Polarizing Filter

Polarizing Filter

Unknown: A Workshop

by Ari Gross


Recently, the University of Toronto Scientific Instrument Collection had the pleasure of running a workshop on unidentified scientific instruments. This workshop was held at “Materiality: Objects and Idioms in Historical Studies of Science and Technology“, a conference held at York University, which ran from May 2-4, 2013.

As the UTSIC blog has previously discussed, there are a number of unidentified instruments in our collection. As a small, student-run project, we have decided not to focus our efforts on identifying each and every last object, but instead to catalogue, photograph, and post these objects online so that we can rely on the expertise of the broader community.

At the “Materiality” conference, the UTSIC held a workshop where attendees could inspect, explore, and puzzle over seventeen unidentified instruments. This gave us the opportunity to draw upon the expertise of others in order to help figure out what some of these objects are, while also allowing participants an exciting opportunity to physically and intellectually interact with truly unknown scientific objects. As you can see from the pictures below, the workshop was a hit as participants really got into pondering over what some of the bizarre instruments that lay before them might be.

"Materiality" attendees taking a crack at our unidentified instruments

It is common practice for “material culture” workshops to be held where participants explore an unknown object. Commonly, after participants have been given an opportunity to guess what the object is and what it might have been used for, its true nature and purpose are revealed. In fact, such a workshop was also held at the York “Materiality” conference by David Pantalony of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which featured broken instruments, including some (such as a signal marker pen and a reed pipe) from the UTSIC. Our workshop was similar but with added twist that there was no grand “reveal” at the end: we really didn’t know what any of these objects were!

Brass, glass, and wood: mystery comes in many materials.

It appears that our decision to crowd-source has paid off. At the conference several of these instruments were identified, including a memory drum, and a peripheral vision test. A few days afterwards, we received some input from a visitor to our online catalogue, who helped identify, among other instruments, a saccharimeter, and a microwave generator. Still, there are many more objects that need identification, and as we continue to catalogue and photograph our collection we’ll continue to flag all of our “unidentified” instruments so that others can help us better understand them. 

Pondering the mysterious wheel (2011.ihpst.3)

Puzzling over object 2011.psy.3

Inspecting the red solution of the (now-identified) saccharimeter (2009.ph.267)

Transit of Venus Documentary

by Teresa Branch-Smith


On June 5th 2012 a rare astronomical event occurred: a transit of Venus. This passing of Venus in front of the sun is the second and final time it will occur this century with the next event happening in 2117. For this monumental occasion, the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (USTIC) in conjunction with the Astronomy department worked to highlight the event to the public.

The University of Toronto has had a strong tradition of studying transits and as a result equipment used over one hundred years ago still remains on campus. These instruments were sought out, safely assessed for stability, identified and had their provenance investigated by the UTSIC team. Subsequently, a ‘viewing party’ on June 5th was organized at Varsity Stadium where over five thousand members of the public showed up to watch the transit actually take place. They were given safety viewing glasses as a precaution, and instructed on how to view the transit as it happened.

To showcase the cultural importance the transit of Venus has played, a play by Canadian playwright Maureen Hunter about astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil`s struggles of tracking the transit was adapted and preformed for the event. To further showcase this confluence of arts and science, Victor Davis, the composer of the opera based on the play also had his work featured.

Teresa Branch-Smith interviewing UTSIC curator Paul Greenham at Varsity Stadium, June 5 2012, regarding a Gregorian Telescope from the Astronomy Collection.


To document the entire endeavour in conjunction with commissioning the play, organizing for the composer to showcase his operetta, helping to frame the exhibition and overseeing the logistics of helping to plan the event at Varsity Stadium, the UTSIC team produced a documentary on the making of the entire event. With a running time of approximately sixteen minutes the short documentary was made available to the public on the IHPST website in August, and has prompted a positive response from both the science and arts communities. In particular those involved in the study of material culture have taken a great interest because it offers an example of how artefacts can be made accessible and how visual media used as a teaching tool.

Creating a documentary contributed to the advancement of knowledge by communicating science in a dynamic manner, and in doing so served to make the history of astronomy more accessible to the general public and future scholars.

The Transit of Venus Documentary can be seen here:

A guide to the new UTSIC website

by Ari Gross


As you may have noticed, the website of the University of Toronto Scientific Instrument Collection has recently gone a major change After years of using our old website, we decided to embrace a new interface, providing users with a fresh look and a significant increase in functionality.

Here are some features about our website.


1) Our dynamic homepage

The first thing visitors will notice when they come to our homepage is that there are three large buttons in the centre of the page. These buttons can link to specific instruments, blog posts, exhibitions, and so on. They will be updated from time to time and will highlight our latest findings, exhibitions, and thoughts. Check back regularly to see what’s new.


