Learn About: Scientific Instruments

Learn about scientific instruments, and the history of them, with our ValueMyStuff valuations and appraisals experts. Find out how they have developed.

Many collectors today buy scientific instruments for their innate connection with the great ages of science, medicine and exploration. A practical and cultural window into the worlds of great men and women from Galileo, to James Cook, to Marie Curie; items like telescopes and laboratory apparatus reveal the methods of renowned scientists while sextants and sample jars depict the worlds of exploration and naturalism.

Tools of Modern Science: Telescopes and Microscopes

Telescopes have been used in western science since Galileo at the turn of the 17th century but the kinds of telescopes used at this time suffered greatly from distortion and aberration; over time, lenses and telescope design would change greatly leaving behind a great variety of designs. The reflecting telescope of the mid-17th century is perhaps the most significant development, giving rise to the two iconic styles of telescope and differing by the positioning of the eyepiece. From the very large to the very small: microscopes also suffered from lens issues and similarly saw great design innovation. Both of these devises have ranged from amateur curiosities of wealthy collectors to serious scientific instruments and so tell a wealth of different stories.

Charting the World: Globes and Navigational Equipment

The enduring appeal of the astronomical model and the debates which surrounded early users of telescopes is evidenced by the surviving celestial globes (which tellingly pre-date the terrestrial globe) and orreries which sought to bring the planets and stars from the other side of the telescope closer to home. Terrestrial globes have served as both furniture and cartographic instruments over the last 500 years and their manufacture has been a skilled trade. Usually made of papier-mâché and covered by shaped leaves of paper known as ‘gores’, the techniques of globe making have been closely guarded secrets. Pocket globes came into fashion in the later 17th century so that a gentleman might carry the world in his pocket. In an age of an ever-growing European merchant class, the globe came to represent a shrinking world now connected by trade.

The age of exploration from Vasco da Gama to James Cook to Charles Darwin was driven by innovation in navigational instruments. From archaic means like the mariner’s astrolabes of the 15th century to the highly accurate octant of the 18th, these tools became increasingly complex combining compasses, levels and optics so that later examples are intricate and equally desirable as objects of collections. Captain James Cook’s accurate charting of the Pacific and its islands over his three voyages of the 18th century was dependent on the combination of many innovations including accurate chronometers, better optics, tabulated longitude measurements and the Vernier scale; each have their own place in explorative history.

The Bizarre and the Revolutionary: Medical instruments

The hospital, the discovery of anaesthetic and of antibiotics revolutionised the practice of medicine from the 18th to the 20th century. With this came the transition from the kinds of equipment which seem barbaric to modern eyes to the apparatus of modern surgery. Collections of medical paraphernalia can include objects as diverse as saws, porcelain and cabinets. Medicine chests, for example, were highly popular among 18th and 19th century households and were made by cabinet makers so often echo contemporary furniture style. Some more exotic chests were made in expensive woods such as ebony, rosewood or walnut. The materials used for medical paraphernalia in general add to their appeal; surgical instruments and the like could feature a variety of metals, including gold and silver, animal horn, bone, plastics and tortoise shell to name a few.

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