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Preserving U of T's scientific heritage

Students make it their mission to collect historic instruments

This Crookes tube is among the numerous historic scientific instruments that form the U of T Scientific Instruments Collection. (Photo courtesy of UTSIC)

This glass bottle, known as a Crookes tube, is actually a distant ancestor of the television. Purchased by the University of Toronto early in the 20th century, it’s a simple yet elegant demonstration of cathode rays: electrons are projected at the small metal cross, casting a shadow inside the glass. A small nudge tips the cross over, but its afterimage remains. The same principle was the basis for the tubes that still power millions of televisions.

The Crookes tube is one of hundreds of 19th- and early 20th-century scientific instruments being collected, preserved, photographed and catalogued by the U of T Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC), which is dedicated to preserving such pieces of the university’s scientific heritage.

“There’s a real culture of newness in science departments,” said Ari Gross, a PhD student with the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and director of collections with UTSIC. The nature of scientific research means there’s a constant churn of new gadgets coming in, and old ones being unceremoniously turfed. Such treasures lurk in basements all over campus.

At the moment, the project operates with almost no funding, subsisting on borrowed space and volunteer labour.

“We’re just a couple of dudes in a basement,” joked Erich Weidenhammer, a history of science PhD candidate and Gross’s co-director (though there are about 20 volunteers in total). But as UTSIC builds its collection, it hopes to receive official status within the university, so it can research the collection more thoroughly and make it more available to students.

“These are important parts of the university’s history,” said Gross, surveying the shelves. Weidenhammer added: “They look pretty cool, too.”

This story first appeared in the U of T Magazine.