The Treasure in Our Midst: Historic Scientific Instruments

M. Eugene Rudd

Originally published in Spectrum, the Physics & Astronomy Department alumni magazine.

M. Eugene Rudd
M. Eugene Rudd stands behind a wave machine

Historians of science recognize that the advance of science has depended not only on the creation of new ideas and concepts, but also on the development of instruments for research. Likewise, teachers and students know the value of apparatus for demonstrating physical principles. A number of societies have been formed to promote the historical study of scientific instruments. Some of these, such as the Scientific Instrument Society and the Antique Telescope Society regularly publish journals. A number of museums in Europe and the United States are devoted partly or entirely to scientific instruments including several at universities.

Few of the many students who attend classes or do research in Brace Laboratory realize that there is a treasure here; an historic treasure in the form of scientific instruments from generations past. Physics and astronomy courses were taught from the very beginning of the University of Nebraska in 1869 and research was carried on after DeWitt Bristol Brace came to found the department in 1887. Some of the equipment purchased for demonstration, laboratory, and research uses survives to this day and forms a valuable collection illustrating late 19th and early 20th century physics.

This apparatus collected dust in the attic and in cabinets and closets for many decades and some of it, unfortunately, has been cannibalized for other uses. In the 1970s Professor Duane Jaecks recognized the value of these instruments and with graduate student Robert Maher cleaned and refurbished several of them. Recognizing the beauty of these instruments, Sheldon Gallery included some of them in an exhibition in 1978 In 1998 I undertook to sort and clean a large number of them and hope to make a listing or inventory. Eventually, this inventory may be included in an international on-line registry of historic scientific instruments being compiled by the History of Science Museum in Oxford, England.

The instruments in the department collection that were purchased around the turn of the century were purchased from Europe's finest manufacturers. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, invented many electrical measuring instruments that were manufactured by the Scottish businessman James White. We have several of these that were the state of the art at the time. One, labelled "Sir William Thomson's Electric Balance," is a somewhat complex current balance with the original set of weights and two calibration charts signed by Thomson himself. The balance and a copy of one of the charts is in a display case on the second floor of Brace Lab.

Another example is a spectrometer made by Schmidt & Haensch of Germany specifically for use with a spectrophotometer invented by Brace. The spectrometer is in a display cabinet near the lunch room and the spectrophotometer prism is in a cabinet across from the mail room.

American-made instruments are also part of the collection. About 1910 William Coolidge, working for General Electric, devised an x-ray tube with a tungsten anode that brought x-rays out of the laboratory and into common use in industry and medicine. There is an early Coolidge tube in the collection.

Toward the end of the 1870s Henry Rowland at Johns Hopkins University built an engine for ruling concave gratings with unprecedented accuracy. He supplied gratings to most of the major spectroscopic laboratories in the world thus revolutionizing the entire subject. We have several of his gratings including one of his six-inch models, the largest that he made.

D.B. Brace was deeply involved in the attempt to detect the ether drift and performed three highly sensitive experiments for this purpose. One of these, to detect the effect of ether drift on the double refraction of light as it traveled through Faraday glass or water, achieved a sensitivity of 1.3 parts per trillion. It was therefore more than 100 times more sensitive than the Michelson-Morley experiment and was probably the most sensitive experiment of any kind ever performed up to that time. Since it was published and widely quoted in 1904, it may have had an influence on Einstein's famous relativity paper published the following year. While most of the parts of Brace's apparatus have been lost, we still have the slab of Faraday glass that he used.

These treasures in our midst are part of our scientific and departmental heritage. It is hoped that a small museum could be made to preserve and display these instruments. But for now we will continue to show a few of them in hallway display cabinets and try to protect them from ending up in the trash bin.