Scientific instruments occupy a special niche between commerce and research and often play a key role in the history of science. These instruments formed one of the foundation stones of the industrial and technological revolution, enabling people to make accurate measurements and perform simple calculations. Just think how such fields as astronomy, navigation, surveying, ship design and machine manufacture depended on easily usable, inexpensive and precise scientific instruments.
As instruments became more sensitive and more accurate they extended the range of human observation and revealed unexpected phenomena. This not only increased the inventory of strange and mysterious objects but also acted as a much needed spur to academic thought. Telescopes, microscopes and spectrometers opened up whole new fields of endeavour.
The nation that produced the best instrumentation had a head start in the commercial and scientific world, and in the period under review that nation was Great Britain. In the mid-16th century, craftsmen from the Low Countries migrated to London. By the 18th and 19th century London had grown to become the largest centre of the precision instrument making craft in the world.
In 1984 Gerard L'E. Turner, the founder president of the Scientific Instrument Society, instigated a search of trade directories and commercial and livery company records for the names, addresses, dates and wares of instrument makers and sellers active in the British Isles between 1550 and 1851. The research was done by Michael Crawforth and Gloria Clifton. The database was established at the National Maritime Museum and this book is the end product. It covers makers of instruments such as astrolabes, astronomical regulators, barometers, chronometers, dials, drawing instruments, globes, mathematical instruments, microscopes, philosophical (that is, educational) apparatus, quadrants, rules, scales, sectors, slide rules, sundials, telescopes and thermometers.
More than 5,000 makers and retailers have been traced, together with their apprentices. The total number engaged in the trade is impressive. For example, 1551, 1651, 1751 and 1851 saw three, 43, 232 and 837 makers respectively.
After a brief introduction the book starts with Aaron, an optician in Shoemaker's Row, in London's Aldgate, working between 1805 and 1822 and ends with Felix Zuraghi (1832-1834) who made barometers, thermometers and looking glasses, a stone's throw away in City Road, London.
This is a true work of scholarship and each entry is meticulously cross- referenced and sourced.
David Hughes is reader in astronomy, University of Sheffield.
Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers 1550-1851
Author - Gloria Clifton
ISBN - 0 302 00634 6
Publisher - Zwemmer (Philip Wilson Publishers)
Price - £65.00
Pages - 331pp