skip to primary navigationskip to content

Scientific instruments

Boris Jardine

Deciding to work on an instrument can be exciting and daunting in equal measure. The move from working with texts to objects confronts most historians and philosophers of science with a series of problems: what questions can be posed of, say, a microscope, that can't be answered by reading around the subject? How do I extrapolate from my findings about an object, moving from the historically particular to the general?

In most cases the Whipple Museum itself is the best place to start. There you will find countless 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 past students in HPS. These are marvellous examples of original research, often on the basis of work on a single instrument.

In 2006 the Whipple published a 60th anniversary volume entitled Instruments and Interpretations [] (L. Taub and F. Willmoth eds.), which contains some of the best work undertaken on the museum's collections.


Although books are important primary and secondary sources, they are not sufficient for instrument studies – the objects themselves are also your primary sources. In many cases, examining an object or group of objects closely can tell you about the way they were used, constructed, adapted, and so on.

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.

The bible for collections in this country is M. Holbrook, et al., Science Preserved (London, 1992) [Whipple classmark: REF (DIR 16)].

Online catalogues are a convenient way to browse collections. The principal examples are:

Smaller collections are available at the following:

The other main holdings are at Harvard, Utrecht, Geneva, and Munich. Closer to home, however, is the inimitable Whipple – wander round, ask the staff, and examine the website for possible research opportunities:

Bibliography – general

What was once a tiny field has now grown to full academic maturity, and this is reflected in a large secondary literature. A good, up to date bibliography can be found at:

The relevant Whipple Library classmark is N, and is well worth browsing.

A few good introductory texts are:

  • R. Bud and D. Warner (eds.), Instruments of Science: An Historical Encylopedia (London 1998)
  • M. Daumas, Scientific Instruments in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries Their Makers (London, 1972)
  • A. J. Turner, Early Scientific Instruments, Europe 1400-1800 (London, 1987)
  • G. L'E. Turner, Nineteenth-Century Scientific Instruments (London, 1983)
  • Osiris 9 (1994, second series) was devoted to Instruments []

Bibliography – instrument makers

  • S. A. Bedini, Early American Scientific Instruments and their Makers (Washington, 1964)
  • D. J. Bryden, Scottish Scientific Instrument Makers (Edinburgh, 1972)
  • J. E. Burnett & A. D. Morrison-Low, Vulgar & Mechanick: the Scientific Instrument Trade in Ireland, 1650-1921 (Dublin, 1989)
  • G. Clifton, Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers 1550-1851 (London 1995)
  • P. R. de Clercq, Nineteenth-Century Scientific Instruments and their Makers (Leiden, 1985)
  • M. A. Crawforth, 'Instrument makers in the London Guilds', Annals of Science, 44 (1987)
  • E. G. R. Taylor, Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1954)
  • E. G. R. Taylor, Mathematical Practitioners of Hanoverian England (Cambridge, 1966)
  • E. Zinner, Deutsches und Niederländische astronomische Instrumente der 11.-18 Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1956)

Bibliography – trade literature

  • R. G. W. Anderson, et al., Handlist of Scientific Instrument-Makers' Trade Catalogues (Edinburgh, 1990)
  • R. Calvert, Scientific Trade Cards in the Science Museum Collection (London 1971)

The Whipple has a large collection (mainly 20th-century) of trade literature. A good place to start looking is:

Other resources

  • Sale catalogues, i.e. Sotheby's, Bonhams', Christie's, Tesseract. The Whipple Museum has a good collection of these catalogues, though they are not presently completely searchable. At present the most useful website is Sotheby's sold lot archive [].
  • Early English Books Online []. This has a huge collection of (largely un-researched) instrument treatises – all completely digitised.
  • Starry Messenger []. Hosted by the Department, this site contains some thorough and useful information on early-modern astronomical instruments.