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

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.


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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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