• Guglielmo Marconi’s magnetic detector in a cigar box: Biography of a material myth

    By Roberta Spada, Politecnico di Milano / Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Italy

    This research was supported by a SIS Grant. A longer piece of this subject will feature in a future SIS Bulletin and in a Fireside Chat on 16 March.

    Figure 1: Reproduction of the magnetic detector in a cigar box on display at the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci. Inventory n. IGB-2139 – Detector magnetico di Marconi in scatola di sigari. Credits © 2024 Staff / Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milano.

    Museum objects and their biographies bear remarkable stories of people, practices, and historical contexts, as argued by a dense literature spanning from Anthropology and Material Culture Studies to Museum Studies. This is also true for objects of science and technology, which, when musealised, bear the signs of their two lives: the first one in their historical context of use, and the second one in the museum (Alberti 2005). The object of this research (which I conducted funded by an SIS Grant in 2023 as part of my PhD) may seem quite deceptive: it conceals a story by visibly performing another.
    It is one of the many reproductions of Guglielmo Marconi’s (1874-1937) magnetic detector in a cigar box (Fig. 1; IGB-2139). It has been on display at the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MUST) in Milan (Italy) since 1956 when it was donated by the Museum founder, Guido Ucelli di Nemi (1885-1964), who had received it as a gift from Marconi himself. It is a small wooden box with the edges framed by a thin red and black line and attached to a wooden board supporting the bottom. Inside, there are two horseshoe magnets which would not fit if the box was not dug on one side (which explains the supporting board), a copper coil, and a braid of thin iron wires coming out of two little holes on the sides of the box. If we open it, we find a long inscription written on a piece of paper glued to it, explaining that the artefact was devised and built by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901 and experimented in 1902 aboard the Italian Royal Ship Carlo Alberto.
    The story performed by the object springs from a question about the object’s appearance: Why a cigar box? The answer lies in Marconi’s biographical account written by his friend and manager of Italian business Luigi Solari, a lieutenant of the Italian Royal Navy. Solari ([1940] 2011, 64–67) tells about the moment in which Marconi devised the magnetic detector starting from makeshift materials in Poldhu in Cornwall, UK, in 1902, before the expedition on the Carlo Alberto. The story, which featured Marconi hopping on his bike to find fine iron wire at a ‘beautiful florist’s’, became particularly iconic in the Italian context, for aficionados of the history of radio and Marconi. Because of this myth—one that fully recalls the garage trope of the inventor’s biography (Ortoleva 2019, 263–82; Godelier 2007; Fuller 2015)—cigar boxes like the one at the MUST are on display in all four Italian museums hosting collections about Marconi and/or the history of radio.

    Figure 2: Detail of the exterior of the magnetic detector in a cigar box (IGB-2139) at the MUST. This picture was taken by the author during her analysis of the artefact in the Museum. Here, the position of the lid (which is no longer attached to the box) is inverted by 180° with respect to how it should be.

    The story concealed by this artefact is more subtle and emerges from the study of its biography, the analysis of its material features, and the comparison with other similar artefacts and related documents. If we take a closer look at this cigar box, which entered the MUST collections in 1956, we gather that it is dateable to the 1930s (thus well after 1902 and after the rise of Italian fascism), because of some details on the lid, such as the fascio littorio stamped on the ‘Conte di Cavour’ brand (Fig. 2). Moreover, it is extremely similar to three cigar boxes held at the Museo Storico della Comunicazione in Rome and to other exemplars pictured in documents form that period, making it plausible to assume that a series of these boxes was made in the 1930s. I came to the conclusion that Marconi crafted his own entrepreneurial myth by gifting these cigar boxes to important people and institutions (such as Guido Ucelli), while he was holding institutional positions gained by direct appointment of the fascist government. Such an attempt is coherent with the tradition of companies making artefacts for circulation in industrial exhibitions and museums (Canadelli, Beretta, and Ronzon 2019).
    In the Fireside Chat taking place on 16 March 2024, I am going to present the evidence that led me to this hypothesis and get into the details of the two narratives at stake. These two sides of the same object are a sign of the cultural significance of the object in time, but also look at the industrial origins of science and technology museums and the meaning of science and technology objects in museum collections.

