In 2015 the Whipple gratefully received a number of historical science books from the estate of Michael Clark, a former chemistry teacher and collector. Among these was a copy in modern binding of the 2nd edition of Robert Boyle’s New experiments physico-mechanical, touching the air, and its effects, (made for the most part, in a new pneumatical engine), published in 1662. What caught our attention with this book was the signature of Edward Nairne.

One of the most famous English instrument-makers of the 18th century, Edward Nairne (1726-1806) enjoyed a long career working in London. His range of products was great and included microscopes, telescopes, quadrants, sextants, globes, barometers and electrical machines. For some 20 years Nairne worked in partnership with Thomas Blunt in Cornhill, London. A number of instruments bearing the signature “Nairne, Cornhill, London”, “Nairne, London” or “Nairne & Blunt” have been identified. The Whipple Museum has an equatorial telescope marked “Nairne & Blunt LONDON”.[1] The Library holds some accompanying trade literature in Nairne’s Description and use of a new constructed equatorial telescope or portable observatory, published in 1771 and owned by Robert Whipple (STORE CR 10:20). Strangely, this also has the name Nairne written (in 2 attempts?) on the reverse of the frontispiece.

Another important part of Nairne’s business was his work with electrical machines. The Museum has a Nairne’s Patent Medico-Electrical Machine from around 1787, transferred from the Cavendish Laboratory, and again complementary printed material can be found in the Library’s collections.[2] A facsimile of the 1773 Directions for using the electrical machine (first published in 1764) shows Nairne’s first commercial success in the field of electrical machines (STORE 97:8). In 1782 Nairne received a patent for his new and improved machine, a design that would go on to be very popular. The description and use of Nairne’s patent electrical machine: with the addition of some philosophical experiments and medical observations was first published by Nairne & Blunt in 1783. We have a copy of the 8th edition, published by Nairne in 1796 (STORE CR 10:21), and a copy of the French translation by M. Caullet de Veaumorel from 1784 (STORE 95:30), attesting to its popularity beyond England.

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Nairne and Boyle…

Boyle engraving

Is the Nairne signature genuine? A smudged signature of ‘Ro.Boyle 166[?]’ written on the title page in a different hand and ink seems very dubious. However, Boyle’s New experiments physico-mechanical… would certainly have been a fitting work for Nairne to have. In this book, Robert Boyle described in great detail his experiments made on the effects of reducing the pressure in the air on diverse physical phenomena. Working with an air-pump designed and constructed by Robert Hooke these experiments, first published in 1660, were extremely influential. The engraving featured in the book clarified the written description.

Air pump in Museum
Copyright: The Whipple Museum (Wh.3145)



By the 18th century, the air-pump was one of the most important instruments for scientific study and a number of instrument-makers of the day sold them. Nairne improved an air-pump designed by John Smeaton and both were illustrated in the plates of Abraham Rees’ The cyclopaedia: or, Universal dictionary of arts, sciences and literature under the ‘Pneumatics’ section (STORE 213:64). The Whipple Museum also has a great example in an air-pump marked “Nairne & Blunt LONDON”. In the history of scientific instruments, the Whipple collections show some of the work of an instrument-maker such as Nairne in the 18th century and the great influence of Robert Boyle. The recent acquisition of Boyle’s New experiments nicely connects the two.

Air pumps in Rees

[1] No. 3 in J.A. Bennett, The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Catalogue 3: Astronomy & Navigation (The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 1983).

[2] No. 412 in Kenneth Lyall, The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Catalogue 8: Electrical and Magnetic Instruments (The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 1991).

G. Clifton, Directory of British scientific instrument makers, 1550–1851, ed. G. L’E. Turner (Zwemmer in association with the National Maritime Museum, 1995).
Simon Schaffer, ‘Nairne, Edward (1726–1806)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 20 July 2016]
D.J. Warner, ‘Edward Nairne: Scientist and Instrument-Maker’ Rittenhouse 12.3 (1998), 65-93.
J.B. West, ‘Robert Boyle’s landmark book of 1660 with the first experiments
on rarified air’ Journal of Applied Physiology 98 (2005), 31–39.