Archive by Author | Seb F

Symposium Video: King Arthur’s Table

Those who enjoyed listening to Sam Alberti’s excellent keynote address at the Connecting with Collections Symposium (posted on this blog last week) may be interested in another presentation from that day.

This is my paper on “King Arthur’s Table: Learning From a Replica Scientific Instrument“.  I have added the slides I used to an audio recording from the day.  I hope you enjoy watching it – please leave any feedback in the Comments section below.  You can find the abstract below the video.

“King Arthur’s Table” is not a table, nor has it anything to do with King Arthur. It is a twentieth-century reconstruction of a fourteenth-century astronomical instrument: a planetary equatorium described in a manuscript attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. Conceived by historian of science Derek Price as a huge, tangible realisation of Chaucerian astronomy for Cambridge’s then-newly-opened Whipple Museum of the History of Science, it was displayed, discarded, stored, catalogued with that rather whimsical name, and finally rediscovered.

This paper will use the biography of King Arthur’s Table as a route to understanding the early, inchoate years of both a museum and the discipline of history of science. Its construction in the Cavendish Laboratory, under the patronage of Sir Lawrence Bragg, and its first display at the Royal Society allow it to tell us much about the significant scientific institutions and figures of that period. Intended both as a replica instrument and as an homage to the life and work of a great historical figure, its own life story has reflected changing research priorities and curatorial attitudes, especially concerning reconstructions.


Symposium Keynote Address

The Connecting with Collections Symposium took place last Friday (27th September), and it was a great success.

We were lucky to have Sam Alberti, Director of Museums and Archives at the Royal College of Surgeons and Curator of their fabulous Hunterian Museum, as our keynote speaker.  The title of his presentation was Objects of Knowledge: Using Material Culture in Twentieth-Century Museums.

Sam Alberti

Sam kindly allowed us to record his paper, so that you lovely people can listen to it right here.  The abstract of the paper is below.

The way we use objects in collections of science, natural history and medicine has changed significantly over the past hundred years. In the early twentieth century, while natural science museums were are the peak of their prestige and influence as sites for the generation and reproduction of knowledge, other collections (especially of instruments) were deployed to commemorate scientific achievements. This heritage function expanded in the second half of the century as other sites challenged museums’ teaching and research roles.

Using national, university and medical school collections in the UK this paper presents episodes in the history of twentieth-century museums, from the well-documented interwar years to the historiographical terra incognita of the second half of the century. When and why do objects move from active use to reverential display? How did the relationship between museums and (their) universities change over the century? What role did material culture play in science, medicine and their histories in post-war Britain? Such questions help us to understand the use (and disuse) of museum objects in the construction, perpetuation, and professional identity of disciplines.

King Arthur’s Table

You are cordially invited to attend an informal talk about the eventful life of King Arthur’s Table.
Come and find out all about my research!  The event should last about 40 minutes.

The Whipple Museum is located on Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH.  Click here for a map.

Three Faces of Derek de Solla Price

I recently read a fascinating article about the early years of the discipline of history of science in Cambridge.  It was helpful to me in lots of ways but one idea the author, Anna-K Mayer, had was to examine various photographs of the key figures in that story – famous historians and scientists such as Herbert Butterfield and Joseph Needham.  These men were public figures, and they took care over how they appeared in photographs.  So we can get an idea of the public image they wanted to create of themselves from the photographs that survive of them.

I thought I’d look at three pictures of Derek de Solla Price, the subject of my research, with a similarly critical eye.  They are from different stages of his career, but all three were published.  There is a question, of course, about how much control he had over them, but even at a young age he had a thirst for publicity – within a couple of months of finding the Equatorie of the Planetis manuscript he had splashed the story in The Times.  So I’m confident that from the start of his career he had a fairly clear idea of how he wanted to be portrayed.  Anyway, here’s the first photo:

Price 1952 Varsity photo

It’s from Varsity, the Cambridge University newspaper, and accompanies the first article that was written about Price’s discovery of the manuscript.  Smartly dressed but youthful, gazing directly into the camera, he is every inch the confident, upstart young academic.  His mouth is slightly open, as if eager to enlighten us about what he has discovered.  And of course he is superimposed onto a picture of the manuscript, linking himself as firmly as possible with his discovery and his newfound career as a historical detective.

The next is this photo, courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University:

deSollaPrice_DJIn 1959 Price moved to Yale, where he became Avalon Professor of the History of Science, setting up a new department there.  This photo (left) was taken while he was at Yale, probably in around 1970.  It shows a more settled, thoughtful Price, who looks sidelong at us with a glance that is not unfriendly, but seems to assess us critically.  This is certainly how one would expect the avuncular expatriate English academic to appear.  The Englishness is emphasised with the pipe, which at that time would have reminded many people of former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (below).



The final photo was taken to accompany an interview with Price in the popular science magazine OMNI.  The photographer was Malcolm Kirk, a noted portraitist, and the date was August 1982, when Price was 60 – just a year before he died.


Price still has his pipe, but this is a wholly different shot.  With the pale-rimmed glasses and dark suit, he is more dignified than before.  He is photographed from above, making him smaller and certainly less scary than in the previous photo, but he is also leaning forward – there is no sense of retirement for this 60-year-old.  He looks directly at the camera, not aggressively, but inquisitively and again somewhat critically.  The strapline on the accompanying article called him “Yale’s iconoclastic historian of science”, and the photograph conveys a vivid impression of this.  With a model of the Antikythera Mechanism in front of him, this is no distant theoretician, but a man who knows about things – really complicated things.

