Santa Clara University

University Archives

A Favorite Abode of Science:

Santa Clara College and the Pursuit of Scientific Knowledge, 1851-1900

When the Jesuit Fathers first published the Prospectus of Santa Clara College in 1855, one of their hopes was to make the newly incorporated college "a favorite abode of science…in no way inferior to any other Institution in the country for the education of youth." By 1857, the Fathers considered their goal achieved — Santa Clara had acquired "a complete philosophical and chemical apparatus, from the best manufacturers of Paris, which cost the Institution nearly ten thousand dollars." To this day, many of the instruments purchased in the mid-19th Century have remained at Santa Clara, and some are on display. In this exhibit, the visitor will get a sense of the scope of scientific instruction at Santa Clara and the premium that the Jesuit Fathers placed on "keeping pace with the progress of science" (Prospectus of Santa Clara College, 1865).

The Santa Clara College Scientific Instrument Collection, now primarily housed in the University Archives, numbers about 200 instruments that served as demonstration apparatus for classical experiments typical of 19th Century teaching. The instruments were primarily used in the classroom to demonstrate basic principles behind several subject areas including heat, optics, acoustics, pneumatics, hydraulics, and the pre-eminent 19th Century scientific discovery, current electricity. The apparatus served a public purpose beyond the classroom as well. Each year, the College invited the public to attend commencement exercises that included all forms of entertainment beyond the conferring of degrees. As part of the Scientific Entertainment, students gave public demonstrations and lectures on such subjects as "Electricity at Work," "Mechanical Forces and Perpetual Motion," "Hydraulics" and the "Nature of Sound and the Principles of Musical Instruments."

The instruments and accompanying archival materials on display demonstrate the significance of the collection. The number and variety of instruments, as well as the instrument makers of the pieces suggest a premier laboratory. While many of the instruments in the collection are not stamped or labeled by their makers, some of them are. Noted instrument makers such as Jules DuBoscq, Soleil, Secretan, Fabre et Kunemann, William Ladd, Nicolas Pixii, Newton & Company, M. Alvergniat, Nachet, and James W. Queen are included in the collection. In fact, some of the pieces from the early college laboratories are now in the holdings of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, a telling point about Santa Clara’s contribution to the history of science.

Complementing the objects themselves, are archival materials that show the pure provenance of the collection and support its significance. That is, we can trace the ownership of the pieces to Santa Clara not only because we physically possess the pieces after more than a hundred years, but that ownership is documented in administrative records and original photographs found in the University Archives. The documentary evidence also reinforces the notion that the early faculty and administration sought to be a premier institution of scientific instruction. The documents refer to important, state-of-the-art instruments no longer on campus. Knowing they were ordered, used, and described is a salient point in understanding the significance of the collection.

The Santa Clara College Scientific Instrument Collection is truly a cherished collection for our institution. It informs us about our academic history and gives us an opportunity to appreciate our early administrators’ commitment to scientific inquiry in the classroom.

Several people contributed to this exhibit. The de Saisset Museum and the The Archaeology Research Lab at SCU provided descriptive information about many of the pieces in the SCU Scientific Instrument Collection, as did private collector Mark McElyea. Steven Turner, Physical Sciences Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, provided research information about the scientific instrument makers and some of the pieces on display.

Special thanks go to Anna Kinney, University Archives Student Assistant, for her research, skill and diligence in preparing the virtual exhibit.

The Scientific Instrument Collection includes pieces that are on display in the de Saisset Museum, and in storage in The Archaeology Research Lab. For more information about the Collection, please contact The Department of Archives & Special Collections, 408-554-5530.

A list of sources used in this exhibit has been compiled and is available for viewing.

Permission to reproduce any portion of the exhibit "A Favorite Abode of Science" is strictly prohibited.
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