The past is always with us, not only the physics history that we revere and try to put into our classroom presentations. Two hundred years of teaching natural philosophy (physics) have left us a significant amount of physics history in the form of early apparatus. In this article, I will tell stories about how I have become involved in the study of early physics apparatus. Because of my website on Historical Physics Teaching Apparatus, I have fielded a series of queries since the year 2000: I have inherited this apparatus, what is it and how much is it worth? My students turned up this interesting piece of apparatus and think that they might use it in an experiment—what is it and tell me how it can be put into the curriculum?

My first contact with a beautiful piece of early physics apparatus took place in my junior year as physics major at Amherst College. My course in Optics and Wave Phenomena included a significant laboratory component. At one point, we did an experiment using the very beautiful prism spectrometer in Fig. 1. This dated from the first years of the twentieth century. When I went back for my fiftieth reunion in 2009, I revisited the physics department, and there was the spectrometer. I yearned for it, but a few years later, one of my friends gave me an identical one that now sits atop an antique laboratory stand in the apparatus museum in my old house in Gambier—more on this later. Some years later, I was a first-year graduate student in physics at Rutgers and was the lone laboratory assistant at Douglass College. Behind a door in my lab room, I found a version of the apparatus in Fig. 2 and tried in vain to figure out its use. In 1975, I paid my first visit to the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution, and there was the same piece of apparatus. This time, I knew just what it was. This is a Fourier analysis device designed by Rudolph Koenig to use the manometric flame capsule that he had invented.1 

Fig. 1.

A prism spectrometer, made by the Geneva Society for the Construction of Scientific Instruments, in use by the author (right) at Amherst College in October 1957.

Fig. 1.

A prism spectrometer, made by the Geneva Society for the Construction of Scientific Instruments, in use by the author (right) at Amherst College in October 1957.

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Fig. 2.

A Koenig Fourier analyzer, photographed in 2009 at Amherst College.

Fig. 2.

A Koenig Fourier analyzer, photographed in 2009 at Amherst College.

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Eventually, I became the world's leading expert on “The Thermal Conductivity of Indium and Indium Alloy Thin Films at Liquid Helium Temperatures.” The world did not beat a path to my door, but by the fall of 1964, I found myself a very young faculty member at Kenyon College, being mentored by the distinguished teacher, textbook author, and film maker, Franklin Miller, Jr., (1912–2012). Kenyon, founded in 1824, had a fair collection of early apparatus in the back room.

Every physics department has some sort of back room. In effect, it is a long shelf, extending off to the left-hand side and filled with apparatus, both old and new. The newest piece of apparatus is placed on the shelf, filling up a space obtained by pushing the whole set to the left. The oldest piece, on the extreme left-hand side, then falls off into the dumpster. Later, in this article, I will describe what happens when the Sonia and Tom Old Apparatus Removals Company is there to catch it.

In the case of Kenyon, I was able to recognize much of the apparatus and find new uses for it. Let me give an example. I found a set of three wave machines, made in Boston in the last few years of the 19th century. They did not seem to be in regular use, but half-way through my first year, I discovered how to integrate them into the teaching of wave phenomena to my premedical students.

The device in Fig. 3 is a transverse wave machine. When the crank is turned, a series of cams set on a long shaft lift the sliders up and down. The displacement, y, of the particles in a wave depends on two variables: the location of the particle along the line, x, and the time, t. Thus, the photograph is a graph of y as a function of x with t held constant. I would block off all sliders, save one, thus keeping x constant, and ask the students to imagine the result graph of y as a function of t. Most students are confused by the fact that both the photograph and the graph appear the same. A second machine was a longitudinal wave machine used to illustrate an otherwise tricky phenomenon. The final machine was a wave addition device based on one described in a 1800 article by Thomas Young in Philosophical Magazine.2 

Fig. 3.

A transverse wave machine, made by Ritchie of Boston, and currently in use at Kenyon College.

Fig. 3.

A transverse wave machine, made by Ritchie of Boston, and currently in use at Kenyon College.

