Tag Archive | equatorium

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.


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!

My New Project: King Arthur’s Table

I’m Seb Falk, one of the new Connecting with Collections interns.  This is my research project.  (This post is cross-posted from my blog http://astrolabesandstuff.co.uk.)

ImageThe (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.


King Arthur’s Table

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!

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