Paolo Brenni (20 March 1954 – 4 December 2021)

Paolo Brenni during the 2009 Paris Study Tour (picture by Jurgen Hoefeld).

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our dear President Paolo Brenni, who died suddenly on the night of 3-4 December 2021. We extend our condolences to his wife Andrea and his family.

Paolo was born in Mendrisio (Ticino, Switzerland) the 20th of March 1954.1 He studied experimental physics at the University of Zürich, where he graduated in 1981. He than specialised in the history of scientific instruments and of precision industry in the period from the beginning of 18th century to the mid-20th century. He soon started to work in Italy, first for the University of Pavia, where he restored and catalogued the physics collection of the university museum, and after in Florence for the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza and for the Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica.

Since 1992 he was researcher for the Italian CNR (National Research Council) and he worked in Florence for the above mentioned institutions and in Paris (where he was associate researcher to the Centre de Recherche en Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques). He collaborated with various European and American museums, astronomical observatories and various scientific institutions for the preservation and the study of historical scientific instrument heritage. He contributed to catalogue, reorganise and restore several collections of instruments both in Italy and aboard.

Paolo demonstrating some of the instruments in Florence on the Study Tour in 2007 (picture by John Reid).

Paolo has been a great support to the Scientific Instrument Society for many years and has served as President since 2005. He was always very convivial, a great friend to the Society, and of course a fount of knowledge on scientific instruments. Many members of the Society fondly remember the overseas study tour he organised to Florence and Arezzo in 2007, which, typically of Paolo, included an evening invitation to his house with food, wine and live musical entertainment. He was an active President of the Society, who could always be relied on to contribute and represent the Society in his capacity as the Society’s figurehead.

He will be sorely missed by the entire scientific instrument community.

1] Text partially based on Paolo’s curriculum on the Harvard University website.

17 thoughts on “Paolo Brenni (20 March 1954 – 4 December 2021)”

  1. Michael Hiermanseder

    Ho appena scoperto che non sei più con noi!
    Un ultimo saluto da Vienna! Rendi la terra leggera per te!

    Caro professore,
    Ti auguro un felice compleanno, tanta salute, gioia e successo nel nuovo anno di vita!
    Vivat, crescat, floreat, Paolo, ad multos annos!
    Michael Hiermanseder

  2. Cher Paolo,
    C’est avec une grande tristesse que nous avons appris ta disparition, si soudaine et inattendue. Toi, l’homme, l’expert, le collaborateur, le collègue, l’ami. Ton absence physique et psychique laisse un vide et nous partageons la grande tristesse d’Andrea. Sans toi, les conférences et meetings de la SIS ou de la SIC ne seront plus tout à fait les mêmes !
    Tu as marqué d’une empreinte indélébile tout ceux qui ont eu la chance de te rencontrer, de te connaître, de partager avec toi, directement ou par le biais de tes écrits et vidéos, ta passion pour l’histoire des sciences et des instruments scientifiques qui t’animait tant. Tu laisses en héritage une connaissance et une expertise incomparables dans le domaine de l’instrumentation scientifique, de la compréhension et de la mise en fonctionnement des appareils et de leur transmission auprès du public, qu’il soit spécialiste ou novice. Avec toi, grâce à ta curiosité, ton humilité, ta patience à restaurer et à refaire vivre des instruments scientifiques, le monde de la physique expérimentale du XIXe et du début du XXe siècle devenait pleinement compréhensible et palpable par tous.
    Tu aimais aussi beaucoup la vie et nous gardons précieusement en nous le son de ton rire et de ta belle voix, les histoires que tu aimais raconter ou entendre, les bons moments passés dans les restaurants ou devant un bon verre de vin.
    À Rennes, tu es venu régulièrement nous soutenir à chaque fois que nous faisions appel à toi. C’est une chance immense de t’avoir eu à nos côtés tant d’années, d’avoir pu bénéficier de tes qualités d’homme à l’écoute, expert et généreux, toujours prêt à contribuer, à abonder et à cautionner les travaux d’inventaire et de valorisation du patrimoine scientifique français.
    Ton grand cœur t’a perdu ! Nous ne t’oublierons pas.
    Domi
    Dominique BERNARD
    Rennes en Sciences, Université de Rennes 1, France.

