UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy


Old lab instruments go on display

6 March 2015


A display consisting of 16 items used in physics teaching at UCL in the 19th and 20th centuries has been completed on the first floor of the Physics building, outside the entrance to Lab 1 (east end). The instruments were collected over a period of several years by John O’Brien, the former Laboratory Superintendent who retired in 2013, and Derek Thomas, Lab 1 technician, who prepared them for display and procured an illuminated glass case to house them.

A concerted effort was made to find out about the background of the instruments, some of which seemed quite mysterious at first. Students Nadine Gabriel (Earth Sciences) and Phillip Bell (STS) were set to work researching and cataloguing them, under the guidance of Nick Booth, UCL’s Curator of Teaching and Research Collections (Science and Engineering). Jim Grozier, a demonstrator in Lab 1, sent out appeals for help to acknowledged lab instrument experts, and received a wealth of useful information, particularly from Dr John Reid of Aberdeen University and Josh Nall of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge. The latter, in the case of one reflecting galvanometer, was even able to confirm that its serial number was issued on 12 June 1925. 

The Teaching and Research Collections contain many interesting old physics instruments, including some held in storage, and the plan is to gradually cycle selected items in and out of the display case over time. We may possibly organise similar arrangements with other bodies such as the Institute of Physics, which plans to open its new premises in Caledonian Road soon. It is also hoped that more display cases will become available in the future, and can be sited in different parts of the Physics building. “The history of physics is a rich and fascinating discipline”, said Dr Grozier, “and it is important that the material culture of earlier times should live on and be visible to the physicists and students of today”.

The current (temporary) label gives an email address for feedback. Once any corrections have been made, it will be replaced by a new, permanent label, probably in April.

We are grateful to Nick Booth for his support of this project, including arranging and labelling the instruments.

Image: A Micrometer Reading Manometer, circa mid-20th century