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“Unknown” Instruments

by Erich Weidenhammer

Recently, we added a new search option to the instrument database: a quick list of every instrument that we are currently unable to identify. This simple feature reflects our hope that the catalogue will become a focus for collaboration between those directly involved in the project, the community of scientific researchers at the University of Toronto, and the worldwide community of those interested in scientific instruments.

The entries in the UTSIC database are designed to incorporate new information as it is made available. A minimal entry will provide photographs, dimensions, information on materials, and will list whatever markings are present. Other relevant details, readily available from existing databases, digitized catalogues, and other online sources, will be listed. If the cataloguer is able to identify the instrument on this basis, a name and function will be provided. If not, it will be flagged as “unknown.” We will also endeavour to provide whatever provenance information exists in our records.

The catalogue is able to accommodate a great deal of additional information about provenance, and historical context; however the project does not have the resources to hire dedicated researchers. Detailed contextual information will come from academics who work with the collection for their own purposes. Certainly, the University of Toronto Archives contains a substantial amount of information on various aspects of the collection. Emeritus professors, the traditional guardians of historical apparatus on this campus, are also a wealth of knowledge that we hope to draw on.

Much as we hope that the catalogue will provide a source of interest and historical meaning to the academic community at the U of T, we also hope that it will interest the broader community as well. The precursor to the UTSIC project, the University of Toronto Museum of Scientific Instruments (UTMuSI)—no longer accessible through online search— attracted emails from instrument experts of various stripes from around the world. Its list of “Mystery Instruments” (all now identified) shows the willingness of such people to share their knowledge.

If you have a correction, suggestion, or insight to offer about any object you find in the catalogue, or on the catalogue itself, please share it with us at Like the scientific enterprise that this project seeks to document, we see the cataloguing process as a fundamentally open and collaborative effort. [instrument_box]