Tag Archives: Hidden Histories

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 <http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/acoustics/historicalnotes/,&gt; (accessed 20 November 2014]

Hidden Histories: Pathology

by Kiara White and Laura Sellers

Pathologists study the causes and effects of diseases, with the aim of improving diagnostics. The Pathology collection at the University of Leeds includes pathological specimens, wax models, microscope slides, illustrations and photographic glass plate slides. These were all important for teaching and research within the University, the Leeds General Infirmary and the wider pathology community.

hairball The pathological specimen currently featured in Hidden Histories is a trichobezoar; a compact masses of hair that forms in the gastric cavity. They are the result of a psychological condition called trichophagia, a psychological disorder which drives suffers to compulsively consume hair. The first description of these is thought to have been in 1779, but there are still few accounts in psychiatric literature (Santos, 2012, p43). This example was removed from the stomach of a teenage girl, c.1930. The patient had become severely underweight, as the hair had filled her stomach completely, meaning there was no room left for food, and so surgical removal was required.

Pin eater X-rayIt is displayed in front of X-ray and photographic images (date unknown) relating to another patient who compulsively ingested metal pins. Surgeons removed a total of 1188 pins that had accumulated in the patient’s stomach. These images were taken from glass plate negatives, which were used to store and make copies of images. Glass plates were once a common photographic medium, but declined in popularity over the early decades of the 20th century, superseded by flexible film.

Also on display are two pathological illustrations by Miss Ethel M. Wright, selected from the collection of approximately 50 of her works held by the museum, dating from the 1900’s to the 1950’s. We have been unable to establish where Ethel was employed, but she produced numerous illustrations for distinguished scientists, including the surgeon Lord Berkeley Lloyd Moyniham and the pathologist Professor Matthew Stewart, both of whom worked at the University of Leeds and the Leeds General Infirmary.

Illustrations like these were used to communicate knowledge between scientists and from professors to students, in books, journal articles and lectures. Those in our collection all relate to Matthew Stewart (1885-1956), who was Professor of Pathology at the University of Leeds between 1918 and 1951 and editor of the Journal of Pathology and Bacteriology, from 1934 to 1956. Stewart was also devoted to the Institute of Pathology’s Charles Brotherton museum, in the Algernon Firth building. (Various, 1956, p.1054) He gained a reputation as a highly knowledgeable morbid anatomist and histologist, and correspondence from the collection shows that his expert diagnostic opinion was often sought by other pathologists struggling with difficult cases.

Illustration of slow-growing tumour at base of skull by Miss Ethel M. WrightThe examples were have chosen here nicely illustrate this, as well as the value of such illustrations in sharing pathological knowledge. The first shows a case of malignant spheno-occipital chordoma. A chordoma is a rare form of slow-growing tumour that can occur at the base of the skull or along the spine. In this case the tumour is situated at the joint between the spine (spheno) and base of the skull (occipital). The patient was a 30 year old male, an ex-soldier who had suffered from phosgene gas poisoning in 1917. He was admitted to hospital in 1921, having suffered for the past three years with symptoms including headaches, sight problems, muscle weakness and loss of balance, and died the following month. The tumour, about the size of a hen’s egg, had caused damage such as the stretching and flattening of the optic nerves. This case is described as being both pathologically and histologically (microscopically) characteristic, but it is thought to have been only the seventeenth case ever recorded, and the first record published in the British Isles. (Burrow and Stewart, 1923)

White myeloid sarcomaThe second illustrates a case of myeloid sarcoma in the radius of the left forearm of a six year old girl, admitted to the Leeds General Infirmary in March, 1922 with a swelling that had been first noticed three years before. After examining a portion of the tumour, it was decided that the arm should be amputated, and the girl recovered successfully. Bone tumours were one of Stewart’s specialisms, and this case is significant because of certain unusual features. A maroon colour to at least part of the tumour was commonly held to the most characteristic feature of myeloid sarcomas, to the extent that most surgeons would regard this as diagnostic. This tumour however, was to the eye “not at all like the usual appearance of a myeloid sarcoma”; it was white throughout. However, “the microscopic characters were quite unmistakable” as a case of myeloid sarcoma. It was because of the rare feature that Stewart felt this account required “a full and adequately illustrated case report.” (Stewart, 1923)

In addition to their ability to communicate essential diagnostic knowledge, these illustrations draw our attention to the historical links between art and science and in particular the interdisciplinary nature of art and medicine, especially before advancements in photography. The illustrator was required and able to draw an accurate representation of the object or specimen in front of them but also needed an informed approach in order to draw attention to specific details of that case. This, it could be argued, moved illustrations from purely anatomical to pathological.