It’s always useful to remind ourselves that a picture, even a  photograph, can never be taken at face value.  It is the result of a huge number of decisions on the part of artist and subject: clothes; hairstyle, lighting, props, background, body language, facial expression, and so on.  We may not always control these consciously, but they can still be revealing.  And by comparing photographs from different times, we can get a good idea of how someone’s image can change.  It may be an image they wish to promote, or an unvarnished self-image, or a combination of the two – but whichever it is, it gives us plenty to think about.

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!

Stories from the Archives: Why?

In a previous post I introduced one of the main subjects of my research: the historian of science Derek de Solla Price.  Price, you’ll recall, was studying for his second PhD here in Cambridge when he discovered the Equatorie of the Planetis manuscript in the library of Peterhouse.  As part of his research, he had what we’re calling King Arthur’s Table built at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Price c. 1948, shortly before coming to Cambridge; courtesy of the Price family.

Price c. 1948, shortly before coming to Cambridge; courtesy of the Price family.

My research has raised lots of questions about Price.  These are interesting not only from a biographical point of view, but also for anyone curious about the atmosphere in which the history of science was launched as a separate discipline in Cambridge in the 1940s and 1950s.  The most obvious of these questions is: why did Price, at the age of 28, suddenly decide to become a historian of science?

This was a big decision.  In 1950 he already had a PhD in metal physics, and was teaching applied mathematics at the then University of Malaya, in Singapore.  He was aged 28, with a wife and baby daughter.  His work was going well: his boss at the University described him as “a very stimulating and helpful teacher.”  But something made him give up his job and move halfway across the world.  He came to Cambridge with no prospect of a job and no real idea of what he was going to do.  Why?

With the help of the archives of Cambridge University and the Royal Institution, I have been able to go some way towards answering this question.  Fortunately, Cambridge’s Board of Research Studies kept a file for Price, which still exists in the University archives.  In addition, Sir Lawrence Bragg, who was a mentor to Price (and about whom I’ve blogged previously), kept a good deal of correspondence relating to him; this is now at the Royal Institution.

When Price was considering coming to Cambridge, the historian C. Northcote Parkinson, who was a colleague of his at the University of Malaya but had previously been a fellow of Emmanuel College, wrote to the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield.  (Parkinson is now best remembered as the inventor of Parkinson’s Law, familiar to all students: work expands to fill the time available.)  Parkinson wrote:

A younger colleague of mine here, an applied mathematician with knowledge of physics, has been taking a great interest of late in the history of science…  I think his career may have suffered a little from the breadth of his interests…  His work latterly has been historical and he has been fortunate in having here a complete set of the Transactions of the Royal Society…

He tells me that he means to return to England in December on the general principle that if he does not return soon he will not return at all.  And he wants, if possible, to find a post as a lecturer in the history of science…  So I have taken the liberty of writing to you… to ask whether there is any opportunity going for Dr Price.

Sure enough, Price did return to England in December 1950.  He found a small house in Cambridge and from there wrote to A.R. (Rupert) Hall, who was the University’s only lecturer in history of science, as well as part-time curator of the Whipple collection (which did not yet have a home).  Hall told Bragg about Price’s letter:

I am not quite clear what he wants, but I shall be getting in touch with him immediately.  I know that he would like either a Research Fellowship or University post, but it seems to me that there is no chance of either for him at the moment here…

He would also like to work in Cambridge on a research grant, and I should be very pleased to see him here, and give him all the help I can…  But it does seem to depend rather on money from elsewhere.

Bragg suspected that there might be some pressing problem that made Price want to leave Singapore, and urged Hall to investigate.  Both Hall and Butterfield met with Price, who decided to submit an application to study for a PhD in early 1951.  Butterfield wrote to W. J. Sartain, the Secretary of the Board of Research Studies:

He definitely gave me the impression of a person moving to the History of Science as a result of a long-standing interest in the subject and a real internal urge.  I have had many applications from people wanting to try something on in the History of Science, but on the whole I am quite prepared to believe that Mr. Price is a person we ought to observe and take care of.

Finally, it’s worth quoting Price’s own words, in his application statement:

The subject of the research that I desire to pursue is “The History of Scientific Instrument Making“… Recent developments in the History of Science have clearly indicated the important role of changes in accuracy and design of instruments in the advancement of scientific knowledge…

My professional work as a physicist and my teaching experience have given me a rather wide acquaintance with the use and construction of scientific instruments, and it is this knowledge that I propose to use in the assessment of accuracy and design of early instruments.

So, contrary to Bragg’s suspicions about professional problems, or fear about political upheavals in Malaya, it was a simple case of an unfulfilled passion.  (Of course there’s certainly more to say about Price’s implicit assumption that scientific knowledge and experience were the most important attributes in charting the apparent linear progress of the sciences.)  Price certainly showed his passion when he started his studies in Cambridge, wasting no time in making a name for himself.  He was, of course, to go on to become a successful academic and celebrated analyst of the growth of science.

King Arthur’s Table goes on display

Last Friday was a proud day, as the object I re-discovered and am now researching went on display at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.  Here it is in its new home:


The smaller model is the one I built (see my blog for the full story).  We’re displaying both models as an example of research in the Museum, and the work of the Connecting with Collections project.  The glass panel will soon be replaced by a larger one, to allow room for updates on the progress of my research.

This is the second week of the Cambridge Science Festival.  Last Saturday the Whipple Museum had a special opening for Science Saturday, and I gave three short talks about my research, and about medieval astronomy more generally.  The visitors seemed to enjoy getting to grips with the astrolabes!

Why not go and check out King Arthur’s Table?  You can even come back here and leave a comment!  The Museum is open Monday to Friday, 12.30-4.30 p.m, and it’s completely free.  There are special tours and object handling sessions this afternoon, and on Friday afternoon – just drop in.

University of Cambridge Museums

Archive of projects, events and news from 2012 to May 2017