Thursday, 23 April 2009

John Benjamin Dancer and the Large Hadron Collider

Photos courtesy of G P Matthews
What has John Benjamin Dancer got to do with the Large Hadron Collider. Absolutely nothing, except it makes for a catchy headline and also the fact that the LHC is undoubtedly the largest scientific instrument ever made, and the microphotographs of JBD are probably amongst the smallest objects to be seen at the 46th International Scientific Instrument Fair, to be held this Sunday, 26 April at the Thistle Marble Arch Hotel . Dancer was born in London in 1812, to a family of scientific instrument makers, and at 23, inherited the family business. He was involved with photography shortly after its invention in 1839. In 1841 he moved to Manchester where he remained for the rest of his life. He published a large series of microphotographs in the 1850s, 277 of which can be studied in the exhaustively researched history by Brian Bracegirdle and James B. McCormick, The Microscopic Photographs of J. B. Dancer. The subjects range from Sturgeon's Tablet in Kirby Lonsdale Church, containing 750 letters, the whole memorial reduced from 4ft to 2mm, to eminent figures in science such as Faraday, and Herschel, as well as poetry, Shakespeare, architecture, paintings and much more. According to the Manchester Microscopical and Natural History Society, Dancer was responsible for the first sending of microfilmed images during wartime, in the 1870s, during the Franco-Prussian War. He was posthumously awarded a Medal of Meritorious Service by the National Microfilm Association of the USA in 1960.
Graham Marsh, exhibitor at the Fair, has a database of instruments made by Dancer, at his Virtual Museum.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Laennec. Provenance and Gandhi's Sandals

Nearly two thousand four hundred years ago Plato said "necessity is the mother of Invention" The act of listening to body sounds for diagnostic purposes has its origin further back in history, possibly as early as Ancient Egypt.Rene Theosophilus Hyacinthe Laennec learned as a child that sound travels through solid materials, a fact that had probably been known for quite some considerable time. Often its the case that an invention has to wait for the relevant technology to be in place, but why did it take until 1816 for somebody to roll up twenty four sheets of paper as a tube to listen to chest sounds? Many doctors before had placed their ear to the chest of their patient to listen for sounds to aid their diagnosis and surely Laennec was not the first to be embarrassed in this situation.
Laennec was an experienced wood turner and produced a number of stethoscopes, slightly changing the length and the design in the process. The Science Museum, London, has one of these in their collection, with a paper label glued on the outside, giving its provenance, (image no. 10322024). How many more were made by Laennec is not known, as they were not signed.However, one original Laennec stethoscope was purchased in 1991 by Doctors Yola and David Coffeen from Tesseract. This stethoscope has a wonderful provenance, taking it from 1819 to the present day, as the following entry from the Tesseract catalogue reveals:

The stethoscope is contained in a fine late 19th century case, affixed with a silver plaque beautifully engraved with the declaration that Laennec, who had had training as a wood turner, made this instrument himself, and with the provenance of ownership -- "STÉTOSCOPE (sic) tourné par LAENNEC offert par lui au Professeur LOBSTEIN de STRASBOURG qui le laissa à HIRTZ qui à son tour le donna au Professeur STRAUS." (Translation: Stethoscope turned by Laennec and offered by him to Professor Lobstein in Strasbourg who left it to Hirtz who in his turn gave it to Professor Straus.) Visible in ink on the stethoscope itself is the signature "Lobstein" with traces of additional writing (Note: Under ultraviolet light this inscription is more distinct, but still incomplete. It includes the word "stethoscope" written twice.) A handwritten letter from Louis Pasteur's grandson, Prof. Pasteur Valléry-Radot, dated 10 July 1966, accompanies the instrument, declaring: "Ce stéthoscope de Laënnec a été entre les mains de Lobstein, de Hirtz, de Straus et de Grancher. Il m'a été donné par mon parrain le Professeur Grancher, en 1905. Je l'ai gardé jusqu'à aujourd'hui. Paris, le 10 juillet 1966." (Translation: This stethoscope of Laennec was in the hands of Lobstein, of Hirtz, of Straus, and of Grancher. It was given to me by my godfather, Prof. Grancher in 1905. I have kept it until today. Paris, July 10, l966.)