There are varied opinions on when medicine and medical illustration became fully intertwined, but there is evidence as far back as the ancient Greeks, though Da Vinci and Vesalius are hailed as the early-modern experts. It appears that many were either medical or artistic and then had to learn the other skill (Donald, 1986). Modern medical illustrators are required to complete specialist training that combines both of these areas. We do not yet know what training Ethel Wright undertook in order to produce the illustrations displayed.

Burrow, J.Le.F., and Stewart, M.J., “Malignant Spheno-Occipital Chordoma”, The Journal of Neurology and Psychopathology, Vol. IV., No. 15, 1923, pp.205-217
Donald, G., “The history of medical illustration”, Journal of Audiovisual Media in Medicine, 9, 1986, pp.44-49
Santos, T. et al, “Trichophagia and Trichobezoar: Case Report”, Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 8, 2012, pp.43-45
Stewart, M.J., “Large Myeloid (Myeloma) of the Radius in which the tumour is white throughout”, The British Journal of Surgery, Vol. 10, Issue 39, 1923, pp.322-325
Various Authors, “Obituary; Matthew John Stewart, C.B.E., M.B., LL.D. Glasg., Hon. M.D. Melb., F.R.C.P., F.R.F.P.S.”, The Lancet, Nov. 17, 1956, pp. 1054-1055

Hidden Histories: Junior Praestantia Lantern

Image - Junior Praestantia Lantern

Junior Praestantia Lantern
Photo by Esther Lie

A significant amount of work has been carried out recently on documenting and researching our magic lanterns and slide collections, and it therefore seemed appropriate to reflect this in the 2013 Hidden Histories display. While this Junior Praestantia Lantern might not be as visually interesting as some of the other lanterns in our collection, it demonstrates specific aspects of the history of these instruments and the heritage of the University.

Magic lanterns are considered a predecessor to the modern slide projector. They function by using a condenser lens to focus artificial light (e.g. candle light, limelight or later electric light) onto a glass slide, the light rays then passing through an objective lens system which projects an enlarged version of the slide’s image onto a screen or wall.

Image - Lens Arrangement in A Magic Lantern

Lens Arrangement in A Magic Lantern
Source: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/magiclantern/optics.html

The historical development of these instruments dates back to at least the 17th century, with the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens often being cited as a key figure in their invention. The peak of their production was during the second-half of the nineteenth century. They provided a popular form of entertainment in both public and domestic settings. Combining slide projection with live narration, music and other special effects, magic lanternists delivered highly successful entertainment spectacles, including phantasmagoria (gathering of ghosts) shows. Slides could have moving parts, and the use of two lanterns in conjunction with pairs of slides could produce ‘dissolving’ (transforming) effects.

It was this ability to produce projection effects that in the days before moving film would have appeared miraculous to audiences that gave magic lanterns this moniker. In scientific or educational settings however it was more common to refer to them as optical lanterns, or simply lanterns. After the moving picture was introduced in the late nineteenth century the popularity of magic lanterns began to decline, but in educational settings their use continued for longer; we think that the use of magic lanterns continued in the Biology department at the University of Leeds until as late as the 1960s. They provided a convenient way of displaying images to a large audience. Ready-made educational slides featuring a wide range of topics could be ordered from catalogues, or lecturers could have them specially produced using images of their own work.

This particular lantern previously belonged to the collection of the Museum of the History of Education which used to exist at the University of Leeds. Before this it was used in lessons at Thornton School in Bradford. It was sold by the Riley Brothers, also of Bradford, who sold lanterns, slides and readings from the 1880s until 1914. The Riley Brothers also gave Bradford its first ever cinema performance on 6th April 1896, at the People’s Palace theatre, on the site where the National Media Museum now stands.