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In the summer of 1972, I was a participant in a six-week program at Barnard College, which was organized by Samuel Devons of Columbia University. Professor Devons had transferred most of the early Columbia physics apparatus to Barnard College. For the first time, I saw Lissajous figures produced by a beam of light reflected from mirrors attached to tuning forks oscillating at right angles to each other. Figure 4 shows such a device in my own collection. This is shown in the 1900 catalogue of Max Kohl of Chemnitz, Germany. I became interested in Joseph Fraunhofer's technique of using closely spaced wires as a diffraction grating and wrote an article about one that I made at the time.3 Later, I used tiny nuts and bolts to the same effect,4 and the result is shown in Fig. 5. Constructing and using such a grating might be a useful lab for a junior-senior optics course; these seemingly crude devices will resolve the two sodium-D lines.

Fig. 4.

A Lissajous figure device sold about 1900 by Max Kohl of Chemnitz, Germany, in the author's collection.

Fig. 4.

A Lissajous figure device sold about 1900 by Max Kohl of Chemnitz, Germany, in the author's collection.

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Fig. 5.

A wire diffraction grating made by the author using 80 tpi bolts and #60 wire. It is 4 cm long.

Fig. 5.

A wire diffraction grating made by the author using 80 tpi bolts and #60 wire. It is 4 cm long.

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Spring Break in 1975 proved to be a major turning point in my growth. Earlier, I had a telephone call from Deborah Jean Warner of the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution. She asked if Kenyon had preserved historical physics apparatus. Fortunately, I was able to reply in the positive. Two months later, I was in Washington, visiting her and seeing the collections at her institution. At that time, the museum had perhaps fifty pieces of apparatus on display. I found a large collection in the storage rooms on the top floor and started to do photography, both in color and black and white. The library also had a large collection of catalogues. I spent my money on photocopying, and, forty-five years later, make constant reference to them. Two more visits followed, with more photography and photocopying.

When working with a piece of historical physics teaching apparatus, there are a number of questions to be asked and answered. First, it must be identified, and this is often a matter of looking at catalogues and textbooks. Of course, the experienced teacher of physics should have little difficulty in making a general try at identification. Plug it in (beware), adjust the lens, turn a crank, and soon, you will begin to have a notion of how it works.

Ask yourself what physical principles are illustrated and try to answer the immediate corollary questions: does the apparatus represent contemporary technology, and does it demonstrate well-known phenomena?

How was the apparatus used? Was it demonstration apparatus or was it used in the laboratory? Did it produce quantitative or qualitative results? As you answer these questions, keep in mind that individual work by students in the laboratory did not start until the later years of the 19th century.5 

Eventually, you will want to fix the date and perhaps the cost of the apparatus. The latter query is usually answered by looking at a catalogue. In my own publications, my website, and my series of page fillers in American Journal of Physics, I have tried to give the approximate cost of the apparatus. One amusing figure is to peg the cost of the apparatus to the salaries paid to physics teachers. In the year 1964, I started at $6500 per year, plus free housing (we had to live within a certain distance from the College flagpole!). A century earlier, a Kenyon faculty member had a cash salary of about $1500 per year and free housing. In addition, there was a certain amount of pasturage given for the family cow that provided milk and cream.

One of the most useful ways to learn about 19th century apparatus is to examine contemporary textbooks. Starting somewhere in the middle of the century, they began to be profusely illustrated, with woodcuts placed within the pages of text instead of being collected into groups on pages separate from the text. This technical advance in printing made it easier for the reader to follow the author's argument. The primary textbooks in the U.S. in this period, both at the introductory college level, are Ganot's Physics6 and Silliman's Principles of Physics.7 Although both books contain complete treatments of what we would now call classical physics, they are also sources of information about the latest advances in physics and technology. Benjamin Silliman, Jr., succeeded his father as the editor of The American Journal of Science and Arts and was in a position to be aware of all of the current research. To our tastes, the books may seem a little overloaded with details on topics such as steam engines and arc lighting, but a teacher with a love of history might still be able to use them to teach mechanics, optics, and acoustics.

Typical texts for high school physics courses, which illustrate contemporary apparatus, are those by Loomis,8 Wells,9 Avery,10 and Gage.11 Illustrations from these books have formed the basis for a series of fifty-eight articles that appeared in The Physics Teacher from 1975 to 1998.

