Instruments for Science, 1800-1914: Scientific Trade Catalogs in Smithsonian Collections
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A Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection

Butter RefractometerScientific Instrument Trade Literature at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries

The Trade Literature collection in the National Museum of American History Branch Library is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It continues to grow, thanks to the donation of several large gift collections and the purchase of a large portion of the Franklin Institute collection, so that it now comprises over 300,000 pieces. The bulk of the collection dates between 1880 and 1950, and represents primarily American companies, with the notable exceptions being scientific instruments and machine tools, where foreign companies are well represented.

As Steven Turner says in his introductory essay, the value of trade literature for artifact research cannot be overemphasized. Jon Eklund, a former curator of the chemical collections at the National Museum of American History called it the "backbone" of documentation for objects in the museum. This is especially true of scientific instrument catalogs. Many of these catalogs are painstakingly detailed in their description and illustration of the instruments. Though these catalogs are offering goods for sale and are thus primarily interested in putting their wares in the most favorable light, the technical data provided is often the only contemporary source of information on particular instruments. Thus an instrument catalog can offer a "snapshot" of the design, construction, and application of an instrument in its original context. Another strongpoint of these catalogs is their contribution to verifying an instrument's authenticity. When consulting the catalog, one is not looking at second-hand information on the instrument but usually the actual specifications of the makers themselves. Although, as R.G.W. Anderson, et al., say in Handlist of scientific instrument-maker trade catalogues, 1600-1914 (Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, 1990): "Perhaps the greatest value of trade catalogues is that they suggest ideas which can be verified through examination of other sources, and corroborate evidence gleaned from other types of material."

Shunt 6406 IIIaScientific instrument catalogs can sometimes be considered artifacts themselves because of the care and high production values that went into publishing them, especially the eighteenth to early nineteenth century specimens. However, as they began publishing more copies, publishers attempted to keep down the costs by using cheaper, low-quality paper. Unfortunately this has led over time to the serious deterioration of many of the catalogs, especially some of the Max Kohl company catalogs. Thus the restricted access and the inevitable disintegration of some of the catalogs provided the impetus for Smithsonian Libraries to scan these remarkable representations of technical skill, precision and innovation.

Duplex Diffraction Spectroscope No.1This presentation of scientific instrument catalogs is part of a larger effort by the Smithsonian Libraries to publicize and disseminate this vast collection of trade literature. As an under-utilized segment of material culture, it has the potential to create new avenues for the exploration of the history of science and technology by scholars and enthusiasts alike who would otherwise never have the opportunity to use the collection on site. Full cataloging of the collection is well underway, and a complete inventory will begin in the near future to be made accessible on the web. The catalogs are arranged by company name. Researchers can obtain access to part of the holdings by searching the on-line catalog ( Access to the bulk of the trade literature collection is by library staff reviewing the shelves by company name. The collection is in a closed stack area and is available to researchers on-site only by appointment. The catalogs do not circulate or go out on interlibrary loan. For more information on trade catalogs please go to the Libraries' home page for trade literature.

Jim Roan
Reference Librarian, National Museum of American History Library
July 2003