Monthly Archives: September 2014

What is a complete object?

In the summer of 2009, I took part in a workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) during which we were shown a number of objects from their collection. One was a console from a SAGE computer system, once used by NORAD to detect and track soviet aircraft entering Canadian airspace over the arctic. This is an important object representing a significant application of early computers, as well as Canada’s early Cold War status as an enormous frontier in which to prevent Soviet bombers from reaching the United States. David Pantalony, Curator of Science and Medicine, pointed out ashtrays that had been built into the console. He also noted that, when the object was first acquired in the 1980s, there were cigarette stains visible on its surface—a trace of the operators whose job combined tedium and incredible responsibility. Since its acquisition, however, the object had been cleaned, the traces of its human operators removed.

It could be that no object is ever complete. No matter what you feel that you know about it, some aspect of its meaning will escape you. Whatever interpretation you give it, or how you choose to represent it, some other narrative will be obscured or distorted by your claims.  Curators, like historians, are essentially storytellers. The act of discussing the past involves selecting certain details over others, deciding which voices are too peripheral to matter, reconciling conflicting views according to your own weighing of the evidence. Both curators and historians tell stories that adhere to professional conventions meant to make this process of weighing seem fair and reasonable. Conventions change over time. One generation of curators might restore a given object to match an ideal form that existed when it was new, another might find significance in its brokenness or incompleteness.

A control stand from a Victor "Snook Special" combination deep therapy and diagnostic x-ray machine. It was purchased in 1926 for the University of Toronto physics laboratory run by  John Cunningham McLennan (1867-1935). On the left is part of the schematic that was sent with the original unit. On the right is the unit as it appeared when it was finally decommissioned in the early 2000s. The modifications could either represent damage to a classic instrument or evidence of a remarkably rich provenance.

A control stand from an Victor “Snook Special” x-ray machine. It was purchased in 1926 for the University of Toronto physics laboratory run by John Cunningham McLennan (1867-1935). On the left is part of the schematic that was sent with the original unit. On the right is the unit as it appeared when it was finally decommissioned by the Department of Physics in the early 2000s. The colourful modifications to the original faux marble panel could represent damage to a classic instrument, or evidence of a remarkably rich provenance.


The U of T’s Chambers’ Micromanipulator is a particularly incomplete instrument, but it doesn’t seem to me like an object whose incompleteness is meaningful since we know so little about its past. Given the relative simplicity of its mechanism and missing parts, it seems reasonable to consider representing it as a complete object  while acknowledging that, whatever the result, it will be only  one possible representation.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my goals is to recreate missing parts to produce  a kind of sculptural representation of what the Chambers’ micromanipulator looked like when it was used—one, but certainly not the only, notion of a “complete object”. In future posts I hope to show that this kind of representation involves a creative process.  The object itself seems to grow and change as your understanding of it increases. Parts become visible that weren’t visible before, or perhaps had been lost to view as the object became obsolete and the people who made and used it passed away.

A very early rendition of the "complete" Chambers' Micromanipulator on display at a medical exhibition in 2012.

A very early rendition of the “complete” Chambers’ Micromanipulator on display at a medical exhibition in 2012.

There is a second, more ambitious, goal that I’d also like to pursue. Historians of science sometimes attempt to recreate scientific  effects from the past, a process that requires a considerable understanding of the technologies involved, but can produce insights that can’t be obtained any other way. In my next post, I’ll discuss the possibility of actually making the U of T Chambers’ micromanipulator functional again, using period equipment,  to reproduce (something like) experiences that were last felt many decades ago.

An “Incomplete” Artefact: Part 2- Knowing an object’s past

Museum people talk about an object’s “provenance”, that is, its origin and past. The term comes from the world of fine art dealing, where it is essential to know the history of a work of art in order to establish its authenticity and legal ownership before selling it. It is a useful concept in thinking about any object because you can’t really understand an object without some idea of where it came from and how it was used. Depending on the circumstances, this evidence may or may not exist. Provenance research is especially valuable in interpreting scientific instruments, which take their meaning from laboratory research projects, are frequently unique or heavily modified, and which often belonged to larger experimental assemblies.

