20 April 2001 – 31 March 2003
From the Laboratory to the Parlor: Scientific Instruments in Philadelphia, 1750–1875 explores the significance of scientific instruments in the development of the American colonies and the early republic, with a specific focus on Philadelphia. Through the display of instruments such as David Rittenhouse’s home-made astronomical clock, a battery of Leyden jars to store electrical charges, a disinfecting apparatus used to clear ships and sickrooms of dreaded illness, Emma Seiler’s laryngoscope and more—together with period books, catalogues, engravings, maps, portraits and even translations of American Indian languages—the exhibit illuminates the role that science played in the drive to create a European-style America, develop local and international commerce, and establish social as well as intellectual prestige for the New World devotees of what was then known as “natural philosophy.”
From a banjo barometer used in the home to record the weather, to the surveying instruments that helped determine the Mason-Dixon line, to magnetometers, optical instruments and telescopes, these devices, whether they served a practical, economic or social function, bear witness to the role of scientific inquiry and the thirst for knowledge in the lives of those who settled Philadelphia. Comprised of ninety-nine artifacts, including forty-six instruments and rare objects, forty-five archival pieces including broadsides, letters, books and diaries, and eight fine arts pieces (paintings, prints, one watercolor and one plaster bust), the exhibit includes fifteen loan items from such institutions as The Library Company of Philadelphia, The Rosenbach Museum & Library, the University of Pennsylvania, the Library and Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
In the 18th century, scientific instruments were used as both tools and toys. In the laboratory they provided the means for measuring and mapping the North American continent, exploring astronomical phenomena such as the Transit of Venus in 1769 (which is seen only once or twice per century and occurred again in 2004), and examining the newly-visible structures of flowers and fleas. Instruments enabled the development of commerce in the new society, providing the means to standardize weights and measures, and to assess taxes on such products as imports and alcohol. In the home, they provided status for the early amateurs of science—owning a globe, microscope or electrical machine not only linked one symbolically to the international community of natural philosophy but provided entertainment for guests in the form of amusing experiments or parlor games.
Divided into five major themes—Standardization; Mapping (Land, Sea and Sky); Parlor Instruments; Electricity and Medicine; and Representation and Portraiture—From the Laboratory to the Parlor chronicles the many fascinating stories these instruments and artifacts tell: how Rittenhouse’s home-made astronomical timepiece was used in Norriton, Pennsylvania to observe the Transit of Venus in 1769, how Franklin’s lightning rods became a patriotic symbol, how Alexander Dallas Bache planned America’s first magnetic observatory at Girard College, and how Emma Seiler, a music teacher, used a laryngoscope to teach herself the anatomy of the throat and restore her injured voice. (She learned to hold the laryngoscope in her throat while singing in order to watch her own vocal cords at work. And the scope itself was invented by a singer in London, not a doctor.)
The exhibit also traces momentous events of the time, such as the yellow fever epidemic that killed more than 5000 Philadelphians in the summer of 1793. On view, in addition to the disinfecting apparatus used for such diseases, were actual recipes for the solutions used in the apparatus to purify sickrooms (“1/4 pound of nitre pounded, one ounce of oil vitriol, put into gallipots and placed in different parts of the house”). And one of the most poignant items in the exhibit was a pamphlet refuting the accusations of opportunism on the part of African-Americans who were solicited to care for the ill and to remove dead bodies during the epidemic. Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, believing blacks to be immune to the disease, had requested their services, and many responded to his call only to contract the disease and die, or to find themselves accused of profiteering. In his bold and now-famous pamphlet, Absalom Jones refuted accusations made by Matthew Carey, writing, “Happy would it have been for you, and much more so for us, if this observation [of immunity] had been verified by our experience.”
A unique display of objects largely unknown to today’s public, From the Laboratory to the Parlor not only illuminates the culture of science in colonial, post-colonial and mid-19th century Philadelphia, but visibly demonstrates the connection—and the process of growth between then and now—through such themes as the interdependence of marketing, commerce and technology; politics and technology; the exchange of ideas and information that led to experimentation, invention and progress; and more.
This exhibition is made possible in part by the National Institutes of Health.