  3. Thinking of Paolo Brenni, a close friend and a great historical of science
    Fausto Casi – MUMEC Museo dei Mezzi di Comunicazione Scientific Director – AREZZO

    Paolo Brenni, one of the most important world-renowned scholar in the scientific field of XV – XIXI – XX century, always open to give a smile but also to give answers about the scientific questions, he has been a real friend for 35 years.
    I met Paolo in 1985 where the ”Institute and History of Science in Florence” took place. In 1986 he wrote the prefaction of my first publication “Il mondo in casa – i primi 40 anni di storia della radio“ / “The world at home, the first 40 years of history of radio”. In 1991, after the AIRE was born “Italian Association for vintage Radio”, I involved him in our works with the target of making a conference about Hertzian waves. We both organized a series of experiences in the communications field that that have come to life in the laboratory of technology and science Foundation in Florence, institute where he was Scientific Consultant with his main objective of restoury all the instruments collections.
    In 2006 he partecipated as a speaker in the experience of the Focault Pendolum that i organized in Arezzo’s Cattedral in occasion of the first anniversary of the opening of MUMEC – Media and Communication Museum. The same event was done twice in Bergamo thanks to SISFA Italian Society of Physics and Astronomy Historious and the University of Bergamo.
    With S.I.S. “Scientific Instrument Society” in 2007 and S.I.C. “Scientific Instrument Commission” in 2010, Paolo organized as president of both “Societies”, a day of study based on the visit to MUMEC Media and Communications Museum of Arezzo and my collections.
    The last high level scientific work carried out by us was, on 31th August 2021 the experiment of rekindling of an arc lamp of Serrin type, in the Univerity of Padova, in occasion of the inauguration of the Physics Museum “Giovanni Poleni”. It’s been an high level experience I’ve been very glad to make part of it.

    Dear Paolo, thanks for what you gave us as scientist and, above all, as a friend!

    More info in the link below:
    http://www3.comune.arezzo.it/museo-comunicazione/pieghevoli-locandine-e-altro/RicordodiPaoloBrenniMUMEC2021.pdf

  4. Gloria Christine Clifton

    I was very upset to hear about Paulo’s sudden death. What an awful tragedy for Andrea and his family, and also for the whole scientific instrument community. He was a central figure for everyone interested in the history of instruments, their restoration and collection. I cannot think of anyone else with his breadth of knowledge and his ability to converse about it in several European languages with ease. He was always willing to answer questions about the history of instruments, how they worked and how best to restore them when necessary. He was equally generous to both distinguished academics and young students new to the subject. He was very good company and a great host when the Scientific Instrument Society or participants in Scientific Instrument Symposia visited collections with which he was familiar. He was also a great campaigner for the importance of preserving historic collections, not only those in museums but also those in colleges, schools and other institutions. We shall all miss him enormously. My deepest sympathy goes to Andrea and all Paulo’s family.
    Gloria Clifton.

  5. I am truly shocked by the disappearance of Paolo.
    We met due to the restoration of the “Merz-Dallmeyer” telescope of the Rozzano Astrofili Group.
    Paolo gave us a lot of information and advice. We stayed in touch and agreed that he would come to the inauguration of the astronomical observatory in Rozzano.
    I’m sure a true friendship would have been born but fate didn’t give us time.
    Ciao Paolo we will miss you very much.

    Bini Michele
    Gruppo Astrofili Rozzano

  6. Comité d'Histoire de l'Électricité et de l'Énergie

    Le Comité d’Histoire de l’Électricité et de l’Énergie (Fondation EDF) a la tristesse d’apprendre le décès subit de notre collègue Paolo Brenni. C’est une perte immense en histoire de l’instrumentation scientifique et bien entendu pour notre Comité. Nous présentons nos condoléances au nom de l’ensemble du Comité auprès des collègues de Paolo et bien entendu de sa famille.

  7. What a profound loss to the instrument community. Amongst Paolo’s many admirable qualities, it was his generosity that stood out to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve fire off a query to Paolo asking about some obscure instrument or model, only to receive a reply within the day, rich in detail and brimming with enthusiasm for the study and understanding of scientific material culture. This generosity came with an admirable lack of pretention: Paolo gave his time and expertise to anyone who asked it of him regardless of their experience or status – to be curious was all that counted. He will be sorely missed.

