Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Instruments: a postscript

How gratifying to see such an interest taken in my discussion with Stephen Curry on the aesthetics of scientific instruments. Kenan Malik has just posted our exchange on his fine blog Pandemonium. I should also say that Rebekah Higgitt has rightly pointed out that most of the objects I showed below were never intended for lab use, but were only ever meant for display – she says that Jim Bennett of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford has argued that if an object is in a museum, it has probably never been used. A nice (if not foolproof) rule of thumb! I fully admit that I chose those images for their prettiness, not their potential utility – the little “hour cannon” in particular was an obvious piece of frippery. All the same, the mere fact that scientific instruments were being made for display by the rich and powerful says something interesting about the market that existed then, not to mention about the role that such instruments served – in part they were toys, but also demonstrations of the owner’s taste and authority. Can you imagine an NMR spectrometer made “for display” today? I’m not sure that “executive toy” gadgets are quite the right comparison.

This crossover between scientific instrument and marvellous gadget is explored in the splendid book Devices of Wonder by Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak (which, curses, I am now itching to find among my piles of books). Automata obviously fall into this category: simultaneously a form of entertainment, a demonstration of the maker’s skill (many were watchmakers), and an embodiment of the Cartesian notion of body as machine. Perhaps it is in this regard that the instruments of science have changed since the seventeenth century: back then, they were inclined as much to be an illustration of a theory as they were a means of testing it. They were – some were – ‘presentation devices’, so that elegance enhanced their persuasive power. There’s more to be said on this – I’d like to examine the issues for the nineteenth century in particular.