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Scientific Instruments

Although Aberdeen has been a Seat of Learning, Manufacture and Trade for many centuries, it has been geographically too remote to sustain a thriving Scientific Instrument making business. The demand from local customers over the past 200 years has supported a modest number of Barometer makers, Clockmakers, Opticians, makers of Navigational and Surveying Instruments and other suppliers of common domestic and commercial instruments. Sometimes the craftsmen in these trades have made special commissions for truly scientific purposes associated with the University of Aberdeen or with keen amateur interests. Clockmakers Charles Lunan and James Dalziel made mathematical and other apparatus early in the 19th century. Charles Ramage, of Smith & Ramage, made models for the celebrated James Clerk Maxwell in the 1850s. Fraser and Mackay made Electrical and other equipment for the University in the 1st quarter of the 20th century.

Aberdeen tradesmen were no different from those in other parts of the country in retailing many items bought in from well-known suppliers in the South. Even the presence on a piece of equipment of a nameplate of an Aberdeen 'maker' is unfortunately no guarantee that the item was actually manufactured in the City. One finds Barometers, Navigational Instruments, Microscopes and other instruments, all of identical pattern in different parts of the country with different provincial makers' names engraved on them or on their nameplates. Such items were assembled by wholesale suppliers using the economy of mass production and the economy of the division of specialist labour. The advantages of this procedure were well publicised by Adam Smith in the 18th century. For example, to make all the parts of a microscope by hand required a very high degree of craftsmanship in brass turning, thread cutting, metal casting, shaping, forming and finishing, besides access to a large selection of lenses with which to build up the optics. Until the 2nd half of the 19th century, there was much trial and error in getting microscopes to produce a good image. Many tradesmen would not have had the tools, the skill or the capital to attend to all these facets. Indeed, it was not cost effective for tradesmen to make most of the instruments they sold. What applied to Aberdeen in the last century applies to Britain today. British industry makes only a small fraction of the scientific instruments it uses and, as we all know, it makes very few binoculars, cameras, videos, nav-aids and other scientific apparatus of today's domestic and commercial world.

Instruments with an 'Aberdeen' trademark are not particularly common around Aberdeen, and even rarer in collections and museums elsewhere in the country. This confirms that they were made or supplied in modest numbers for local use only, with no export trade. They are, though, generally of good quality.

Hydrometer by Altria (circa 1846). Used for measuring the density of liquids. The Altrias were likely one of the many north Italian families who brought their glass-blowing skills to Britain and established thriving Barometer businesses in the first half of the 19th century.

Proportional Compasses by Charles Lunan (1782). A surveying and navigating instrument used on plans and maps. Lunan thrived from 1776 -1811. Judging from extant pieces, he was one of the best craftsmen of his day in Aberdeen.

Bent-arm balance - G. Booth (1844).

Daniel's Hygroscope by Williamson(1824-1861). Used to determine the humidity of air.

Becquerel's Phosphoroscope by A. Spark (1881-1924). The phosphoroscope was a device to measure the lifetime of phosphorescent light. Alex. Spark was an active founder member of the Aberdeen Mechanical Society and prominent in promoting the domestic application of Electricity in Aberdeen in the 1890s.

Tangent Galvanometer by A. Spark. A device for measuring electric current by comparing the magnetic field produced by coils carrying the current with the Earth's magnetic field.

Thermal Conductivity demonstration by A. Spark. The centre of the device is held over a gas flame which heats the ends of three rods of different materials. The rod that conducts heat the best is the one where the candlewax drops off first.

Ammeter by Shirras Laing. Shirras Laing's retail shop within a stone's throw of James Dun's house is remembered by a great many Aberdonians. This ammeter dates from the days when Shirras Laing were Electrical Contractors installing, amongst other commissions, the wiring in the very modern electrification of the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary that was carried out in 1892.

Earth Inductor by Miller 1st half 20th Century). This coil can be used to measure the strength of the Earth's magnetic field by observing the electric voltage between the ends of the coil as it is rotated by hand.

Joule's Mechanical Equivalent of Heat Apparatus. A classic piece of equipment invented by James Joule to determine how much heat is generated by a measured amount of mechanical effort. The mechanical work is used to churn water in the insulated container and the heat measured by the resulting rise in temperature of water.

Since the application of physical principles is an integral part of teaching this subject, areas of application that have been associated with the teaching of physical science are particularly represented. These include meteorology, medical physics, computation and areas such as navigation and surveying.

Although there is archival evidence that the University possessed some equipment in the late 17th century, the significant use of equipment as an aid to teaching did not begin until the 18th century. The man responsible was Professor Patrick Copland.

Copland brought with him to the job not only a passion for demonstration but another singular skill. He was a first-class mechanic, in the broadest sense of the term. Like his contemporaries he lacked money (the College paid him an allowance of £3 per annum to maintain the equipment) but he became Craftsman/Professor. He recalled in 1790 "I fell to work myself, and in a few years repaired all our Old Machines and executed several new ones, particularly for Electricity and the late discoveries on air - for explaining which we had none". Indeed he continued to make apparatus throughout the 45 years of his tenure. His workshop was equipped with the tools of a professional craftsman, including taps and dies by Jesse Ramsden of London, whose workshops produced some of the finest instruments in the world, 2 impressive lathes and hand tools for working in glass, wood, metal and ornamental materials.

Most of the material in our collection has come from the University's Department of Natural Philosophy, now the Department of Physics. The earliest material dates to the mid 18th century; the most recent material to the end of the 20th century. We have some pieces relevant to the Natural Philosophy theme from the Departments of Chemistry, Geology, Engineering and the former Department of Biomedical Physics.

Patrick Copland began a collection of equipment and demonstration apparatus at the end of the 18th century that some historical writers called a 'museum' but in practice the modern recognition of our material as 'a collection' and the display of part of it in a museum dates from 1973.

We are told by a student in the early 1830s that the classrooms were even then lit by tallow candles, the wicks tipped with turpentine by the College Janitor before being lighted. 31 Candles were placed in a frame hung from the ceiling and 2 candles attached to the desk or rostrum. Clearly this was the least satisfactory time of the day to conduct demonstrations or expect students to take much in the way of notes.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013