A four-foot Gregorian reflecting telescope at the Putnam Gallery at Harvard

A four-foot Gregorian reflecting telescope, circa 1767, on display at the Putnam Gallery at Harvard. Early astronomers relied on such telescopes to track the transit of planets. (Paige Impink photo)

Harvard University is an enormous resource for learning about science and history. Several museums are part of the larger presence in Cambridge, and on this visit we ex­plored the Collection of Historical Scientific In­struments in the Depart­ment of the History of Sci­ence.

Located on Oxford Street, the collection is housed in the Putnam Gallery and is divided into several discovery zones.

The museum was founded in 1948 as a collection of instruments curated from different departments with­in the university as well as private donations. While the footprint of the museum is small, the range of innovation it covers is quite broad.

Instruments from the 1400s through current times are cycled through the displays. The collection boasts 20,000 objects, with the ability to view the items via an online exploration tool called Way­wiser.

The gallery is broken in­to sections such as Colo­nial Science, Natural Phi­losophy, Astronomer’s Time, and Physical Mat­ters. Visitors can see Ga­lileo’s Geometrical Com­pass, instruments for teaching which were sel­ected by Benjamin Frank­lin, 18th and 19th century astronomy tools such as telescopes, and an original Commodore 64 computer.

Viewing the globes, sundials, and telescopes is just a fascinating reflection back into the origins of scientific discovery and the progress that was made despite the very limited, by today’s standards, access to information.

Particular innovations of note include the clock that synchronized time directly from Harvard so that trains would run on time and not collide with each other. Further, the origin of time zones was born out of the need to set the departure and arrival time of trains across the country so that a predictable and safe traversing of the tracks could happen.

The control panel for Harvard’s cyclotron has been preserved, decommissioned in 2001, but gives a window into particle acceleration and the innovations in radiotherapy for treating tumors. An earlier cyclotron was sent to Los Alamos in New Mexico where it was used to help research nuclear and particle physics during the Manhattan Project.

The gallery is closed during the university’s winter break, but will re­open Jan. 2, 2022. Reser­vations are required along with proof of vaccination, but there is no charge to enjoy the collection.

The visit to the Putnam Gallery should definitely be combined with a visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History if you have more time, or just enjoy it on its own and then wander into greater Cambridge to enjoy your afternoon.


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