The main sources of information are the catalogues put out by the apparatus manufacturers.12 Some of these are essentially textbooks, including Daniel Davis, Jr.,'s Manual of Magnetism. The same can be said of the two volume catalogues published by Benjamin Pike, Jr., of New York, where fourteen pages are devoted to the use of Atwood's Machine. If you look at the catalogues published by Edward S. Ritchie of Boston in the second half of the 19th century, keep in mind that this company is still in business, manufacturing nautical compasses. The illustrations in the catalogues of Pike and Ritchie can serve as the basis for reproducing apparatus.

I made heavy use of the catalogues published by Rudolph Koenig of Paris when working with early acoustical apparatus. At the turn of the 20th century, the extensive catalogue of Max Kohl is useful in identifying apparatus imported into this country from Europe; note that import duty had to be paid on some of the apparatus.

At one point in the last century, I had visions of writing the definitive book on the 19th century American physics course, including its position in the curricula of secondary schools and colleges, and something about the students who took the courses and the faculty members who taught them. Many chapters into this task, I decided that I was even more interested in the physics apparatus. The seven or eight chapters about the apparatus would be lavishly illustrated with figures, and I soon began to realize that the coffee table to hold the book would have to be of massive dimensions.

At this point, I was reminded of the technology of the year 2000 and decided that it would be more useful to produce a website about early apparatus.13 At the end of five years, I had included pictures of about 1850 pieces of apparatus and turned aside to work on the museum wing of our house in Gambier. Overall, I have photographs of about 3200 items in my files.

In 2002, another avenue for presenting these photographs opened up. A visit to Kenyon to give a physics seminar by the new editor of American Journal of Physics led to a conversation about page fillers for the journal. The editor, Jan Tobochnik, suggested that he might use some of my pictures, accompanied by 100+ word captions. Each issue has three, or sometimes more, of these page fillers. By the middle of the year 2020, about 760 of these had been published. I have actually written 1000 of them, and I will cheat a little bit by showing you the thousandth, Fig. 6. When that is published, I am prepared to write more!

Fig. 6.

The author in the apparatus museum wing of his house in Gambier, Ohio.

Fig. 6.

The author in the apparatus museum wing of his house in Gambier, Ohio.

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This figure shows the author in the museum wing of the 1857 Greenslade house in Gambier. Starting in the year 2000, individuals and institutions started to give me physics teaching apparatus for safe-keeping. Five years later, it had begun to take over the house, and we built the eighth addition to the house to hold some of the more attractive pieces although other rooms of the house, plus the basement and a two-storey garage, also hold the overflow. Guided tours of the museum are available if you find yourself in central Ohio.

Mention has been made of the journal, Rittenhouse, which was started by Deborah Jean Warner at the Smithsonian in 1986. I published a large number of articles about early apparatus here, with some under the running title of “Apparatus for Natural Philosophy.” Once again, a technological advance changed the journal to eRittenhouse and I now had the opportunity to use good many color pictures in my articles. Alas, the electronic journal has ceased publication and can no longer be accessed.

In one of my early research visits to the Smithsonian Institution, I discovered a framework, about 20 in. high, from which a set of four physical pendula were hung (Fig. 7). Some years later, a student in my Natural Philosophy course for non-science majors, fulfilling a requirement that the students produce a piece of original work (a story, a short play, and a piece of art work), turned to his lathe and produced a cleaned-up version of the pendulum set. This proved to be a fine adjunct to the Oscillations and Waves course that I started for second-semester sophomore physics majors. To find the period of a physical pendulum, you need to locate its center of mass and its moment of inertia about the pivot point. Both these require setting up and evaluating a double integral. While the students had finished three semesters of calculus, they were not fully aware that they needed to transfer this experience to their physics courses, and this calculation brought home the idea.14 

Fig. 7.

Multiple pendulum set photographed about 1975 at the Smithsonian; a reproduction was made by one of the author's students.

Fig. 7.

Multiple pendulum set photographed about 1975 at the Smithsonian; a reproduction was made by one of the author's students.

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One of the topics of the typical graduate course in classical mechanics is the brachistochrone, the curve down which a body will travel in the least time; the curve is a cycloid. Woodcuts of the apparatus often appeared in 19th century physics books. I have one of these in my own collection (Fig. 8); in this case, there are two parallel cycloidal paths, and marbles released from different heights reach the bottom at the same time. This shows the isochronous nature of the brachistochrone, which is quite unexpected.

Fig. 8.

A double brachistochrone in the author's collection.

