Whipple Museum


I’ve recently moved to London, but I still have one more post left on one of Cambridge’s wonderful museums, so I couldn’t resist…

The Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge, is pretty much a massive collection of antique scientific instruments. I will highlight a few that interested me: you probably won’t have heard of some of them before! The museum is named after Robert Stewart Whipple who donated his collection to the University of Cambridge in 1944.

When entering the museum, your attention is immediately drawn to the massive astronomical clock in the center of the room. This is a replica of a 14th-century clock, a fourth as small as the original! Richard of Wallingford, the abbot of St Albans Abbey, built this clock between 1327-1336. Supposedly, King Edward III was angry with Richard for spending all his time on this clock, while letting his church go to ruin. But Richard insisted this clock be a very important project. Richard died in 1336, but the clock seems to have been finished by other monks. However, in 1536-1541, Henry VIII shut down many of the monasteries, while founding the Church of England, and the clock seems to have been destroyed along with it. Luckily, Richard of Wallingford had left detailed manuscripts of how the clock had been built. The clock has two parts: one part tracks the time, the other the movements of the Moon.

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Replica of a 14th-century astronomical clock

The museum also has a brilliant collection of astrolabes. Astrolabes are ancient calculators that were used from antiquity up to the Renaissance. They had many uses among which were predicting the locations of planets, and computing the local time. The word ‘astrolabe’ comes from the Greek ‘astron’, ‘star’, and ‘lambanein’, ‘to take’. Here you can find a TED talk on how to use astrolabes.

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Armillary spheres are models of the solar system. In 1543, Copernicus stated the Sun was in the centre of the universe instead of the Earth (as had been believed until then). This view slowly became accepted over the next two centuries. However, to accommodate everybody’s beliefs, these armillary spheres were usually sold in pairs, showing both ideas about the universe, up to the eighteenth century! The sphere usually consists of rings around a centre (the Sun or the Earth). The Greek Eratosthenes has been credited with the sphere’s invention. Its name derives from the Latin ‘armilla’, meaning circle.

Also, doing some Google searching on armillary spheres made me stumble upon some amazing modern ones that I’m now supertempted to buy for my new place in London. 😛

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Early 18th-century Copernican armillary sphere

Dip circles were instruments used to measure the dip angle: the angle between the horizon and the Earth’s magnetic field. They were used for navigation, mining, and for mapping the Earth’s magnetic field. In 1831, British explorer James Clark Ross used such a dip circle to locate the North Magnetic Pole in Canada.

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Early 19th-century dip circle

A chronometer is an extremely precise time piece. They were taken on voyages on sea to measure longitude. The chronometer would be set to indicate the time it was at the place of departure. On board, you could then measure the local time using the Sun. Computing the difference between the two times, would give you the longitude change during the journey.

In 1714, the British government issued a competition with a £20,000 reward for anybody who could invent a way of tracking longitude while at sea. John Harrison’s solution was the chronometer. The museum holds a beautiful replica of one of Harrison’s clocks.

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Replica of 18th-century chronometer by John Harrison

The following item I find particularly interesting: the museum holds a part of Charles Babbage‘s ‘Difference Engine No. 1’, the world’s first computer! It transforms multiplication into addition.

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Fragment of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1

In the early twentieth century, science become more popular, and companies started producing more scientific instruments for household use. For example, many chemistry sets (always targeted at boys, grrr) became available, which the museum has some nice examples of.

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Twentieth-century chemistry set (FOR BOYS…)

Phrenology was the study of bumps and dents in the skull relating to personality traits, which became very popular in the 19th-century. To be clear: we know now that that is a severe extrapolation of brain function localization. So please do not attempt to draw conclusions from bumps on your head, it’s silly. Below you can see a phrenology head of convicted murderer Pierre-Francois Lacenaire. This head was made for phrenologists to examine after Lacenaire’s execution in France in 1836. They claimed protrusions above the right ear and some other areas indicated ‘destructiveness’, ‘acquisitiveness’, and ‘vanity’.

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Phrenology head of Pierre-Francois Lacenaire

In the early 19th-century, there was a huge shortage of bodies for medical students to dissect. The French Dr. Auzoux started making papier-mache models for students to examine, which became a huge success.The museum has some wonderful examples of these models.

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19th-century papier-mache model by Dr. Auzoux

And here are some further items that caught my attention:

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A 19th-century string model used to create representations of three-dimensional functions

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The Whipple museum holds about 100 of these glass models of fungi made by Dr. William Weston between 1936-1953

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19th-century replica of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope

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Charles Darwin’s microscope

The museum also holds some more modern items, that are important for the collection’s continuity. Below you can see the first globe ever produced of the planet Mercury, in 2014. NASA’s Messenger finally collected enough data in 2011-2013 (18,000 pictures) about the planet for this globe to be made. It used to be very hard to examine this planet as it is so small and close to the Sun.

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First globe of Mercury

I hope you enjoyed this little history of science lesson! In my next blog I will chat about a trip Merel and I took to Stirling, which was a while ago, like everything on this blog (oops).

One thought on “Whipple Museum

  1. Hi Paula, I enjoyed your blog again. Always when I see these ancient instruments I am astounded how beautifully constructed and accurate they are. Especially given that they were mostly handmade (!) several hundreds of years ago! The human body model is not so accurate though, body parts and organs are not in proportion (heart is far too large) and bones of hands and feet miss detail.
    Look forward to your next blog….
    Dad xx

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