Instruments of Technology & Science with Dave Unger

HMSC Connects Podcast Episode 3
SPEAKERS: Dave Unger, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund 00:04
Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of for Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. And I'll be your host. For the last few weeks, I've been talking to people who work with collections behind the scenes of the museums. I've been curious about not just collections they keep, but the reasons behind why they do what they do. This week, I'm speaking with Dave Unger, Director of Administration and Operations for the Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments, a museum containing a collection of instruments and tools of science collected by Harvard since 1672. Today, it's one of the three largest university collections of its kind in the world. But Unger's interest in tools started long before he came to Harvard. I wanted to learn more about where it all began. Dave Unger, welcome.

Dave Unger 01:32
Oh, thank you. It's great to be here.

Jennifer Berglund 01:35
How did you become interested in museum collections?

Dave Unger 01:39
It goes back right to when I was little, and I grew up in this this old farmhouse on a sheep farm. And we had all sorts of stuff around in the barn in kind of in the woods around that around the house at the edges of fields, just old buildings full of old stuff. It was kind of like living in a in a collection, and when I was little, I remember that stuff was just so mysterious and interesting to me. I just wanted to know what it was, you know, and how it worked.

Jennifer Berglund 02:06
What kind of things were in this collection of stuff.

Dave Unger 02:11
It was a huge, huge variety of things. There was like old saw blades, or old old woodworking tools, chisels. I remember finding of a bunch of old pedal cars, kids toy pedal cars, almost like, like big wheels, but from the 40s or 50s, and I unearthed these underneath a pile of boards or something like that. And so yes, I was so interested in what all these things were and who were the people who had lived there before our family live there? And there were like all of these clues. So I'd sort of start from these these old things and go exploring to understand them. So you know, maybe that would be going to the library to get books about woodworking tools to try to figure them out or be trying to fix things or use them again, like those little toy cars I definitely wanted to get working so I could ride them around. And then there was also just old equipment, corn harvesters, and bailers, and all sorts of old stuff around that I just want to understand. And then kind of mixed with that, every summer my family would go to Washington, DC to visit the Smithsonian museums. I think my Mom went to a conference every year and the whole family would go along. And so my brother, my Dad, and I would spend the days going to all the museums. Of course Air and Space Museum was a big hit with me, I think, as it is with a lot of kids, but then also the American Museum of American History in the basement. I think they've changed it now. But they had this great collection of old model steam engines, and, and just a lot of tools and machines that that kind of looked like the stuff I was finding at home to some degree. So it was like this other place of seeing the things that were that were kind of for me toys or kind of part of the background, but but seeing them in this different context where they had, you know, lights on them and little labels that described what they were and people gathered around looking at them. I think that that's like a early way I started to get interested in museums and collections. My folks were, they moved to a farm as adults, they didn't grow up on farms, so they were learning what all the things were as well and talking to old farmers in the area and kind of people who'd been around forever. So then I was also kind of either overhearing those conversations or they'd share those things with me. And definitely a lot of time spent with my folks digging stuff out. Probably some oversight of me crawling around in these big piles of rusty, of rusty sharp things.

Jennifer Berglund 04:41
Yeah, that makes sense. Did you ever learn about the people that owned these things?

Dave Unger 04:48
A little bit. I don't think I ever was quite like disciplined enough to like put together the full story, but the people who first built the house, that we lived in--it was built in the 1860s--were wool merchants, and they had a carding mill, so processing wool, getting it ready to be spun into yarn, and they had sheep. And so you'd kind of find in the barn, like, indications of it having been a sheep farm originally. And then there were other animals there over time. And so, we'd sort of find things in the barn about that. There was a great spot upstairs where people who had lived there or worked on the farm had carved their initials, over, over, you know, 150 years, people had carved their initials. There was some numbering. I don't know if they were numbering years, or if they were actually counting hay bales put in the barn or something like that. But there are these like, literal kind of messages from the people who had once worked there.

Jennifer Berglund 05:45
That's so neat.

