Odds and quads - 27 June 2013

The desk and spectacles pictured belonged to Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the German polymath whose travels in Latin America led to the first serious scientific account of the continent

June 27, 2013

Some say that Humboldt gave the items to the French scientist and politician François Arago, others that they were purchased by the French Academy of Sciences for the Paris Observatory.

The circular measuring device (right), probably intended for military purposes, was made by the instrument maker Erasmus Habermel (c.1538-1606), who served at the court of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II. It is unclear how 15 of his remarkable instruments also found their way to the Paris Observatory, although they may have been brought to France by Louis XIV’s soldiers.

Along with Louis Pasteur’s notebooks and Marie Curie’s personal papers, these are just some of the most significant of the 500,000 objects owned by the Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University (PSL). Established in 2010, this brought together 20 separate higher education institutions – including the Collège de France and the École Normale Supérieure as well as the Observatory – that were established to study disciplines neglected by the nearby Sorbonne. A major exhibition on the Humboldt brothers is planned for next year.

Send suggestions for this series on the treasures, oddities and curiosities owned by universities across the world to matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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