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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the February 6,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From the Laboratory to the Parlor
Princeton is now widely recognized as one of the
key sites for technological and scientific innovation. But in colonial
days and the early Republic, Philadelphia was this country’s center
of invention, as well as the political and intellectual capital of
North America. And in Philadelphia’s heyday, the American
Society was the city’s pre-eminent scholarly organization. Founded
by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 "to promote useful knowledge,"
it served for almost a century as the young nation’s academy of
its national library and museum, and even its patent office.
New Jersey is now known for breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals,
energy sources, fiber optics, and HD-TV. But as an exhibit now showing
at the APS makes clear, early American scientists were struggling
to lay the groundwork for the country’s later advances, trying to
crack the malignant secrets of disease, fathom the mysteries of the
stars, and advance earthbound commerce.
The landmark exhibit, entitled "From the Laboratory to the Parlor:
Scientific Instruments in Philadelphia, 1750-1875," presents the
tools and captures the ambitions of America’s pioneering scientists
— men and women who were the intellectual forebears of Princeton’s
community of scientists and entrepreneurs.
"From the Laboratory to the Parlor" marks the first time the
APS has opened a display to the public since 1811. That was the year
that Charles Willson Peale’s famous natural history museum here —
with its Native American artifacts and mastodon bones — closed
down. Much of Peale’s collection was later sold to P.T. Barnum and
scattered. The APS, meanwhile, entered a more cloistered phase,
its elected membership and scholarly library but keeping its superb
collection of early American instruments and materials away from
Such reclusiveness was surely far from the minds of the Society’s
early members, for whom avid scientific inquiry was open to everyone.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, "science" as we know
it — with separate dominions of biology, chemistry and physics
— didn’t really exist. Instead, any endeavor that pertained to
the study of the natural world was known as "natural
— hence the Society’s name. America’s "philosophers,"
both amateur and professional, were just as anxious to become part
of the international scientific community, and help solve the great
scientific puzzles of their day.
According to Sue Ann Prince, the exhibit curator, there were at that
time no rigid distinctions between scientific fields, or between
and professionals. Early APS members included merchants and clergymen
as well as physicians and naturalists.
Nor was there a strict division between science and the humanities,
or between science and religion. In fact, pursuing natural philosophy
was considered essential to moral and religious education. "People
then believed that you had to get to know the natural world to
the divine," Prince says. "Scientific inquiry not only
natural laws and principles, but God’s order as well."
Modelling themselvesd after London’s Royal Society and other European
organizations, early members included founding fathers George
John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, while APS’ activities ranged from
a 1796 competition for the best-designed fireplace or stove
(first prize: $60, and winning models are on display), to counseling
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their explorations of the
The new APS exhibit presents the tools and captures the ambitions
of America’s pioneering natural philosophers. The exhibit’s one-room
display of 100 artifacts — including catalogs, maps, almanacs,
diaries, and portraits, as well as instruments — reveal natural
philosophy’s role and significance in the commercial, social, and
technological aspirations of a booming city and a restless age.
In the 18th century, scientific instruments were both
tools and toys. For most of the 1700s, Americans had to import many
of their instruments from Europe — though by the 1850s, instrument
makers were flourishing in Philadelphia (as catalogs displayed here
attest), eager to catch up to their European colleagues.
As proof of the collaboration between "philosophers" and the
scientific community, here is the copy of the "Instructions
to the Observation of the Ensuing Transit of the Planet of Venus"
sent to the APS in 1758 from England’s Astronomer Royal Nevil
Venus is visible passing across the sun only once or twice each
(upcoming transits are in 2004 and 2012), and Maskelyne wanted to
make sure that observations of the phenomenon in 1769 were recorded
uniformly in both Europe and North America. Maskelyne was the
villain of Dava Sobel’s engaging, widely popular science book,
(Those observations, it was believed, would help determine the measure
of the "astronomical unit," the mean radius of the earth’s
orbit around the sun and the standard measure for the solar system.)
One who followed Maskelyne’s instructions was John Ewing, a
minister whom the APS set up with a telescope in the adjacent State
House (now Independence Hall) yard to observe and record the transit.
His beautifully detailed rendering of the planet’s passage is on
Another who heeded the call was David Rittenhouse, a self-educated
Philadelphia clockmaker (and former APS president) who crafted his
own mathematical and optical instruments. On display is the
transit telescope he made for his Delaware observatory to follow
passage, as well as the (still ticking) astronomical clock he used
in his observatory.
