UTSIC Website Active!

I’m pleased to announce that the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection Website is now active! The first post is an essay, “A Short History of the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, written by Erich Weidenhammer (IHPST, University of Toronto) & Michael Da Silva (University of Toronto Faculty of Law). The post is a reprint of the original article, published in the “Opinions” section of Spontaneous Generations vol 4, no.1 (2010) 255-261.

UTSIC has lots planned for contextualizing the various instruments in the collection and breathing life into their stories (of the historical past). Posts on the homepage will provide a narrative overlay about the UTSIC collection, the instruments, as well as the institutional history of science and technology at the University of Toronto.


King Goa Chair

Source: Deafness in Disguise Exhibit

The instrument maker F.C. Rein created this acoustic throne for King John VI of Portugal (also called King Goa VI). According to the Deafness in Disguise Exhibit,

King John VI used the throne from about 1819 until his death in 1826, while ruling from Brazil. The King’s chair was equipped with a large receiving apparatus concealed beneath the seat. Its hollow arms were elaborately carved to represent the open mouths of grotesque lions and were arranged to act as receivers through which sound was conveyed via a single tube hidden in the back of the chair. Visitors were required to kneel before the chair and speak directly into the animal heads. A replica of the original chair is housed at the Amplivox/Ultratone corporate office in London.

All I can say is, “awesome.” Here’s an image of the King sitting on his throne:

Sound the Trumpets

Curtis’ Dispensary aimed to not only provide treatment for the poor and destitute populations, but also to supply acoustic instruments to those with severe hearing loss irremediable by medical treatments. Curtis was prolific in instrument design; taking into account new theories on sound and his own understanding of the physiology of the ear, he invented two modified trumpets. The first, a typical hearing-trumpet distinguished “chiefly for its great length, a circumstance that gives it a high degree of power and renders it much more serviceable.” It’s basically a typical hearing trumpet, which Curtis only modifies in length and added two apertures: one inserted into the ear, the other to the mouth, so the user is able to make use of sounds produced both in the ear and Eustachian tube:

Curtis' Hearing Trumpet SOURCE: John Harrison Curtis, Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, 6th Ed. (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1836)

The second, a conical trumpet, was modeled after a telescope such that it was able to fold together and fit easily into the pocket. These trumpets were well-received by the public, who commended Curtis for servicing the needs of the deaf. One source even remarks that Curtis’ conical trumpet is “well known to answer the purpose of extending the impression of sound, [and] seems entitled to a preference over all others.” The instrument is also interesting for another reason: in the first few editions of his Treatise, Curtis wrote that this instrument was built for the deaf individual’s convenience. In the sixth edition published in 1836, however, he remarks how he used this particular trumpet to examine his patients. Here we can catch an early glimpse into Curtis’ transition from marketing instruments to aid the deaf to instruments to diagnose deafness. Moreover, this was one of Curtis’ most popular trumpets, which he remarked was also available for purchase through the instrument makers J&S Maw.

Curtis' Conical Trumpet SOURCE: John Harrison Curtis, Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, 6th Ed. (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1836)

It was Curtis’ Acoustic Chair, however, which earned him national status as an innovator, as mentioned in my previous post. He also invented other instruments, such as a “keraphonite,” which he presented to a meeting of the Royal Society in 1838, and a “soniferous coronal,” an acoustic instrument which goes over the head, where sound is collected, and is conveyed by small tubes into the ear. I have yet to find an engraving of this image, but based on the descriptions, I imagine it to look something like this:

Trumpet Headband by F. C. Rein, England (c.1850). SOURCE: Deafness in Disguise Exhibit

The Dispensary also introduced new surgical and medical instruments for treating deafness, mainly variations of aural spectrums Curtis collected during his trips to France and Germany. He also employed a surgical-instrument maker for the Dispensary; although there is a lack of evidence outlining how many instrument makers he employed over the years, a Mr. Edward Einsle was employed during Curtis’ last years at the Dispensary in the 1830s. Curtis also made the cephaloscope a permanent fixture in his examinations in the Dispensary.

Fitting For Health

In September, I’ll be in Paris, presenting at what is sure to be an amazing conference. The “Fitting for Health: The Economy of Medical Technology in Europe and its Colonies, 1600-1850,” will be held on 2-3 September at the École normale supérieure and Académie nationale de médecine. Here is the conference description:

Is the history of medicine “that of its instruments ?” (Henri Sigerist). In spite of the importance of material tools for diagnosis and therapeutic practices since Antiquity, we have insufficient knowledge of medical equipment, its uses or production. Yet, recent studies have emphasized the importance of the forceps in the successful management of difficult births, the role of ceramic in the storage and commercial display of drugs in early modern Europe, the development of toyware and that of metallic trusses sent to the colonies, or the visual technologies that linked corpses, printed images, wax artefacts and instruments for diagnosis.