    – Alberti, Samuel J. M. M. 2005. ‘Objects and the Museum’. Isis 96 (4): 559–71. doi.org/10.1086/498593.
    – Canadelli, Elena, Marco Beretta, and Laura Ronzon, eds. 2019. Behind the Exhibit: Displaying Science and Technology at World’s Fairs and Museums in the Twentieth Century. Artefacts: Studies in the History of Science and Technology 12. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press. doi.org/10.5479/si.9781944466237.
    – Fuller, Glen. 2015. ‘In the Garage’. Angelaki 20 (1): 125–36. doi.org/10.1080/0969725X.2015.1017393.
    – Godelier, Éric. 2007. “Do You Have a Garage?” Discussion of Some Myths about Entrepreneurship. In Business and Economic History Online. Vol. 5.
    – Ortoleva, Peppino. 2019. Miti a Bassa Intensità: Racconti, Media, Vita Quotidiana. Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, nuova serie, 712. Torino: Einaudi.
    – Solari, Luigi. 2011. Guglielmo Marconi. Bologna: Odoya.

  • Portraying the Fundus: Production and use of ophthalmoscopic images in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century

    By Corinne Doria, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China

    This research was supported by a SIS Grant. A longer piece of this subject will feature in a future SIS Bulletin.

    Figure 1: Normal fundus with slight pigmentation. Plate 2 from Haab Otto and Ernest Clarke’s An Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy, with an Introduction to the use of the Ophthalmoscope. Translated and Edited by E. Clarke, Baillière 1895.

    During the second half of the nineteenth century, physicians trained in the young medical specialty of ophthalmology were gripped by a particular ambition: to succeed in producing the most accurate images of the fundus oculi. The invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851, an instrument that made it possible to observe the interior of a living eye for the first time in history, led to an extraordinary increase in the knowledge of ocular anatomy and physiology. Among the ophthalmologists, awareness quickly grew of the usefulness – both for therapeutic and pedagogical purposes – of images detailing the fundus of the eye in normal and pathological states. The interest in ophthalmoscopic images is proved by the flourishing of the ‘atlases of ophthalmoscopy’, voluminous publications entirely devoted to the study and analysis of pictures of different portions of the interior of the human eye. Obtaining photographic images of the fundus were considered particularly advantageous compared to freehand drawings, which had been the standard technique for this kind of anatomical imagery. By the 1880s, the search for technical means to achieve this goal had become the subject of discussions at international ophthalmology symposia and led to an abundance of scientific literature. As the first endoscopic images ever produced, ophthalmoscopic images differed from previous anatomical depictions of the human eye in several respects, including their production technique, authors, purpose, and utilization (Figure 1). They were instrumental in leading ophthalmology to become a legitimate medical specialty.

  • Scientific instrument collection in a girls’ secondary school in Valencia, Spain: the Instituto San Vicente Ferrer (1933-1990s).

    Mar Rivera Colomer
    This research was supported by a SIS Grant. A longer piece of this subject will feature in a future SIS Bulletin.


    In the mid-nineteenth century, the Spanish government established a network of secondary schools called institutos, aligning with the European trend inspired by the French educational system. Physics cabinets and chemistry laboratories were integrated into most secondary schools during this period. In the Valencian context, the Comissió d’Instruments Científics (COMIC) initiated two decades ago a project to catalogue, preserve, and study local scientific collections. To date it has catalogued the collections of the three oldest provincial institutos, and others from the universities. Instituto San Vicente Ferrer is the first public girls’ secondary school in the Valencian region to be catalogued, and one of the first female schools in Spain to have its scientific heritage studied.

