Christmas has come early for MHS!

Astrolabe Inv14645

We have written before about the different ways that new items come into the Museum’s permanent collection – through auctions, donations and other routes. An important source of new material is that given by private donors, and the Museum has been fortunate to receive two recent donations in this way.

Astrolabe Inv14645

Single Plate Universal Astrolabe, European, 15th Century with Later Additions (inv. 14645)

medieval European astrolabe, pictured above and to the right, was given anonymously and will be added to the existing collection of astrolabes which is already the largest and most important in the world. So why add yet another astrolabe to the collection? Is it just a specialist desire to complete the set?

Astrolabes are fascinating ancient devices which capture the apparent movements of the sun and stars in the sky. They were used in astronomy, time-telling, astrology and religion across cultures, time and places. But the latest arrival is an unusual design which the Museum does not have. It includes a universal plate for use anywhere on Earth, providing important new evidence of the transmission of advanced Islamic innovations to 15th-century Europe.

More than that, this new acquisition is an example of a medieval device that has been adapted and reworked in the 16th century: it tells a story of the Renaissance recycling rather than rejecting the Middle Ages. So yes, there is something of the completing-the-set mentality in our excitement at its arrival.

A second recent donation helps tell the story of the development of Elliott Brothers, an innovative British firm founded in the mid-19th century, and with origins in the late 18th century. The company produced instruments for navigation, surveying, calculating, telegraphy, optics, and mechanical and electrical engineering, for clients including the British Admiralty and War Office and the East India Company.

Material from the early production at Elliott Brothers has been painstakingly assembled over a number of years by Mr Ron Bristow, a retired engineer and manager with the business. Although the Museum already holds material from the company in its Elliott Collection, Ron Bristow’s items complement this by revealing more about the early stages of the business, as he explains:

The Elliott Brothers company collection, now in the Museum, had no items from before about 1850, even though the business began in about 1804. So I wondered what they did and what they made in those years.

Mr Ron Bristow with Museum director Dr Silke Ackermann

Mr Ron Bristow with Museum director Dr Silke Ackermann

Using addresses traced by Dr Gloria Clifton in the Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers, 1550-1851, Ron Bristow began to seek out early Elliott Brothers material, acquiring items from antiques fairs, friendly dealers, and auctions. After collecting objects from most of the early company addresses identified in the Directory, Ron decided that the material should remain together as a collection in its own right:

I always had in mind that the examples I had found should remain as a single collection and I am very pleased that the Museum of the History of Science is able to accept it in a safe and accessible way, where it will complement the company collection of later material.

Although many of the mathematical and drawing instruments in the Bristow Collection are quite standard, they offer examples of instruments made by several generations of a single craft dynasty. This illustrates developments in design and manufacturing style or technique, as well as the transmission of skills, first from craftsman to craftsman, and then to the skilled workforce of the larger company.

Both the astrolabe and the 28 items in the Bristow Collection will be accessioned to the Museum’s permanent collection, which continues to grow year by year. Excitingly, the Museum is also in the process of organising a new exhibition in the entrance gallery opening on 19 January 2016. This will allow for the display of these wonderful new acquisitions, and demonstrate the continued vitality of collecting in the modern museum, and the donations, grants and benefactors that make it possible.

There will also be two evening events in February and March to celebrate these objects. On Tuesday 9 February we will be hosting, Beyond the Archive, a conversation illuminating the back story the Bristow Collection with the donor, Ron Bristow. On Tuesday 8 March Dr Stephen Johnston will present the first research results on the European astrolabe, and its relationship to Renaissance recycling in Recycling the Astrolabe. You can book a free ticket to these events through our Eventbrite page here.

Capturing the invisible

X-Ray diffraction

This weekend sees the international launch of this year’s Big Draw, an initiative to encourage people of all ages to draw. It’s happening across Oxford on Saturday 19 September, and we are getting involved with a rather unusual take on drawing…

PrintFor our X-Ray Line event we are interested not in the things that are easily seen and drawn, but in things which are normally invisible. Atomic structures, subatomic particles, crystal lattices and chains of molecules: these are structures revealed only through special processes, but which provide great inspiration for the creation of drawings and sculpture.

The idea of making the invisible visible comes from our current special exhibition, Dear Harry, which looks at the life and death, in World War One, of Henry Moseley, a physicist whose work on the X-ray spectra of elements in the early 20th century helped to determine atomic number and bring new rigour to the periodic table of elements.

Ushering in Moseley’s work was the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, which led to a whole new field of experimental techniques including X-ray spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography. This opened up an invisible world of atomic and molecular structure.

Electron density model of penicillin molecule (inv. 17631) resulting from crystallography experiments carried out by Dorothy Hodgkin in Oxford

Electron density model of penicillin molecule (inv. 17631) resulting from crystallography experiments carried out by Dorothy Hodgkin in Oxford

The forms, structures and patterns revealed by these techniques have inspired artists and designers to create a variety of works, notably by the Festival Pattern Group for the 1951 Festival of Britain. For the Big Draw launch we’ll be looking at these forms and inviting visitors – especially adults, but open to all – to use a range of source materials to help construct a three-dimensional model reflecting molecular structures.

There are some wonderful images that derive from those early X-ray experiments in crystallography and spectroscopy prompting wonder and philosophical speculation – they are great images in themselves. Our X-Ray Line event is deliberately intended to appeal to adults – why should kids have all the fun! – Chris Parkin, Education Officer at the Museum

Cloud chamber - Tom Cox

Cloud chamber by Tom Cox

There’s drawing too, of course. Shadow drawings will be created through a light projection and screen, suggesting an analogue to the experimental process of interrogating structure with light, or indeed X-rays. And the Museum’s camera obscuras will be set up outside the Bodleian’s Weston Library, pointing at some of Oxford’s famous architecture, so visitors can experience the magic of drawing with this simple yet powerful optical tool.

Chladni plates

Chladni patterns will be revealed by Annie Wright

We have some collaborators coming along as well. Two artists from Oxford Brookes University’s MA course in Social Sculpture will be presenting related themes from their own work.

Tom Cox’s ‘Temporal Becoming’ is a piece which invites participants to experience the mysteries of the cloud chamber and the patterns induced in it by tiny charged particles. Annie Wright is interested in elemental composition and hidden patterns in materials and will be demonstrating the intriguing phenomenon of Chladni patterns.

So head to the Museum on Saturday 19 September, investigate the invisible and hopefully become inspired to create some drawing and sculpture of your own.