skip to primary navigationskip to content

Scientific instruments

Boris Jardine and Joshua Nall, October 2017


This guide is aimed at researchers who want to start working on an instrument, or a group or general class of instruments, and are in need of example studies, collections databases and associated resources, and an introductory reading list.

First, what kind of a primary source is an instrument?

  • An instrument is like a text in that it can be 'read', often literally if it has inscriptions; but an instrument is unlike a text in that its materiality is essential to its story (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: A 'Rojas-type' sundial, c. 1600, with instructions for its use engraved on the reverse. This instrument was extensively studied by the Department's 'Latin Therapy' group, and the results were published in Taub & Willmoth (see below for full reference). Image © Whipple Museum (Wh.5888).

  • Collections of instruments are like archives, in that they form the basis of historical research, preserving (in a highly selective way) evidence of what was actually in use; but instrument collections are unlike archives in that instruments were not normally made to live in cabinets and store-rooms, so they have been uprooted from their context (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Instruments in their natural habitat: observers pose with the double-tube camera and coelostat used to photograph the total solar eclipse of 22 January 1898 at Pulgaon, India. Image courtesy of the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge.

  • Instruments are like images, in that they can have symbolic meanings and aesthetic value; but they are unlike images insofar as their utility is also a part of their meaning, and sometimes of their aesthetic and even symbolic meaning (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: An 'impossibly delicate' gunnery instrument, by Erasmus Habermel, late-16th century. Inv.41591. © Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. See Jim Bennett, 'Knowing and Doing in the Sixteenth Century: What Were Instruments For?', British Journal for the History of Science 36 (2003), 129–150.

Studying an instrument typically requires close – almost forensic – analysis of the object itself. Are there marks of use? How has it been kept? Are there inscriptions revealing provenance? What can be said about the engraving, or the method of construction? It can also require detective work to unearth wider contexts of manufacture and use. Are there records of who made, sold, used, or collected it? Can reports, patents, or correspondence help shed light on its life history?

This may all sound rather daunting, but fear not: the Whipple Museum offers a wealth of resources and support for students and researchers interested in working with material culture. In the Museum itself you will find numerous objects of all kinds, with plenty of information about how they were used, why they survived, and what they can tell us about the history of science. You will also find displays and essays, curated and written by staff and students in HPS. Staff in the Museum are always happy to discuss potential objects and topics with students, and its curators have extensive experience supervising instrument research. Relevant course managers can also direct students to a variety of people in the HPS Department and beyond with expertise in studying material culture.

For capsule examples of research into specific instruments see the Whipple Museum's invaluable 'Explore' website.

See also the many articles in Liba Taub & Frances Willmoth (eds), The Whipple Museum of the History of Science: Instruments and Interpretations, to Celebrate the 60th Anniversary of R.S. Whipple's Gift to the University of Cambridge (Cambridge: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 2006).

Comparative and contextual work is also essential. The remainder of this guide offers outline listings for collections and literature to help you with your research.

Example studies

The Whipple Museum's collection is unusually well-studied. Some of the papers that have resulted from these investigations include:

  • The eighteen chapters in Part II of: Liba Taub & Frances Willmoth (eds), The Whipple Museum of the History of Science: Instruments and Interpretations, to Celebrate the 60th Anniversary of R.S. Whipple's Gift to the University of Cambridge (Cambridge: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 2006)
  • Melanie Keene, '"Every boy & girl a scientist": Instruments for children in interwar Britain', Isis 98 (2007), 266–289
  • Katie Taylor, 'Mogg's celestial sphere (1813): The construction of polite astronomy', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 40 (2009), 360–371
  • Boris Jardine, 'Between the Beagle and the barnacle: Darwin's microscopy, 1837–1854', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 40 (2009), 382–395
  • Robin Wolfe Scheffler, 'Interests and instrument: A micro-history of object Wh.3469 (X-ray powder diffraction camera, ca. 1940)', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 40 (2009), 396–404
  • Michael J. Barany, 'Great Pyramid Metrology and the Material Politics of Basalt', Spontaneous Generations 4 (2010), 45–60
  • Seb Falk, 'The scholar as craftsman: Derek de Solla Price and the reconstruction of a medieval instrument', Notes and Records of the Royal Society 68 (2014), 111–134
  • David E. Dunning, 'What Are Models For? Alexander Crum Brown's Knitted Mathematical Surfaces', Mathematical Intelligencer 37 (2015), 62–70
  • James Poskett, 'Sounding in Silence: Men, Machines and the Changing Environment of Naval Discipline, 1796–1815', British Journal for the History of Science 48 (2015), 213–232
  • Joshua Nall & Liba Taub, 'Three-Dimensional Models', in: Bernard Lightman (ed.), A Companion to the History of Science (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), pp. 572–586
  • Joshua Nall & Liba Taub, 'Selling by the book: British scientific trade literature after 1800', in A.D. Morrison-Low, Sara J. Schechner, & Paolo Brenni (eds), How Scientific Instruments Have Changed Hands (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 21–42
  • Boris Jardine, Joshua Nall, & James Hyslop, 'More Than Mensing? Revisiting the Question of Fake Scientific Instruments', Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 132 (March 2017), pp. 22–29


Familiarity with local, national, and international collections is important for a number of reasons: it provides a rough knowledge of what sorts of objects survive, it gives a sense of the geographical distribution of objects, and – like a good bibliographic knowledge – it means you won't miss anything, and will always have more resources for your research.

