• The use of volvelles in alchemy

    By Zoe Screti

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

    Figure 1. The volvelle beneath the parchment lining of the end board of alchemical compendium Latin MS 65.

    The alchemist’s laboratory was often a space which housed numerous tools and instruments. The recipes of three early modern English alchemists, Thomas Potter (fl.1580s), Clement Draper (1550-1620), and Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) all, for instance, called for the use of a glass stillatory, crucibles, ingots, marble stones, vials, alembics, philosophers’ eggs, rotundas, circulatory vessels, and urinals amongst other things (British Library, 1842). References to these sorts of vessels, tools, and instruments are commonplace in alchemical treatises, but there is a notable silence in these sources about the paper tools that may also have assisted alchemical practices.

    Paper tools in the form of volvelles featured regularly in the libraries of alchemical practitioners, and their presence may suggest that alchemists actively used these tools within their practices. The most suggestive link between paper tools and alchemical practices comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript in Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Concealed beneath the parchment lining of the end board of Latin MS 65 – an alchemical compendium – is a volvelle (Figure 1) which allows the user to measure the movements of the moon, as well as certain planets. The location of this volvelle, hidden within a tome of alchemical knowledge, primarily suggests that its intended purpose was to support alchemical practices as it would have been within easy reach of the alchemist using the compendium. This link is further confirmed by the celestial bodies noted within the volvelle: Mercury (quicksilver), Saturn (lead), Jupiter (tin), and the Moon (silver), each representing a key metal in the alchemical process. Thus both the content of the volvelle and its placement are suggestive of its intended usage.

    Books containing volvelles featured in the libraries of numerous prominent alchemists, including John Dee (1527-1608) who owned a copy of Johannes Trithemius’ Polygraphie et vniverselle escriture cabalistique (Paris, 1561) which contained twelve volvelles for calculating celestial movements. Other alchemists, meanwhile, produced their own. Notably, Leonhard Thurneisser (1531-1596) published Des Menschen Cirkel un Lauff in 1575, which featured an elaborate volvelle with depictions of two female alchemists at work beneath the moving parts. Like Latin MS 65, the proximity of alchemy to this volvelle directly correlates paper tools with alchemical practices, suggesting a link between the two that has hitherto remained unnoticed.

    But why should alchemists have counted volvelles amongst their collections of scientific instruments? The answer is threefold. Firstly, astrological volvelles could inform alchemists as to when to conduct certain experiments so as to take advantage of planetary alignments. These alignments were believed to be important spiritually for the matter being transformed within the alchemical vessel, but more practically instructed alchemists as to the correct seasons in which to practice so as to avoid disruptive climatic interferences. Secondly, lunar volvelles could aid the measurement of time, offering in particular an insight into the lengths of nights and days, which may have been useful for alchemists determining when to tend to their work. Finally, pneumonic volvelles, such as Lullian wheels, could help to decode alchemical texts, revealing encrypted meanings, a process that was inherent to alchemical practice (Rampling, 2020). In their many varied forms, then, volvelles could offer alchemists crucial guidance on when to practice and how to understand their texts, making it perhaps unsurprising to see them featured in alchemical libraries.

    My research, supported by a SIS Research Grant, has explored the presence of paper tools in alchemical laboratories, making it possible to demonstrate that volvelles were a common feature of alchemical libraries and laboratories. From volvelles nestled into the very fabric of an alchemical compendium, to Lullian wheels decrypting encoded texts, these paper tools were both useful and informative, ensuring their place in alchemical study.


    British Library (BL), Sloane MS 1842: ‘Alchemical receipts’, fols.28r-54r; Sloane MS 3580 A, ‘The process for making gold’, fols.184v-187r; Sloane MS 3687, ‘Alchemical processes’, fols.105r-110v; Sloane MS 3688, ‘receipts from homfrae evans sone in lawe’, ‘Questions and notes upon the worke of Henry Tyler’, ‘The coppie of another Booke which I had of Mrs Jane Constable’, fols.3r-30r.

    Jennifer Rampling, 2020: Reading Alchemically: Guides to “philosophical” practice in early modern England. BJHS Themes, pp. 57-74.

  • Restoring and testing a Pixii version of Coulomb’s Torsion Balance acquired by the University of Barcelona in 1848

    By Júlia Garcia

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

    Figure 1. Pixii’s electrostatic torsion balance after its restoration in the History of Electromagnetism Exhibition. Credit: Facultat de Física de la Universitat de Barcelona.

    In 1785 Charles-Augustin Coulomb read his first memoir on electricity and magnetism in the French Académie des Sciences, where he described a torsion balance he had invented, and which he used to obtain the law that would later bear his name. From that point forward the instrument’s presence became common in physics cabinets, even becoming mandatory in Spanish higher education institutions in the nineteenth century.

    The instrument we examined is a Pixii torsion balance, most probably acquired by the University of Barcelona in September 1848 (Figure 1). We restored it and researched its biography so that it would shed light onto the characteristics of scientific education in Spain, specifically in the University of Barcelona, during the second half of the nineteenth century. The instrument, due to its materials and design, fails to replicate Coulomb’s experiment faithfully but is partially successful at representing it in a didactic manner.

    To learn more about the material intricacies of Coulomb’s experiment, his experience is replicated as faithfully as possible, concluding that it is in no way trivial, as many physics manuals treat it. There has been active discussion during the past thirty years about the possibility that Coulomb may have reached the inverse-square relationship through theory rather than experimentation, because of how complicated it was – and still is – to replicate his experiment by operating an electrostatic torsion balance the way he described. Other considerations could explain the difference in results when seemingly following Coulomb’s instructions, both in the past and in the present. Back in the eighteenth century, the nature of electricity remained largely unknown, and could have contributed to misinterpretations of Coulomb’s memoir. Coulomb’s ample experience with wire and torsion experiments could have also been a major factor in helping him succeed where others failed.

    In the forthcoming article in the SIS Bulletin, we look at an instrument’s past, not only through archival research but also through the replication of its use, so that it may tell us as much as it can about the context in which it was created and manufactured.

  • 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.

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