Fig. 8.

A double brachistochrone in the author's collection.

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In 2008, we visited the physics department at the University of Memphis to give a talk. One of my hosts was the departmental machinist, John Daffron. I discovered that he was very good at reproducing early apparatus from simple materials, and together, we have published eight articles in The Physics Teacher with the same format. They start with a picture and a description of an early piece of apparatus from either my collection or my travels, and the conclusion, written by John, shows his take on the early device. Instead of discussing all these examples, let me refer to the wave machine in Fig. 9. At the 2011 AAPT summer meeting at Creighton University, I spent part of an afternoon going through the “back room” apparatus with my friend and colleague, Vacek Miglus of Wesleyan, who is a good photographer; we had done the same thing at the 2005 summer meeting at the University of Utah. Within a year, I was back at Creighton, giving a talk to the physics students and faculty about the apparatus that we had photographed. Afterward, I had a “physics jam session” with faculty and the University Archivist and managed to get a general agreement about the necessity of preserving the apparatus. The original of the wave machine was probably built during the first quarter of the 20th century and is based on the idea that the projection of a helical wire is a sinusoid. The replica that John built won an honorable mention at the Apparatus Competition held at the summer 2015 meeting of the AAPT at the University of Maryland.15 

Fig. 9.

A reproduction of a wave machine at Creighton University, designed and constructed by John Daffron.

Fig. 9.

A reproduction of a wave machine at Creighton University, designed and constructed by John Daffron.

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Apparatus collections require both space and the commitment of personnel by the host institution. The first collection that I visited was at the Smithsonian. I have since visited collections at Vanderbilt, Transylvania, Kenyon, the University of Mississippi, and Amherst.16–22 Collections can even form the basis of undergraduate courses. In January 1983, Frank Winkler of Middlebury organized a course for non-science majors that was based on the fine collection of apparatus at the College. I gave demonstrations of the techniques of photographing apparatus and spent some time discussing sources of information. For several extended sessions, I stood behind a table on which the apparatus was placed, one item at a time. I discussed its use, origin, and parentage (who made it).

I was asked to bring some of the apparatus from my own collection for a display at the 2010 Summer AAPT meeting at Syracuse University. Let me say that this was a considerable undertaking, made possible only because my wife, Sonia, helped me considerably. About 25 items were on display (Fig. 10), and a steady stream of my colleagues visited it.

Fig. 10.

Some of the author's collection on display at the AAPT summer meeting at Syracuse in 2006.

Fig. 10.

Some of the author's collection on display at the AAPT summer meeting at Syracuse in 2006.

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There was much less heavy lifting involved for the photographic exhibit that I put on for the Centennial meeting of the American Physical Society at Atlanta in March 1999. This was sponsored by the Ohio Section of the APS, and it consisted of 24 eight and a half by eleven inch photographs of apparatus from eight Ohio colleges and universities. These were grouped around a central panel with a map, and there were extensive captions.

Over the years, I have been involved in several exhibits of early apparatus at our nearest neighbor, Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Each time I gave a lecture about the apparatus and its place in the teaching of physics at the university. I did a considerable amount of cleaning and cataloguing of about 150 pieces of apparatus. My reward was seeing it all transferred to the University museum, where it was put into storage. My favorite story here: after years of using the universal solvent, saliva, along with a corner of a paper towel to clean apparatus, I was asked to put on white cloth gloves when revisiting the collection.

Several times we have arrived just after the new physics building was finished, and the old apparatus was left behind in the old building, which was destroyed. In one case, I took pictures of all of the apparatus when I came by to give a lecture in the early 1980s. It was all lost, and so I thought, in a move, and when I came back, thirty years later, for another lecture, some of it had been mysteriously found. Figure 11 shows three pieces of apparatus that had been almost miraculously saved. The loop-the-loop, the hydraulic tourniquet (reaction turbine), and the Volta's Pistol all date from the last quarter of the 19th century. The box in the corner is a home-built crystal radio set from 1922.

Fig. 11.

The most recent additions to the author's collection; the loop-the-loop is item #800.

Fig. 11.

The most recent additions to the author's collection; the loop-the-loop is item #800.