Praestantia Lantern Advert, Ashburton Guardian, 2nd May 1894

Praestantia Lantern Advert, Ashburton Guardian, 2nd May 1894

‘Praestantia’ is a Latin term used to denote superiority and excellence. While this lantern has previously been dated to 1914, models of this sort were available earlier than this, as evidenced by this newspaper advert from 1894. The advert also shows that it was targeted towards schools and churches, rather than professional entertainers or lecturers in larger educational establishments like Universities, who would use larger lanterns with more complex features.

Educators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were growing increasingly interested in the value of sensory perception in aiding the process of obtaining and retaining knowledge, and the use of visual aids was common. In school classrooms, a popular way of incorporating these was to give each pupil a lantern slide and ask them to prepare a talk about it, which they delivered while the image was projected. This activity therefore also helped develop oral communication and presentation skills. It was also thought the element of fun provided by this hybrid of entertainment and education would be conducive to learning. This “school-room” method contrasted with the “lecture-room” method, where the slides served as accompanied the instructor’s lecture. In churches, lanterns were used during services or Sunday school classes, to display biblical stories and hymn lyrics, and to warn people of the dangers of various ‘immoral’ activities. They were also popular with travelling missionaries, who could use illustrations on lantern slides as a way of overcoming language barriers.

One of the main reservations schools and small institutions had about using lanterns was the cost involved, and this is addressed in the advertisement above, which emphasises low-prices and the ability to hire equipment or pay in monthly instalments. Other concerns included the need to train teachers how to use this new technology. However, as mentioned in a previous blog post, we think that the particularly successful use of lanterns by professors at the University of Leeds and its predecessor the Yorkshire College may have inspired primary and secondary schools in the area to take up the use of this educational tool with an unusually high level of enthusiasm.

Currently displayed alongside this lantern are two c.1880 rack and pinion turning slides by Newton & Co, London. These coloured slides would have been used to teach pupils and public audiences about phenomena such as the rising and setting of the sun. Turning the handle rotates one sheet of painted glass over the other, moving one part of the slide’s image in relation to the rest and allowing such phenomena to be demonstrated ‘in action’.

Newton & Co rack and pinion slide, c.1880

Newton & Co rack and pinion slide, c.1880
Digitised by Liz Stainforth


Anon. “How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for Teachers”, The Review of Reviews, May 1890, pg.404

Riley Brothers, “Advertisment: Improved Praestantia Lantern”, Ashburton Guardian, Volume XV, Issue 3268, 2nd May 1894, p.3

Greenacre, D., “Optical Systems in Magic Lanterns”, http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/magiclantern/optics.html

Newton & Co, “New School Lanterns for Class-Work”, in Newton & Co, Catalogue of Lantern Slides Part II., London, 1906, p.901

Lucerna: The Magic Lantern Web Resource, “Organisation: Riley Brothers, slide manufacturer and dealer”, http://www.slides.uni-trier.de/organisation/index.php?id=1000433

San Diego State University, “Peabody Magic Lantern Collection, Online Presentation”, 2010, http://library.sdsu.edu/exhibits/2009/07/lanterns/index.shtml

Special Collections, J.B. Priestly Library, “The Joseph Riley Archive: Collection Description”, University of Bradford, 2008

University of Leeds Museum of the History of Education Catalogue

Visual Studies Workshop – Exhibition Monograph, “Travels in the Limelight: Projections of the World Through the Magic Lantern, 1880-1930”, in The Magic Lantern Bulletin, Vol. 8, No. 1, April, 1988, pp. 9-12 (http://library.sdsu.edu/pdf/scua/ML_Bulletin/MLBvol18no01.pdf)

Yorkshire Film Archive, “Film No. 3428, Bradford Town Hall Square. Context.”, http://www.yfaonline.com/sites/yorkshirefilmarchive.com/files/node_pdfs/node_7615_context.pdf

For a bibliography of further reading on the use of magic lanterns in education, see The Magic Lantern Bulletin, Vol. 8, No. 1, April, 1988, p. 7. (http://library.sdsu.edu/pdf/scua/ML_Bulletin/MLBvol18no01.pdf)

Further reading on the Riley Brothers:

Copeland, D.M., “Joseph, William, Herbert, Arnold and Bernard Riley”, Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, http://www.victorian-cinema.net/riley, 2013

Gordon, C., By Gaslight in Winter: A Victorian family history through the magic lantern, London: Elm Tree, 1980

