25 Years of the SIS

Although it is now an international society with members in nineteen different countries, the earliest ambition of the SIS was centred less on worldwide numerical growth than on bringing together scientific instrument experts in the UK. By virtue of their differing academic or commercial backgrounds these individuals had hitherto been without a common organisation for encouraging research into instruments and raising interest in the subject amongst a wider public. In 1983 Bernard J Taylor arranged a meeting at the Science Museum in London. Previous attempts at founding an organisation representing museum curators, antique dealers and private collectors had foundered, some claim because of a reluctance amongst the curators to be seen as too closely associated with dealers.

Others, however, felt it absurd that a branch of antiques as important as scientific instruments should not have a society equivalent to, say, the Royal Porcelain Society to pool expertise and act as a reference point and a means of disseminating information. Most of those involved thought in terms of antique scientific instruments. When one considers the enormous impact these instruments had on the development of society, combined with the craftsmanship that went into these instruments, as well as the beauty of so many of them, it was easy to conclude in the early 1980s that these were grossly undervalued and underappreciated.

Writing in to the SIS website in 2007 Taylor recalled that he had a meeting with Gerard L'E Turner at the museum of the History of Science in Oxford in 1982 and persuaded him to lend his support to the formation of a scientific instrument society: "I was helped most in this by two dealers whom I sadly remember only by their first names - Derek and Alan. Derek operated out of Chenil Galleries in Chelsea at the time, while Alan operated mainly out of Bermondsey Market. We had our first preliminary meeting at Derek's home in Streatham. Among those present was Gerard Turner, Arthur Middleton, Derek, Alan and a few other dealers including Peter Delehar. Acting on behalf of the group, I then arranged (along with Turner) for the first meeting to take place at the Science Museum".

The Society was formally constituted on 20 April 1983 in the course of a lively meeting at the Science Museum, South Kensington, when Gerard Turner was appointed Chairman, Brian Brass Treasurer (he would serve in that role for the next eleven years) and the late Jon Darius the first editor of the Bulletin. Amongst the ordinary committee members was Jeremy Collins the scientific instrument specialist at Christies.

The name of the Society was chosen carefully. It was not to refer to 'Antiquarian' or 'Historical'. It's remit was to embrace gas chromatographs or Geiger counters as much as the aesthetically pleasing instruments beloved of the 'Brass brigade'. In the words of our first press release, the Society aimed to contribute to historical knowledge and understanding through the collection, conservation and study of scientific artefacts. When the Microscopical Society of London (later the Royal Microscopical Society) was launched in 1839, its professed purpose was to afford 'encouragement to microscopical investigations, by promoting that ready intercourse between those engaged in such pursuits, by which not only are great advantages mutually gained, but also information of the most valuable kind disseminated and perpetuated'.

That, mutatis mutandis, is just what we hoped would transpire when collectors, curators, dealers, restorers and other interested parties were brought together on the common ground of our new Society. The establishment of a new society always occasions trepidation enough: Would it attract enough members? (We already numbered over 100.) If so, would they be sleepers or participators? Would the avowed aims be fulfilled, or would the whole enterprise lumber along expending most of its energy in unproductive meetings and minutes, minutes and meetings? These thoughts, articulated by Jon Darius on the first page of the first Bulletin proved to be unnecessarily cautious.

Throughout its history the Bulletin has had only three editors and has grown into a respected publication, essential reading for serious scholars of the history of science and the material culture of scientific enquiry, experimentation, instruction and its industrial, medical or military applications. It has always been A4 format, was professionally typeset from issue no 2 and advertising has been carried since the beginning. An early suggestion of John Millburn's to supply it on microfiche to save on postage costs was rejected. The Bulletin is still a print publication though a CD-ROM of the first eighty issues was published in 2004.

Our logo, a diptych dial was chosen in 1984 as the result of a competition amonst the membership won by Lindsay Macfarlane, then of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. There had been some concern as to what type of symbol would be truly representative: 'A waywiser, after all, will hardly satisfy collectors of scarificators'.

The first SIS conference was held in the south west of England at Gloucester, but by 1985 it had ventured overseas, to Paris, for the first time. Conferences have now been held in eighteen different countries including the home countries of Britain and Ireland, the United States, western and eastern Europe, the Scandinavian countries and Russia. With our expanding international membership these trips have been by no means 'overseas' for all participants!

The Society's current promotional leaflet was launched in 2006. It was specially designed to bring our Society to the attention of potential new members. Please ask for a stock of leaflets if you want to help in our membership drive.


President's Badge

Our first Honorary Member, Silvio Bedini, was appointed in 1986. There have been nine in total during the Society's first 25 years.

In March 2007 the Society was delighted to unveil the new President's badge. Designed to be handed on as a distinguished mark of office the badge was presented to its first custodian, Paolo Brenni, during the Society's conference in Florence. The badge is gold plate on silver with a plain reverse and a blue collar. It was commissioned from the distinguished medal makers Thomas Fattorini of Birmingham. The company was founded in 1827 by Antonio Fattorini, an Italian-speaking immigrant who settled in Yorkshire where he established a number of retail outlets specialising in jewellery, watches and fancy goods including barometers. In the late 19th century the company established a badges, medals and insignia factory in Birmingham. The present works has been operational since 1927.

Click here to see a picture of Paolo resplendent in his new regalia

Promoting the Society is a Piece of Cake

Visitors to the 44th Scientific Instrument Fair found it a sweeter tasting event than they might have expected, but fortunately no one bit off more than he or she could chew. We cut a celebratory cake to mark our 25th anniversary. Whether you wanted a small piece or a large piece we cut it with scientific precision, and everyone agreed that it went down well. Indeed, when our Chairman said 'Let them eat cake' far from provoking revolution it proved a most popular remark with the assembled mob. This first picture shows a detail of the cake. To see it in its full glory, complete with printed images of scientific instruments, click on the thumbnail and a larger picture will magically appear.

The second picture shows our committee member (and chief procurer of cakes) Marcus Cavalier keeping an eye on our book sales. Note the plush new Society banner that also enjoyed its first airing at this event.





25th Anniversary Members' Special Loan Exhibition

To celebrate our 25th anniversary there was an exhibition of Members' own instruments held at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. SIS 25 opened on 19 August and ran to 26 October 2008.

SIS 25 used three exhibition cases in the entrance gallery and the remainder of the objects were placed within the permanent displays throughout the Museum. The message was that serious collecting can complement and enhance museum work and display. Our novel approach created a unique event in the world of scientific instruments.

Back in March Members had been invited to submit suggestions for exhibits and were encouraged to provide text for special labels. In emphasising the role of the collector, we felt it would be particularly appropriate to communicate the personal significance and the story of each instrument. Contributions did not need not be exclusively instrumental, and associated material such as ephemera was to be very welcome: the more broad-ranging the better. How did we do? Well, the exhibition itself may have finished but you can still Visit the exhibition's own website to find out!

To find out more about SIS 25 please see the details on the MHS website. The online version of SIS 25 was launched at the Member's event Private Passions, held at the Museum on 11 October 2008 and will provide a lasting record of the exhibition. Plus, if you want to see photographs of the exhibits in place, there are images of them all on this page of the Flickr photo-sharing website.

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