Dave Unger 05:47
I think that connection that artifacts can can create to people in the past, that like the things themselves are interesting and sometimes beautiful or curious, but I think what makes it even more powerful is that it's a something that people had held and used and was part of somebody else's life. And then it's traveled some path through time and come to your hand, or into a collection or museum or a shed. And it's like a real thing that real people used in their lives. It creates such a such a great connection. I think that's something as I've become professionally involved in museums that's continued to be really important to me is that that feeling of connection to people of the past.

Jennifer Berglund 06:33
So you were at the University of Chicago, studying industrial archaeology, which is fascinating. And then you ended up at Harvard for your PhD. Can you talk about that?

Dave Unger 06:43
I came to Harvard to the History of Science Department to kind of continue industrial history and history of technology, and kind of learn more about how all those old things worked in the steel mills, and the old the woodworking tools and all all of that stuff that I'd kind of been--the questions I'd been gathering kind of my whole life. It was sort of a chance to really dive deep into learning about how all those things work. While I was working on the degree, I started working in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, actually. They happened to be launching a project to photograph all the objects in the collection. And they were launching it when I happened to be looking for some work for the summer. And I had done some photography. So, I got a summer job photographing objects, and it was just amazing to be able to go into the collection and see just the rows and rows of stuff, and it was like even more stuff to learn what it what it did and and what it was, and doing the photography, I was going object by object--first object on a shelf second object on the shelf, first shelf, second shelf. And I ended up doing that for several years while I was in graduate school and kind of gradually got more and more interested in the museum work. And so, as I was finishing up, I realized I wanted to work in museums as opposed to going in kind of a regular academic route.

Jennifer Berglund 08:10
What was it about museums that sort of enchanted you over academia?

Dave Unger 08:16
I think there were two two things that really struck me. One was the the hands-on nature of it that especially, as I had been in grad school for however many years that was at that point, it felt like, kind of just words, and words and words, like, talking about things that were written about things that people had talked about, and then writing about the conversation that you did. And it was just sort of there was so much focus on verbal and written expression. And I was interested in exploring a much wider kind of range of ways to tell stories, or learn about things. So building things, hands-on activities, multimedia stuff. And museums seemed like a place where you could do all that that stuff, but then also be really rooted in the research and in the, all of the kind of rich thinking.

Jennifer Berglund 09:08
Why are museum collections valuable? And particularly, why is it valuable to preserve scientific instruments?

Dave Unger 09:17
Generally, I think preserving objects from the past are important in a number of different ways. Part of it is there's an informational aspect that there's things about the past that nobody writes down, because it's too obvious. It's just like, the day to day life, like just how you how people do things, how people move around, how they get things done. So much of that is too, it's just too obvious to write down, or the people who are doing it aren't people who write a lot of things down. There's lots of reasons why a lot of that story doesn't end up in other kinds of historic records--letters, or government reports, or any of that, that kind of thing. So, the objects are really important for preserving that information or rediscovering that information. And scientific instruments are a special case of that, that there's so much about how science is done on just a day to day basis, like people in in labs, at work benches, or even at their desks or in the classrooms, wherever they're doing their work, and they're surrounded by stuff and that stuff, shapes what they do like how they go about their business. And then it also shows you all sorts of subtle things about how those people think about the world, how they think about their work, how they think about learning about the world, or teaching about how the world.

Jennifer Berglund 10:37
In what way?

Dave Unger 10:38
A great example, one of our kind of star objects is an orrery, which is a model of the solar system. It was a mechanical thing. All the planets go around the Sun, and they all turn with their moons and whatnot. It shows how the solar system works, sort of straightforward, but when you kind of dig into it, it's a very specific kind of idea about the universe, that the solar system, that it's all predictable, right? That it's all moving according to a clockwork, it's like literally taking this idea of a clockwork universe and building an object that shows you that. One of the interesting things about this orrery is that you can see at the top of the planets and how they move, and the mechanisms are down below, which often would be covered. In this one, there's windows, which in the colonial time when this was built, glass was expensive, so this was like a specific choice to add windows so you can see the gearing underneath, which has this, you can see as this statement about not just the knowable, regular movement of the planets, but that those movements are kind of based on relationships that are understandable. It's like the gears underneath are like the equations. Those are like the differential equations that at the same time people were using to calculate where planets were where all sorts of regular things in the natural world were happening. It's an object where as a viewer, you're standing in this, like, nowhere place. You're standing outside the solar system looking at it. It's like a God's eye view of the solar system.

