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The Lab in the Museum. Or, Using New Scientific Instruments to Look at Old Scientific Instruments

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This paper explores the use of new scientific techniques to examine collections of historic scientific apparatus and other technological artefacts. One project under discussion uses interferometry to examine the history of lens development; another uses X-ray fluorescence to discover the kinds of materials used to make early mathematical and astronomical instruments. These methods lead to surprising findings: instruments turn out to be fake; lens makers turn out to have been adept at solving the riddle of aperture. Although exciting, in some ways this is neither novel nor particularly unusual. After all, lab techniques have been used in art and archaeological collections for a very long time. In fact, scientific instruments themselves have been examined in this way since at least the 1950s. What, then is special about the use of new instruments to examine old instruments? We argue that the answer has less to do with measuring historical innovation or establishing priority, and more to do with networks of craft know-how that, typically, have left no other historical traces than those embodied in surviving instruments themselves. We show, in particular, how collections of objects can be mobilised within wider histories of knowledge, placing instruments within a dynamic interplay of craft knowledge, expertise, labour, commerce, and material exchange, over the longue durée. Finally, we suggest that these kinds of lab analyses can be given an extra dimension through the use of computational modelling, and we introduce the ‘Tools of Knowledge’ project, which is designed to bring together XRF with techniques from the digital humanities, in order to tell a new story about the development of scientific instruments from the 16th to the 20th century.



50 Philosophy and Religious Studies, 5002 History and Philosophy Of Specific Fields

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Brepols Publishers NV
AHRC (AH/T013400/1)
Research part-funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council Grant AH/T013400/1

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