Fascinating new collectors today are the scientific instruments that fueled the technological achievements of yesterday. Antique microscopes and globes, medical items and slide rules, cameras and compasses are highly rated among collectors, both for their decorative appeal and for how the reflect the knowledge of an era.
Growing up near the University of Chicago, I'd play with the demonstration devices at the Museum of Science and Industry. As a collector, such lab demos are among my favorites, for their beauty as much as their function. Sound demonstrators, orreries (those planetariums showing the known solar system), Fletcher's Trolley incline plane and Colomb's electrical torsion balance machine are interesting, sculptural conversation pieces in my house.
Attractive and quaint as they are to us, these were the essential tools to every trade imaginable in their time. Compendiums served four purposes for early expeditions, containing thermometer, barometer, altimeter, and compass in a compact case. Meridian instruments (used to time clocks by orienting a microscope’s prism to the noon meridian) were required by everyone from watchmakers to gunsmiths. Slide rules were needed by wine makers (to determine proof) as much as by engineers.
Many scientific principles that are easily mastered by today’s computers required complex machinery to accurately demonstrate. Planimeters used a sliding bar to measure the area and volume of a ship’s hull and other irregular surfaces. Wave demonstrators used reverse painted glass to create an optical illusion, while Galvanometers measured electrical currents. All are collectable today.
Collecting interests are diverse. Microscopes are collected by type and by maker, with Leitz and other older German microscopes are among the most desired. Surveying instruments (transits and levels), astronomical devices, mechanical math devices (e.g. slide rules) and all manner of weather readers are areas of specialization. Medical devices for diagnostics and surgery, drafting and charting tools and navigational items like sextants and octants find devotees.
Photographic equipment is collected by type (e.g. stereocameras) or maker (e.g. Leica, Roloflex).
Another specialization deals with weights, balances, liquid measures and scales, with gold assay scales being popular here due to their elegant design, precision, and connection to our Western history.
In most categories, collectors prefer examples before the 1920s, as models were more varied and less common (scientific instruments were always costly). Globes and maps predating WWI weren’t available to the masses, and can be scarce now (the Bett’s Folding Globe on an umbrella-like stand is a personal favorite from the 1880s). Celestial clockwork orreries showing the known universe are scarce.
Maker and country of origin matter to many collectors. America’s Gurley and K&E surveying equipment is most desired, while complexly shaped, mouth-blown German Geisler tubes (hooked to voltage coils to show how different gasses fluoresce) are sought. Laing orreries (c. 1902) are scarce because their complicated rope drive was hard to make and was only briefly in production.
Materials used often indicate the age of an instrument. Sheraton-style barometers from the 1770s could boast intricate inlays, while solid oak was favored in Victorian times. Early solid brass microscopes are more elegand (and work more easily) than later steel models- avoid refinishing unless the original finish is beyond aesthetic appeal.
Collecting scientific instruments is a study in itself. Made for over two centuries, they’re available (with some searching) through specialists in the fields. Collector societies exist for such specialties as surveying and calculating devices; but the sheer variety of instruments made precludes any single reference from offering complete coverage of all varieties. This makes scientific references and catalogues sought-after commodities.
Serious collectors seek pieces with originality (e.g. original lacquer on brass pieces), condition and scarcity. Quality is also important; Victorian microscopes from Watson, Ross, and Beck of England seem similar due to lack of patent protection, but vary widely when viewed through the glass. Novices should avoid reproductions of Stanley compasses, telescopes, and sextants, which tend to be made of bright yellow Indian brass of the wrong weight with low quality optics.
Science touches our lives ever day. Whether you seek a decorative adornment or desire a den full of instruments from your profession, combing antique malls is bound to reveal a world of scientific devices to you. -As told by Professor Bill Scott