Further blog entries on our lanterns and slides:





Hidden Histories: ‘Hawksbee Air Pump, 1850’- A history of science icon

The 18th century was a wealth of knowledge, investigation and fast growing technology. In the university’s collection is a double-barrelled pump, in the style of instrument maker Francis Hauksbee, representing the ‘state of the art’ of 18th century vacuum technology in Britain. The history of science witnessed a varied range of air pumps, yet Hauksbee’s double-barrelled constructions are of the earliest surviving. More can be found in the Royal Scottish Museum, the Oxford Museum of the History of Science and London’s Science Museum. Despite the dating of this pump (1850), it mirrors Hauksbee’s designs from 1703-1709, as from then on commercial pumps underwent minimal modification.



The vacuum air pump was one of the six instruments invented in the 17th century that had a profound impact on experimental science. Others include the pendulum clock, telescope, thermometer, barometer and microscope. After the news of German scientist Otto von Guericke’s air pump experiments spread through Europe, the first English air pump, an improvement of von Guericke’s, was designed and built by the acclaimed Robert Boyle during 1658-9. With a rack and pinion (small metal wheel) to move the solid piston (component moving up and down to create power), and a single brass barrel, it stood on a strong wooden tripod, mouth turned downwards. Teeth were cut onto the piston-rod, so as to form a rack moved by a toothed wheel, and turned by a handle, as in later air-pumps. The only valve was a hole bored into the side.



In the mid 1670s the commercial market for air pumps developed. In 1676, the double-barrelled air pump arose from the work of Robert Boyle and French inventor Denis Papin, with pistons and self-acting valves in cylinders. Used for experiments, these designs relied on piston-rods suspended at opposite ends of a cord passing over a pulley.

Historian of science Henry Guerlac suggested that after air-pumps became cheaper and more widely available between 1670-1680, Boyle and Papin’s air pump techniques were transmitted to Francis Hauksbee (1660–1713). Hauksbee was an English scientist known for his work on electricity, beginning his research at the Royal Society for Isaac Newton in 1703. In 1704, Hauksbee perfected the double cylinder air pump, combining the rack and pinion of the first and second air pumps, with two barrels, twin pistons, and self-acting valves. As Brundtland asserted, Hauksbee’s competence as an exceptional maker of air pumps developed between 1699 and 1703, as a result of his experience with the construction and manufacturing of cupping-glasses (which created suction on the skin often by heat, by a partial vacuum, to mobilise blood flow). Hauksbee developed a new design, in which syringes were used to evacuate the glasses. These syringes, claimed to be small air pumps, were made larger, allowing a transition from the cupping-syringe to an air pump for Hauksbee’s use in natural philosophy. This design included two cylinders with pistons balanced against each other, driven in opposite directions by the rack and pinion.

How did it work? By setting the pump in motion, air was excavated from the glass bulb, creating what we now consider to be a vacuum. Two pistons were worked by rack and pinion, arranged such that as one descended, the other ascended.

In terms of its use, Hauksbee’s air pumps- with interchangeable glasses depending on the purpose- were mainly for laboratory demonstrations, as well as granting the public access to curious and elaborate experiments. Until Hauksbee perfected his double barrelled air pump around 1704, most of the Royal Society’s experiments were of a mundane nature, with Boyle focusing mainly on the properties of air. Hauksbee was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his skill in conducting experiments with his novel apparatus.


Air pumps made an important contribution to science, but throughout this period they were widely used as a source of entertainment and instruction, as vacuum was a new and fascination subject. Joseph Derby’s 1768 painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump depicts people watching, some with horror, the demonstration of an air pump by a traveling scientist. A bird slowly suffocates within. The scientist forms a vacuum by withdrawing air from a glass containing a white cockatoo, yet the painting does not entirely concern scientific invention, instead a human drama in a night-time setting. There is a wide range of reactions, some scared that the bird will die, and others curious and reflecting the coming age of science. Further, this painting illustrates the presentation of 18th century scientific learning, heavily dependent on the techniques of observation. Hauksbee’s air pump, with its transportable size allowing it to reach different settings and locations, most likely aroused a similarly diverse range of reactions. The air-pump became a resource for the ‘business of experimental philosophy.’ Hauksbee’s design was largely maintained for 150 years, with later pumps developed only in their ease of use, and with decreased ultimate pressure.


