Demonstrating history: an undergraduate class visit to MHS

Students receive first-hand experience of the challenges of using early telescopes

The class gain hands-on experience of history with replica Galilean telescopes.

Guest post by Dr Michael Bycroft, whose University of Warwick undergraduate history class visited the Museum for an afternoon of talks and hands-on experience with instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries.


As every historian of 18th-century experimental philosophy knows, lectures and instruments are an excellent couple. It’s all very well to hold forth in front of a powerpoint presentation, but there’s nothing like a real-life orrery or electric machine to pull in the punters. It was with this philosophy in mind that I approached the curators at MHS about the possibility of putting on some rational entertainment for the second-year undergraduates who are taking my 20-lecture course on early modern science (get in quick! only 7 lectures left this year! free with a £9000 subscription to the University of Warwick!).

Unlike figures from the period such as Francis Hauksbee and Benjamin Martin, I do not make my own scientific instruments and have no shop in which to demonstrate them. However I did have the help of two MHS curators (Stephen Johnston and Sophie Waring), and this turned out to be more than enough. With a bit of information from me about the content of the lectures, including an outrageously ambitious list of desiderata, they put together a 3-hour programme of displays and demonstrations that worked in its own right and yet tied in nicely with the course.

Beginning the visit

Stephen and the telescopes cropped

Assistant Keeper Dr Stephen Johnston invites the students to handle and use instruments of navigation and astronomy.

The visit began on a Monday afternoon at 2:30pm, with the drawing of the chunky steampunk lock that sits on the front door of the Museum and that is on its own worth the trip to Oxford. The students were handed an A4 piece of paper with the programme on one side and a list of essay questions cunningly printed on the other. Thanks to the flexibility of the curators, the visit was timed to coincide not only with two lectures on experimental philosophy and natural history, but also with the publication of the list of questions that students will answer in their next two assignments.

We began in the Entrance Gallery with two pairs of armillary spheres, showing both the ancient Ptolemaic theory of the universe, with a stationary earth at the centre, and the Copernican, with the earth a planet orbiting a central sun. Some were complete spheres and some were cut away to more clearly reveal the position of the planets — a nice illustration of the pedagogical power of inanimate objects. A nearby set of telescopes and microscopes gave us a chance to reflect on different kinds of instrument — the mathematical, the optical, and even the philosophical. A microscope with its own specimen slides, little pieces of pre-packaged nature, was an introduction to science as a commodity.

More object lessons awaited us in the basement. The students knew from one of the lectures that the Museum building contained a chemical laboratory as well as a natural history collection when it opened in 1683, and that the first curator, Robert Plot, used the laboratory to search for the universal solvent (and also, presumably, an indestructible vessel to hold it in). A display of 17th-century chemical vessels brought this story to life. So did Stephen’s description of the encrustations of 17th-century soot discovered in the ceiling of the room during renovations in the years around 2000. There was a labelled skull alongside the vessels. It reminded us that this was once an anatomy theatre as well as a chemical laboratory and a school of natural history. Three domains of nature, all being taught in a university building in the 17th century — clearly there was more to early modern science than the Academies and Societies we have heard about in the lectures!

Spreading 18th century science

After a brief encounter with an orrery and an air pump, we moved on to the Seminar Room under the cobbles to feast our eyes on the literary and instrumental remains of Benjamin Martin, itinerant lecturer, author, publisher, instrument maker and all-round impresario of science in the mid-18th century. This was something new for the students. They knew about Boyle’s air pump and Hooke’s microscope, but had not yet heard my harangue about the rise of public science in the 18th century. The question arises naturally, though—the new science existed, so how did it spread? The first thing we learned is that it did not spread by itself. It relied on a whole economy of instruments and handbooks and magazines and polemical tracts, much of it represented, in all its concreteness, on the table before us.

Sophie is seen demonstrating history with the Grand Universal microscope (inv. 53159)

Curator Dr Sophie Waring framed by Benjamin Martin’s Grand Universal microscope.

Another lesson was that science spread in several directions at once. Martin’s two-foot Grand Universal microscope, with its intricate brass feet and infinite adjustments, was not meant for the same customers as the more modest instrument that Stephen took out of a little wooden box. And Martin’s General Magazine of the Arts and Sciences, packed with mathematical puzzles and outlandish inventions, did not do the same work in the 18th century as the tedious table of numbers inside the Nautical Almanac—even if advertisements for both of these publications appeared on the classified pages of 18th-century newspapers, as we found out when Sophie gave us a short tutorial on the use of the British Library’s online database of early newspapers. Handily, the database is available from the University of Warwick library—a good starting-point for student essays.

