Archive | April 2013

Stories from the Archives: How to make and move an equatorium

At the start of this project I was only hoping to find some documentation linked to the equatorium that Derek Price built – so I was amazed when I found the equatorium itself.  It’s now on display in the Whipple Museum for the History of Science (open Monday-Friday, 12.30-4.30; admission free).

But I still haven’t found much of the documentation I was searching for in the first place.  I imagined I’d be able to track down at least a few references to the equatorium in the archives… but I’ve had little luck.  As always, of course, we researchers are dependent on what people thought was worth keeping.  In my case, because both the Cavendish Laboratory and Derek de Solla Price made big moves (to west Cambridge and the USA, respectively) not long after the equatorium was made, very few papers are conserved from that period.

However, I have had a little luck in other archives, and with the help of Derek Price’s family I’ve been able to piece together a few more details about the early life of King Arthur’s Table.

As I explained in a previous post, it was made in the Cavendish Laboratory, which was run at the time by Sir Lawrence Bragg.  Bragg had deliberately structured the Cavendish to create plenty of spare capacity in the workshops, so that experiments would never be delayed for want of a particular piece of equipment.  This helps explain how it was that a History student was able to get a model of a medieval astronomical instrument made by technicians who were more used to working on cutting-edge apparatus for experiments in molecular biology or metal physics.

What I hadn’t realised was how quickly Price got the model made.  He first examined the manuscript in December 1951 and within weeks, it seems, refocused his entire research to place this one document at the centre.  As his diary shows, by March he was ready to make a model of the instrument described in the manuscript.

DJP Cam Diary 1952a

The model – King Arthur’s Table – was certainly complete by May, because that month Price showed it off at a “Conversazione” at the Royal Society in London.  (In fact it’s likely that the opportunity to describe his research at the Royal Society was a significant spur to the model’s production.)

One thing I’d been wondering about this episode is how Price was able to move the model to the Royal Society.  After all, it was stuck in storage for many years precisely because it was too big to fit in a car!  As it turns out, Price had some help.  In the private papers of Rupert Hall, Price’s supervisor and the first curator of the Whipple Museum, I came across a note detailing the travel arrangements for the Conversazione.  As neither Price nor the Museum had the capacity to transport such an item, Hall arranged to borrow the Chemical Laboratory van for the day.  The note instructs Hall to contact “a Mr Thompson” in the Department of Chemistry, in order to make the final arrangements.

In themselves, such diary entries and typewritten notes provide little information.  But they are small pieces of a much larger puzzle; it is through such scattered evidence that we must attempt to construct a coherent narrative.  I’ve realised how unlikely I am to have a “Eureka!” moment in the archives.  Rather, one must be grateful for whatever small titbits on offer, and make the best possible use of them in building better historical understanding.

Coming soon: Next week I’ll be building another equatorium – using brass this time.  Come back soon to read all about it!


Where and How? The making of school samplers.

Sampler making was taught in schools across the country, as well as in Europe and also India.  Usually the school mistress would present the girls with a model sampler to copy, resulting in many similar versions of the original.  This gave a particular school a distinctive sampler style, such as samplers from the Bristol Orphan House and St Clement Danes.

The samplers that I am researching are typical of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English school samplers more generally as only a few needlework techniques are employed on linen or wool ground. As samplers were now mass produced in schools across the country less emphasis was placed on technical ability. Some of the techniques found in the Fitzwilliam school samplers are described below:

Cross stitch– two stitches forming a cross (X).

Satin/Filling stitch– a series of smooth stitches used to completely cover a section of a background.

Double running stitch– in a running stitch, the needle passes in and out of the fabric, and in double running stitch there is a second row of running stitches worked in a reverse direction in between the stitches of the first pass, making a solid of line of stitching.

Algerian eye stitch– eight straight stitches emanate from a central hole to create a star shape. 

Florentine stitch– straight stitch worked vertically including running and repeated patterns using counted threads. 

Four sided cross stitch– cross stitch variation which outlines the squares on the fabric.

Where? A trip north of the border…

I have recently returned from a visit to Scotland to see the plaster cast collections in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Edinburgh it was the Trustees’ Academy, founded in the late eighteenth century, that built a teaching collection of plaster casts for the teaching of drawing. This collection was augmented when the Academy shifted its institutional identity under the Department of Science and Art from 1858. The casts are now distributed between Edinburgh College of Art, the Scottish National Gallery and the University of Edinburgh.

Heading west, I visited the Glasgow School of Art, where the curator Peter Trowles was kind enough to share his knowledge of their extensive collections. The archive of the GSA is particularly rich in the ephemera related to the acquisition of plaster casts, with a wealth of useful invoices and correspondence from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was particularly gratifying to see several Brucciani casts dating from the same period as those here at the Museum of Classical Archaeology. I am also grateful to the Archives and Collections Assistant, Michelle Kaye, for locating some fascinating archival material that will really help to contextualise my research in Cambridge.

At Edinburgh College of Art, with additional headgear...