Notably, historians of science Shapin and Schaffer, in their 1985 influential book Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, documented the debate between Boyle and Hobbes on Boyle’s air pump experiments of the 1660s. By raising the question of ‘why do experiments lead to truth?’, the two historians investigated the issue of acceptable methods of knowledge production, and the societal factors that led to them. The book also reveals the air pump’s significance as Boyle argued that ‘facts should be manufactured by machines like the air pump, so that gentlemen could witness the experiments, and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on.’ Contrastingly, Hobbes viewed experiments as artificial and unreliable, produced by an exclusive organisation. The air pump was a metaphorical device representing an approach to natural philosophy.


Further, Shelagh Stephenson’s 1999 play An Experiment with an Air Pump, set in 1799, portrayed a house buzzing with scientific experiments (as well as romance and farce). In the world of scientific chaos, Stephenson questioned, at what point does the end result of greater knowledge or the development of a treatment, justify the means used to get there? Highlighting which scientific methods are ethically acceptable, Stephenson drew a link between the bird in the air pump, and human, claiming that we too were reduced to a mere experiment. It is obvious that the air pump was an influential object in the debates over the production of scientific knowledge, and the position of man in natural philosophy, in the 18th century.

In this specific object identified in the University of Leeds History of Education catalogue, Hauksbee is only the style of the air pump. The origins of this replica are a London firm, Horne and Thornthwaite, who also traded in chemistry, photography and optics. However, the use of the air pump can be located back to Bootham School, an independent Quaker boarding school in York, in which many Quaker teachers maintained a keen interest in natural history. Influencing their students, the air pump was most likely used in science lessons. After opening in 1823, Bootham became distinguished for studies in Natural History, its herbarium, and by 1853 its observatory for astronomical studies- thus they placed a heavy emphasis on science. To early Quakers, the physical universe- God’s creation- was infused with religious meaning. The schoolmaster recommended Quaker children should be taught to ‘read the Nature, Use and Service of Trees, Birds, Beast, Fish, Serpents, Insects, Earths, Metals, Salts, Stones Vulgar…’ Moreover, since Quakerism was born in defiance of the Church of England, and Quakers were excluded as ‘dissenters’ from Oxbridge whose curriculum was dominated by classical studies, this allowed Bootham to strengthen their scientific studies. The use of scientific instruments would allow, as Quaker astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell claimed, students ‘to readily revise what you hold to be the truth, as in both Quakerism and science.’ This serious interest in science at Bootham encouraged the production of a number of distinguished scientists in many areas.

From 1850 to the turn of the century, intense activity in the development of vacuum technology emerged, driven by the needs of scientific research and demands of the incandescent lamp industry. This air pump is only a replica, and subsequently we should guard against the notion that because many air-pumps look the same, no improvements have been made since Boyle or Hauksbee’s day.

Esther Lie


Brundtland, T. 2008. From medicine to natural philosophy: Francis Hauksbee’s way to the air-pump. The British Journal for the History of Science. 41: 2. 209-40.

Brundtland, T. 2012. Francis Hauksbee and his air pump. Notes & Records of The Royal Society. 1743-0178

De Bolla, P. 2003. The Education of the Eye: Painting, Landscape, and Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Volume 2. Dec 1844- April 1850. Edinburgh: Printed by Neill and Company. MDCCCLI.

Redhead, P.A. 1999. HISTORY OF VACUUM DEVICES. National Research Council, CAS – CERN Accelerator School : Vacuum Technology. Snekersten, Denmark, Ottawa, Canada. pp.281-290

Shapin, S & Schaffer, S. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton University Press: Oxford & New Jersey

Swain, K. 2011. An Experiment with an Air Pump: medical ethics staged. CultureLab: Newscientist. [Accessed 5 May 2013] Available from: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/10/experimenting-with-medical-ethics-on-stage.html

Quakers in Britain. Quakers and Science. [online] [Accessed 5 May 2013]. Available from: http://www.quaker.org.uk/quakers-and-science

The National Gallery. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump: 1768, Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ [online] [Accessed 5 May 2013]. Available from: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump

The Royal Society. Air pump. [online] [Accessed 5 May 2013]. Available from: http://royalsociety.org/exhibitions/350years/air-pump/