for Science: Scientific Instrument Trade Literature
trade literature is a unique and uniquely valuable category of historical
evidence. But it has not always been so highly regarded. Being commercial
documents, catalogs have traditionally had a hard time fitting into
library or archive collections. Even the companies that printed
these catalogs expected their usefulness to end as soon as the next
edition was printed. That's why so many of them were printed on
the cheapest paper available. In many ways it's not surprising that
so few of them have survived - or that when they have survived,
their existence has gone unnoticed. [For information on the origins
of the Smithsonian's trade literature collections, see Jim
years, few people were interested in scientific instrument catalogs
beside collectors and museum curators. Catalogs were their secret
resource, providing a convenient and accurate way to identify instruments.
They also often provided a wealth of supplemental information about
how these instruments were used, giving detailed discussions of
design differences and historical development. Sometimes they even
gave journal references for further information! This was knowledge
that was not available anywhere else, but most historians considered
it too specialized to be of much use in understanding science history.
the last few decades have seen a change in the way historians understand
science. There has been a slow but growing interest in seeing history
"in the round." Science is increasingly seen as a collective
endeavor of many communities, with instrument makers emerging as
an important part of this process. There has also been a growing
appreciation of the role of national, cultural and economic forces
in the growth of science and these too are reflected in the activities
of scientific instrument makers.
with this interest in the scientific instrument trade has come a
renewed interest in scientific trade literature. Historians and
others have discovered an unexpected wealth of information in these
documents and have begun searching them out. This project is an
attempt to provide access to a large group of instrument catalogs
over an extended period of time. Our hope is that they will serve
as a resource from which students and scholars can perform original
research and draw their own conclusions.
time period of this project, 1800-1914, begins with some of the
earliest catalogs in the Smithsonian collections and ends with the
onset of World War I. This was the period of "classical"
science, during which "Natural Philosophy" grew into what
we now recognize as science. It is also the period during which
"philosophical instruments" became scientific ones. These
were more than just name changes. It marked a fundamental change
in the way people understood their world. This was also the period
in which new disciplines like meteorology, physiology and psychology
emerged and separated into discrete areas of study. Rather than
try to follow these branches, this project tries to follow a single
discipline - primarily Physics - over the entire time period.
should be noted that, for the most part, trade literature presents
standardized or commonly used instruments. These are not exotic
one-of-a-kind research instruments. Rather, these are the instruments
that would have been found in working laboratories and which would
have been the core technologies for experimental work.
should also be noted that many of the instruments in these catalogs
were primarily intended for educational use. Schools were important
consumers of scientific instruments in the United States, particularly
after the Civil War when increased support for public education
led to the establishment of many new schools and colleges - all
of which had to be furnished with new equipment.
also point out that although the majority of the catalogs in this
project are from European manufacturers, they were used by American
schools and laboratories and thus represent American patterns of
consumption. The growth of American instrument making is also reflected
here, although it should not be assumed that all the instruments
in American catalogs were made on this side of the Atlantic. Finally,
nineteenth century science was characterized by more national differences
than in later periods, and national differences are certainly evident
in these catalogs. I encourage the reader to compare these differences
over time and to relate them to broader historical and scientific
the next year our goal is to expand this web project by providing
access to the records and images of the Smithsonian's scientific
instrument collections. A searchable index of instruments is also
planned. We welcome comments and hope that this effort to provide
historical resources will inspire others.
closing, I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude to
the staff of the Smithsonian Libraries for their enthusiastic support
and assistance throughout this project and to the
The Gladys Kreible Delmas Foundation for
providing the financial support that made it possible.
Specialist in the Physical Sciences Collection of the
National Museum of American History