Demonstrating history through telescopes

The Nautical Almanac led us to astronomy, and in turn to the Board of Longitude, the lunar distance method and the story of how an emerging group of professional astronomers fought for control over the Almanac and its endless numbers at the turn of the 19th century. By now it was 4:15, and according to the programme we were 15 minutes late for afternoon tea. But no-one seemed in need of refreshment—on the contrary—so instead of going to the café across the road we looked at it, through the four replica Galileo telescopes that the curators had laid out for us on the top floor. This exercise was at once surprisingly easy (I can read the words on that guy’s mug!) and impressively difficult (how did Galileo map the moon with this thing—it’s so shaky and squinty—let alone discover the moons of Jupiter?).

More instruments provided a hands-on exploration of the connections between navigation and astronomy, and we also moved from sea to land with a large-scale observatory quadrant attached to the wall. This mural quadrant reminded us why we were there. It’s one thing to sit in a lecture hall and look at a picture on a screen, it’s another thing to see the instrument in the flesh, to look closely at the divisions on the scale, to puzzle over the fact that there are two slightly different scales, and to be told that the divisions were considered so precise that no-one was allowed to enter the room when the engraver was marking the divisions off, for fear that extra body heat would mess up future measurements by causing the metal to expand.

Newtonian Reflecting Telescope, by Sir William Herschel, English, c. 1795 17971

We finished off the tour at 5:30pm in front of a William Herschel telescope (pictured) with Stephen telling the story of this 18th-century musician and composer who discovered an entire branch of astronomy in his spare time. Science was not complete in 1800: there were still new publics to attract, new instruments to build, new questions to ask—and much to look forward to in Warwick, where the 20-lecture course continues next week. The final word goes to the students. On my way home I bumped into one who, without the least amount of prompting, told me that the visit and the curators were ‘cool’. Coming from a discerning 19-year-old, this is very high praise.

An Orrery for an Arts Award

Silver Arts Award at the Museum of the History of Science

In this guest post Miranda Millward, Oxford University Museums Arts Coordinator, talks about a recent Silver Arts Award.


In 2014 Hovnan Eayrs approached the Museum of the History of Science to ask if he could work towards his Silver Arts Award. Hovnan planned to create a short informative film about a museum object which visitors could access during their museum visit by scanning a QR code with their smartphone. This idea was inspired by work experience Hovnan had undertaken at Imperial College as a Learning Technologist working on short films to help students understand scientific information. Hovnan also took inspiration from a visit to the Royal Institution where interpretation films are activated by scanning QR codes. Silver Arts Award requires young people to set themselves an Arts Challenge to develop their artistic and creative skills – Hovnan chose film making as his challenge.

A table orrery held in the Museum surrounded by its component parts.

The table orrery featured in Hovnan’s video with all its attachments (inv. 45104).

Hovnan spent time in the Museum looking at a number of objects and in the end chose to make his film about an orrery on permanent display. An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system that demonstrates and predicts the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons – orreries were often used in domestic settings as a way to show contemporary science. Hovnan was interested in this object not only because of its history and visual qualities but also because it gave him the chance to film a moving object. Opposite the orrery’s display case is a print of a famous painting by Joseph Wright of Derby showing an orrery in a domestic setting with a family gathered around it. Hovnan wanted to highlight the juxtaposition of artefact and print.

In order to make his film Hovnan spent time planning and creating storyboards. He negotiated with museum staff to establish how and when he could access the object, which could only be handled by trained museum staff. Hovnan used the museum’s photographic studio where he was able to adjust lighting in order to minimise reflections. Hovnan was keen to link the Joseph Wright of Derby painting with a contemporary family looking at the orrery and this section closes the film. In addition, he created a script and recorded Chris Parkin, Education Lead at the Museum, narrating the voice over. The editing was time-consuming but the resulting film received some great feedback:

One of the highlights was to see the orrery in action… this is something that really enhances our understanding of this exhibit.

The film created a good atmosphere with the pace of the shots, the fades of the ‘celestial’ music up and down between the narration, and the combination of video and stills material. The script packs in plenty of information but is easy to follow and links tightly with the imagery.