A key but now somewhat out of date resource for collections in Britain is M. Holbrook, et al., Science Preserved (London, 1992) [Whipple classmark: REF (DIR 16)].

The main instrument collections in Britain, in addition to the Whipple, are:

Other collections with good online resources include:

There are also significant holdings at Utrecht, Geneva, and Munich, and smaller collections in local museums and (especially) university collections around the world. The database 'Europeana' searches across many European collections.

Reading list

The Scientific Instrument Commission has a number of bibliographies, beginning with an exceptionally useful general survey in 1997 (see also the 1998 supplement).

The best way in to instrument studies is to consult the various special journal issues that have appeared over the years:

The Brill series 'Scientific Instruments and Collections' contains some essential works.

The relevant Whipple Classmark is N: this is well worth browsing. Some of the key historical works and collections of essays include:

  • R.G.W. Anderson, J.A. Bennett & W.F. Ryan (eds), Making Instruments Count (Aldershot: Variorum, 1993)
  • Davis Baird, Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)
  • Marie-Noëlle Bourguet, Christian Licoppe, & Heinz Otto Sibum (eds), Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century (New York: Routledge, 2002)
  • Robert Bud & Susan E. Cozzens (eds), Invisible Connections: Instruments, Institutions, and Science (Bellingham: SPIE Optical Engineering Press, 1992)
  • Soraya de Chadarevian & Nick Hopwood (eds), Models: The Third Dimension of Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004)
  • Adriana Craciun & Simon Schaffer (eds), The Material Cultures of Enlightenment Arts and Sciences (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Silvia De Renzi, Instruments in Print: Books from the Whipple collection (Cambridge: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 2000)
  • Peter Heering & Roland Wittje (eds), Learning by Doing: Experiments and Instruments in the History of Science Teaching (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011)
  • Bernward Joerges & T. Shinn (eds), Instrumentation between Science, State and Industry (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001)
  • Ursula Klein (ed.), Tools and Modes of Representation in the Laboratory Sciences (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001)
  • Sachiko Kusukawa & Ian Maclean (eds), Transmitting Knowledge: Words, Images, and Instruments in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Bernard Lightman (ed.), A Companion to the History of Science (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), Part IV: 'Tools of Science'
  • Fraser Macdonald & Charles Withers (eds), Geography, Technology and Instruments of Exploration (Surrey: Ashgate, 2015)

The canonical reference texts and synoptic histories include:

  • R.G.W. Anderson, et al., Handlist of Scientific Instrument-Makers' Trade Catalogues (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1990)
  • S.A. Bedini, Early American Scientific Instruments and their Makers (Washington DC: Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, 1964)
  • J.A. Bennett, The Divided Circle: A History of Instruments for Astronomy, Navigation and Surveying (Oxford: Phaidon, 1987)
  • J.E. Burnett & A.D. Morrison-Low, Vulgar & Mechanick: The Scientific Instrument Trade in Ireland, 1650–1921 (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1989)
  • D.J. Bryden, Scottish Scientific Instrument Makers (Edinburgh: Royal Scottish Museum, 1972)
  • R. Bud and D. Warner (eds), Instruments of Science: An Historical Encylopedia (New York and London: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution and The Science Museum, 1998)
  • R. Calvert, Scientific Trade Cards in the Science Museum Collection (London: HMSO, 1971)
  • G. Clifton, Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers 1550–1851 (London: National Maritime Museum, 1995)
  • M. Daumas, Scientific Instruments in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries Their Makers (London: Batsford, 1972)
  • P.R. de Clercq, Nineteenth-Century Scientific Instruments and their Makers (Leiden: Museum Boerhaave, 1985)
  • E.G.R. Taylor, Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: CUP, 1954)
  • E.G.R. Taylor, Mathematical Practitioners of Hanoverian England (Cambridge: CUP, 1966)
  • A.J. Turner, Early Scientific Instruments, Europe 1400–1800 (London: Sotheby's, 1987)
  • G.L'E. Turner, Nineteenth-Century Scientific Instruments (London: Sotheby's, 1983)
  • G.L'E. Turner, Elizabethan Instrument Makers: The Origins of the London Trade in Precision Instrument Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • E. Zinner, Deutsches und Niederländische Astronomische Instrumente der 11.–18 Jahrhunderts (Munich: Becksche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1956)