Scientific Instruments Research Paper

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All scientific instruments share a single quality: they are made and used to study the natural world or to tell others about the natural world. Too often, say some scholars (and museum curators faced with cabinets full of compasses and sextons) we lose focus on how and for what purposes objects are used, and by whom, and that those parameters often vary from culture to culture.

We think that we know what “scientific instruments” are. After all, science museums all over the world proudly display collections of the material remains of the activity called “science.” Scientific instruments include astrolabes and armillary spheres, chemical glassware and fume cupboards, telescopes and clocks. They are used in laboratories, classrooms, in space, at sea and underground—and many other places besides—and vary in size from massive objects like the particle accelerator at CERN, Geneva, to the tiniest nanotechnology devices that can only be seen with the help of a microscope. They might look impressive, like the gilt brass telescopes of eighteenth-century European observatories, or they might be deceptively plain, functional and compact black boxes packed with electronic circuitry. What links all these instruments is that they were made and used to study the natural world or to tell others about the natural world: activities common to many world cultures. But the custodians of these collections sometimes have trouble defining what to include under the heading “scientific instruments” and therefore what to collect. Deborah Warner, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, in an article entitled “What Is a Scientific Instrument, When Did It Become One, and Why?,” explores the changing meanings of the term scientific instrument and concludes that the term is problematic. She says that it should not be used as often as it is and should be replaced by terms contemporary with the instruments that are being studied.

Albert Van Helden and Thomas L. Hankins also discuss the ambiguity of the term scientific instrument in their introduction to a collection of essays entitled Instruments, suggesting that the ambiguity inherent in the terms science and instrument might be a virtue. They believe that we should look at the variety and contexts of the uses of such instruments rather than make a list of which kinds of objects we are to count as scientific instruments. They list four uses to which instruments are put. First, Van Helden and Hankins point out that instruments confer authority and settle disputes—instruments are part of the attempts by practitioners to convince others of the validity of their ideas. Second, and linked to the first use, Van Helden and Hankins point out that instruments are created for audiences, that is, the wider community, including patrons and supporters, who is interested in the practitioners’ activities. Third, Van Helden and Hankins suggest that one use of instruments is to act as a bridge between natural science and popular culture, through the symbolic and educational uses of objects. Fourth, Van Helden and Hankins note that the role of instruments changes when they are used to study living things. In none of these four uses is there an explicit statement that people use instruments to find out about the natural world, but this use is the underlying idea behind the other four: instruments provide ways of looking at, understanding, and telling others about the natural world.

Recent work in the sociology of scientific knowledge has shown that the actual processes of (Western) scientific researchers and their use of instruments are less objective than the third-person, passive-voiced articles reporting their results would have the reader believe. The role of skill and tacit knowledge looms large, and especially so in the use of instruments. Thus, if in the much better-studied case of Western scientific investigation we have much to learn about the ways that people use objects to find out about the natural world, in other world cultures we have even more to learn.

Helene Selin, editor of the Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non- Western Cultures, believes that to study science in non-Western cultures we must accept that each culture has its own science that defines and predicts natural events and that each science is valid in terms of its culture. She contends that our own science also is a reflection of its culture and that culture is a factor in each step of doing science.

Acknowledging the Western focus of most scholarship on scientific instruments, Van Helden and Hankins suggest that, “Looking at instruments in a non-Western society teaches us that their use and intended purpose is not obvious, and warns us, by reflection, that the role of instruments in Western science is sure to be even more complex . . .” (Van Helden and Hankins 1994, 6).

They suggest that we look at how scientific instruments have worked in humanity’s consideration of the natural world—the different uses to which objects have been put. In Selin’s terms, we must look at how instruments have worked within the different frameworks that she calls “science”—the ways that people consider and have considered the natural world.

This focus on how objects are used, by whom, and for what purposes means that we can see objects that are superficially similar in function but that relate to people and their activities in quite different ways. For example, navigation at sea in eighteenth-century Europe relied on using charts, taking measurements of the altitude of sun and stars above the horizon and the direction of the North Pole—activities linked to instruments such as the compass and the mariner’s astrolabe. Turning to the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, we find charts made from sticks that map the atolls (coral islands consisting of a reef surrounding a lagoon) and islands, waves and currents, and measurement of direction based on a star compass. But the ways that these objects are used by the Marshall Islanders are different from the ways that the European charts and compass were used, most significantly in that the Marshall Islanders do not take the charts and star compass to sea with them. The islanders use the charts in the training of navigators rather than in the practice of navigation itself—someone memorizes the charts and the star compass, and the navigation is actually done using mental models of the physical objects.

Cultural Context

The function of scientific instruments can also change as they move from one cultural context to another. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Jesuit missionaries visited China, hoping that by convincing the emperor of the superiority of their astronomical instruments and observations, they could persuade him to convert to Catholicism. The Jesuits took with them the instrument designs of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and taught Chinese metalworkers to make instruments according to these designs, albeit with Chinese-style stands and mounts. These new instruments replaced the thirteenth-century astronomical instruments of the Beijing (Peking) observatory. In his study of astronomical instruments in Ming-dynasty China (1368–1644), Thatcher Deane argues that they were more “useful” as symbols for the emperor’s heavenly mandate than as tools for observation. Allan Chapman’s study of the Jesuit missions to China shows that they did not need to use the most up-to-date instrument designs because their role was more ambassadorial than observational. Thus, the status of the instruments used by the Jesuits changed subtly when physically (and intellectually) located in China rather than in Europe. The Jesuits hoped that this integration could, in the end, lead to the conversion of the Chinese emperor, but the Chinese were happy to select certain benefits offered by the missionaries and take their astronomical and instrumental expertise without following their lead in matters of religion.

