A place where I can talk about my research and other interests -- history, magic, ham radio, technology, and making things.

Monday, September 14, 2009

READING ARTIFACTS: Summer Institute in the Material Culture of Science

I participated in the READING ARTIFACTS workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum from August 17 - 21, 2009. There were presentations from a number of scholars who have worked extensively with science artifacts, and we were given the opportunity to apply what we learned over the course of the week using portions of the museum's extensive holdings. The emphasis was on exploring what we can learn from objects themselves, and identifying strategies as a toolkit for that exploration.

From the start, we were confronted with objects removed from their context, yet we quickly discovered ways to learn a lot about those things. Around the room were a variety of artifacts from the museum's collections. We were asked to browse amongst them, and eventually settle upon one that attracted our interest. For the remainder of the week, we were given time to work exclusively upon the artifact -- to learn about it and from it -- so we could present our findings to the rest of the group at the end of the week.

The artifact that stood out most to me was a flimsy, transparent (but yellowed) plastic box that had a simple radio circuit on one side. There was a clockwork mechanism that appeared to perform a variety of unknown functions. The radio drew me to it, and then I kept wondering what all the other parts were doing with the radio -- was it sending something triggered by the mechanical portion? Did it receive a signal to activate the mechanical movements? What sorts of signals could it have been using? If it transmitted, what sort of a signals did it send? If it was a beacon of some kind, where and why was it used?

It turned out that the artifact was likely a radiosonde -- a meteorological measurement device that transmitted the temperature, air pressure, and humidity. It was developed in Russia and is called a Moltchanoff device, named for the inventor. The one we were looking at was likely used in Coppermine, N.W.T., by R. C. Jacobsen, in 1932 for the Second International Polar Year. Arriving at that information turned out to be somewhat complicated, but the process illustrates how useful the material culture perspective can be.

While working with the radiosonde, we examined it for as much detail and information as we could. We developed theories about what it could do and how it functioned. We identified a number of parts to it, and roughly figured out how they worked together. From just examining the object, we were pretty sure it measured temperature, air pressure and humidity, and sent out signals about that information with the radio circuit.

We quickly came to question all of that as we read records about the artifact from the museum. We were looking forward to the records -- we're historians, and we're used to learning about things by reading about it. There was a delay in getting records for our artifact, and when we found some, they turned out to be for a different item in the collection (one that was on display in an exhibit). The two items looked nearly identical, so they were likely the same types of objects. Some of the information about the one on display would probably apply to the one we were looking at, or at least tell us what it did.

According to the records, the one on display was a flashing light meteorograph. That is also a meteorological measurement device, but it flashes a light to be seen on the ground in order to identify the wind direction, speed and height of the device. The exhibit had a photograph of a person flying a kite, and further identified the inventor as John Patterson, head of the Meteorological Service of Canada during the Second International Polar Year. No mention of a radio or Moltchanoff.

This seemed odd. There was no light with either device. Sure, the light might have been damaged or removed, but there was no socket, and the circuit looked like a radio, not something to turn a light on and off. I began to question if the vacuum tube in the radio part maybe was really a light of some sort; or, maybe what I thought was the radio component was some type of oscillating circuit to make a light flash on and off. There was an empty space in the middle of the device -- maybe a light went in there. I began to try to create more and more complicated scenarios in an attempt to make what I was looking match the descriptions I was reading. But the simple explanation was that it was a radio circuit -- to me, it looked like a radio, and a light just didn't make sense.

Further research turned up a third similar device in the museum's collections. It was listed as a 1932 Moltchanoff device, but was just the clockwork part with no case or other circuitry. We went to see it, and found a pristine device, with manufactured parts (like a small circuit board for one of the switches), and red wire with plastic insulation. It was etched with, "1957," which might be a serial number, but based upon the condition and materials of the device, could instead be the year -- it looked more post-WWII than the recorded earlier date of ca. 1932.

We asked around throughout the week, and others thought the circuit looked more like a radio, too, but we found it difficult to say that it was a radio when confronted with all of the written evidence that said it was a flashing light meteorograph. There we were, having spent only a handful of hours with the device, with our interpretation conflicting with reports about what it actually was. The "official" documents all called it a flashing light meteorograph, but the object itself suggested radio.

This was the biggest lesson I experienced through the workshop -- that there is value and authority embodied within the objects themselves, and we can use that for knowledge. At an institution like the Canada Science and Technology Museum, we were confronted with a number of layers of authority regarding the object in question -- it's a museum; a national institution; with years of curatorial oversight and record keeping; and there was a public exhibit displaying elements of that information. Yet the object itself was the main primary source, and it suggested knowledge that was different from the written accounts.

Near the end of the week, we came across an article published by the Smithsonian that credited a drawing of a very similar-looking device to the original Russian article by Moltchanoff. The drawing very accurately depicted the device we had been looking at all week, along with the hookup that the device had to a balloon. It showed that a battery went into the empty space we observed in the device, and made clear that this was a Moltchanoff radiosonde. Finding that credited image finally seemed to confirm what the object itself had been saying all along, but we had been unaccustomed to ascribing that much credit to an object over the authority of texts.

While learning from an object can be problematic -- the object might be removed from its original context; it might have been altered; or, it might have been used in ways not originally intended -- the object itself does hold knowledge that we can learn from. Working with objects should not be neglected by the humanities scholar as they can provide unique insight that might not otherwise be discovered through documentation. An object can tell us much about its past, uses and functions, and through that process, it can also help us learn more about our own research practices and assumptions.