    Figure 1. Portable X-ray Sánchez and high frequency apparatus by Laboratorio Eléctrico Sánchez from beginning of the 20th century (Spain) and magneto-electric machine for nervous diseases by Joseph Gray & Son, in England, from the second half of the nineteenth century. (Photograph by the author)

    The right to formal education for girls in Spain was established in 1857, making primary education compulsory but with differentiated curricula. The progress of schooling for girls and women has been gradual and influenced by Spain’s political situation. The Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza Blasco Ibáñez (the original name of the school) was founded in Valencia in 1933 during the Second Republic, advocating for a unified, public, and free school system. After some relocations and the Spanish Civil War, the Instituto Nacional de Enseñanza Media San Vicente Ferrer was established in 1939, operating as an exclusively female secondary school. I also had found some archive materials related to Roberto Feo, who served as professor of physics and chemistry at the institute for many decades and had many local connections during the Francoist dictatorship.

    Nowadays, San Vicente Ferrer’s scientific collection is kept in cupboards and cabinets within the physics and chemistry departments and laboratories. In all, 587 instruments have been catalogued, dating from the late-nineteenth century to pedagogical tools from the late 1990s. Chemistry instruments constitute one-third of the artifacts, while in physics almost 30% of the instruments are related to electricity and electromagnetism. I have found two instruments designed for medical practices (Fig. 1), particularly for women, that raise questions about their role in a female school.

    Spanish instrument makers, particularly from the mid-twentieth century, are the most represented, reflecting the autarky (economic self-sufficiency) promoted by Franco’s dictatorship. Empresa Nacional de Óptica (ENOSA) features prominently with 121 instruments, contributing to educational reforms during the 1960s and 1970s. The significant number of instruments in their original packing, complete with manual and kit guides, shows the evolution of physics kits from wooden shelves to plastic boxes (Fig. 2).

    Figure 2. Evolution of ENOSA’s kits mechanics, from wooden shelves, to wood box, to plastic box. Spain, second half of the twentieth century. (Photographs by the author).
    Figure 3. Tesla coil by Vda. J. Lubat from beginning of the twentieth century, Valencia. (Photographs by the author).

    I have also found Valencian instrument-makers, like Vda. J. Lubat from the early-twentieth century, whose contribution remains understudied. From a booklet dating back to 1914 she was involved in the production of scientific and educational instruments. The presence of a tesla coil signed by her is particularly noteworthy (Fig. 3).

    Additionally, cardboard boxes (Fig. 4) from the ‘Instituto Tecnico Industriale Aldini-Valeriani’ in Bologna, marked with ‘Apparecchi consigliati dal Physical Science Study Committee’, enrich the collection, representing international collaborations. The manner, timing, and reason for its arrival in this collection remain unknown.

    Figure 4. Device for measuring the mass of the electron by Instituto Tecnico Industriale Aldini Valeriani, Italy. (Photograph by the author).

    In conclusion, this project raises numerous as-yet unstudied questions, leaving ample room for future exploration. Topics include educational practices in physics and chemistry for girls, the role of female teaching assistants, and the relationships between secondary schools on local, regional, and international levels. Further investigation into major Spanish manufacturers and local workshops, as well as uncovering potential female instrument-makers, adds depth to the potential avenues for future research.


    Ballarín Domingo, Pilar, La Educación de las mujeres en la España contemporánea (siglos XIX-XX) (Madrid: Editorial Sínetsis, 2008).

    Beromeu Sánchez, José Ramón and Cuenca Lorente, Mar and García Belmar, Antonio and Simon Castel, Josep, ‘Los instrumentos científicos de los centros de enseñanza secundaria en España: historia, estado actual y futuro del patrimonio científico educativo’, in Coleções Científicas Luso-Brasileiras: Patrimônio a ser Descoberto, Granato, Marcus and Lourenço, Marta, eds., (Rio de Janeiro: MAST, 2010).

