In this blog post, I want to share one of the projects I’ve been involved with: The University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC), a volunteer project at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, to catalogue, collect, and maintain all of the university’s scientific instruments collection.

Several graduate students who are involved with UTSIC, myself included, participated in the “Reading Artifacts” workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum last August (which I’ve detailed in a previous post). There, we were taught how to “read” artifacts. By inspecting and examining artifacts such as a 1950s Hoover vacuum, a radiosnode, and an anatomy model, it became clear that an evaluation of an artifact, combined by a study of its textual and visual representations, can create an enriched three-dimensional model of an abstract historical idea.

For artifacts to gain their prominence as historical sources in their own right, universities need to consider the importance of permanent university-wide collections for scientific instruments. Over many years of distinguished scientific research, the University of Toronto’s science departments have accumulated large numbers of historically significant scientific instruments, some even dating back to the early nineteenth century. Besides being historically valuable, these instruments are vital to both the institutional history of the University, as well as to history of science.

Since the late 1970s, attempts have been made to organize a university-wide collection at the University of Toronto. To date, many of these attempts have either passed or failed over time. As a result, while certain instruments are very well displayed and cared for within particular departments, others are all but forgotten and very poorly stored. Sadly, many have been discarded or lost over the years.

The Galvanometer Case, "Toronto Electrical Exhibition!"

The Galvanometer Case, "Toronto Electrical Exhibition!" (Photo from UTSIC collection)

UTSIC brings in a new initiative for encouraging a collective link between departments to establish a university-wide collection. Founded by several graduate students and interested faculty at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, UTSIC is largely a collective effort to catalogue and preserve University of Toronto’s instrument collection. The goal is to build a stable interdisciplinary community at the university dedicated to ensuring that these instruments are made available for study and teaching.

UTSIC has proved to be a promising initiative, having succeeded with numerous projects in its first year. The central focus of UTSIC has remained to produce a “living collection” through the creation of an online catalogue containing current, up-to-date information of all scientific instruments at the university. The catalogue is in its final phases and will be ready to go live by fall. We also hope to build an interactive blog to connect with other researchers and students to engage in fostering dialogue on collections and instrumentation.

Close-up of the Medical Electricity Case. Left: High-Frequency Electro-Medical Apparatus (Wappler Electric Co. Inc.) Right: Home Medical Apparatus with Dry Cell Battery and Coil (Manhattan Electrical Supply Company - MESCO) (Photo from UTSIC collection)

Cataloguing is only one of our goals. We have also applied some of the skills learned at the “Reading Artifacts” workshop on displaying and exhibiting, creating not one, but two (!) museum-style exhibits during the year. The first, titled “Through the Looking Glass: Observing and Experimenting in Practice” coincided with IHPST’s celebratory conference on Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in November 2009. Optical instruments of all sorts were displayed on the third floor of Victoria College during the duration of the conference. The second, “The Toronto Electrical Exhibition!” included numerous turn-of-the-century electrical instruments and is still currently displayed. During May 2010, the exhibit was showcased during the 6th Annual Graduate Conference at IHPST and the 4th Annual Models and Stimulations Philosophy Conference.

The Lighting Case: Light Bulb attached to Variable Resistance Coil, Bulbs in Parallel Circuit (Photo from UTSIC collection)

I’m sure the second year of UTSIC will be just as amazing. To get involved with the project, drop us a line at utsic@utoronto.ca, or follow us on twitter: @utsic.

The complete photo collection of the “Toronto Electrical Exhibition!” exhibit is available on Picasa.

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