My paper, “Diagnosing Deafness: Instruments and the Making of Surgical Authority in 19c London/Diagnostiquer la surdité : l’instrumentation et la fabrique de l’autorité chirurgicale à Londres au XIXe siècle,” examines how various diagnostic instruments served as a means for establishing authority within aural surgery. My abstract is below:

The introduction and use of diagnostic instruments for aural surgery —a branch of medicine focusing on the diseases of the ear—in early nineteenth century London functioned both as a means for medicalization of a particular segment of society and the material expression of the interactions between medicine, technology, and society. Although the anatomy of the ear was well-known during the nineteenth century, British aural surgery was in disarray, a crude branch of surgery more prone to the passing fancy of men of means and anatomists, than an accredited branch of scientific medicine. Combining with the difficulty of examining the ear, there was no census on what constituted as appropriate treatment or classification of ear diseases ; as a result, the precarious state of aural surgery left it vulnerable to the clutches of charlatans and quacks who sought the opportunity for it within the medical marketplace.

In his A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear (1817), the aurist John Harrison Curtis (1778-1856) argued that the disarray of the field not only compromised treatment, but also weakened public trust in the ability of aurists and aural surgeons to effectively cure deafness. In particular, Curtis emphasized that the difficulty of properly diagnosing deafness limited the range of treatments ; practitioners often misdiagnosed ear ailments or worsened the condition, which further weakened the authority of the field. Diagnostic instruments, I argue, thus provided Curtis and other aurists a pivotal advantage in establishing their authority within society and within medicine. These instruments allowed for more specific diagnosis, which in turn, led to more effective cures and treatments for deafness and ear diseases.

If you’re in Paris around that time, I strongly recommend you attend this conference. You can view the full program and book of abstracts on the conference website.


In this blog post, I want to share one of the projects I’ve been involved with: The University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC), a volunteer project at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, to catalogue, collect, and maintain all of the university’s scientific instruments collection.

Several graduate students who are involved with UTSIC, myself included, participated in the “Reading Artifacts” workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum last August (which I’ve detailed in a previous post). There, we were taught how to “read” artifacts. By inspecting and examining artifacts such as a 1950s Hoover vacuum, a radiosnode, and an anatomy model, it became clear that an evaluation of an artifact, combined by a study of its textual and visual representations, can create an enriched three-dimensional model of an abstract historical idea.

For artifacts to gain their prominence as historical sources in their own right, universities need to consider the importance of permanent university-wide collections for scientific instruments. Over many years of distinguished scientific research, the University of Toronto’s science departments have accumulated large numbers of historically significant scientific instruments, some even dating back to the early nineteenth century. Besides being historically valuable, these instruments are vital to both the institutional history of the University, as well as to history of science.

Since the late 1970s, attempts have been made to organize a university-wide collection at the University of Toronto. To date, many of these attempts have either passed or failed over time. As a result, while certain instruments are very well displayed and cared for within particular departments, others are all but forgotten and very poorly stored. Sadly, many have been discarded or lost over the years.

The Galvanometer Case, "Toronto Electrical Exhibition!"
The Galvanometer Case, "Toronto Electrical Exhibition!" (Photo from UTSIC collection)

UTSIC brings in a new initiative for encouraging a collective link between departments to establish a university-wide collection. Founded by several graduate students and interested faculty at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, UTSIC is largely a collective effort to catalogue and preserve University of Toronto’s instrument collection. The goal is to build a stable interdisciplinary community at the university dedicated to ensuring that these instruments are made available for study and teaching.

UTSIC has proved to be a promising initiative, having succeeded with numerous projects in its first year. The central focus of UTSIC has remained to produce a “living collection” through the creation of an online catalogue containing current, up-to-date information of all scientific instruments at the university. The catalogue is in its final phases and will be ready to go live by fall. We also hope to build an interactive blog to connect with other researchers and students to engage in fostering dialogue on collections and instrumentation.

Close-up of the Medical Electricity Case. Left: High-Frequency Electro-Medical Apparatus (Wappler Electric Co. Inc.) Right: Home Medical Apparatus with Dry Cell Battery and Coil (Manhattan Electrical Supply Company - MESCO) (Photo from UTSIC collection)

Cataloguing is only one of our goals. We have also applied some of the skills learned at the “Reading Artifacts” workshop on displaying and exhibiting, creating not one, but two (!) museum-style exhibits during the year. The first, titled “Through the Looking Glass: Observing and Experimenting in Practice” coincided with IHPST’s celebratory conference on Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in November 2009. Optical instruments of all sorts were displayed on the third floor of Victoria College during the duration of the conference. The second, “The Toronto Electrical Exhibition!” included numerous turn-of-the-century electrical instruments and is still currently displayed. During May 2010, the exhibit was showcased during the 6th Annual Graduate Conference at IHPST and the 4th Annual Models and Stimulations Philosophy Conference.

The Lighting Case: Light Bulb attached to Variable Resistance Coil, Bulbs in Parallel Circuit (Photo from UTSIC collection)

I’m sure the second year of UTSIC will be just as amazing. To get involved with the project, drop us a line at utsic@utoronto.ca, or follow us on twitter: @utsic.

The complete photo collection of the “Toronto Electrical Exhibition!” exhibit is available on Picasa.