Naukydes Discobolos
At Edinburgh College of Art, with additional headgear…

At Glasgow School of Art, he's 'armless...

Naukydes Discobolos
At Glasgow School of Art, he’s ‘armless…

Stories from the Archives: Rememberance of Zoologists Past

Part of my research has been preparing and writing updates for Wikipedia based on the collections and curators from the history of the Museum. This has led me into the archives of the Zoology Museum, and it has been a fascinating journey into the worlds of the gentleman-naturalist, the colonial administrator-cum-ornithologist and the activities of the Victorian collector and enthusiast. The myriad strange, wonderful, and often heartrendingly poignant, routes through which this incredible collection of birds, animals and fossils arrived at Cambridge University are fascinating. Anyone with a penchant to write a social history of zoology, or social network analysis of 19th century museum collections would have research material galore in these archives. A little taster of some of the stories contained in the archives comes from the historical correspondence, collated by Dr L.C Rookmaaker in 2004….

Museum of Zoology specimen: Skeleton of the Giant Ground Sloth, Megatherium americanum

Museum of Zoology specimen: Skeleton of the Giant Ground Sloth, Megatherium americanum

Tigers from Malaysia 1898
“The skeletons belong to a mother and cub Tiger. The tigress was notorious for killing cattle and goats. It was difficult to keep her skeleton intact because people use the bones for medicine and magic. The missing leg must have been stolen.”

Fish and Goat from America 1894
“A fish sent yesterday came from a bay south of New York. Bought a wild goat in British Columbia and if the skeleton turns up, it will be sent to Cambridge. The goats can jump onto rocks without problem.”

Fossils from Argentina 1900
“The collection includes carapace and bones of Glyptodont, tusks, bones and teeth of Mastodont and the Megatherium. They were found near the Que Quen Chico and Que Quen Grande.”

Stories from the Archives: Where? International Botanic Connections

This research project focuses on the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (CUBG) – in particular the eastern half of the Botanic Garden from the 1950s – so the answer to the question: ‘Where?’ may seem entirely obvious.  Nevertheless, by their very nature, botanic gardens are outward-looking national and international, as well as local institutions.  Indeed one of CUBG’s key aims is ‘to extend knowledge of the Botanic Garden, its collections and its activities within the local, national and international communities’.  The interests of the CUBG have always extended far beyond the confines of the thirty-eight acres plot between Hills Road and Trumpington Road in Cambridge.

Another key aim of CUBG is ‘to maintain a correctly-named and professionally-curated living collection representing the diversity of terrestrial green plants’. Diversity is an old French word which means ‘different or varied’.  It was in the 1980s that the word was allied with ‘bio’ to create the term ‘biodiversity’, the ‘diversity of plant and animal life’, yet the desire to collect and study plants from across the globe has long been one of the keystones of this Botanic Garden and indeed all botanic gardens.


Humphrey Gilbert-Carter, Director of the Cambridge Botanic Garden, 1921 – 1950
Image: CUBG

The annual reports of the Botanic Garden reveal local, national and international connections of the Garden were thriving before and after WWII, although these were curtailed during the war years (1939 – 1945).  For example, in 1934, the then-director, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter (1921-1950) used his annual travel allowance towards a Christmas collecting trip to Barbados and Trinidad.  Such exotic trips were atypical however.  More usual in the 1930s were visits to European botanic gardens.  Gilbert-Carter visited Walsertal in Austria in 1937, Norway in 1938, the Savoy region of France in 1939 and Denmark in 1940.  At the same time, Bob Younger, his Garden Superintendent (now known as Curator), travelled the breath of Britain, visiting botanic gardens, private gardens and commercial nurseries to collect and swap seeds.  After WWII, Gilbert-Carter’s final foreign visit as director was to the Copenhagen Botanic Garden, Denmark in 1947.  Gilbert-Carter retired in September 1950 and John Gilmour succeeded as director in March 1951.

Each year, contributions are received from – and distributed to – British and international botanic gardens and horticultural institutions.  The CUBG annual report for 14th November 1951 notes the annual donations for that year; contributions were received from sixty-seven Botanic Gardens and horticultural institutions from Adelaide to Zürich, as well as fifteen British botanic organizations.

In addition to such institutional exchanges, as part of Cambridge University, the Botanic Garden is also the recipient of seeds, plants and other materials from students, staff, associates and other generous donors.  Another entry in the 1951 annual report notes contributions from over fifty donors, including seeds and fern spores from Colombia, succulents from South America as well as seeds from the Aegean and Western Anatolia. In the following year – 1952 – several plant-collecting exhibitions were being sponsored in Spain, New Zealand, Ecuador and Turkey, ‘which have resulted in the addition of a large number of interesting plants to the Garden’.

Although geographically the Cambridge University Botanic Garden may be confined within thirty-eight acres, it is a microcosm of the wider world.  This world is seen through the lens of British and international botanic gardens, Cambridge alumni, academics, travellers, explorers and scientists, all of whom are interested in preserving, studying and understanding the flora of the world we inhabit.

Pippa Lacey

University of Cambridge Museums

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