    Cuenca Lorente, Mar and Simon, Josep, ‘The Establishment and Development of Physics and Chemistry Collections in Nineteenth Century Spanish Secondary Education’ in Learning by Doing: Experiments and Instruments in the History of Science Teaching, Wittje, Roland and Heering, Peter, eds. (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010).

    Guijarro Mora, Victor, Artefactos y acción educativa: La cultura del objeto científico en la enseñanza secundaria en España (Madrid: Dykinson, 2018).

    Llull Peñalba, Josué, ‘Los materiales didácticos de ENOSA, un instrumento de la tecnocracia para innovación educativa en el Segundo Franquismo’, Pulso, 45 (2022), pp.73-100.

  • Can an astronomical instrument be religious? Wooden quadrants from the Late Ottoman Empire.

    Yasemin Akçagüner, Columbia University, New York
    Recipient of SIS grant 2022


    In 2018, Silke Ackermann posed the following question in an SIS Bulletin article: “Can an astronomical instrument be religious?” [1]. In many museum collections today, scientific instruments from the Middle East and North Africa are placed within Islamic galleries or labeled as Islamic instruments, while instruments from the Western world are largely labeled and exhibited according to the nation-states or polities in which they were crafted or manufactured. Such is the case with a wooden astrolabic quadrant exhibited in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum (Figure 1), an instrument whose functions and possible use in trade across the Ottoman Empire complicates its straightforward designation as an Islamic instrument used for determining prayer times.

    Figure 1: Wooden quadrant from AD 1891-92 (AH 1307-08).

    Figure 1 shows a wooden quadrant from AD 1891-92 (AH 1307-08), was made in Damascus, Syria and “would have been used by an Ottoman merchant or official. It contains a correspondence table for comparing hijri (the Islamic lunar calendar), Coptic, French Julian and financial calendars, demonstrating the coexistence of different faiths and calendars with the Islamic world,” the display label reads [2]. This particular quadrant points to uses of the instrument beyond timekeeping for the purposes of establishing prayer times and postulates a use for the quadrant in daily affairs of commerce and trade in the late nineteenth century, a claim that would benefit from further exploration.

    Intrigued by the instrument from the British Museum, I have set out to explore others of the same kind, specifically wooden quadrants from the Ottoman Empire. Owing to the Empire’s longevity (from the fourteenth to the twentieth century) and its geographic span (ranging from the Balkans to the Red Sea at its height in the early seventeenth century), it offers an ideal laboratory for studying scientific instruments across the Middle East and North Africa, both in their variety and similarity across time and space. While the history of Islamic astronomical instruments in the medieval period have been studied extensively by David King and Emilie Savage-Smith [3], late Ottoman astronomical instruments are only recently coming into the limelight thanks to the works of Feza Günergun and Gaye Danışan. Feza Günergun’s recent research has shown the role of artisan-scholar collaboration in the making of Ottoman astronomical instruments, and specifically astrolabic quadrants – an instrument largely understood to be used by muwaqqits, or timekeepers of imperial mosques, for the purpose of determining prayer times [4]. Yet the scope of the possible uses of these quadrants and who might benefit from their uses remains to be explored: Beyond timekeeping for the purposes of establishing prayer times, how were these quadrants used?

    To be able to answer that question we first need to know the answers to a number of more basic questions: Who could learn to use the quadrant? And how did they learn it? Was the learning process tactile, textual or in some other form? Is the large number of surviving manuscripts with instructions for the use of this instrument a testament to the instrument’s use by a wider group of lettered people that included not only the timekeepers of mosques, but also seafarers and merchants for instance? Could any lettered person hope to learn how to use the instrument simply by reading through one of these manuals?

    With the support of an SIS grant I am comparing and contrasting the inscriptions on various quadrants as well as manuals for the instruments found in select collections in the UK. These include the Oxford HSM, Cambridge Whipple Museum and the British Museum, alongside a number of manuals, in manuscript form, on the uses of these instruments in the relevant University and British Library collections. One such manuscript is from the British Library Oriental Manuscripts collection (Figure 2).

