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.
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.
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!
As you may have noticed, we’re all posting on the theme of who? this month. In my last post I raised some biographical issues and introduced my main subject, Derek de Solla Price. So this time I’ll write about a significant supporting character: Sir Lawrence Bragg.
Bragg is justly famous in the history of science: he remains the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize (at the age of 25 he shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his father William Henry Bragg, for their work developing X-ray crystallography). The previous year he had been elected to a fellowship and lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge. During the First World War he developed techniques of sound ranging on the Western Front, and he succeeded Ernest Rutherford as Professor of Physics at Manchester University in 1919. In 1937 he was appointed Director of the National Physical Laboratory, but had not even left Manchester when Rutherford, who had moved to Cambridge, died. Against some misgivings from his father, Bragg replaced Rutherford again, this time as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.
It is as Cavendish Professor that he interests us. J. A. Ratcliffe, head of the radio ionosphere research group at the Cavendish and a trusted lieutenant of Bragg, had this to say about him:
A Cavendish Professor plays at least four parts. He must be a scientist, run the laboratory, uphold the interests of the department in the University, and act as an Elder Statesman of Science outside. Bragg was pre-eminently the active scientist, and he ran the laboratory extremely well. I do not think he played the part that some others have done in the University itself, and I am not sure that his part as Elder Statesman was quite as large as theirs would have been. I found him extremely helpful and kindly, and above all things a real gentleman in every way. He was quite open and straight-forward and ready to help anyone who had the good of the laboratory at heart. I think there was an extremely good feeling in the laboratory during his time and all liked him.
That’s a pretty glowing report for a boss to receive, and it is clear that Bragg excelled as a manager. As soon as he came to the Cavendish he was thinking strategically about how it needed to change, and he explained his ideas in 1942 in Physicists After the War: Britain produced just one good physicist per million population and the demand for physicists exceeded supply. In future, scientists would need to pay more attention to the technical applications of their research. His ideas in this field influenced Derek Price, who would go on to develop the field of scientometrics – the statistical study of science.
He felt his role as a manager was to create the conditions for discoveries to take place. The best conditions for “brain-waves”, he felt, involved collaboration, discussion, and cross-fertilisation of ideas. They did not arise in large, amorphous organisations, or come to isolated individuals. So he restructured the Cavendish into research units, of 6-12 scientists, with a few assistants, one or two mechanics, and a workshop. (It was apparently very important that the workshop be well supplied with junk, so that new ideas could be tried out quickly and at low cost.) The rapid expansion of the Cavendish (from about 40 researchers before WWII to 160 by 1948) meant that some research groups had to be sub-divided. Nevertheless, he promoted contact between groups, and encouraged senior researchers to continue teaching undergraduates, hoping that this would stimulate the flow of ideas.
The fact that each group had its own workshop (as well as a central workshop for the largest and most specialised tasks) meant that there was some duplication of functions. Bragg felt that it was better to have extra machines and occasional underemployment of technicians, than to delay research because the workshops were too busy.
It was in one of these workshops that King Arthur’s Table was built. Derek Price had come to the Cavendish to put the archives in order and catalogue the Laboratory’s collection of antique scientific instruments. Bragg supported Price’s application for an ICI Fellowship to fund his PhD studies on medieval astronomical instruments, and it seems likely that Bragg took advantage of the workshops’ flexibility to commission them to produce a six-foot wood and brass equatorium – rather different from their usual work in cutting-edge physics!
These kinds of jobs were done without paperwork, so I am unlikely to be able to discover the precise circumstances of the equatorium’s production. But I am glad to have discovered more about a major contributor to the success of the Cavendish Laboratory, and a key figure in twentieth-century science.
The (not very serious) working title for my project is King Arthur’s Table: From Cavendish to Whipple. As its starting point, it takes an object in the Whipple Museum nicknamed King Arthur’s Table. You can read about how I found this object on my blog; or just skip to the summary below.
SUMMARY: Six-foot model of an equatorium built for top historian of science Derek de Solla Price in 1950s. Long lost. Found but not identified and renamed “King Arthur’s Table” by witty cataloguer. Found in the Whipple stores by me, with help from the curators.
So what’s the research about?
King Arthur’s Table symbolizes a fascinating moment in the history of science and of Cambridge University. It was built in the Cavendish Laboratory – in the same building, at almost exactly the same time, that Crick and Watson were working on the structure of DNA. In the same year as that great breakthrough, 1953, Robert S. Whipple died. He had already made substantial donations to found a new museum and a new university department – History and Philosophy of Science – next door to the Cavendish.
Derek Price was one of the first people to work in the new Whipple Museum. He was friends with Lawrence Bragg, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate and director of the Cavendish. The “Table” was made for Price in the Cavendish workshops – a 20th-century replica of a 14th-century instrument that, despite not being “authentic”, was destined to hang in the new Museum of the History of Science.
Tracing this history, by studying contemporary documents as well as the instrument itself, I reckon I can learn a lot about the glory days of the Cavendish Laboratory, the foundation of the Whipple Museum, and History of Science as a new discipline and university department in the postwar years. There’s also lots to learn about the way museum collections are put together and curated; the way we view the past and its representation today.
Hopefully the “Table” will soon be back on display in the Whipple Museum after a gap of almost exactly 50 years, together with a computer model showing how it works. In the meantime, I’ll be blogging here and on my own blog as my research progresses. Check back soon for updates!