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Oxford's Museum of the History of Science

by Sean McLachlan

ArmillaryVisitors to Oxford are sure to stroll down Broad Street, at the heart of the town's historic center. Attracted by the famous curved facade of the Sheldonian Theatre, many miss the modest white building tucked next to it. Here is one of the hidden gems of Oxford, an unusual collection of artifacts called the Museum of the History of Science.

The building was erected in 1683 to house the Ashmolean Museum, one of the first museums open to the general public. Eventually the Ashmolean collection became too large and moved to its present quarters on Beaumont Street. In 1924, Oxford University received a large donation of scientific instruments and decided to use the building to display the collection and other artifacts showing the history of scientific endeavor.

The front hall is mostly dedicated to the study of the heavens, with a vast array of early astrolabes, sundials and armillary spheres. Astrolabes were disc-shaped sighting devices used to measure the position of celestial bodies and were essential for early navigators to determine where they were on the open sea. Armillary spheres were made up of concentric rings that showed the relative motions of the sun, planets, and stars. These were not only precise scientific instruments, but works of art as well. Their polished brass surfaces and elaborate engravings lend them aesthetic as well as scientific interest.

A pair of armillary spheres dating to about 1700 show competing models of the universe. One has the Earth stationary at the center in the Ptolemaic system of the ancient Greeks. The other shows the later Copernican system, in which the sun is at the center and the Earth and the other planets revolve around it.

MicroscopesNearby is a fine collection of microscopes used in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Royal Microscopical Society. Also check out the early German sundials with fine ivory carvings, combining timekeeping with folk art.

There are also displays showing how time was measured in different centuries. One gallery is entirely dedicated to clocks, and in various spots around the museum sit the ponderous, rusting remains of old clocks taken from clock towers around England. Their heavy-duty gears and pulleys look crude, but these simple instruments kept accurate time for decades or even centuries.

The upper floor has more astronomical instruments, as well as a display of early calculators. One unwieldy device was the Arithmometer Calculating Machine, patented in France in 1820. It was capable of simple calculations and became extremely popular with engineers and businessmen. Older visitors will remember the slide rule, and be surprised to find out that the example made in London in 1688 wasn't much different than the ones they remember from their youth.

Nearby, a small globe is surrounded by a sphere of glass with a clock on front. As the clock runs, the glass turns. Marks on the glass show the time and date for various spots on the Earth. It was made in Vienna in the mid-nineteenth century. A larger globe from All Soul's College shows the world as the English knew it in 1793. It's surprising to see how few of today's countries existed only 200 years ago.

TrepanationThe basement is a veritable alchemist's laboratory of arcane equipment. In fact, you'll find some actual tools used by ancient alchemists here. Wandering through the displays you'll learn the difference between such arcane devices as an alembic and a retort. You'll also see what early doctors were up to with the example of a trepanned skull. Trepanning was an operation in which a piece of the skull was removed in order to release pressure on the brain, in order to relieve head trauma, insanity, or to bring on religious visions. While this sounds like something too dangerous to try in the days before modern medicine (indeed, most surgeons didn't even wash their hands until the 19th century) this example proves the operation could be successful. The hole shows signs of healing, indicating the patient survived for several months. A more modern but less reliable remedy was Dr. James' Fever Powder, c.1770, invented by Robert James, M.D., a member of St. Johns College, Oxford. At 2 shillings, sixpence a packet, it wasn't cheap, and it gained its greatest fame when it was said to have killed the famous poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Twin Plate Electrostatic MachineA slightly less frightening artifact is the Twin Plate Electrostatic Machine, c. 1840. Two large plate-glass discs are spun with a crank, rubbing against leather and silk taffeta cushions. The action of the glass against the cloth created a huge electrostatic charge, similar to rubbing your feet against a carpet on a dry day. While the machine is fully insulated and is perfectly safe, it created huge sparks. Such showy devices were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries for traveling science exhibitions, which combined technology and theater to give an educational lecture.

Perhaps the most important artifact on this floor is also the most mundane. A simple blackboard hangs high upon one wall. This blackboard was the one used by Albert Einstein in his famous Oxford lectures on relativity. During the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble had discovered that other galaxies were moving away from our own. In the lecture Einstein gave on May 16, 1931, he outlined a relatively simple theory to explain the apparent expansion of the universe. The equations he set down for his fellow physicists are still preserved in his own handwriting.

The Museum of the History of Science is located on Broad Street, next to the Sheldonian Theatre and across from the famous Blackwell's Bookshop. Admission is free and hours are from 12 to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday, and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. They are on the web at http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/

Related Articles:

The Ashmolean Museum: Oxford's Window on the Ancient World, by Sean McLachlan

Oxford: A Melange of Magic, Myth and Martyrs, by Sue Kendrick

Sean McLachlan is a freelance writer specializing in travel and history. He has written several books including Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004) and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007). Visit him on the web at http://midlistwriter.blogspot.com and http://grizzledoldtraveler.blogspot.com.

Article © 2006 Sean McLachlan
Photos © Almudena Alonso-Herrero.


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