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Primer: The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company May 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Click to go to an online exhibit at Cambridges Whipple Museum.

An ad for the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Click to see a larger version in an online exhibit at Cambridge

Although it was perhaps the most important center for the development of mathematical physics in the 19th century, Cambridge University did not develop its reputation for experimental science until after its establishment of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1874. And while the era is best known as a time of “string and sealing wax” experimentation conducted with self-fashioned apparatus, the development and production of instrumentation was also carried out by specialist inventors and manufacturers, one of the more important of whom in England was Horace Darwin (1851-1928), the youngest son of Charles Darwin.

Horace Darwin had long been interested in the development of new kinds of instrumentation when in 1881 he acquired a controlling stake in a Cambridge instrument workshop. The workshop had been started a few years earlier by the mechanic Robert Fulcher to fashion and service instruments for Cambridge’s physiology department. It was backed financially by Albert Dew-Smith (1848-1903), a friend of Darwin who had trained at Cambridge in physiology. Fulcher, whose mechanical talents were deemed limited, was apparently driven out, leaving the way open for Darwin and Dew-Smith to become co-proprietors of what they decided to call the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Darwin obtained sole ownership in 1891.

Under Darwin’s supervision the company grew steadily, expanding its

workforce and moving facilities several times. A first hire was their foreman, William Pye, a mechanic with extensive experience in London firms. He would leave in 1898 to join his son, W. G. Pye, who had run the Cavendish’s workshop and then left to form his own instrument company (which later became a well-known producer of radio equipment). That same year Robert Whipple joined the firm as Darwin’s assistant. Whipple came from a scientific family, and his father, George, was the superintendent at Kew Observatory. He would play a major role in the development of the company and its products in the 20th century.

Horace Darwin as Mayor of Cambridge, 1896-97

Darwin’s firm manufactured a wide variety of physical and physiological instrumentation at a time when the difference between the two was not wide, with devices featuring heavy metal parts, precision machinery, glassware, galvanic currents, sensitive measuring instruments, recording apparatus, photographic apparatus, and other common components of 19th and early 20th-century gadgetry. The company also was involved with the publication of the Journal of Physiology from the time of Fulcher’s involvement, and had developed a lithography shop, which went with Dew-Smith when his partnership with Darwin was dissolved. As examples of the company’s early wares: from the late 1880s through 1907, the company manufactured seismographs; beginning in the 1910s, the company was an important early developer of the electrocardiograph, basing its work on a rough version invented by Leiden experimenter Willem Einthoven.

The firm quickly expanded from its base business in supplying the university’s needs, and became a supplier of stock industrial instrumentation as well. When World War I began in 1914, the company initially planned to scale down its activities, but soon began expanding them to supply the military’s instrumentation needs. (My own prior familiarity with the company comes from Darwin’s wartime development of the “mirror position finder” with physiologist A. V. Hill , a device used to track aircraft and anti-aircraft bursts in three dimensions.) The war fueled the company’s further growth, but it was not good for Darwin personally—his son, Erasmus, to whom he hoped to pass on his business, was killed in battle near Ypres.

Following the war, the company expanded its interests overseas and in Britain, acquiring an instrument-making business run by Robert Paul (a player in early cinematographic equipment, though Paul became disillusioned with the show business turn cinematography was taking after 1900). The company was renamed the Cambridge and Paul Instrument Company in 1919, shortened to the Cambridge Instrument Company in 1924.

After Horace Darwin died in 1928, the company and its products continued to evolve. Horace’s nephew, the physicist Charles G. Darwin, became chairman of the company’s board. Robert Whipple would share the role of managing director with Cecil Mason (who had joined in 1910) until he left in 1935, only to rejoin in 1938 as chairman when Darwin left to become head of the National Physical Laboratory. He stayed on in that role until 1950, and remained on the board until he died in 1953. By 1960 the company had starting having trouble staying profitable, and it was sold to the George Kent Group in 1968, though the Cambridge name continued to be used for certain lines of products.

The principal source on the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company is Horace Darwin’s Shop, by M. J. G. Cattermole and A. F. Wolfe (1987). The book is picky with its details—you’ll find full texts of letters reproduced, and detailed information on pay scales. It’s comparatively light on context: it is difficult to determine how important Cambridge was compared to other firms over time, for example. Still, the book is an important source on the invention and production of instrumentation in England circa 1900. The subject is one important bridge point between 19th-century experimentation and 20th-century research and development; as well as between science, business, and industry.

The Whipple Museum at Cambridge, incidentally, was founded by Robert Whipple when he donated his personal collection of antique instruments to Cambridge University in 1944. It is linked to Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

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