As physical manifestations of the history of science, instruments are closely tied to the heart of the Library, Department and Museum. Integral to practical science, but also reflective of contemporary theory, R. T. Gunther declared these objects of ‘definite national value as milestones in the history of English Science’ but significant also for their ‘germs of suggestions for useful development’. Gunther founded the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford in 1924 as somewhat of a pioneer – many of his contemporaries disregarded the significance of scientific instruments. His book, Early Science in Cambridge, was published in 1937 and charters the history of  subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, medicine, zoology and botany, and is peppered with references to specific scientific objects from Cambridge, indicating their value as ‘milestones’. Our well-thumbed copy belonged to the Curators of the Whipple Museum, and throughout the text are notes in the margins about objects now in the museum.

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R.T. Gunther, Early Science in Cambridge, (1937). CR 8:10

Particularly relevant instruments to the Library and Museum are those made by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Founded in 1881 by Horace Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, and Albert George Dew-Smith, the company went on to considerable success, particularly during the war years. Robert Whipple later became Managing Director and Chairman of the company, and as the museum received the company’s instruments after their folding in 1968, links with the department are numerous. The library’s collection can reveal significant aspects of the company’s history, be they from Michael J. G. Cattermole and Arthur F. Wolfe’s Horace Darwin’s Shop: A History of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, 1878 – 1968, or via catalogues and pamphlets accumulated over time. One of many pamphlets Robert Whipple carefully bound and indexed is 50 years of Scientific Instrument Manufacturing, published by the company. The history documents Darwin’s benevolent management of the company as well as some of their key collaborations and developments in instrumentation.

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Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company,50 years of Scientific Instrument Manufacture (1945). CR 13:3 OS

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Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company,50 years of Scientific Instrument Manufacture (1945). CR 13:3 OS

Whipple himself compiled a large collection of books, catalogues and pamphlets relating to the history of scientific instruments, including works by him that share his immense appreciation of instruments. Whipple’s presidential address from The Optical Society in 1921 explicates the significance of instrument-making after the Great War, delineating how makers must hold an ‘intimate knowledge’ of the use for which the instrument is being made, but not be ‘overwhelmed by the immensity of the knowledge’ necessitated by the wide range of scientific possibility as well as understanding ‘tools, materials, processes’ and workforce. He emphasises the ‘catholicity of knowledge required by a maker: how a good designer and maker must understand the context of previous, similar instrumentation; they must imagine the possible outcomes of the experiment; the practical requirements of geometric design’. This comprehensive appreciation outlines what constitutes successful scientific instruments, and is a valuable read for anyone interested in the history of instruments. The pamphlet reveals Whipple’s own impressive knowledge as well as his practical, rigorous approach to the design of instrumentation.

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R.S. Whipple, ‘The Design and Construction of Scientific Instruments’, Proceedings of the Optical Society (1921) CR 13:2 OS

Rosanna Evans, Lunchtime Invigilator

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