Humboldt State University ® Department of Chemistry

Robert A. Paselk Scientific Instrument Museum


19th and 20th Century Scientific Instruments

I have listed below, with some personal annotations, the books I have found most useful in understanding the development and use of 20th century scientific instruments. These are all "history" books, I have not attempted to list the texts and monographs consulted over a professional career of using scientific instruments in my work and teaching. Nor have I listed contemporary references or the books I have made scans from. Such sources are referenced in the individual instrument descriptions etc. The number of books on microscopy reflects the available literature rather than what is in this museum. A few books on the history of a field or discipline instead of instrumentation or apparatus are included because I have found them particularly useful in my studies of instruments and/or apparatus.
  1. Bennett, J. A. The Celebrated Phaenomena of Colours: the Early History of the Spectroscope. Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge (1984). A short pamphlet tracing the development of the spectroscope from its origin to the early 20th century. Well illustrated with contemporary engravings.

  2. Bracegirdle, Brian. A History of Microtechnique, 2nd ed. Science Heritage Limited, Lincolnwood (1986). The standard source for the development of techniques and apparatus for visualizing specimens with light microscopy.

  3. Bracegirdle, Brian. Notes on Modern Microscope Manufacturers. Quekett Microscopical Club, Oxford (1996). Gives the dates of operation, addresses etc. of many instrument manufacturers who made microscopes. Since many also made other instruments it is more widely useful than just to students of the microscope. Also provides brief histories for many companies.

  4. Bradbury, S. The Evolution of the Microscope. Pergamon Press. Oxford (1967). An excellent survey on the development of the microscope and microscopy by a practicing microscopist.

  5. Brand, John C. D. Lines of Light: The Sources of Dispersive Spectroscopy, 1800­1930. Gordon and Breach Pub. (1995). This is a history of the discipline of spectroscopy, rather than the instruments per se. However it is very valuable for putting the instruments into perspective and a source of information of the people who developed and used spectroscopic instruments.

  6. Bud, Robert and Deborah Jean Warner, eds. Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York (1998). This book is the result of a joint efforts of the Science Museum (London) and the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution). The large (700+ p), well illustrated, multi author volume features extremely broad coverage of scientific instruments. As expected for a multi-author work the coverage varies considerably with different instruments, some emphasizing history and others description and usage of the instrument. It is currently unique in its coverage of 20th century apparatus, while also covering instruments beginning with antiquity.

  7. Child, Ernest. The Tools of the Chemist. Reinhold Publishing Corporation, New York (1940). A wide ranging study of the origins and development of chemical instruments and apparatus, emphasizing U.S. accomplishments. Includes short histories of manufacturers and distributors as well as the usual information on scientists etc.

  8. Cotter, Charles H. A History of the Navigator's Sextant.Brown, Son & Ferguson, Ltd, Glasgow (1983). A scholarly study of the history of the sextant that I have returned to often, frequently expanding on the information I have discovered in other texts.

  9. Hartley, W. G. The Light Microscope: Its Use and Development. Senicio Publishing Co., Oxford (1993). A recent history of the development of the microscope, emphasizing 19th and 20th century developments, by a practicing microscopist. Nicely illustrated with contemporary engravings of details such as operation of focus mechanisms, optical diagrams, etc.

  10. Hopp, Peter M. Slide Rules: Their History, Models, and Makers. Astragal Press, Mendham (1999). The strength of this book is its comprehensive listing of models etc. from manufacturers around the world. There are also tables of patents, important dates in slide rule history, an extensive bibliography, glossary, etc. as well as chapters on the history, makers, types and features of slide rules. This is probably the best book for the serious collector/student of these instruments.

  11. Ifland, Peter. Taking the Stars: Celestial Navigation from Argonauts to Astronauts. The Mariners' Museum, Newport News (1998). Well illustrated history of navigational instruments. Probably the best place to start. Highly recommended.

  12. Jenemann, Hans R. Die Waage des Chemikers / The Chemists Balance. DECHEMA, Frankfurt am Main (1997). Printed side-by-side in German and English, this is a very valuable resource for all interested in the development of the modern chemical balance. Covers developments from ancient times up through electronic analytical balances.

  13. Laidler, Keith J. The World of Physical Chemistry. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1993). A marvelous treatment of the history of physical chemistry. Very well written. Provides insight into how some instruments were used and why some were developed.

