Apparatus Museum

Oesper Apparatus Museum

Polarizing Microscope c. 1890

The Apparatus Museum, which houses the Jensen-Thomas Apparatus Collection, is one of three components of the Oesper Collections in the History of Chemistry, which also include a rare Books and Journals collection and an historical Portraits and Prints collection.  The apparatus collection contains roughly 4000 artifacts spanning the period from 1650-1970.  

Digital components of the collection are available through this website - the digital photo collection of apparatus museum artifacts is available through JSTOR and the Museum Notes and Museum Booklets linked from the Digital Collections page and hosted in the UC Digital Resource Commons along with a selection of rare books that have been digitized.

The artifacts are classified into three categories: original, reproduction, and restoration.  Most of the late 19th and 20th-century artifacts fall into the category of original, whereas virtually all of the early 19th, 18th and 17th-century artifacts fall into the category of reproduction.  This reflects the fact that almost no chemical glassware earlier than the late 18th-century has survived intact.  Indeed, most of the items in European museums from this period, and especially the so-called alchemical laboratories, are also reproductions.  Most chemical apparatus is modular and, in order to show how it is properly assembled into an actual working laboratory setup, many different parts are required.  Thus, for a proper display of a distillation setup one requires not only a condenser, but flasks, adapters, clamps, stands, corks, glass tubing and a heat source.  In such cases, these various parts may have come from a variety of donors and, in some cases, it may be necessary to reproduce a missing part in order to assemble the whole.  Those artifacts which have been assembled from a mixture of original parts and reproduction parts are classified as restorations.

Single Pan Steelyard c. 1900

Many of the apparatus artifacts are displayed in glass-fronted cases in the museum and elsewhere in the chemistry department. These examples of apparatus used by chemists over the past four centuries include original items, restorations, and reproductions. Originals date from the late 19th to the 20th centuries, and restorations date from the mid-19th century.

Jensen and Rudy W. Thomas, the chemistry department demonstrator, created the reproductions of equipment from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. That was necessary because almost no chemical glassware from before the late 18th century has survived intact. In fact, that's a universal problem - most similar items in European museums from this early period are also reproductions.

Among the displays are balances and weights, heating devices, volumetric apparatus, basic apparatus (flasks, beakers, test tubes, etc.), and laboratory hardware (stands, clamps, stirrers). Also represented are apparatus related to distillation, organic combustion analysis, pneumatic chemistry, electrochemistry, molecular weight determinations, melting and boiling point determinations, gas analysis, and devices for filtration, sedimentation, and extraction. The museum also contains molecular and crystal models, chemical slide rules, mechanical and early electronic calculators, and 3D periodic tables, as well as instruments including microscopes, colorimeters, spectroscopes, spectrophotometers, and pH meters.

One of the main attractions of the museum is the reproduction of an early-1900s chemical laboratory, complete with a period fume cupboard and a glass-blowing setup. It can be viewed from the museum proper through a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window that serves as one wall of the laboratory.

This display represents a reconstruction of a typical early 20th-century (c. 1900-1910) chemical laboratory devoted primarily to analytical chemistry. Consistent with the period, the lighting is transitional in nature and both gas lighting and early electrical lighting fixtures are present. This is also reflected in the control board for the early electric constant-temperature furnace on the wall bench, where period light bulbs are used to provide a source of variable resistance. The red glass sphere hanging on the wall to the right of the control board is an early fire extinguisher designed to be smashed on the floor in order to release its fire retarding liquid contents. The table, wall bench, and glass-fronted storage cabinet were recovered from the old geology building at the University of Cincinnati and came, in turn, from the original chemistry department. This was located in the north wing of the original version of McMicken Hall before it moved in 1917 into what is now inaccurately known as the "Old Chemistry" building. The open storage cabinet on the opposite wall is an Oesper purchase and was recovered from an old pharmacy on the west side of Cincinnati. The fume hood on the wall bench was recovered from the Cincinnati Mechanics Institute. It has no fan mechanism, just a hole in the back designed to feed into the central chimney of a building, where it worked off of the heat updraft from the furnace. When the folding glass-paneled doors are completely closed, the lower panels can be individually raised to allow the chemist to insert his arms into the hood in order to manipulate his apparatus. Also of note is the period setup for glass blowing located at one end of the table, and the circa 1906 periodic table hanging on the wall above the wall bench. The apparatus in the laboratory came from dozens of donors and all of the various drawers and cabinets are also filled with period apparatus. The hundreds of bottles of period chemicals came largely from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and from our own stockrooms at Cincinnati. Most are pre-World War I and include an extensive collection of imported German dyes.