‘A Favorite Abode of Science’

A new exhibit of SCU’s scientific equipment from 1851-1900 reveals the Jesuits’ early dedication to scientific inquiry.

‘A Favorite Abode of Science’

A new exhibit of scientific equipment from 1851-1900 reveals that scientific education at Santa Clara University was excellent from the very beginning.

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Thermista Balometer, or Expanding Ball and Ring, late 19th Century

When the Jesuits first published the Prospectus of Santa Clara College in 1855, they shared one of their hopes: to make the newly incorporated college “a favorite abode of science…in no way inferior to any other Institution in the country for the education of youth.” By 1857, the Jesuits considered their goal achieved-Santa Clara had acquired “a complete philosophical and chemical apparatus, from the best manufacturers of Paris, which cost the Institution nearly ten thousand dollars.”

Many of the instruments purchased in the mid-19th century have remained at Santa Clara, and some are on display in the new exhibit, “A Favorite Abode of Science: Santa Clara College and the Pursuit of Scientific Knowledge, 1851-1900,” which will run through October 31 in the Orradre Library. (There are plans for the exhibit to eventually become part of the virtual exhibits available for viewing online at the University Archives Web site: http://archives.scu.edu.)

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A differential thermometer circa the 1850s, created by Mon. Pixii of Fabre e Kunemann.

Taking Stock

According to Anne McMahon, University archivist, the instruments in this collection were once stored in many different locations (including the Physics Department and the basement of Ricard Observatory). While the 1993 “Report and Recommendation of the Artifacts Task Force” identified some pieces, no one had a good sense of the scope and significance of the collection. Earlier this year, McMahon, in consultation with some members of the defunct task force, decided to inventory the collection, and move it, as much as possible, to the University Archives. McMahon is still in the process of moving some of the pieces. The collection in its entirety will be stored comfortably in the new library after it is built.

Once the instruments were inventoried, it was clear to all involved that SCU had a very important collection. “The Santa Clara College Scientific Instrument Collection” numbers about 200 instruments that served as demonstration apparatus for classical experiments typical of 19th century teaching. “The number and variety of instruments, as well as the makers of the pieces suggest a premier laboratory,” McMahon explains. While many of the instruments are not stamped or labeled by their makers, some of them are. Noted instrument makers such as Jules Duboscq, Soleil, Secretan, Fabre e Kunemann, William Ladd, Nicolas Pixii, Newton & Company, M. Alvergniat, Nachet, and James W. Queen are included in SCU’s collection.

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This seven-mirror apparatus from the 1870s was created by Jules Duboscq.

In the Classroom and Beyond

The instruments were used in the classroom primarily to demonstrate basic principles behind several subject areas including heat, optics, acoustics, pneumatics, hydraulics, and the pre-eminent 19th century scientific discovery, current electricity. However, the instruments were used beyond the classroom as well. Each year, Santa Clara College invited the public to attend commencement exercises that included entertainment beyond the conferring of degrees. As part of the scientific entertainment, students gave public demonstrations and lectures on such subjects as “Electricity at Work,” “Mechanical Forces and Perpetual Motion,” “Hydraulics,” and the “Nature of Sound and the Principles of Musical Instruments.”

“The Santa Clara College Scientific Instrument Collection is truly a cherished collection for our institution,” McMahon says. “It informs us about our academic history and gives us an opportunity to appreciate our early administrators’ commitment to scientific inquiry in the classroom.”

In fact, back in the 1960s, some of the instruments were recognized to have such historical significance that they were acquired by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. McMahon calls this “a telling point about Santa Clara’s contribution to the history of science.” She has been in contact with the Smithsonian’s Steve Turner, who has helped in compiling research materials about the SCU collection.

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Anamorphoscope, mid-19th Century. Described as one of many "Fine Optical Toys" in James W. Queen's Catalogue of Microscopes, Accessories and Sundries, 1890, the anamorphoscope mirror rectifies distorted drawings.

Pure Provenance

“This project is an archivist’s dream,” McMahon says with a smile. “The beauty of this project is this: We know the objects have always been here. We have photographs that show we used them, and receipts that say we bought them. The provenance is so pure.”

“The documentary evidence also reinforces the notion that the early faculty and administration sought to be a premier institution of scientific instruction,” she adds. “This collection gives us a sense of the scope of scientific instruction at Santa Clara and the premium that the Jesuit fathers placed on ‘keeping pace with the progress of science,’ as they wrote in the 1865 Prospectus of Santa Clara College.”

The Scientific Instrument Collection includes pieces that are on display in the de Saisset Museum, and in storage in the Archaeology Lab. For more information about the collection, contact Anne McMahon, University archivist, at 408-554-4117, or e-mail amcmahon@scu.edu.

Elizabeth Kelley Gillogly ’93 is the associate editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

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