This is the first paper that I wrote for the SIS Bulletin and tells the story of how I developed my collection of drawing instruments up to that time. It also gives recommendations on how to go about collecting and how to care for ones collection.
A Collector’s Tale
Originally published in the Scientific Instrument Society Bulletin No. 83, December 2004
In the beginning
I have always collected things, quite why I do not know, but I do know that I have an inquisitive mind. From an early age I was interested in all things mechanical and, since mathematics and physics were my best subjects at school, it was entirely logical that I should follow the profession of mechanical engineer. Then, about thirty years ago, a doctor friend of mine showed me the collection of antique medical instruments that he and his father (also a GP) had assembled, and that set me thinking about collecting the tools of my profession.
Many years were to elapse, however, before a couple of events triggered the commencement of my collecting mathematical and related instruments. The first was the purchase of a copy of Michael Scott-Scott’s Shire Album “Drawing Instruments” (ref. 1), which I discovered by chance, soon followed by finding my late father-in-law’s drawing instruments. He had been an architect working for Kemp Town, and later Charringtons Breweries. Amongst his instruments were an ivory handled dotting pen and an early nineteenth century excise slide rule (Fig. 1), which he had rescued when Kemp Town Brewery closed.
Fig. 1 Early 19th century excise rule rescued from Kemp Town Brewery
It was a little while longer before, looking in an antiques shop in Boscombe, I purchased the first set (Fig. 2). It was not very special, just a cheap, students set “The Polytechnic Set No 23”. Who made it and who sold it are questions that still remain to be answered.
I struggled for a while after this, collecting odd instruments, which I found in various antique shops, before finding a nice, traditional pattern set by Harling in a Morocco case.
Developing the collection
It soon became clear that the antique shops of Dorset and East Devon, whilst providing some gems, as I shall mention later, would not provide the material I needed for a representative collection and I decided to try the antiques fairs at Exeter and Shepton Mallet. At the latter there were several dealers who regularly had instruments on their stalls and one in particular who usually had some quality items; I established a working relationship with that dealer and purchased items from him at virtually every fair, until ill health forced him to cease trading. Developing a working relationship with a good dealer is one of the essentials to building a good collection, particularly if you live in the sticks. The Stanley vernier protractor (Fig. 3) is just one of the many items I purchased from him.
Fig. 3 The Stanley Vernier Protractor
Fig. 4 Drawing set for Polytechnic students
I still visited antique shops when the opportunity arose and I was rewarded in Exmouth with my best find to date, a set by Jacob & Halse in a silver mounted, shagreen case, dating from about 1810 for which I happily paid £300 (Fig. 4). It is not quite complete and there is some damage to the shagreen but I have yet to find a better one. I had, by now, obtained a copy of the late Maya Hambly’s “Drawing Instruments 1580-1980” (ref. 2), which is much wider in its scope than Scott-Scott’s book and also Gloria Clifton’s “Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers 1550 –1851” (ref. 3). I had also joined the Scientific Instrument Society, just at the time that a series of articles were published on Manchester instrument makers by Jenny Wetton, amongst them A G Thornton and Joseph Halden (ref. 4). In the associated list of references were catalogues from both these manufacturers and a book by Thornton (ref. 5), and I duly purchased photocopies of these from the Manchester Library and the Greater Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. These references, dating from around 1900, have since proved invaluable as I have tried to unravel who made what. The name printed on the case lining or stamped on the instruments themselves is not necessarily the maker. There was quite a trade between makers as I shall consider later.
I retired in the summer of 1997 and then had time to watch occasional, daytime, television programmes, among them “Collector’s Lot” on Channel 4 and, early in 1998 I wrote to them offering my collection of drawing instruments as a topic. To my surprise they accepted and I appeared with the collection on the programme in October 1998. Over the next couple of months Channel 4 forwarded many letters to me from viewers who either wanted to know more about instruments that they had or who wanted to sell me items, or, in a few cases, give them to me. Many of the items were mediocre, but the few that weren’t certainly made up for the rest. One of the gems was an Eidograph by Adie & Son, which had been retailed by Charles Baker. I bought this very reasonably and set about restoring it. The driving band was broken into several pieces; rather than try and repair that item I used it as a reference to make an entirely new driving band assembly using clock spring of the right gauge and replica adjusters which I turned from brass in my lathe (I fortunately have a well equipped workshop as another hobby of mine is making model steam engines). The eidograph is now in full working order again (Fig 5).
Fig. 4 Set by Jacob & Halse in shagreen case, about 1810
Fig. 5 Eidograph by Adie & Son retailed by Charles Baker
One lady who contacted me had been an instrument maker with J J Threadwell & Sons for 42 years, retiring when the firm ceased trading in 1986. I drove to London to meet her and, besides obtaining some instruments from her, she supplied me with photocopies of some of their catalogues (one pre-war) and told me quite a lot about their business. Few instruments are found with their name on; many of the instruments that they made were sold by other firms such as Charles Baker and W F Stanley. She was able to show me details of quotations to these two firms and I have in my collection examples of Threadwell “new pattern” instruments in a Baker set and stamped “Stanley”. Threadwell’s actually had a Stanley stamp for this purpose and also made instruments for the GPO, which they similarly stamped themselves. This was another piece of the ‘who made what’ jigsaw that I have been slowly constructing.
