The 'make do and mend' culture of scientific instruments


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Becky, Katy and I had a wonderful time at the Three Societies meeting in Philadelphia, which just concluded. Many thanks to Robert Hicks of the Mütter Museum for doing a superior job as our chair and commentator, and to all of the delegates who attended our session and provided useful questions and comments!

I spoke about the reality of trying to transport, use, maintain and repair all types of early modern instruments including marine timekeepers at sea and on expeditions - in changeable and sometimes harsh environments and often far from specialist repairers. While most of the published and otherwise propagated textual and visual representations of instruments depicted them as idealised and unproblematic precision technologies which would work 'out of the box', they were not only far from precise in the modern sense of the word and far from easy to operate but were also often disordered or broken by movement and by changes in conditions such as temperature and humidity.

Their usage at sea and abroad -- whether in astronomy, natural philosophy, navigation or surveying -- was often further hindered by complications including movement, poor weather and visibility, and difficult and uncharted terrain. As a result, instrument users almost constantly had to adjust, to adapt or to overhaul their equipment in order to try to overcome these obstacles - hence the 'make do and mend' culture. The stories of their constant negotiations between technology and environment often come out in private correspondence and unpublished records rather than in the broader public dialogue.

Such issues also popped up in other instrument-oriented talks during the conference. For example, they were central to discussions of the operation, judgement and communication of the diverse technologies described in each talk in the session 'Instruments and Measurement' - a unifier which was fleshed out more during the concluding questions. Yuto Ishibashi of Imperial College London spoke about 'The Accuracy of the Timeball and the Development of Electrical Timekeeping in Liverpool, 1850-1870', Daniel Mitchell of the University of Hong Kong discussed 'Controlling the Atmosphere: Discipline and Protocol in the Installation of the Kew Divided-Ring Electrometer', and Kjell Ericson of Princeton University concluded with 'The Universe of Light in the Kingdom of the Pearl: The Gem Test and the Spread of Machine-Mediated Appraisal, c. 1920-1935'.

As we can see through such research, the roles played by damage, flux and other complications in transporting and using technology were of course not restricted to the early modern period or to the European experience. Even today, while we expect so many technologies to work the minute we plug them in, it is still common for scientists and techies and the like to have to fiddle with their tools and toys in order to operate or to optimise them in different environments. Our Principal Investigator Simon Schaffer recently cited, most aptly, the corrective 'spectacles' which had to be added to the flawed mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993. Below, you can see a comparison of images of M100 taken before and after the HST optics were corrected.

An example from the earlier twentieth century which has always stuck with me, is when a vital switch broke on the control panel of the first lunar lander on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission of 1969 - in fact the switch which would power up the engine so that the astronauts could return home! Not to worry, however, as Buzz Aldrin was able to replace the missing toggle with an ink pen, and he and Neil Armstrong started the engine and went on their merry way.

Images: Greenwich timeball: Royal Museums Greenwich; Hubble and Apollo 11 photos: NASA.