This attractive piece from the collection of the School of Physics and Astronomy is a differential hygrometer, an instrument used for measuring the humidity of the air. The dedication plaque on the box announces that it was presented to Charles Piazzi Smyth in 1836. Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) would later serve as the Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1846 until 1888, but at this time he was just 17 years old and working at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope as an observatory assistant.
Hygrometers were an important part of an astronomer’s tool kit as they allowed one to calculate the dew point, the temperature at which moisture condenses out of the air, leaving it clearer. This allowed for more accurate and precise observations of stars, the light from which was otherwise distorted by refraction in the atmosphere. This one probably worked by measuring the difference between the outside temperature, on the standard thermometer, and the temperature recorded on the u-bend thermometer. This latter reading was attained by keeping the cloth over one of the bulbs wet; the evaporation of the moisture would lower the temperature, and the difference would allow the user to determine the relative humidity of the air by use of a set of tables.
The hygrometer was made by Adie and Sons, Edinburgh, prolific manufacturers of scientific instruments. It is likely that this instrument travelled with Piazzi Smyth to South Africa, and may have been used on his local expeditions around the area. The two carry handles on the box suggest that it may have been intended to be portable, implying an untold story of a roving instrument used by an astronomer who frequently travelled beyond the confines of the observatory. How it ended up in Leeds is still uncertain, but, as Piazzi Smyth lived quite close to Leeds during his retirement in Ripon, it is possible that it was either acquired by a member of staff when his possessions were auctioned off after his death, or even presented personally to the department back when it was still part of the federal Victoria University.
UPDATE: You can view the finished video on our YouTube channel here.
When Mike’s back I’ll be filming him on the Newlyn-Philips machine, and Emily will be doing her short introduction, the transcript of which she has posted below. I will then put the pieces together, edit where necessary, and we will have 8 short videos to go up on our YouTube channel.
This should be a nice project to coincide with the installation of the exhibit in the Sadler building. If anyone has any other objects they want to do, please let me know, because I’m hoping this can be an ongoing, on-growing part of the museum which will serve to consolidate and strengthen our online presence.
UPDATE: You can view all of these 1 minute videos on our YouTube channel here.
The collection of historical scientific instruments held by the Physics Department at the University of Leeds is eclectic and diverse, ranging from instruments used by William and Lawrence Bragg to a wonderful collection of mechanical calculators and almost everything in between. One of the more obscure objects in the collection is a Siemens Brothers (London) Condenser No. 2 Mark II, now commonly referred to as a capacitor. There is a wide selection of capacitors squirrelled away in the Physics collection and this one would not stand out amongst them but for further information on its provenance.
A large paper label upon the side of this object states this capacitor was tested against standard instruments by the Wireless Testing Department at HMS Vernon, this being somewhat surprisingly not a vessel but a torpedo training school based in Portsmouth. The label is signed and dated although this is very hard to read – the year may be 1905 or 1908 with the latter being more probable. HMS Vernon was also the site of the initial wireless tests done with Marconi wireless apparatus by the Royal Navy in 1899 and hence would play a role in the world’s first commercial wireless contract, between the Marconi Company and the Admiralty.
This surprisingly ordinary object can be used to spin many a tale, of the early development of wireless in Britain or of shared apparatus between cable and wireless telegraphy. But the story I wish to tell with this object is less readily answered – how did this object come to be in the Physics Department at Leeds University? To be sure, condensers were commonly used in Physics teaching and research in the early twentieth century and indeed the Physics Department holds many a condenser. But what I want to talk about when I talk about this object is the transmission of knowledge between the spheres of physics, technology, and commerce. Condensers were an outcome of physical experiments and, through telegraphy and other practical electrical systems, came to be used in a diverse range of technological systems including commercial wireless. And then for some reason, possibly obsolescence, this piece of apparatus is no longer needed and ends up in the Leeds University Physics Department where it is used to teach and possibly form the basic of further experiments used to develop more technologies. And so the cycle of experimentation, innovation, and knowledge transmissions continues.
UPDATED: You can view my short video about the condenser on YouTube here.
Please could everyone post their thoughts on their chosen object as soon as possible please? I’m going to try and draft an introductory text panel (150words) sometime this week, and it would be really helpful to be able to refer to the objects as much as possible.
Michael suggested I did a minute film introducing the museum – using Dominic’s word count, for what might constitute a minute’s worth of film, this is what I’ve come up with. Please let me know what you think. Michael, when would be a good time to do this?
‘My name is Dr Emily Winterburn and I am the curator at the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Museum at the University of Leeds. We are a new museum, based in the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science and our collections are formed mainly out of old teaching collections – collections historically used to teach various subjects at the University and also collections used to teach school children science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The latter came to us out of the University’s former history of education museum collections.
We’re a multi-site museum which means where possible we try to display objects in the locations in which they were once used, and to work with the departments that in many cases retain ownership of those objects.
The 1 minute films that follow give a taste of what we consider to be some of our best objects. Some are unique, some are quirky and others we think just have interesting stories to tell. We hope you will enjoy them.’
What do you think?
UPDATE: You can view the finished 1 minute video introduction on our Youtube channel here.
Hello, I thought I would upload my pictures alongside a draft of the script I am writing for the video. I will then expand on this for the display description, so comments on either aspect (video/display description) will be appreciated. (Any comments regarding the Coco de Mer in the background will not be considered irrelevant)
“Leeds was amongst the first universities in Britain to recognise that investigation of plants could go well beyond taxonomic classification. In 1907 it became one of a very few universities to offer a chair of Botany, a position which has since been held by many illustrious names. The first was Vernon Herbert Blackman who is now most widely remembered for his investigation of plant development, particularly how one plant can fertilise another and produce offspring. For this kind of research seeds are themselves important for producing the experiment subjects. However I have principally chosen this item for display in the museum because a well stocked seed collection was really the heart of any Botanical department. Here we see only a portion of a collection that would have run to hundreds of species and varieties, some common others very rare. The vast number of ways in which this collection can be put to work is staggering. Not only can these seeds be scrutinised for physiological and anatomical purposes, but they can form the basis of investigations into inheritance, fertilisation, classification and a whole host of other important biological questions. What is perhaps most interesting however is that there is every chance that one or two of these specimens could still be grown today. Some seeds have managed to germinate after decades or even centuries in storage. It makes you wonder what valuable genetic material might be hidden inside.”
Right then, what do you think? As it stands it takes me just over a minute to say this, going at a slower than normal rate. Have I crowbarred in the ‘hidden’ theme a little too brutally? Also, are we still on for filming these on the 18th?
UPDATE: You can view the finished video on the seed collection at the University of Leeds on our Youtube channel here.