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.

Mr. Curtis’ Acoustic Chair

First introduced and described in the fourth edition of his Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear (1831), John Harrison Curtis’ acoustic chair earned him national recognition as an inventor during the first half of the nineteenth century. The chair is a large library chair affixed with a trumpet alongside the chair such that the user is able to hear sounds from the adjoining room.

The chair is intended for the benefit and use of the incurable deaf…one of the great advantages possessed by my Chair [is that] the person sitting in it hears at the opposite side from that at which he is addressed; thus avoiding the unpleasant and injurious practice of the speaker coming so close as to render his breath offensive and at the same time detrimental to the organ of hearing, by causing a relaxation of the membrane of the tympanum.

An engraving of the chair was published in the frontispiece of The Mechanics’ Magazine in 1837, praising the beauty of such an ingenious innovation. A model of the chair was eventually placed at the Royal Polytechnic Institution and at Adelaide-Street Gallery.