Hipp chronoscope with two dials inside a glass cover on top of a wooden platform above four columns and pulley with a hook hanging from the bottom. A weight rests on a second platform at the bottom.
All photos by Kailee Mandel

Ode to Ingenuity

U of T’s collection of scientific artifacts shows how researchers pursued discovery – and sometimes made history

Deep underground, in the sub-basement at McLennan Physical Laboratories on the St. George campus, sits a kind of buried treasure: one of Canada’s largest collections of historical scientific instruments.

Carefully catalogued and arranged on shelves, some 2,000 artifacts, collected over four decades and covering a wide range of disciplines, reveal insights about how science has been pursued at U of T over the past century and a half: the projects undertaken – the successes and failures – and scientific trends of the day.

These artifacts – along with thousands more that remain uncatalogued in departments across the university – also tell a larger story about U of T’s role in science and innovation, says assistant curator Victoria Fisher. Some items, such as a camera lens constructed specially to photograph a 1922 solar eclipse that helped prove Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, connect U of T with “important developments in the history of science in Canada and the world.”

Many are intriguing just to look at (see below).

Fourteen brass spherical resonators of increasing size from top to bottom, attached to the right side of a steel frame, which is attached to a rotating mirror on the left side. Rubber hoses are connected to several of the spheres.
Koenig Analyzer, 1880s: This acoustical device creates a visible display of the individual frequencies that make up complex sounds. James Loudon, a professor of math and physics, acquired the instrument for U of T to promote the university as a place of serious scientific teaching and research. The analyzer uses a series of resonators linked to gas flames. When the frequency of a resonator is sounded, it stimulates a column of air, causing its nearby flame to “dance.” A rotating mirror extends the flames’ reflection into a streak of light. All photos by Kailee Mandel.
Hipp chronoscope with two dials inside a glass cover on top of a wooden platform above four columns and pulley with a hook hanging from the bottom. A weight rests on a second platform at the bottom.
Hipp Chronoscope, 1892: This high-precision timer, capable of measuring thousandths of a second, was used in U of T’s psychological laboratory to measure human reaction times – one of several dimensions of the human sensorium that psychologists at the time were measuring to gain insight into human cognition. A simple experiment would have had a subject react to a noise by pressing a key. The chronoscope would then record the interval between the sound and the key press.
A calculator constructed from metal, with columns of black keys numbered from 1 to 9 in descending order from top to bottom, interspersed with columns of white keys numbered in the same way
MADAS VII T Mechanical Calculator, 1940s: Calvin Gotlieb, who would go on to become a key figure in Canadian computing, likely used this calculating device during his doctoral studies related to the development of proximity fusing, a critical technology developed by the Allies during the Second World War. Gotlieb’s work included a radio method to measure how much a shell turns sideways during flight – an important consideration in targeting.
A polished cylindrical case sitting vertically on top of a matte grey base with three adjustable feet. About a third of the length down from the top are two matte grey handles.
Gravity Meter Model CG-2, 1960s: This instrument, likely used by geophysicist Allan Spector when he was a graduate student at U of T in the late 1960s, employs a handmade quartz mechanism to measure the strength of the gravitational field in a particular location. This technique enables researchers to map an area’s underground geological features and is commonly used to locate mineral deposits. Spector’s graduate study focused on diapirs, unusual dome-like formations that sometimes trap hydrocarbons such as oil and natural gas.
An instrument consisting of a square surface connected to a circular metal piece on top of thicker, brass-coloured circular pieces. These are mounted on a thick acrylic rectangle, which is then mounted on a dark grey square block, on top of larger acrylic squares. The base is supported by two blocks of wood.
Smectic Electroconvection Experiment, 1990s: Stephen Morris, a professor emeritus of physics, researched physical phenomena that produce chaotic patterns. (His 2010 study on icicle formation received a lot of media attention.) The device shown here uses a thin film of liquid crystal – the material used in old laptop screens – that produces a swirling pattern when an electrical current is passed through it. Morris studied the formation and evolution of these chaotic patterns, which have important implications in fields such as turbulence in aerodynamics and atmospheric science.
A metal rod-like instrument containing a black coloured eyepiece with a knurled edge on one end. At the opposite end is a cylindrical stem.
Watanabe Arthroscope, 1960s: Developed in Japan, the arthroscope was the first instrument enabling physicians to view the interior of a joint during surgery. Its development made minimally invasive surgery possible for many knee operations, which significantly decreased recovery times. U of T alum Dr. Robert Jackson (MD 1956), who is credited with helping to introduce arthroscopic surgery to North America, used the Type 21 arthroscope shown here while studying in Japan under Dr. Masaki Watanabe.
A console containing buttons, dials and a small screen embedded on a steel surface
Multichannel Analyzer Faceplate, 1970s: This console was part of an instrument connected with a SLOWPOKE nuclear research reactor at U of T that enabled scientists to determine the chemical composition of a substance. A material placed inside the reactor would be bombarded with neutrons to transform some of its atoms into radioactive isotopes. The instrument to which this faceplate was attached then measured the radioactive decay of these isotopes to identify the sample’s chemical makeup at a level of parts per million.
A steel suitcase box containing a tape recorder, a keypad on a console and a tangled pile of cables.
Traffic Data Recorder, 1979: Frank Ahlin, a graduate student in U of T’s department of civil engineering, built this traffic recorder for a Transport Canada study about the effect of speed-limit enforcement on drivers’ behaviour. The first of its kind, the device used sensors to record a vehicle’s speed and stored the data on magnetic audio tape that could be transferred to a computer. It could also control a film camera to capture license plates.

About The Author

Author image: Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson

Editor, University of Toronto Magazine

The materials, which are available online with photographs and details about their purpose and history, provide insights that go far beyond what one can glean from academic articles, says curator Erich Weidenhammer. “An artifact will tell you, not only its particular intellectual and cultural context, but about the materials, design aesthetics and technology of the historical moment from which it emerged,” he observes. “Even mundane objects carry a wealth of information. A single piece of apparatus can serve as a record of an entire research program that would otherwise be forgotten.”

With such a large collection, the curators and their host department, the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, are fundraising for a more suitable space on the St. George campus. In the meantime, they remain on the lookout for objects of interest – especially ones that reveal something previously unknown about research at U of T. “We love that kind of thing,” says Fisher.

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