Don’t Believe the Hype: Scientific Instruments and Inflated Expectations, 1550-1914

Keywords: history of science, data modelling, object histories

The Tools of Knowledge project is remodelling the legacy Scientific Instrument Makers, Observations and Notes (SIMON) database, and significantly enhancing the information it contains about the scientific instrument trade between 1550-1914. One key aim is to reconnect the persons involved in the craft and trade with the instruments that they made, advertised and sold, through reference to collections metadata from a range of core and partner museums, in order to enable diverse and detailed forms of analysis. This process is grounded in the collaborative development – primarily with the Whipple Museum – of an ontology that encompasses instruments as objects (individually and as types) with complex biographies of their own.

In this paper, we discuss our methodology for an event-based representation that links collections and other data sources (including records of patent applications) and consider how a ‘speculative design’ perspective on innovation in the scientific instrument trade may suggest new avenues of historical analysis. These include how individual makers distinguished themselves through the instruments they advertised and how these advertisements are patterned over time, in relation to correlations between claims of novelty; shifting intensities of trade activity around particular instrument types; and localised changes in trade structure.

This process has surfaced several cases that raise intriguing questions about how makers advertised their work in search of commercial advantage. Inflated claims were made about instruments that were fantastically unrealisable (e.g., a perpetual motion machine), while others with grandiose names prove to be differentiated by only minor variations in design. Noting that such phenomena appear to echo the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ in the Gartner hype cycle of emerging technologies, we additionally probe the origins of that concept: might it be applied to the history of technologies preceding the digital or is the notion of the historical ‘hype cycle’ itself mere hype?