But astronomy wasn’t limited to observatories. Middle class families
often owned hand telescopes, several of which are displayed. They
also amused themselves with simple solar microscopes that projected
images on the wall, or examined flowers and insects under the drum
microscopes that London instrument makers started selling in the
Before radio or television, scientific instruments were used in the
home for entertainment, and by the woman of the house to teach
natural history. Scientific instruments were also a clear mark of
status. The wall of an upper-middle class home might have been graced,
for instance, with a banjo barometer, introduced in the U.S. from
England in the 1780s. (A late-18th century English one is on display.)
Or a well-off natural philosopher might boast of owning one or both
of a gorgeous pair of globes, made in London and sent to the APS in
1799. One is of the earth, showing the latest explorers’ routes and
discoveries, while the other is of the constellations.
One of the more curious instruments here is testament to the age’s
driving passion to fathom electricity. The "electrical
is a mounted wooden wheel with a hand crank that turned a glass globe
against a piece of cloth.
In the home, an electric machine’s static charge would be made to
travel down a metal rod to "shock" someone’s waiting arm,
or ignite a flask of alcohol as seen here in a French print of the
In a lab, electrical machine charges could be stored in the displayed
battery of glass Leyden jars, named for the German city where they
were developed in the mid-1700s, and used to experiment with magnetic
attraction and repulsion.
Many natural philosophers also sought a medical role
for electricity, text accompanying the exhibit explains. They believed
that the body’s own electrical impulses could be manipulated through
manufactured charges, or that electricity might be harnessed to help
disperse the airborne "miasmas" then thought to cause disease.
Indeed, Philadelphia’s Ebenezer Hazard, the secretary of The Insurance
Company of North America, claimed in 1793 that the proliferating use
of the lightning rod — invented by Philadelphia’s most illustrious
merchant-savant — was drawing off too many naturally-occurring
electrical charges. (A 1753 edition of "Poor Richard’s
on display contains the first published ad for lightning rods.) Hazard
reasoned that the rods might be preventing the disinfecting,
effects of thunder, and thus be helping to spread disease.
Further, "it is well known," reads an ad here from the 1800s,
"that wherever any disease becomes epidemic, there is no Ozone
in the atmosphere." The illustrated American Ozone Generator can,
the sheet continues, control scarletina, cholera, and yellow fever,
and is available for sick rooms in two sizes, one for $3.50 and the
other for $5.
While the instruments are quaint, the need to fight disease was not.
Before the role of microbes in disease was discovered, the medical
profession — which relied on herbal remedies as well as leeches,
purging, and bleeding — was desperate to halt the epidemics that
swept through cities, killing thousands of residents in a matter of
One displayed broadside for two of Philadelphia’s biggest parishes
records the number of baptisms and burials between Christmas Day 1797
and Christmas Day 1798, when more than 3,500 souls perished from
That ghastly year followed the epidemic in 1793, when more than 5,000
Philadelphians — out of 45,000 residents — succumbed to the
disease. A small publication on display illuminates the racism that
attended the epidemic. Written in 1794 by Absalom Jones and Richard
Allen, two of the city’s African-American leaders, the pamphlet
this lengthy title, "Narrative of the Proceeding of the Black
People during the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the year
1793 and A Refutation of Some Censures Thrown Upon Them in Some Late
It answers charges made by Mathew Carey in his "Short Account
of the Malignant Fever," which accused Philadelphia’s black
of profiteering from the epidemic by earning money as nurses and
Believed to be immune to yellow fever, the city’s African-Americans
had nursed the sick and buried the dead. Their "immunity"
was of course a delusion, and while 17,000 white Philadelphians fled
the city (escaping the infected mosquitoes actually spreading the
virus), the city’s black citizens stayed — so Jones and Allen
wrote — and died in droves.
Learning how to fight disease would not only save lives, the exhibit
makes clear. It would also boost commercial success in a nation eager
to do business. On display is a letter dated 1806 in Thomas
tiny, meticulous hand to Caspar Wistar, a prominent Philadelphia
and grandson of the famous glassmaker of the same name.
Jefferson is sending by ship, he writes, a wooden press (one is
that when filled with hydrochloric acid may prove to be a powerful
disinfectant. Wistar should engage Society members to experiment with
it to see if the device could disinfect ships from infected ports.