    Figure 2: British Library, Oriental Manuscripts, MS Oriental 14275.

    British Library, Oriental Manuscripts, MS Oriental 14275 (see figure 2) was copied in the year AH 1268 (1851-52 AD). It describes the parts of the quadrant and provides instructions on how to use the instrument to determine time in two parts. Part one, Terceme-i Gedūsī li’l-Muḳanṭarāt (Translation of Gedusi on the Muqantarat) describes the parts and function of the astrolabic face of the quadrant whereas part two, Terceme-i Gedūsīli’l-Ceyb (Translation of Gedusi on the Ceyb) explains the sine face of the quadrant. The text is a translation from the Arabic original into Ottoman Turkish by the author himself. The first part refers to resm or images that are meant to accompany the text but are missing from this copy. The text relies on the drawings of the quadrant for its explanation, which is perhaps a later phenomenon in the development of such quadrant manuals with earlier copies such as the Risale-i Ceyb (Treatise on the Sine Quadrant) in the sixteenth-century MS Selden Superius 97 (ff 34-59, Bodleian Library, Oxford University) featuring no such images or mentions of images. This points us towards the potential use of technical drawings as tools for the practical teaching of astronomy in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire.

    In a follow up article in the SIS-Bulletin I hope to offer a more detailed and comprehensive analysis of the quadrants and manuals found in the above mentioned collections.

    Yasemin Akçagüner is a doctoral candidate in the History department at Columbia University, New York.


    [1] S. Ackermann, ‘Gerard Turner Memorial Lecture: In the Service of Religion? ‘Islamic Science’ in the Museum’, In: Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society No. 139, (December, 2018).

    [2] Astrolabic quadrant, 1997, 0210.1, The British Museum. For the curator’s comments see https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1997-0210-1

    [3] King, David A. “Quadrants.” In Islamic Astronomy and Geography, 167–69. London: Routledge, 2022; and Savage-Smith, Emilie, and Andrea P. A. Belloli. Islamicate Celestial Globes, Their History, Construction, and Use. Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology, no. 46. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

    [4] Günergun, Feza. “Timekeepers and Sufi Mystics: Technical Knowledge Bearers of the Ottoman Empire.” Technology and Culture 62, no. 2 (2021): 348–72. https://doi.org/10.1353/tech.2021.0063. See also Danışan, Gaye. “Paper Instruments in the History of Ottoman Astronomy.” Scientific Instrument Society Blog (blog), 22 February 2021. https://scientificinstrumentsociety.org/blog/?query-28-page=3.

  • The Russian diplomatic representatives in London and the acquisition process of navigational instruments for Russian navigators at the beginning of the 19th century, by Feliks Gornischeff, Research Fellow, Estonian Maritime Museum


    Vasily Mikhailovich Golovnin, portrait by Orest Kiprensky (c.1816) (copyright: Public Domain).

    The Russian Empire started intensive exploration at the beginning of the 19th century when Adam Johann von Krusenstern, a Russian naval officer from Estonia influenced heavily by the British navigation and exploration, carried out the first Russian circumnavigation. Many Russian naval figures had gained training with the British and had learned about the principles of British navigation and maritime trade. Therefore, it was logical for the Russian explorations at the beginning of the 19th century to acquire most of their navigational instruments in England. Krusenstern’s first Russian circumnavigation in 1803–06 set an example of the use of British instruments. Other Russian voyages, such as Vasily Golovnin’s in 1807–09 and 1817–19 (see adjacent painting), Otto von Kotzebue’s in 1815–18 and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen’s in 1819–21 used British instruments on board the ships.