2) Two ways to browse our collection

Our instruments, organized into collections, can now be viewed two ways: as rows of instruments or as a grid. These can be toggled by clicking the “row” or “grid” icons in the upper-right side of the page, just above the instruments. This button appears when you click on the “collections” tab or any of the collections or sub-collections from the drop-down menu.


3) Searching our collection

To search for instruments, first click on the “collections” tab (or any of the drop-down links). A search box will appear on the left side of the page. You can either search within the entire collection or within a particular collection, such as “Physics”.


4) Online exhibits

One of the most exciting aspects of our new website is our ability to host virtual exhibits, like our Taking Toronto’s Healthcare History exhibit. The corresponding physical exhibit to this virtual one was put together for a two-day conference, but our virtual exhibit can remain accessible to the world in perpetuity.


5) Blog posts

Our new website also consolidates all of our posts in one places, which can be accessed through the banner. While our latest post may be featured on the homepage, older posts will be easily accessible through the “blog posts” tab.


6) UTSIC documents

Our website also has a place for our documents, such as our collections policy. Any relevant documents that may be of interest to the public will be placed here.


We hope that these changes will make our collection even more accessible to the world. As always, please feel free to contact us by email at utsic [at] utoronto [dot] ca.


UTSIC Collections Policy

Collections Policy

General UTSIC Collections Policy
Acquiring Instruments from U of T Science Departments
Private Donations
Deaccessioning Instruments

General UTSIC Collections Policy

The primary goal of the UTSIC is to preserve a material record of research done at the University of Toronto. The collection seeks instruments and documents, either originating at the University of Toronto, or directly relevant to work that has been done here.
Instruments suitable for collecting include:
– Representative instruments: i.e. a “typical” student microscope.
– Unique instruments: i.e. instruments that have been built or modified in the lab.
– Instruments related to significant research done at the University of Toronto.
– Instruments related to important technology developed at the University of Toronto.
– Instruments considered interesting or meaningful by those who used them at the University of Toronto: i.e. instruments with “stories.”
– Documentation relating to objects in our collection or being considered for it, including receipts, instruction manuals, catalogues photographs and lab notebooks.
In some cases instruments may be added to an active teaching collection. Such instruments should be sturdy enough to be handled frequently and need not necessarily be from the University of Toronto. This will only be done with the explicit permission of the donor.
Decisions concerning the acquisition of instruments will be made by the curators of the UTSIC project.

Acquiring Instruments from U of T Science Departments

The University of Toronto does not currently have a university-wide policy to ensure that all scientific equipment is examined for its potential historical value before disposal. However, the UTSIC encourages the science departments to consider the value of scientific instruments in documenting their scientific legacy. The following steps can be taken to ensure that material evidence remains for future scholars to study:
– Contact the UTSIC before disposing of scientific equipment meeting any of the above criteria.
– If old equipment is kept in an insecure location such that it might be discarded over the long term, contact the UTSIC and we will tag it with our contact information.
– If historically relevant equipment is currently considered securely stored such that it should remain where it is, please contact the UTSIC and we will tag it and add it to the catalogue.
– Consider forming a committee of interested faculty and/ or students to identify and safeguard potentially historically valuable instruments in your department.
The UTSIC will consider adding to its collection any artefacts that are offered. Whether they can be accepted will depend on a number of factors including relevance, existing holdings, and available space. When an instrument is transferred the donating department can be issued a document detailing the transaction.

Private Donations

Private donations of instruments relevant to the history of scientific research at the University of Toronto are greatly appreciated. Whether they can be accepted will depend on a number of factors including relevance, existing holdings, available space, and the cost of the transaction.
Accepted donations with a monetary value are eligible for a tax receipt from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology for fair market value as determined by a qualified appraiser. However given the limited resources of the UTSIC, those who wish a tax-receipt are encouraged to consider the cost of an appraisal as part of their donation.
Donations become the exclusive property of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. The UTSIC may store, display, or interpret donations according to the discretion of its curators in keeping with standard museum practices. Donors will receive a document detailing the transaction. The donor’s name will be added to the confidential records of the UTSIC. Donors may choose whether or not to be identified in the online catalogue.

Deaccessioning Instruments

The UTSIC reserves the right to remove from its collection instruments in the possession of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. This will be done only in collaboration with, and with the consent of, the IHPST administration. Deaccessioning can occur if an instrument is duplicated or overrepresented in the collection or if it is in poor physical condition. Deaccessioned instruments will be disposed of in accordance with UTSIC guidelines.

Last updated December 6, 2012


The University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection is an effort to gather, safeguard, research, catalogue, and interpret, the material heritage of research at the University of Toronto.  It is part of an international movement aimed at safeguarding the material heritage of science within universities. The project collects a diverse range of material ranging from media, to scientific samples, to instrumentation. Its purpose is to create a historical research collection, as well as a tool for science outreach and interpretation. It is curated by Dr. Erich Weidenhammer.