I am not satisfied with just collecting instruments; I want to find out as much about them as I can. Visiting museums is a good way to start and the Science Museum in London was my first choice and I have visited it several times. The excise slide rule by Cock of London in my collection, that I mentioned earlier, is almost identical to one by the same maker on display there. Museums often have useful reference books for sale and two particularly useful ones are published by the National Museums of Scotland, “Brass & Glass – Scientific Instrument Making Workshops in Scotland” (ref. 6) and “Handlist of Scientific Instrument-Makers’ Trade Catalogues 1600-1914” (ref. 7).
However contemporary books and other ephemera must also be read. Fortunately one of the best has been reprinted twice in facsimile form. This is “The Construction and Principal Uses of Mathematical Instruments translated from the French of M. Bion by Edmund Stone” (ref. 8) first published in 1758. This is a large book of over 300 pages with 30 folio plates and describes both how the instruments should be made and how they should be used; for example both English and French sectors are described in some detail.
I have already mentioned old trade catalogues, but advertisements in old magazines can also be a useful source. For instance A G Thornton and also Norton & Gregory were regular advertisers in “The Model Engineer” between the wars; I have over a thousand issues from that period inherited from my wife’s grandfather.
Patents are one area that has been researched for slide rules (ref. 9), but I do not believe that they have so far been researched for drawing instruments.
Careful study of the instruments and comparison with others, which purport to come from another manufacturer, can also be rewarding. When I met the lady who had worked for J J Threadwell I already had suspicions that they had made some of the instruments in my collection sold by W F Stanley and Charles Baker, which she was able to confirm.
I also believe that A G Thornton made instruments that were sold under other names. The instruments in their “Minerva” and “Techset” ranges have several characteristic features including a ‘v’ shape to the end of the slot at the end of the compass inserts. The Halden “Premier” range (except for the ruling pens) exactly match their “Minerva” counterparts, including this feature, both in style and dimensions. The same is true of a set of J H Steward instruments that I have which exactly match Thornton “Techset” instruments right down to the wallet case which has the same green velvet lining. Could any reader shed any more light on this?
There is clearly more to be found out about this trade between makers and it is still possible, in the case of these instruments, which continued to be made into the 1950s, that people are still alive who have the first hand knowledge. Presumably the records of some of these firms also still exist in their successors’ archives or in public record offices.
Collecting gets difficult
I have now been collecting for ten years. Finding new items to collect, that I can afford, is now quite difficult. As I write this, I have 172 cased sets and other cased items. Looking at the year-by-year collecting statistics tells a story:
Year Number added
The first part of 1995 was spent discovering where to find old sets of drawing instruments, but by 1996 I was adding items on a regular basis; as there was still much to collect this was the year of greatest expansion. By 1997 I was already finding it more difficult to find fresh items. The increase in 1998 occurred late in the year as a direct result of my television appearance. However the next four years saw a steady decline in the number of items purchased as the collection reached a sort of maturity. I should, however, mention one more fair, the twice yearly antique medical & scientific instrument fair which is held in London and advertised in the Bulletin. This has been a useful source of some of the rare items in my collection although I do find that the commoner items tend to be considerably pricier here than in the general fairs, such as Shepton Mallet. My most recent purchase at the London fair, from a continental dealer, was a French brass sector (Fig. 6).
In 2003 I discovered Ebay and most of the items purchased in the past 18 months have been via this Internet auction site.
Fig. 6 French brass sector
I don’t know why it took me so long to discover how useful the Internet could be. The first site of relevance that I found was Ebay (www.ebay.co.uk), as already mentioned. Besides being a useful source of items for the collection it is also a useful source of knowledge about the items being offered and the prices they typically fetch. However inaccurate descriptions are rife and dating is often wildly out, generally as a result of the seller’s ignorance, so beware. The other thing that I have noticed is that the prices of the more desirable items often go through the roof. I only succeed in purchasing about a quarter of the items that I bid for, frequently being outbid quite literally at the last minute.
There is a Yahoo group for people interested in drawing instruments, which I only found earlier this year, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/drawinginstruments/. This is very much an international affair and I have found it to be useful on a couple of occasions. In 1996 I had purchased a very fine, but small, set of nineteenth century drawing instruments by a Dutch maker, H Meeuwig (Fig.7). However the gold stamp on the silk lining was rather worn and I could not fully decipher the address. A Dutch member of the Group was, however, able to decipher it for me with the help of another member in the USA.
