Research on Antiques & Collectibles


A fine mix of fantasy, ingenuity and art that produced the most useful 18th & 19thC devices that paved the way for a better life

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While there is a difference between scientific instruments and other works of art and craftsmanship, antique scientific instruments are often products of genius with a direct appeal to our aesthetic sensibility. Fine furniture, silver, paintings, and sculpture may be more traditional antique subjects of cultural appreciation, but contemporary interest in the history of science has given a new impetus to the appreciation of those instruments associated with scientific progress. They have an extra fascination for the collector.

Today the majority of antique scientific instruments may be viewed in museums, yet there is still considerable scope for the collector. There are a number of Antiques dealers who confine their activities solely to this field. Most reputable Auction Houses and Salerooms have specialist dates and, increasingly, both local and international antique fairs are mounting displays to draw the attention of their visitors. There are various reasons for this. Compared with the world of centuries ago, or even fifty years ago, life is dominated by science. Its enveloping influence has awakened in many the exploratory spirit that wants to understand more of the ways and means of things. But, most of all, there is in the examination and handling of some instrument from the past a communion with the original inventor and user, a sensation of being at least in the wings of the discovery that this antique telescope, microscope, or navigational aid made possible. With this is an appreciation of the craftsmanship, design and use of materials.

Whereas the artist at work on a painting is usually conscious that he is endeavoring to bring into being a work of art, or the potter modeling some small exquisite porcelain figurine is involved in the creation of a beautiful form, the maker of instruments, although he may have the aesthetic eye of a trained designer or artist, is first or foremost creating tools to achieve some scientific result. It may be the simplest gnomon of an early Egyptian, trying to divide the light of day into a system of workable divisions, a heavy bronze navigational aid, an orrery or an early thermometer. In many cases the formative story behind the instrument is a long one of trial and error. There may have been flashes of invention, but development is well summed up by Thomas Edison with the words: 'One per cent inspiration - 99 per cent perspiration.' His own struggle to produce perhaps one of the most useful of instruments — the electric light bulb — is evidence enough. In addition to the thousands of experiments he made, he filled some 200 notebooks with 40,000 entries. Edison, who also numbered the gramophone among his inventions, must hold the record for patents taken out to protect his discoveries — 1,693 in all.

The principal categories of Antique Scientific Instruments include astronomy, navigation or some form of measurement, microscopes, timekeepers, pharmaceutical equipment, physical apparatus, medical and dental instruments, cameras and projectors and even delicate machinery or unusual experimental devices, of which there have been some truly fascinating objects.

Around 1800 there was made the so-called 'Temple of Vesta' which was an example of a chemical instant fire machine. Vesta was the Roman name for the Greek goddess Hera, associated with the hearth, and a flame was kept burning and jealously guarded in her temple by the Vestal Virgins. The small temple 'machine' was a work of art in its own right, designed with architectural elegance. Inside, hydrogen was generated and, by the pressing of a button, released through the mouth of a miniature lion and at the same time ignited by a small spark from a concealed electrostatic device.

Early in the 18th century, it became the fashion to commission strange instruments and devices to show scientific principles in a way that would entertain as well as educate. One of the leading figures who collected and displayed these extravagances was the Rev. J. T. Desaguliers (1683-1744), who brought them together for the edification of British Royal children. The collection was added to until about the end of the 18th century and is today known as the George III collection. The range is wide, both historically and in the scope of the sciences that it touches. There is a model of the hydraulic screw for raising water, for which the Archimedes the Greek is given credit; this was made by George Adams who also made the exhausting pump, which had improvements by Smeaton. This type of pump seems to have been an essential item for the specialist collector of the time. It could be used to demonstrate the phenomena of objects falling and the non-transmission of sound.

In a more macabre vein, our ancestors apparently experimented with the effects of reduced and increased atmospheric pressures on living creatures. Thomas Hornsby (1763—1810), reader in experimental philosophy at Oxford, when beginning to draw the air out of a glass chamber in which was contained an unfortunate cat, would remark 'You will observe gentlemen, that the animal exhibits symptoms of uneasiness . . . The animal seems to be considerably incommoded . . .' It is recorded that once he became so immersed in his research that a certain lady's pet was only saved from extinction by the timely intervention of his servant.

Nowadays, these devices of fantasy are rarely found outside a museum or a long-established private collection. If they come up at Auction, it is almost certain that they will be heavily competed for. Even the examples of what might be termed 'scientific archaeology' send the bids rising, as evidence the three figure sums that old photographic prints command. Specialist antique dealers will have fine instruments but they will also be asking relative market prices.

It is amazing how valuable some small but essential parts are, some of which can be found totally by chance when searching through an old box at an Estate Sale or Auction. There is a number of indescribable items that are often lumped together. A damp part-rotten old wooden box may contain an early beam compass, which, to the uninitiated eye, may appear as a bundle of tarnished brass rods. A bent tube with a few fragments of decorated leather still adhering to it might be the barrel of an antique Culpeper microscope. A heavily corroded green patinated bronze ring could be the remains of a mariner's astrolabe.

To look at and, if possible, touch some of these early instruments brings one into a closer association with more than just the materials from which they are made. It seems that the feeling that pervaded the original challenge and solving of a problem is recreated. The early globe which revolves on its stand, with its very imperfect rendering of the layout of the countries of the world, may appear almost comic by the knowledge of today; yet it is a great deal more beautiful than our contemporary examples. Although the makers and the cartographers may have been a long way out, it must be remembered that they had, at least, made one very great contribution: they were admitting they no longer believed the earth to be a great flat disc.

A glance at some salt-corroded old marine navigation instrument can set the imagination running. Was this used by a captain who sailed down the Channel with Drake, or was it in the hands of a freebooting adventurer who was trusting his life and the success of his venture to this small scientific thing of bronze, brass or iron?

Yet the single instrument which has opened up the widest horizons and holds the greatest fascination for many collectors is the telescope. Prior to the work of Galileo and his contemporaries, the observation of the heavens had been solely by the eye; movements of the celestial bodies could be noted, although they remained distant sparks of light in the night skies. Then a tube and two lenses magically brought these sparks nearer. From being mere pinpoints, some of them could be seen as spheres and more than the surface could be observed.

Nevertheless, this wider outlook could only be achieved once philosophical and theological theories had been swept away. Such theories prevailed from c.500 BC onwards, when the splendid achievements of Aristarchus in Greece and others could be decried by Plato and other philosophers, who demanded that the earth must fit their theories. It could well be that these theories only enhanced the need for the invention of scientific instruments.