  8. Condolences to Paolo’s family. I wish to express appreciation for the work Paolo did as First Vice-President of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology/Division of History of Science and Technology ( 2009-2013). We are in your debt and you are in our treasured memories.
    Mike Osborne, President, IUHPST

  9. I wish to express the more sincere condolences to Andrea and Paolo’s family on the behalf of the team project for the history of the Bureau des longitudes – and especially remember his participation to a Webinar on “Instruments et artistes du Bureau des longitudes (1795-1932)” we organized in December 2020.

    I also wish to express my personal gratitude: I met Paolo when I was a PhD student at La Villette, and he has then been a reference on scientific instruments’ matters. We all have experienced his conviviality and facility to talk with him: I have too many souvenirs of his precise advice, that he openly shared even which the complicity of whom, like me, spoke his mother language.
    Grazie, Paolo! We’ll miss you.

    Martina Schiavon
    General project coordinator ANR “Le Bureau des longitudes (1795-1932)”
    Université de Lorraine, France

  10. Neil Handley (SIS Vice Chairman 2009-11)

    Quite rightly, Paolo was much loved and admired. His knowledge of the subject and his ability to study it at the highest level in several languages never ceased to impress. Whilst many members of the Scientific Instrument Society love the look of old instruments and may be experts in the biographies of their designers or makers, far fewer have understood exactly how they were made or how they were used in practice. Aware of the fragility of everything, Paolo wrote in 2014 ‘We cannot stop time’, but a little time in his presence was always well spent.

  11. Fabrizio Bocchino

    On behalf of the whole community of Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo, I wish to express my most heartfelt condolences to Paolo’s family. We lost a precious friend and a valuable collaborator. The Museo della Specola in the Observatory is also the result of his passion and work. Thank you, dear Paolo, we will miss you, and our gratitude will last forever.

    Fabrizio Bocchino
    Director
    INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo, Italy

  12. Goodbye Paolo. Your essay on Volta’s Electric Lighters brought us together and my appreciation grew beyond my greatest expectations. I didn’t ask all the questions I had and wish I’d have written more often. Now, I only hope you rest well …
    Thank You!
    Tom O’Key

  13. It is so sad that Paolo has left us at such a young age. I have happy memories of him in different contexts:
    Like when the European Physical Society sponsored a visit by its then President, Professor Denis Weaire and me to see historic instruments in Portugal, in 1998, and asked me to suggest a knowledgeable person to accompany us. That was, of course, Paolo, who was a wonderful companion and a fount of useful information. We ‘did’ Lisbon and Coimbra (with its amazing Physical Cabinet), but time ran out before we got to Porto.
    Like when Paolo was part of a group filming a documentary on Ireland (for once with no instruments connection), and Paolo led them to Clara and me as suitable ‘natives’ to interview. Showing his creative side, he asked me to find him a motor cycle with a side car to add visual interest to the group, but I soon found that these attractive vehicles were illegal, and no one could use them as no insurance company would cover them.
    And, of course, there were SIS and SIC meetings, the most memorable being Paolo’s hosting of the study visit to Florence and Arezzo, in 2007, with the amazing concert (and food) in Signor Fausto Casi’s home in the latter.
    We’ll miss you Paolo.

  14. So saddened and unbelieving to hear of the sad loss of Paolo. I will always envision him standing in his living room enveloped in streams of sparks from his Tesla coil. Our thoughts are with his family.
    Patrick Mill

  15. Efthymios Nicolaidis

    I cannot believe that I will not meet any more Paolo at the scientific instruments symposia and conferences. When I worked on instruments I always knew that Paolo could reply to all my questions. I was a good friend, an exceptional personage. My most sincere condolences to Andrea and his family.
    Efthymios Nicolaidis

  16. I never met Paolo, but I wish I had. From reading his posts on Rete and other forums I was very inspired. He was very welcoming and always happy to share his knowledge.
    Robi

  17. Dear Paolo – if being missed is a token of a man’s worth on this planet, then you have amply achieved that goal. Thank you for so much – there was so much more to come but somehow it all seems rather trivial now. Thank you for being such a decent, fun and inspiring fellow, you leave a very large gap in all our lives.

    Charles

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