As my collection has matured, so I have concentrated more on related ephemera and books. The website www.abebooks.com is a catalogue of books available from a large number of booksellers worldwide and is invaluable for finding out of print and antique books. I have purchased several through this site recently.
Most museums now have web sites. One in particular that has a good section on its drawing instrument collection is the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, www.mhs.ox.ac.uk.
Caring for the collection
I guess I’m a bureaucrat at heart as I catalogue, photograph and document everything. This is actually very important with sets of drawing instruments since I am sure that I am not the only collector who removes incorrect instruments from cases and also adds instruments when a match for a missing one is found. It is only fair to the next owner of the set to provide him with this information. I also document any conservation or restoration work that I do.
Fig. 7 Dutch set of 19th century drawing instruments by H. Meeuwig
I shan’t go into chapter and verse on how to look after your collection but I will mention a few things, which are particularly relevant, starting with the most serious problem that I have encountered. Set squares, protractors and stencils were frequently made of celluloid (cellulose acetate generally). As these get older the celluloid begins to decompose releasing acetic acid (which smells like vinegar). This will rapidly corrode any metal (especially steel) that it is in contact with. Segregation and frequent checking of celluloid items is important. One set of UNO stencils that I had actually decomposed to the point where they disintegrated and had to be thrown away.
Light is another enemy fading case lining materials and also wood, especially walnut veneer. UV light also causes silk to become fragile. The room I keep my collection displayed in is on the north side of the house and they are never exposed to sunlight.
Public enemy number three is the insect. Woodworm is the obvious menace but there are also insects that eat leather, paper and case lining materials. Once again I regularly inspect the collection for signs of these.
Cleaning and/or restoration have always been controversial subjects. I do clean the cases and the instruments. I take care not to damage lacquer and other coatings; I clean infrequently and do not usually over-polish. I have found that polishing wooden boxes with beeswax is effective and I use a suitable shoe polish on some of the leather cases as, apart from improving the appearance, it also helps keep the leather supple. No doubt some people will frown at this. Another trick I have evolved which might not be approved of in all circles is coating the edge of fraying material with a cellulose paste to bind it together. The paste I use is a special one sold for conserving fabrics by pasting a very fine fabric to them, which was originally purchased for some repair work on my wife’s collection of fans.
Where possible any work carried out should be reversible and not involve modifications to original parts. It is always safest to try out any new technique or material on a small area, where it will not matter too much if things go wrong, first.
One particular annoying habit that some dealers have is using sticky labels. Often the damage is irreversible but ethyl alcohol (methylated spirits) will usually dissolve the adhesive and this can be useful where it will not cause further damage itself.
Deciding what to collect
The logical place for this section would have been near the beginning but I have deliberately left it until now so that I might discuss its evolution as the collection progressed. Before starting any collection it is wise to consider the availability and price range of the items. I had little knowledge of either when I started. Hence the scope of my collection has evolved. I will try and summarise it below against the parameters that I consider define it:
Source of Manufacture
Drawing instruments, some slide rules
1850 - 1965
Up to £50
Drawing instruments, slide rules, pocket calculators (not electronic), related items (e.g. Station pointer, steel rules), relevant literature (either original or copied)
1750 - 1980
Up to £300
However the principal point that I wish to make here is that each collector must make up his/her own mind. There are no rules. Some people might wish to constrain their collection to just one maker. Other people might consider decorative appearance an important consideration.
I collect because of my interest in the items themselves and the history of their manufacture. Thus quality and condition are of less importance to me than they would be to someone collecting as an investment.
I now feel that I have built up a fairly representative collection of British and Continental mathematical instruments from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However I have not constrained my collecting too tightly and have branched out along the way to add other, related items. In the process I have learnt much about the instruments and their makers, but there is a great deal more still to be discovered.
1. Drawing Instruments 1850 - 1950, Michael Scott-Scott, Shire Publications Ltd, Album 180, 1986.
2. Drawing Instruments 1580 - 1980, Maya Hambly, Sotheby’s Publications, 1988
3. Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers 1550 - 1851, Zwemmer, 1995
4. Scientific Instrument Making in Manchester 1870 - 1940 IV: Joseph Halden & Company, and A G Thornton Limited, Jenny Wetton, Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society No. 54, pp 6 - 9, 1997
5. Mathematical Drawing Instruments and Materials, A G Thornton, Percival Marshall & Co., 1906
6. Brass & Glass, Scientific Instrument Making Workshops in Scotland, T N Clarke, A D Morrison-Low, A D C Simpson, National Museums of Scotland, 1989
7. Handlist of Scientific Instrument-Makers’ Trade Catalogues 1600 - 1914, R G W Anderson, J Burnett and B Gee, National Museums of Scotland Information Series No. 8, 1990
8. M Bion, The Construction and Principal Uses of Mathematical Instruments, Translated and Supplemented by Edmund Stone, 1758, reprinted by The Astragal Press, 1995
9. Slide Rules, Their History, Models, and Makers, Peter M Hopp, Astragal Press, 1999