As part of his Silver Arts Award Hovnan also had to undertake an Arts Leadership challenge. He chose to focus on working with a group of young people teaching them how to create a storyboard and plan their own short film. Hovnan had to plan and deliver this session, collect feedback and also evaluate how the session had gone and how he could have improved it.

By summer 2015 Hovnan’s portfolio was ready for moderation and we were all delighted when he passed and received some lovely feedback from the Arts Award moderator.

Hovan with his Arts Award Certificate

Hovnan with his Arts Award Certificate

‘It was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn and develop new skills from knowledgeable and experienced people and understand the challenges of making a film. I’m proud to have created something that is interesting and informative.’

‘The Arts Award is perfectly suited to support motivated young individuals like Hovnan to develop their arts skills outside formal education. As well as producing an excellent film, Hovnan gained experience of working with members of staff in a busy institution. It was a great pleasure to work with him.’
– Chris Parkin, Education Officer

What happens to loan objects?

A stretch of red wall in the exhibition with a quote on the far left, and then a a number of frames containing exhibition text and images from Hooke's Micrographia.Earlier in 2015 the National Library of Wales took on two loan objects from MHS, which feature in their exhibition ‘The Secret Workings of Nature’: Robert Hooke and Early ScienceIn this guest post Dr Geraint Phillips, the Exhibition Curator, tells us a little about the exhibition and the combination of artifacts, images and ideas within the display area.


Our exhibition, ‘The Secret Workings of Nature’: Robert Hooke and Early Science, at the National Library of Wales, was conceived to mark the 350th anniversary of the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia. It explores the significance of Micrographia within the context of the Scientific Revolution and seeks to show how the rise of modern science was made possible by the invention of the telescope and the microscope. The exhibition features early books and manuscripts from our own collections together with two loan objects from MHS: an English hand held refracting telescope from c. 1680 (inv. 15115) and a John Marshall compound microscope, c. 1700 (inv. 46463).

The exhibition is situated in our rare materials display area and contains four cases, covering astronomy and the telescope, The Royal Society and the Baconian method, the development of mathematics, and the rise of biology.

The telescope sent on loan to the exhibition rests in the centre of the case on a pillow, with a letter displayed to its right.

The hand-held refracting telescope inside the exhibition case.

The earliest item is a copy of the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge (London, 1556) a treatise on cosmology which includes an early and subtly favourable reference to the Copernican theory of a heliocentric cosmos. We have placed the telescope between Recorde’s book and our copy of Galileo’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Florence, 1632) in order to show how modern science began in 1610, when Galileo pointed a refracting telescope at the heavenly bodies, proving Copernicus right and establishing that Aristotle could be proved wrong.

This display case on astronomy also includes a letter, dated 1782, from the great eighteenth-century botanist, and President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, describing William and Caroline Herschel’s construction of a forty foot telescope for the exploration of deep space.

If the invention of the telescope enabled Galileo to prove that the earth moves around the sun, the development of the microscope introduced the challenging idea that there is more to the visual world than the eye can register. The potential of the microscope was brought home to the general reader in 1665, with the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia. Our copy of the book has been opened to show Christopher Wren’s startlingly accurate drawing of a flea, now one of the icons of scientific literature.

A picture of the microscope on loan to the National Library of Wales inside the exhibitions display case, with an image from Hooke's Micrographia to the right.

The John Marshall compound microscope next to the National Library of Wales’ copy of Hooke’s Micrographia

The Marshall microscope, with its accessories, sits alongside Micrographia, in a case which also includes books by Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Following the publication of Micrographia, there was a huge demand for compound microscopes among gentleman amateurs, and English instrument makers, such as John Marshall, obliged by copying Hooke’s design.

We believe that the inclusion of these two beautiful loan objects from MHS has greatly enriched our exhibition. And we are very grateful to Lucy Blaxland, Collections Manager at MHS, for bringing them to Aberystwyth and facilitating the loan. On a purely aesthetic level they complement our own books and manuscripts, and give balance to the display. We also hope that they have enhanced our visitors’ understanding of the world of 17th-century science by showing how the ideas expressed in our books and manuscripts have their origins in practical experimentation using physical apparatus. Above all, they underline our exhibition’s fundamental theme: that great advances in science are often brought about by the invention of ways of seeing what had previously been unseen.


By Dr Geraint Phillips