The project is based at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST). Its approach is founded in disciplines including the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), Science and Technology Studies (STS), and History of Health. It seeks to facilitate, and to learn from a variety of perspectives, from museology to Indigenous knowledge.  The project is interdisciplinary, seeking to foster communication across university disciplines, between researchers and artists, and between the University of Toronto and other communities.

In addition to documenting the work of  researchers, the collection seeks to represent the skills and labour of technicians (machinists, histologists, glassblowers, media artists and technicians, and many others) whose work makes possible the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. It also uses artifacts to study the relationships between the communities within and beyond the university.

A networked collection, a collaborative museum

The University of Toronto collection employs a networked approach like similar projects around the world. This means that, while the collection does have a main storage and cataloguing space, much of the material is located in individual departmental and faculty-level storage areas.

This approach reflects, in part, the collaborative approach taken by the project; many individual subcollections are managed by departmental librarians or senior faculty members. It is also the result of the limited space at a busy downtown campus. The development of online cataloguing software has made it easier to track and organize collections across multiple locations.

The project maintains a primary exhibition area is on the third floor of the Victoria College building (91 Charles Street West), where a part of the collection is on display. New exhibits and themes are featured every year or two. The current exhibit, entitled “Vitreous Worlds”, explores the use of glass in scientific research. The exhibit is open during regular building hours.

Untold Stories 2017-18

The project also undertakes smaller exhibit projects and displays across the University of Toronto, often in collaboration with local students and artists involved in science research and outreach. Over the past decade, a valuable collaboration has developed between the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), the Master of Museum Studies Program (MMSt) program at the Faculty of Information Studies, and the Material Culture program at Victoria College.


Article describing the original cataloguing effort, 1978

The early years of the University of Toronto saw the establishment of numerous collections. Much of this material, in areas such as archaeology and natural history, was incorporated into the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) that opened in 1914. The ROM became independent from the University of Toronto in 1968, though many connections between the U of T and the ROM’s many research collections exist to this day.

Around the 1970s, historians of science began to focus on scientific instruments as a means of understanding the process by which scientific knowledge is created. Historians increasingly turned their attention to the special competencies of instrument makers, to instrument users beyond the sciences, and specialized technicians who perform scientific labour. The historical material heritage surviving at universities took on  a special importance as a source of evidence about this process.

In 1979, the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) led an effort to inventory historical scientific instruments at the University of Toronto. This produced both a significant card catalogue, as well as a written proposal to establish a museum of science.  The goal of a science museum reappeared repeatedly over subsequent years as the university convened a series of high-level committees on collections.

The arrival of the internet brought with it the possibility of a public catalogue and public exhibitions. The first step in this direction was the UTMuSi online catalogue of important older instruments from across the university. This project, created by graduate students at the IHPST, began in 1997. The original site is no longer online, but its information has since been added to the current online catalogue.

The UTSIC project began in 2008, again led by graduate students at the IHPST. This project arrived at a time when the internet had developed to handle large images and detailed, text searchable fields. The current online catalogue uses a custom plugin, programmed by Mike Thick, PhD, and base on WordPress blogging software. The IHPST has contributed substantially to the project through providing teaching assistant positions for cataloguing work, through providing funding for operating costs and exhibits, as well as through funding a contract Curator position. Several other units have provided significant funds, especially the Department of Astronomy.

  • An important early document about the University of Toronto’s instrument collection is Joy Davis (née Smith)’s Report to the President’s Advisory Committee on Historic Resources (1978) . A .pdf copy is available upon request.
  • The University of Toronto Archives & Records Management Services (UTARMS) maintains a list of publications that have used various aspects of the university archive. This is a useful resource for researchers whose work touches the history of the University of Toronto.

Donate to UTSIC

UTSIC graciously welcomes donations, whether they be financial or of relevant historic scientific instruments.

For more information on how to donate instruments to UTSIC, please contact UTSIC directly at: utsic [at] utoronto [dot] ca.

If you are considering a donation, please first consult our collections policy.

For more information on how to make a financial donation to UTSIC, please contact the Business Manager of University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Muna Salloum, at: muna [dot] salloum [at] utoronto [dot] ca.

Hemoglobin Scale Booklet

This portable booklet allowed for the quick determination of a patient’s hemoglobin levels. The colour of a drop of the patient’s blood on blotting paper was simply compared to the colours on the scale, which correspond to different concentrations of hemoglobin.

This diagnostic tool would have been used to diagnose conditions such as anemia.

(Early 20th Century)

Source: Medical Alumni Association Collection