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In another case, I managed to save a collection of early apparatus from a high school building scheduled to be torn down in a few weeks and moved the apparatus to the new high school physics lab. Perhaps the rarest item was the Hughes-type microphone in Fig. 12. The pointed ends of the carbon bar are held in conical holes in the supporting carbons. Sound waves impinging on the device case small changes in the resistance of the contacts, a phenomenon that was used in the first telephones. One of my 19th century textbook illustration segments shows a similar microphone picking up the sound of a ticking pocket watch. This is a fine project for high school students; in series with the microphone is a battery and a magnetic earphone that picks up the ticking quite well.

Fig. 12.

A Hughes-type carbon microphone at Portsmouth, Ohio, high school.

Fig. 12.

A Hughes-type carbon microphone at Portsmouth, Ohio, high school.

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I was in my early thirties when I first started working with historical physics apparatus. Fifty years on, it still speaks to me when I walk past the apparatus in my museum or answer questions from all sorts of people who share my interest. Is there someone who will take on the task of standing up for our apparatus of the past, so that it may be brought into life in new forms? The phenomena of physics remain the same, and we still need devices to demonstrate them to new students.

1.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
The acoustical apparatus of Rudolph Koenig
,”
Phys. Teach.
30
,
518
524
(
1992
).
2.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Apparatus for natural philosophy: Nineteenth century wave machines
,”
Phys. Teach.
18
,
510
517
(
1980
).
3.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Wire diffraction gratings
,”
Am. J. Phys.
41
,
730
731
(
1973
).
4.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Wire diffraction gratings
,”
Phys. Teach.
42
,
76
77
(
2004
).
5.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Alfred P. Gage and the introductory physics laboratory
,”
Phys. Teach.
54
,
148
149
(
2016
).
6.
Elementary Treatise on Physics, Experimental and Applied, Translated and Edited from Ganot's Ėléments de Physique
, 5th ed., edited by
E.
Atkinson
(
William Wood and Co
.,
New York
,
1872
).
7.
Benjamin
Silliman
, Jr.
,
Principles of Physics
(
Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor and Co
.,
New York
,
1860
).
8.
Elias
Loomis
,
Elements of Natural Philosophy
(
Harper and Brothers
,
New York
,
1858
).
9.
David A.
Wells
,
Natural Philosophy
(
Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor and Co
.,
New York
, 1st ed.
1857
/15th ed. 1873).
10.
Elroy M.
Avery
,
Elements of Natural Philosophy
(
Sheldon and Co.
,
New York
,
1878
)
and
Elroy M.
Avery
,
First Principles of Natural Philosophy
(
Sheldon and Co.
,
New York
,
1884
).
11.
A. P.
Gage
,
Introduction to Physical Science
(
Ginn and Company
,
Boston
,
1887
).
12.
The Smithsonian Institution's digitized catalogs can be found here
: <https://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/trade-literature/scientific-instruments/explore.htm>.
13.
The Greenslade website can be
found at: <http://physics.kenyon.edu/EarlyApparatus/index.html>.
14.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
and
Aaron J.
Owens
, “
Reconstructed nineteenth century experiment with physical pendula
,”
Am. J. Phys.
48
,
487
488
(
1980
).
15.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
and
John
Daffron
, “
Reproducing an early-20th-century wave machine
,”
Phys. Teach.
54
,
383
384
(
2016
).
16.
Robert T.
Lagemann
,
The Garland Collection of Classical Physics Apparatus at Vanderbilt University
(
Folio Publishers
,
Nashville, TN
,
1983
).
17.
Leland A.
Brown
,
Early Philosophical Apparatus at Transylvania College
(
Transylvania College Press
,
Lexington, KY
,
1959
).
18.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Collection profile: Visits to apparatus collections IV: Vanderbilt University
,”
Rittenhouse
16
,
109
120
(
2002
).
19.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Collection profile: Visits to apparatus collections II: Transylvania University
,”
Rittenhouse
14
,
107
114
(
2000
).
20.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Collection profile: Visits to apparatus collections I: Kenyon College
,”
Rittenhouse
13
,
115
122
(
1999
).
21.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Collection profile: Visits to apparatus collections V: The University of Mississippi
,”
Rittenhouse
19
,
16
26
(
2005
).
22.
Thomas B.
Greenslade
, Jr.
, “
Collection profile: Visits to apparatus collections III: Amherst College
,”
Rittenhouse
15
,
39
46
(
2001
).