  14. Middleton, W. E. Knowles. Invention of the Meteorological Instruments. The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore (1969). As the title states Middleton focuses on the invention, and thus earliest versions of, meteorological instruments. however, many have remained unchanged in principle and quite recognizable in their modern versions. Overall this is the best book I have seen for an overview of these instruments. It is often also the only book I've found even covering many of the lesser known instruments.

  15. Morris, W. J. The Nautical Sextant. Paradise Cay Publications, Inc. Arcata, CA (2010). This is a unique and valuable book to anyone interested in how instruments are designed and put together. Dr. Morris discusses the sextant as an expert restorer who is also a curious scientist/technologist with strong shop and technical skills that he uses to explore the why of sextant design (e.g. materials and architecture of the sextant frame as related to rigidity vs. weight). An invaluable source to anyone interested in how these instruments are made, how to repair them, and just generally understand this iconic instrument.

  16. Mörzer Bruyns, W. F. J. Sextants at Greenwich: A Catalogue of the Mariner's Quadrants, Mariner's Astrolabes, Cross-staffs, Backstaffs, Octants, Sextants, Quintants, ... in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2009). This well illustrated catalogue of one of the World's premier collections of sextants and related instruments is one of the best sources for the history and identification of these instruments. The essays by the author, one of the top historians of maritime instruments also make it an important source for the history of the development and use of sextants.

  17. Pearsall, Ronald. Collecting and Restoring Scientific Instruments. Arco, New York (1974). Written with the collector in mind. Covers most major types of pre-twentieth century instruments with interesting nuggets of information on their histories. Extensive illustrated glossary of instruments. Also has an interesting discussion on instrument restoration, though much of his restoration philosophy must be carefully considered - one can always cleanup more, but you can't restore what's been removed!

  18. Shannon, John M. and Geraldine C. Shannon. The Assay Balance: Its Evolution and the Histories of the Companies That Made Them. (privately printed,1999)*. This is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in precision balances. The Shannons focus on assay balances, but the companies frequently made analytical balances as well, and much of the information is equally applicable to chemical balances. The source for information about the various American balance manufacturers.

  19. Stock, John T. Development of the Chemical Balance. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London (1969). A brief but detailed and well illustrated study of the development of the chemical balance form ancient times to the mid-twentieth century.

  20. Stock, John T. and Denys Vaughan. The Development of Instruments to Measure Electric Current. Science Museum, London (1983). A brief but detailed and well illustrated study of the development of electric meters and other measuring devices.

  21. Sydenham, P. H. Measuring instruments: tools of knowledge and control. Peter Peregrinus Ltd. Stevenage (1979). This is a very wide ranging study of measuring instruments, beginning in ancient times and running to 1950. It is one of the few books I've found with an emphasis on electrical methods. It also goes into the "philosophy" of instrument design.

  22. Szabadváry, Ferenc. History of Analytical Chemistry. Pergamon Press, Oxford (1966). An interesting study of the history of analytical chemistry, a very instrument intensive field. Gives background on the inventors and uses of various chemical instruments.

  23. Turner, Gerard L'E. Nineteenth Century Scientific Instruments. Sotheby/U Cal., London/Berkeley (1983). The survey of 19th century instruments. Well written and researched; wonderfully illustrated. Covers the origins of many instruments which were still important in the 20th century.

  24. Turner, Gerard L'E. The Great Age of the Microscope. Adam Hilger, Bristol (1989). A catalog of a collection. Much useful historical information on microscopes. A model I have used in developing my own cataloging.

  25. Turner, Gerard L'E. The Practice of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Teyler Museum, Haarlem (1996). Much useful historical information on all kinds of scientific instruments. A unique study in that it covers an entire collection, which is largely intact, of a large group of instruments used for teaching and research at a single institution. A model I have used in developing my own cataloging.

  26. von Jezierski, Dieter. Slide Rules: A Journey Through Three Centuries. Astragal Press, Mendham (2000). An excellent introduction to the history of the slide rule and its manufacture. A particularly nice feature is the chapter on slide rule technology, where aspects such as scale division etc. are discussed .


* This book is still available from the authors (March 2002) as soft-bound copies with a protective coating on the cover (Smythe sewn and perfect bound), and hard-back (case bound) copies also with a protective coating. Cost of the soft bound book is $55 (In Colorado add sales tax of $1.65) , while the hard-back copy is $75 (In Colorado add sales tax of $2.25). Books can be ordered by forwarding a check made out in the proper amount to John M. Shannon and mailed to 7319 West Cedar Circle, Lakewood, CO 80226. He will give quotes for foreign orders, due to postage differences.

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Last modified 19 Septembe 2013