If successful, the process would allow ships to avoid quarantine —
and prove to be, wrote Jefferson, "invaluable to our
If scientific instruments were valued in the young
homes and observatories, they were essential to American business.
The early Republic, text explains, lacked basic commercial standards:
There was no official currency, for instance, nor common units to
measure cloth. Congress needed to vote standard measurements into
law — and craftsmen had to build and use instruments accurate
enough to support the nation’s economy.
Sextants — there are two here from the 1800s — helped ships
steer a brisk and more profitable course. (One box sextant on display
is believed to have accompanied Robert Peary on his expeditions to
the North Pole between 1886 and 1902.)
The displayed bathometer helped sound waters’ depth in rivers and
along the coast, making it possible to fully develop America’s sea-
and river ports. (Depth information was also used against Southern
ports in the Civil War.)
The theodolites and compasses — including Rittenhouse’s own
compass — illustrate the young nation’s intense need to build
roads, draw maps, and carve wilderness into parcels of property. Also
displayed are the surveying tools used in 1763 by Royal Surveyor
Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to help resolve one of the colonies’
disputes. The two spent four years laying out the line that bears
their names, surveying all but 36 miles of the Pennsylvania-Maryland
border when they were stopped by the presence of "hostile
The hydrometers on exhibit were developed to gauge the relative
of liquids. Shopkeepers in the late 1700s used them to determine the
proof of alcohol, the purity of sugar and salt, and the potency of
And scientific instruments were especially needed to ensure the value
of money. Here is one other instrument crafted by the versatile
the balance he built and brought with him when, in 1792, he became
the first director of the U.S. Mint. He used it to verify that each
new penny held the same amount of copper, while each new dime
the same measure of silver.
When the nation’s capital moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1790s,
Philadelphia’s political clout began to wane. Government functions,
and the scientific instruments that made them possible, shifted south,
and by 1850, the APS was being eclipsed by the newly-established
Institute and others.
The Society remained an organization of elected members, falling on
some hard times in the next 150 years. Its library — which houses
Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and
a vast collection of Franklin’s papers — has remained a great
resource for scholars, and the Society continues to hold symposia
and award fellowship grants.
The APS still boasts of many luminaries among its more than 800
members, including Princeton resident Toni Morrison, I.M. Pei, Yo-Yo
Ma, Marian Wright Edelman, Walter Cronkite, Nelson Mandela, and former
president Jimmy Carter. In the 20th century, more than 200 Society
members received the Nobel Prize.
"From the Laboratory to the Parlor" was a long time coming,
but certainly worth the wait. It is hoped, the Society won’t wait
another 190 years to share its outstanding collection — and its
very useful knowledge — with us all.
in Philadelphia, 1750-1875,
105 South 5th Street (next to Independence Hall), Philadelphia,
Open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. (at other
times by appointment), to March, 2003. Free.
"Artsbridge to Trenton," an invitational exhibition by members
of Artsbridge, a New Hope and Lambertville artists’ organization.
Exhibiting artists include Paul Matthews, Gail Bracegirdle, Vincent
Ceglia, Joy Kreves, George Radeschi, and Tomi Urayama. Open Tuesday
through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. To February
215-340-9800. "Stylish Hats: 200 Years of Sartuorial Sculpture,
a multitude of high-style creations that reflect the changing fashions
of designer hats from 1780 to 1970; to April 14. Open Tuesday to
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and
evenings to 9 p.m. $6.
Brunswick, 732-932-7237. "The Baltics: Nonconformist and Modernist
Art During the Soviet Era," major survey of modernist art produced
in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the post-World War II Soviet
period. The show features 150 works from the Zimmerli’s Dodge
To March 17. Also "The Victor Weeps: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh
of Afghan Refugees, 1996-98;" to March 31. "St. Petersburg,
1921," to March 10. "Efim Ladyzhensky," to July 31.
Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.;
and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission $3 adults; under 18 free; museum
is open free to the public on the first Sunday of every month.
tours every Sunday at 2 and 3 p.m.
609-258-3184. "Not for Myself Alone: A Celebration of
Writers," the debut show for the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Collection
of Jewish-American Writers that ranges from the early 19th century
to the present day and includes Yiddish-language writers as well as
writers in English. A two-volume catalog accompanies the exhibition.
Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and
Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To April 21.
The exhibit includes manuscripts, such as a draft of a poem by Stanley
Kunitz, letters by Hannah Arendt, Nathanael West, Clifford Odets,
Lionel Trilling and Susan Sontag, and photographic portraits of the
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