The previous post discussed some difficulties in understanding the history of the University of Toronto Chambers’ micromanipulator given the fact that various parts of it are missing. I noted that in order to understand exactly what is missing  you need to understand its provenance. Here I’ll explain what I have and have not been able to discover about its past.

A place of origin

Several clues suggest that this instrument was acquired by the former University of Toronto School of Hygiene, which opened in 1927 in a new building on College Street. This has since been renamed the Fitzgerald building after Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald, who led Toronto’s emergence as a world centre of public health research over the first half of the 20th century (I have described the historical backdrop of the School in an earlier post.) I first found the instrument in a wooden box that also contained a yellowed offprint article written in 1922 by Robert Chambers and published in the Anatomical Record . This article is stamped “Department of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine”, one several departments that initially made up the School. It was probably used as a basic instruction manual.

First page of the offprint article identifying the object with the University of Toronto School of Hygiene.

First page of the offprint article identifying the object with the University of Toronto School of Hygiene.

This little clue is reassuring because it means that it is very unlikely that this object was a historical curiosity picked up by a researcher, or a piece of obsolete technology donated by a colleague and never used locally. It suggests that the instrument was purchased at some point between the opening of the School of Hygiene in 1927 and the mid 1930s. The instrument was available until the Second World War (if not slightly later), but the offprint article implies an earlier date because Chambers and his students had published more up-to-date guides by the early-to-mid 1930s.

The micromanipulator reappears in 1980 in a first-floor storage room in the Fitzgerald building. We can know this thanks to an inventory of historical scientific material, led by the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and technology (IHPST) that was carried out between (roughly)  1978 and 1981 in the hope these newly catalogued objects would become the basis for a University of Toronto science museum. The hundreds of cardboard file cards generated during this process survive as a snapshot of the U of T’s holdings at that point. The ’78 catalogue is a useful resource, though it also has a sad quality given the number of objects that have been lost since it was completed. The record for the manipulator isn’t especially enlightening. It mentions a “Dr. Wright” whom I haven’t been able to identify (cataloguers take note: first names are helpful).

The object's catalogue record from the '78 inventory.

The object’s catalogue record from the ’78 inventory.

At some point between 1980 and 2009, the micromanipulator journeyed a few blocks north from the Fitzgerald building to the office of the IHPST. There it joined (or maybe was joined by) a number of other unrelated medical objects under a table in the main office. Since the ’78 inventory, IHPST had been accumulating historical objects, donated by University faculty and the public, in the hope that a science museum would eventually be founded. These, like the micromanipulator, have since been incorporated into the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection. The IHPST staff has generally kept very good records of this process (these records are gradually being organized into a UTSIC archive). Unfortunately, no information survives about the acquisition of the micromanipulator.

An important clue

In 1929, a doctoral student at the School of Hygiene named D. C. B. Duff published an article in The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine entitled “A Modification of the Orskov Single-Cell Technic“. The article describes a method  for collecting individual bacteria in order to create colonies from single cells that required “an apparatus of the Chambers micromanipulator type”.  Assuming that “an apparatus of the Chambers micromanipulator type” simply means “a Chambers’ micromanipulator” (the mechanism was patented), this probably indicates that the instrument was already being used in Duff’s lab to isolate bacteria using an earlier method described in 1922 by Morton C. Kahn, a colleague of Chambers at Cornell. Presumably, Duff believed his method to be more efficient than either of these earlier techniques.

Duff’s article doesn’t prove anything about this particular object, nor does it necessarily mean that the instrument was used for this one purpose only.  It does give a plausible configuration of a University of Toronto’s Chambers’ micromanipulator, and with it a possible notion of what a “complete” representation might look like. The next post will describe various notions of a complete instrument and, consequently, several possible goals for this project

Thanks to the helpful staff at University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Service (UTARMS).

An “Incomplete” Artefact: Part 1- Missing Pieces

Most (possibly all) historical instruments are missing pieces, whether literally in the sense that parts have been lost, or metaphorically in the sense that there are gaps in our understanding about matters such as use or history (an instrument’s “provenance”). The University of Toronto Chambers’ micromanipulator is incomplete in both these senses; It is missing several important components, and it is lacking important documentation about where it came from and how it was used. Here, I’ll discuss some of the physical parts that are missing as well as the resulting difficulties that one might face in restoring this instrument to (or, perhaps, representing its condition when) it was used. Next time, I’ll discuss how gaps in the historical record also play into the ambiguity surrounding the instrument’s original form.