Jennifer Berglund 12:11
That's a good way to put it.

Dave Unger 12:12
Which all really lines up with how people are starting to think about understanding the natural world during the Enlightenment. That this was all knowable. That equations were kind of behind everything. That as a scientist, you could have this kind of view from nowhere and understand it all. So all of that kind of philosophy is embodied in that object. That sort of understanding is kind of encoded in any of the objects. It's just a lot harder to see with the more recent ones.

Jennifer Berglund 12:39
Do you have a favorite object?
Dave Unger 12:41
There's so many favorites, and there's so many different kinds of objects. We have 20,000 objects in the collection. They range from, I think the earliest is 1400, and they go up roughly to the present. So, there's a huge range to pick from. There's a Persian astrolabe from the 16th century that I that I really love. It's just a beautiful object. It's kind of a brass disc with some different pieces on the front that rotate and it's just this beautiful brass object.

Jennifer Berglund 13:09
What's an astrolabe? What was it used for?

Dave Unger 13:11
And astrolabe basically shows the relationship between time and where things are in the sky--the stars, the Sun, and sometimes the Moon. And so from that relationship, you can calculate lots of things. There was a early modern text that listed some thousand different uses for an Astrolabe. So you could calculate where a particular star would be on a certain day and time, or you could make observations of the sky and calculate what time it is. You could use it for navigation, you could use it for surveying. There was a huge, huge number of uses for it. So it's just this really interesting, dense, calculating machine that can really tell you a lot about the world. And one of the things that I love about it is that the mechanics of it are really simple, and the basic usage is something that is completely understandable. So I sat down and spent some time and learned how to how to actually use it for some of the simple operations. And there is something amazing about taking this object, you know, wearing gloves, of course, but taking this object from maybe 1590, and using it to calculate, like, what time the Sun is gonna set today, in Cambridge. You can use that and then calculate it out, and then, you know, look up time of sunset or wait for the Sun to set, and it's right, which is just amazing to me. It's like a simple thing, but being able to actually kind of manipulate that object and this thing that has been used for centuries.

Jennifer Berglund 14:39
That's so cool, as you were sort of saying before about the farm equipment and your barn, you know, being able to hold something that someone from the past held and used, you know, it's crazy to think about.

Dave Unger 14:53
Yeah. We also have a different kind of calculating object that was actually owned by Galileo.

Jennifer Berglund 14:59

Dave Unger 15:00
That his personal instrument maker made, and he made it to send to somebody who he was hoping to get a job from. But it's this object that, like, Galileo, held, and now we have it in our collection. And, you know, it's right there on display, and you can see it.
Jennifer Berglund 15:14
What does it feel like to hold something like that?

Dave Unger 15:18
I mean, certainly a very special thing. And it's, it's hard to summarize what the feeling is. Because on the one hand, it just feels like a piece of brass, right? Like, it just feels like it's it's material self. But, if you kind of let your imagination wander, that you can think about kind of all the hands that have have held this and then you know, of course, Galileo, is the celebrity of celebrities of science actually held this thing.

Jennifer Berglund 15:46
Why do you love your job?

Dave Unger 15:48
It's great to be able to move back and forth between so many different kinds of work and kinds of thinking. So, being involved in the actual objects, and all the kind of care and feeding of objects, thinking about public outreach and exhibits, and then also engaging with classes and with the History of Science Department that are sort of fully in that academic realm. So, it's an interesting job that allows me to kind of move back and forth between all of those different worlds, all of which are important to me, and I've never wanted to, never been good at choosing between them. So it's great to kind of have them all in one place.

Jennifer Berglund 16:28
Well, Dave Unger thank you so much for doing this. This has been great.

Dave Unger 16:33
I've enjoyed it. This is great. Thanks.

Jennifer Berglund 16:40
Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Dave Unger and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments for their time and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next week!
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