The Jesuit missionaries’ attempts to convince the Chinese of the superiority of European astronomical (and, by extension, religious) thinking offer an example of the use of scientific instruments in the service of religious conversion. But, as the historian of technology Michael Adas describes, despite the fact that scientific curiosity was a major motivating factor in the Europeans’ exploration of the world from the fifteenth century onward, the early explorers and conquistadors did not often use scientific knowledge as a way of gauging their superiority over the people they encountered; that came later with the rise of “scientific racism.” Nonetheless, the existence of large cities or complex scientific instruments was included in assessments about how “developed” a particular civilization was. As empire and colonialism gathered pace, division of “science” from “magic” and “superstition” sealed the Western dominance of science and technology, and this edifice is only now being slowly dismantled, with renewed interest in scientific and medical knowledge of non-Western civilizations.

The place of scientific instruments within the process of colonialism is complex. For example, surveying instruments are used in the construction of maps, and evidence indicates that mapmaking was among the strategies used by colonial powers to delineate and therefore control the land they occupied. We might know a little about how, say, Native Americans mapped their world, but we often have little or no evidence to tell us for sure what relationship instruments had to their study of the natural world. Selin cautions against seeing the lack of evidence as a lack of activity, arguing that surely mathematicians in the Pacific Island countries or the Americas were as skillful as more famous people from China or the Middle East. The survival of written records is contingent on many factors, not least on war and colonialism, and because of this fact the study of objects becomes even more important: they provide a source of knowledge about people and their scientific activities that is outside written records and therefore accessible to scholars in cases where the evidence is otherwise somewhat thin or even completely lost.


These few examples show the diversity of ways by which people have used instruments to consider the natural world and the ways in which some scholars have studied them. Instruments can relate to the underlying scientific framework and practices in various ways. Therefore, the problems identified by Warner and by Van Helden and Hankins loom larger when we consider scientific instruments as part of world history. After all, what is to count as a “scientific instrument” when the very category of “science” is opened up to include all the ways by which people measure, predict, and tell others about the natural world? The term is loaded with Western ideals about the rational, impartial approach to the natural world, which might be difficult to reconcile with other peoples’ ways of considering the heavens, the rocks, or the seas. A stick in the ground might be just that, but a stick in the ground casts a shadow, and if someone uses the track of that shadow to measure the passage of time or the seasons, that stick becomes a sundial or a calendar. Should we then call it a “scientific instrument”? Should a museum include that stick in its collection of scientific instruments? If it did, what other information should it record about the ways by which the stick was used so that the link between object and practice is not lost?

Some objects might be classified as scientific instruments all the time—such as an armillary sphere, which models the structure and motions of the heavens. However, even such apparently intrinsically scientific instruments can be used for symbolic or religious purposes wider than the strictly “scientific.” Other objects might have the status of “scientific instrument” only temporarily, such as the stick in the ground. Here we have gone far beyond the first explicit definition of the term scientific instrument, proposed by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1876: “Everything which is required in order to make an experiment is called Apparatus. A piece of apparatus constructed specially for the performance of experiments is called an Instrument” (Maxwell 1876, 1).

We have perhaps gone too far for the comfort of some museum curators because allowing objects to temporarily have the status of “scientific instruments” brings in huge numbers of objects that have thus far not been collected or studied as such. If this definition is pushed to its limits, curators such as Warner will have even greater problems determining what is to count as a scientific instrument and therefore what kinds of objects to collect. People interested in how humans look at the natural world and how objects and instruments relate to that activity, though, are less constrained by the practical and physical problems of conservation and storage, and such a broad definition is perhaps less problematic. It might be even beneficial because it opens our eyes to the different approaches that humans have taken to understanding the natural world and the various roles that instruments have played in these activities.


  1. Bud, R., & Warner, D. J. (Eds.). (1998). Instruments of science: An historical encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.
  2. Chapman, A. (1984). Tycho Brahe in China: The Jesuit mission to Peking and the iconography of European instrument-making processes. Annals of Science, 41, 417–444.
  3. Clerk Maxwell, J. (1876). General considerations concerning scientific apparatus. The Kensington Museum Handbook (pp. 1–21). London: Chapman and Hall.
  4. Harley, J. B. (2001). The new nature of maps: Essays in the history of cartography. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  5. King, D. A. (1987). Islamic astronomical instruments. London: Variorum Reprints.
  6. Needham, J., Gwei-Djen, L., Combridge, J. H., & Major, J. S. (1986). The hall of heavenly records: Korean astronomical instruments and clocks 1380–1780. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Pyenson, L., & Sheets-Pyenson, S. (1999). Servants of nature: A history of scientific institutions, enterprises and sensibilities. London: HarperCollins.
  8. Selin, H. (Ed.). (1997). Encyclopedia of the history of science, technology and medicine in non-Western cultures. Boston: Kluwer Academic.
  9. Turner, A. (1987). Early scientific instruments: Europe 1400– 1800. London: Sotheby’s.
  10. Turner, G. P. E. (1998). Scientific instruments, 1500–1900: An introduction. London: Philip Wilson.
  11. Van Helden, A., & Hankins, T. L. (Eds.). (1994). Instruments. Chicago: Osiris.
  12. Warner, D. (1990). What is a scientific instrument, when did it become one, and why? British Journal for the History of Science, 23, 83–93.

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