Surviving trade literature makes it possible to know, in a general sense, what could be missing from this instrument. I am grateful for a photocopy of Leitz Pamplet 1086, published in 1926 just after the instrument was first produced commercially, that was sent to me by the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University. This pamphlet gives a definitive list of the components initially available from Leitz, and consequently the possible configurations of an early model Chambers’ micromanipulator.

The object itself also supplies important clues. While it was possible to purchase this instrument with a single manipulator mechanism (or “movement”), this instrument has two—a more expensive and versatile configuration. Marks on the instrument’s base also  reveal the locations and footprints of several missing components. The rectangular imprint of a syringe holder  shows, for instance, that the instrument was operated with an optional microinjection apparatus.

Wear marks on the base

It is fairly easy to identify many of these missing pieces, but it is very difficult to know exactly what they looked like. I have found surprisingly few images showing a complete instrument. As is often the case with early scientific instruments, professionally made technical illustrations that were created early in the instrument’s development and commercialization were reused until they were thoroughly outdated. Along with a few other images, they nevertheless show an instrument that was frequently updated and modified.

Consider, for instance, the syringe holder—the piece of the microinjection apparatus that would have left the rectangular mark in the photo above. Below are five depictions of this part (no. 6 belongs to a more modern Leitz micromanipulator that someone is currently selling on on ebay for $10,800)

Several depictions of Leitz syringe holders.

Several depictions of Leitz syringe holders.

The syringe holder is a simple part—basically a sturdy clamp that places the plunger of a syringe within easy reach of the operator—yet each image shows a different design. Here is a 3d-printed version of the part that I made in 2012 with the help of Isaac Record at Semaphore Labs. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to do a second version with a few changes and a more convincing effort to match the grey-brown colour and smooth anodized surface of the instrument’s base.

Syringe Holder 23_05_2014

As I’ll discuss in a future post, the Chambers’ micromanipulator (no doubt like many mass-produced technologies) was constantly being changed and improved, often in very subtle ways and for reasons that can only be guessed. In order to create a depiction of the completed instrument, you would need to show it at a particular moment in time that corresponds to the object that you’re working with. The less information is available, the more you will have to guess—the 3d printed piece above is really an embodied guess.

In addition to the difficulty of knowing what particular parts looked like, every instrument was configured according to the needs of local investigators. It was also equipped according to local resources and circumstances (available microscopes and so forth.)  You can’t represent the instrument without representing one possible configurations at the expense of others. If you decide to represent what this instrument (i.e. the model purchased by the University of Toronto) was used for, you will need a great deal of knowledge about the instrument’s provenance—the topic of the next post.

I’ll finish here with a list of the pieces that could be seen as “missing” from the instrument as it was found. To put it another way, these are the parts that you would need to add to the existing instrument in order to create a reasonably convincing  facsimile of this Chambers’ micromanipulator configured for use. I’ll eventually describe all of these bits in detail.

1) Pieces that would have come with the micromanipulator but are now missing:

– A syringe holder

– Two metal ‘pillars’ for holding flexible control shafts

– A small clamp for securing the flexible metal tube of the microinjection apparatus

– Luer fittings for the microinjection system

– Probably a holder for replacing microtools

2) Pieces that would have been supplied by the operator that were specifically necessary for this instrument:

– A glass moist chamber (most likely locally made, though available through Leitz)

– Locally made glass microtools, a 2cc glass Luer syringe

– A fine brass tube of the kind used for gas lighting and sealant for the microinjection system

3) Associated microscope equipment:

– A suitable research microscope (slightly modified with a split condenser)

– Appropriate oculars and objectives

– A suitable mechanical stage

– A microscope illuminator (possibly locally made)

4) Material to be observed:

– Prepared bacterial cultures/ single-celled organisms/ reproductive cells/ plant or animal tissues, etc.