History of the Collection

M. Eugene Rudd

DeWitt Bristol Brace

Physics and astronomy were taught at the University of Nebraska from its very beginning in 1869. The first teacher was Samuel H. Aughey who had worked for Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution. Although his training was in botany and geology, he taught the courses in all of the sciences. Some apparatus for teaching physics was purchased, but little or none of it remains from the early period and few records exist to indicate what equipment was available.

Aughey was followed by a succession of teachers, usually trained in subjects other than physics, until 1887 when DeWitt Bristol Brace was hired. By contrast, Brace came with the best education available in physics at that time, having studied at Boston College, MIT, Johns Hopkins and finally doing his doctoral work in Berlin under Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Kirchhoff. Before his untimely death in 1905, Brace founded the Department of Physics and in addition did research on ether drift that brought him to the forefront of American physics.

Brace and Behlen Laboratories Brace was able to purchase a considerable collection of instruments for use in lecture demonstrations, student laboratory work, and research. After his death, his successors continued to purchase apparatus, especially electrical, optical, and acoustical instruments, much of it of very high quality. The collection contains apparatus from manufacturers in Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland, Scotland, and England as well as the United States.

Brace and Behlen Laboratories Instruments

Although some of the early apparatus has been lost or cannibalized over the years, a great deal of it was stored in attics, closets, and laboratory shelves, preserved under decades of dust. In the 1970s Professor Duane Jaecks recognized the historical value of some of the items and had several of the instruments cleaned and restored. These were featured in an exhibition of historic scientific instruments held at Sheldon Art Gallery in 1978. Starting in 1998 I collected a large number of the instruments from various storage areas and gave them a preliminary cleaning. The room where most of them were kept was repainted and made useable as a sort of museum. An inventory of about 750 items was compiled in 2000-2001.

Unfortunately, there are few remaining records that would tell anything about the date of purchase, price, or whether something was obtained directly from the manufacturer or through a supply company or importer. The Inventory Department of the university unwisely destroyed all records up to very recent times and records of payments for physics apparatus usually list only the total amount of an order and the company paid. The only useful records are some sets of inventory cards from about 1916 that were kept by the Physics Department. These were keyed to a department inventory system and if the instrument has that early inventory label a card can usually be found for it. However, the cards usually have little or no information other than the name and number of the item. Sometimes a card has the purchase price and a current value based on a stated depreciation rate. If so, one can calculate back to the approximate acquisition date.

In May 2010 the department moved into Jorgensen Hall, a new building furnished with several large, glass display cases in the hallways. The ones on the second and third floors now house about 200 of the antique instruments in the collection. Many additional instruments are kept in a basement storage room of the Engineering Building.

Read an article on the Collection that appeared in the Spectrum Newsletter

Learn about the history of the Physics and Astronomy Department