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 Highlights of the Collection

Below are a few of the especially rare or historically significant pieces in the collection:


The Dawn of the Electrical Age

This period represents the time of the earliest explorations into the nature of electricity.  Scientists focused on fundamental questions such as: What is electricity? Is it different from magnetism? Are lightning and electricity the same thing? Why do certain things behave the way they do?

De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure; Physiogia nova, plurimis et arguementis et experimentis demonstrata
William Gilbert

The first book on electricity and magnetism, considered one of the greatest books in the history of science.


Experimenta Nova (ut vocantur) Magdegurgica de Vacuo Spatio
Otto von Guericke

A very important and influential book.  Von Guericke invents the vacuum pump and the first machine for producing electricity.

Nairne-style Friction Machine
Mid 19th Century

Ramsden Friction Machine
4th Qtr, 18th Century

Leyden Jars
18th Century

Invented in 1746, the Leyden jar was the first device capable of storing electricity.  Known today as  capacitors, the jars made a host of new experiments possible.


Electricity Sparks Innovation

The question on the minds of researchers during this period was: What can we do with electricity?  It all began with the invention of the electric battery by Allessandro Volta in 1800, and everything started to come together as Ampere's theories were applied by Michael Faraday to develop the electric motor. William Sturgeon and Joseph Henry's explorations of electromagnetic theory made it possible for Wheatstone to develop the first primitive but functional telegraph. 


De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari
Luigi Galvani

The discovery of direct current



1792 - Memorie sull Elettricita Animale Inserite nel Giornale Fisico-Medico
Alessandro Volta

The invention of the electro-chemical battery


Volta Piles, Volta Cannon
1st Qtr 19th Century

In 1800 Allesandro Volta developed the voltaic pile, a forerunner of the electric battery. The pile consists of a number of discs of zinc and copper separated by pieces of wet cloth and arranged in a vertical column.  This was the first device to  produce a steady stream of electricity and could operate for decades.

In 1777 Volta was interested in the characteristics of swamp gases.  In order to test flammability he invented his cannon (above, right). He would collect swamp gas and fill the cannon with it. The cork on top would be put in after it was filled, to keep the gas from escaping.

If the gas were flammable, and the proportions right, it would explode when sparked. Volta's early cannons were capable of sending a lead ball twenty feet.


Early Perpetual Motion Machines
1st Qtr 19th Century

In the beginning of the 19th century, the abbot Zamboni, an Italian physicist, developed a method of making Volta Piles (Early batteries) by using very thin metal foil and paper. Using this method he was able to create piles of over 2000 layers that stood less than 12" tall. Batteries of such a high voltage created an electrostatic charge on their terminals. Taking advantage of this , Zamboni manufactured an instrument composed of two Volta piles alternatively attracting a pendulum situated between them. The mechanism formed the basis for the first electrostatic clocks. Some say these "perpetual motion" machines worked non-stop for more than 100 years. These very rare pieces formed the earliest research on very high voltage batteries and today only a few examples survive.

Bréguet's ABC (Dial Telegraph)   1850 - 1870

Bréguet's telegraph, was invented by Louis-François-Clement Bréguet (1804-1883),  a watchmaker and physicist. The set operates by sending a series of pulses representing each letter or number, much like a dial-type telephone.

For more information on the Bréguet telegraph, see:

Bréguet's ABC, or Dial Telegraph,
Receiver (left) and Transmitter (right)
Hughes Telegraph
Dumoulin - Froment a Paris
Mid 19th Century


Many people are not aware that Morse didn’t invent the telegraph.  What he did was invent a particular form of electromagnetic telegraph – one that was elegantly simple and required little maintenance.  He (or rather his assistant Alfred Vail) also developed the Morse code.  In the early days of the telegraph there were many other attempts to develop methods of communication by wire, and one of these, the Hughes Telegraph, was especially unusual.

 What makes the Hughes unique? On the sending side, instead of using a Morse key, the operator uses a piano key – or keyboard, to be more precise.  The receiver, instead of marking dots and dashes on a paper strip, actually spells out the text of the message. This was quite unusual for the time. 

 These devices were very popular in France, where there were likely many more piano and harpsichord players than telegraphers. The piece we have in the museum was operated on the Paris-Milan line.  Unfortunately they were quite temperamental and suffered frequent breakdowns. Transmission speed was also much slower than the Morse system and so the Hughes system was eventually replaced by the much simpler (and cheaper) Morse apparatus.  Very few survive today.


Early Vacuum Pumps with various Crookes and Geissler Tubes



Ampere Table
Named for André-Marie Ampère, (1775 - 1836) This is an early model of the same apparatus constructed by Ampere for his famous experiments on the relationship between magnetic fields and electric current.

Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
James Clerk Maxwell

The theoretical prediction of radio waves


The Beginnings of Radio

In 1873 James Clerk Maxwell presented his monumental work in which he mathematically predicted the existence of radio waves.  Six years later a bright young Professor at the Engineering College in Karlsruhe, Germany, named Heinrich Hertz, confirmed Maxwell's theory in the laboratory.  The attention of physicists world wide was focused on this new phenomena known as "Hertzian waves", and new apparatus were created to explore and study it.


Early experimental Hertz transmitting apparatus
with "Hertz Resonator" detector
c. 1890

Untersuchungen Ueber Die Ausbreitung Der Elektrischen Kraft
(Investigations on the Propagation of Electrical Energy)
    Heinrich Hertz


Righi Detector
c.  1897


Righi Hertzian-wave Test Bench
c. 1895

This test bench was adapted from an optical bench of the time and designed for use as a tool to investigate the new phenomena known as "Hertzian waves".  It contains a Righi spark gap on the right side, and a Branly style coherer on the left. The apparatus has many calibrated adjustment points necessary for scientific analysis.


Max Kohl Spark Transmitter (Bose design) and Coherer Receiver

Early "Pistol" Coherer

Meiser & Mertig Coherer Receiver
c. 1900


The Wireless Age

In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi successfully communicated the Morse code letter "S" across the Atlantic ocean and captured the imagination of the world. No longer just a scientific curiosity, Hertzian waves held great promise as a flurry of development took place that would turn sparks into cash.  The big business of radio had begun.

Early Reproduction of one of Marconi's
earliest experimental transmitters

Marconi Multiple Tuner
c. 1910

Marconi 10" Spark Coil
c. 1910

Marconi Magnetic Detector
1902 - 1914

Collins Wireless Telephone
Inductive Model - 1909

Fleming Valve
c.  1910.


Radio Enters the Home
Crystal Radios

Hunt & McCree Model 797


Adams Morgan

Horophone Type A

Brownie No. 2 (1923)
with 2-valve "Note Magnifier"

Atwater Kent

Grafton China Works
Uncle Tom


Radio Enters the Home
Battery Radios

Grebe CR-6

A.C. Gilbert Model 4018

Radiola VII

Radiola VII-B

Atwater Kent Model 5

Cosmos VR4

Loewe Model OE 333

Ducretet "Piano" 6 valve


Radio Enters the Home

RCA Sarnoff Speaker

"Swan Neck"


Brown Type Q


Brown Type H1

Doulton & Co.
Andia Persian King


British Electric Sales Org
Beco Rose Bowl
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