by using forks vibrating at C on the scientific scale through frequencies 128hz- 8192 hz. This roughly reflected the frequency at which most speech is usually heard, on a spectrum from 16hz to 20khz.

Rinne Test Demonstration.

Thank you to Anne Hanley and Sean McNally – the stars of the featured videos!

Good Vibrations Part Two


Blauert J, The Psychophysics of Human Sound Localisation, (MIT Press, 1997)

Mills M, ‘Deafening: Noise and the Engineering of Communication in the Telephone System’ in Grey Room, Spring Issue, No. 43, (Inc. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2011) pp.118-14

Newby. H.A & Popelka G.R, Audiology ( Prentice Hall Inc, 1985)p.104-105

Ng, M & Jackler R K, ‘Early History of Tuning Fork Tests’ in History of Otology (The American Journal of Otology) Vol. 19, No.1, Jan 1993 (pp 100-105)

Rees T, ‘Historical notes: a brief chronicle of the tuning fork’, in  Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009 <,&gt; (accessed 20 November 2014]

Geology and the Museum

image1The Leeds based arts group Pavilion hosted an event entitled “From the Field to the Museum: Concepts of time in the artistic practices of Mark Dion” in the Brotherton Library on the 1st May 2014. The lecture is part of a longer series exploring “the geological”. The talk by Bergit Arends addressed works by artist and sculpture Mark Dion, “with attention to fieldwork and re-enactment, set in relation to concepts of time and the Anthropocene” as part of a discussion on nature and culture.

To compliment the event the museum added a small display of objects relating to geological surveying and observation, including a pantograph, a 1960s video camera, a plane-table outfit and a hand illustrated field book from the 1920s. The objects were well received by those attending the event.


If you are interested in more of the School of Earth and Environment collection please visit the display “Earth Education at Leeds: The Whole World in a Ray of Light” in the Earth and Environment Building or read our blog about it here.