Skip navigation to content

Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments

 

The Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments contains over 500 items illustrating the history of teaching and research in Natural Philosophy, Physics and Astronomy in the University over a period of five centuries. The Collection, which is of national and international importance, provides important material evidence of the history and development of science and scientific instrument making in Scotland and beyond.

The Collection contains material directly connected to figures of key importance to the development of science, such as a microscope used by Sir David Brewster, who is chiefly remembered for his discoveries in optics, particular for ‘Brewster’s Angle’.  Brewster also invented the kaleidoscope and was an influential figure in the early development of photography in Scotland.

Several items in the collection are believed to have been amassed by James Gregory, Professor of Mathematics 1668-1674, when the University instructed him to ‘goe for London’ and purchase ‘such instruments and utensils as he with the advice of other skilful persons shall judge most necessary and useful’ to equip the planned University observatory.  Gregory was among the most pre-eminent scientists of his period.  He invented the Gregorian reflecting telescope and, along with Barrow, Newton and Leibniz, is regarded as a principal discoverer of the differential calculus. Correspondence between Gregory and John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, records Gregory’s commissioning of three clocks, two regulator clocks and, more importantly, what may be the world’s earliest split seconds clock, from the renowned London maker, Joseph Knibb, in 1673:  these remain within the University.  Gregory is also thought to have acquired two of the finest surviving Elizabethan scientific instruments:  the Great Astrolabe and the Universal Instrument, dated 1575 and 1582 respectively, made by the foremost London instrument maker of the 16th century, Humphrey Cole.

Other material associated with Gregory includes an additional plate for the Great Astrolabe, produced by John Marke of  London, with a latitude close to that of St Andrews; a mariner’s astrolabe by Elias Allen, 1616, unusual in being one of the largest known examples, and also in being both signed and dated by its maker; a 17th century Dutch circumferentor; a rare example of Oughtred’s double horizontal dial, produced by Hilkiah Bedford c. 1660-1680; and a parchment refracting telescope believed to have been used by Gregory himself.

The Collection contains pieces by significant Scottish instrument makers, such as a Gregorian telescope produced by James Short of Edinburgh in 1736:  with a focal length of 24 inches and an aperture of 4.5 inches, it was the first he made of this size.  A model Watt beam engine, made c. 1824, to illustrate the working principles of a steam engine used to pump water from mines, is of national historic interest. 

An intricate orrery, made by Benjamin Cole of London, about 1750, is unusual in that, because it was designed as a teaching instrument, its internal mechanisms can be viewed through glass windows, instead of being hidden behind the usual decorative panels.