    My ongoing research examines the role of Russian diplomatic representatives in Britain in the process of acquiring navigational instruments for Russian expeditions in the first half of the 19th century. Even though it is known roughly which instruments Russian voyages carried, it is still unclear who and how exactly ordered the instruments from well-known makers such as Troughton, Dollond, Arnold, Barraud, or Massey, although it is known that Russian diplomatic representatives played a role in assisting the explorers. British historian Rip Bulkeley has looked into the aspects of acquiring navigational instruments in the case of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, but some details remain unclear [1]. Also, Simon Werrett [2] has analysed common aspects of Russian and British navigators, and mentions British instruments as preferred by the Russians, but leaves the question posed here unanswered.

    Russian exploration and diplomatic representatives

    The Guildhall Library (photograph by the author).

    The starting point for this research were the accounts of the Russian expeditions where British instrument makers and instruments were mentioned on several occasions. Also, the diplomatic representatives were mentioned in these accounts which gave me the indication that the diplomatic corps was involved in the acquisition process. The Russian Embassy in London were to become an important link between explorers and instrument makers. They usually had information in advance regarding what to organize in London, but the leaders of the expeditions subsequently stopped over in England themselves to complete the purchases. This allows us to argue that without the Russian diplomatic representatives in England, the preparation of the expeditions would have been much more complicated. But it is vital to add the layer of archival sources to this research.

    During the period of my interest, there were two full time Russian ambassadors in London, Semyon Vorontsov (period in London 1785–1806) and Christoph Heinrich von Lieven (London 1812–34). There were other personnel as well, for example councillor Paul von Nicolay who served in London 1804–08. Regarding the supplies, important role here was played by the network of Russian consuls in Britain. We know that general consuls Samuel Greig, Andrey Dubachevsky and George Benkhausen were involved, but also consul John Hawker in Plymouth. Of course, it is necessary to map the whole Russian diplomatic personnel in Britain to get a clear overview of the main actors.

    Research plan and sources

    The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (photograph by the author).

    Thanks to the SIS Grant I visited several archives in London to find out what connections the Russian diplomatic representatives had with the British navigational instrument makers. I focused on the personal archive of Russian ambassador Christoph Heinrich von Lieven which is located in the British Library. It was interesting to see these materials to find out if there were any communication between them. Also, I wanted to map Adam Johann von Krusenstern’s connections with London’s navigational instrument makers when he visited London in 1814–15 to purchase inventory for Otto von Kotzebue’s Rurik expedition that took place from 1815–18. Besides the British Library, I visited the Guildhall Library and the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) where, according to the catalogues some papers of Arnold and Dollond were supposed to be held. Although I managed to find an account book of John Roger Arnold at the LMA (I had information that it is at the Guildhall, but it was transferred some 10 years ago), this was dated to 1796, 1800–02 and 1824–30, which meant there was no information regarding the expeditions of Krusenstern, Golovnin, Kotzebue and Bellingshausen. The archive of the Dollond family is also held at the LMA, but it did not consist of any correspondence or financial records. Therefore, it was necessary to continue looking for Arnold’s and Dollond’s archival sources. I also consulted the collections of Troughton (held at the Borthwick Institute in York) and Massey (formerly at the University of Keele, now at the V&A Wedgwood Archives) but they either did not have material from the early 19th century or anything regarding the sales of instruments to the Russians. However, the unsuccessful visit of the archives opened new aspects of my research. Regarding chronometers, I searched the catalogue of the Royal Museums Greenwich and contacted the staff regarding the entries in the International Chronometer Ledgers. The next step is to search the Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives at the University of Cambridge and the archive of the History of Science Museum at the University of Oxford which contains further material regarding the Dollond family.


    [1] R. Bulkeley, ‘Bellingshausen in Britain: Supplying the Russian Antarctic expedition, 1819’, in: The Mariner’s Mirror, 107:1, pp. 40–53, here p. 43.

    [2] S. Werrett, ‘‘Perfectly Correct’: Russian Navigators and the Royal Navy’, in: R. Dunn, R. Higgitt (edit.), Navigational Enterprises in Europe and its Empires, 1730–1850 (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), pp. 111–133.

    This research was funded by a SIS Grant.

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