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Tom Colton with instruments
Thomas Colton of the Physics Department shows off a few of the hundreds of voltmeters, ampmeters, electroscopes and resistors unearthed from the attic of LeConte Hall. Noah Berger photo

From attic to auction: antique instruments to raise money for Physics Department
27 June 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - Inside the soaring, wood-beamed warehouse of Oakland's Harvey Clars auction house, there are enough precious items to fill several mansions: grand pianos, Art Nouveau benches, a Henri II dining suite, Persian rugs, Limoges dinnerware. In their midst huddles an unusual group of objects, looking as ill at ease as engineers at a costume ball.

Antique instruments on display at Harvey Clars
On June 30 Harvey Clars will auction off a preview group of 20 instruments, including a wood-and-brass balance, a four-foot demonstration slide rule (second shelf) and Tinker Toys used to build molecular models.

A little after 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 30, Harvey Clars will open the bidding on this handful of antique scientific instruments — and vintage Tinker Toys used for molecular models — excavated from storage by UC Berkeley's Physics Department. This is just a test sale, through which the auction house will gauge the interest in an additional 400 or so voltmeters, galvanometers, balances, microscopes, collision-ball apparatuses, demonstration-size slide rules, and other items it plans to sell July 27-28. The Physics Department will use the proceeds to buy new equipment like computers, sensors, and microphones for its undergraduate laboratories.

The instruments emerged from decades of seclusion in May, when the department began preparing to move out of the older wing of LeConte Hall to allow a seismic retrofit. In Physics' temporary home, Hearst Annex, space is at a premium. Thomas Colton, the instructional support group's director, thus faced the monumental housecleaning challenge of emptying out a 5,000-square-foot attic (with no elevator access) as well as numerous basement storage cupboards.

"We didn't realize how much there was until we actually got up on ladders and started pulling things out," Colton says. "We thought we would fill up one lab room, and we did but we weren't even a quarter of the way finished."

The storage contents ultimately covered every available inch of the tables in two laboratories. Colton called in faculty members, including Professor Emeritus Howard Shugart, to help identify the instruments, deciding which to set aside for Harvey Clars, which to consign to the university's Excess and Salvage, and which to keep for historical interest and as gifts for departing faculty. The department hopes to acquire display cases for the equipment for public viewing; until then, it will be stored in a secure room in Birge Hall.

There were a lot of duplicates, since many of the instruments were used by members of entire classes. "When I arrived here, there were wall-mounted galvanometers all around the undergraduate labs," says Shugart, who joined the department in 1953 as a graduate teaching assistant before becoming a faculty member. "The students used them for electrical measurement experiments. When transistors and more modern equipment became available in the late '50s, early '60s, they just stayed on the walls for about 20 years before finally going into storage."

The department elected to keep a century-old diffraction grating, a metal or glass tool with a series of parallel, closely spaced slits that separate out light across the spectrum. The oldest identifiable item, the tool bears an inscription on the surface of the mirror: "Ruled on Professor Rowland's Engine, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 1895." Henry Rowland, a physics professor, revolutionized spectroscopy with the superior craftsmanship of his gratings.

Harvey Clars Auction Gallery
5644 Telegraph Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609

Open for viewing Friday, June 28, 1-6 p.m. and Saturday, June 29, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Auction starts at 10 a.m., Sunday, June 30. Proceeds benefit the Berkeley Physics Department. Directions and more information for buyers at

Among the other objects saved were an eight-foot-long demonstration slide rule, some chemical balances with fine wooden cases and brass fittings, and a beautiful old ampere balance for measuring electric current. Shugart remembers using the balance in the Physics 111 lab, an advanced course for seniors.

There were no early calculators found. "Years ago [physics professor Raymond] Birge had a room with six or eight desk calculators and comptometers that we used for summarizing grades, which would take me three hours a night," recalls Shugart. "Then in the mid-'50s Lawrence Berkeley Lab got its first electronic calculator and cut that time to an hour. I suppose the old ones went to salvage; I hope somebody bought them."

Consigning such beautifully crafted, if now useless instruments to the junkpile was exactly what Colton hoped to avoid. Two years ago, the Physics Department held an event for high school science teachers from around the Bay Area. It invited them to take home some of the most recently outdated equipment, such as spectroscopes, oscilloscopes and power supplies.

For this housecleaning, Harvey Clars agreed to take roughly two-thirds of the items. On a staff member's suggestion, Colton called the Red Oak Victory Amateur Radio Club in Richmond, California, to see if it was interested in the remainder. The club's members are working as volunteers on the restoration of the S.S. Red Oak Victory, the last remaining cargo ship built at the Kaiser/Richmond shipyards (launched in 1944). "We had several boxes of old vacuum tubes and meters that they were thrilled to have to use for parts," says Colton. In the end, only about 15 percent went to salvage.

Jane Alexiadis, the appraiser at Harvey Clars handling the sale for Physics, believes that buyers will be interested in the instruments for their historical value, and their "beauty as sculpture, as well as functional, useful objects." She picks up a reflecting galvanometer (another current-measuring device) covered in Bakelite that's as heavy as a lead brick: "See, this is so cool — when you think of Bakelite, it's usually funky jewelry that comes to mind. But back then they put it on everything."

Alexiadis's appreciation for old technology is personal as well as professional. She admits to using a vintage seismograph as her bedside table and owning a slide-rule tie clip.

Although one of the large demonstration slide rules stayed on the Berkeley campus, a four-foot version of the old calculating device will be in Harvey Clars' preview sale. It may fetch the highest price of the group: a seven-foot demonstration slide rule from Keuffel & Esser sold recently on eBay for $499. Also for sale is a Portable Precision Potentiometer (about as portable as the early personal computers) by the Rubicon Company, which can fetch between $200 and $500.

Alexiadis expects the Physics Department instruments to generate a fair amount of interest. "Last summer we sold a large collection of antique pharmacy equipment from a professor's private collection — beautiful balances like these, hand-blown glass bottles, even a leech jar," she says. "That sale did great."

Colton, meanwhile, is more cautious. "I'm trying not to get my hopes up about the auction. I don't even want to throw out a number," he says.

Both he and Shugart plan to attend the July sale and perhaps bid on items for their personal use. "Some of the brass spectrometers and dividing circles are just beautiful craftsmanship, the kind you don't see anymore," explains Shugart. "Not only do they still function, but they also look nice."

That's more than what will likely be said about our computer monitors and PalmPilots 50 years from now.