Thus, the stethoscope was given by LAENNEC to his friend Prof. JEAN-FREDERIC LOBSTEIN, le jeune (1777-1835, Director of the museum of the School of Medicine in Strasbourg in 1819, at the same time named to the Chair of Pathological Anatomy, and author of a number of articles on pathological anatomy which supplemented articles written by Laennec), who gave it to MARC-MATHIEU HIRTZ (1809-1878, Head of the Clinic at the Medical School in Strasbourg, professor of pathological and clinical medicine, member of the Academy of Medicine -- named in 1873), who in turn gave it to ISIDORE STRAUS (1845-1888, who was "Agrégé" at the School of Medicine in Strasbourg, when the German invasion of Alsace forced him to flee to Paris, where he worked with Chamberland in Pasteur's laboratory. He was an open partisan of Pasteur's theories. In 1883, he was part of an expedition to Egypt which was sent to combat an epidemic of cholera). The stethoscope was passed on to JACQUES-JOSEPH GRANCHER (1843-1907, who was known from very early in his career for his work in percussion and auscultation. He later became clinical professor of pediatrics, and was instrumental in early childhood vaccinating based on Pasteur's work.) He was the godfather of LOUIS PASTEUR VALLÉRY-RADOT from the latter's baptism on May 13, 1886. Valléry-Radot (1886-1970) was the son of René Valléry-Radot and Marie-Louise Pasteur, fourth child of Louis Pasteur. He himself was a prominent physician and writer, and member of the Académie Française. Grancher gave the instrument to his godson, who sold it privately in 1966.

Provenance, when it can be assigned without any uncertainty, is a tremendous plus for enhancing the value of a scientific instrument, especially when it is from the owner and inventor of the piece. Unfortunately very few instruments come on the market with undisputed provenance, a paper label or even an engraved inscription can still be very effectively faked, but the power of celebrity ownership was shown a few weeks ago, when three objects owned by Mahatma Gandhi, a cheap watch, a pair of sandals and a brass bowl fetched £1.4 million at Antiquorum, in New York.

We'd like to hear from any exhibitor at the Scientific Fair who will be bringing an instrument to sell with an interesting provenance.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

See both halves of Babbage's brain in one day

For the fair visitor who arrives in London before 26 April or staying on after for a city break, here's a few suggestions for places to visit. For the medical collector a trip to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, not many instruments but lots of body parts in jars, as well as half of Charles Babbage's brain. The other half is on the first floor of the Science Museum near to his Difference engine.The Science Museum continues to dumb down, as more and more of its permanent collection finds its way into the Blyth Road Store, although their slide rules, calculators and drawing instruments are fairly impressive. The Wellcome Museum on Euston Road has two temporary exhibitions, both about mental illness: Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings, Mental Illness and me 1997-2008 and Madness and Modernity, Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna in 1900. Well worth a visit is the permanent exhibition "Medecine Man." The best collection of surgical instruments is still on the top floor of the Science Museum. The new Clocks and Watches Gallery at the British Museum has some very interesting scientific instruments, including "the most sophisticated astronomical compendium known to have survived.." Made by Johann Anton Linden it contains numerous types of gilded and silvered brass components, including sundials and calendrical tables.It also has a table of latitudes and a table for converting time in different systems of hours, as well as an astrolabe.

515 Leeuwenhoek microscopes still not accounted for.

I was at Christies Auction room in South Ken today and watched the Leeuwenhoek microscope sell for a staggering £313,250. It was found in box of laboratory impedimenta from the zoological department of Leiden and purchased by the present owner. The catalogue description goes on to say that of the over 550 microscopes made only nine are known to be extant.He gifted 26 silver examples, now worth just over £8million, to the Royal Institution, who it would appear have managed to lose the whole lot! It might be worth them looking through their own boxes of laboratory impedimenta to see if they can find them. Anyway that still leaves over 515 for the rest of us to find.Good hunting!