We don’t know what this is or what it was used for.
July 20, 2020 6:27 AM   Subscribe

The Science Museum in London has a question for the public: "Do you know what this is? No, seriously, can you tell us?"

Most people have an odds and ends location. Maybe your kitchen has a drawer full of mismatched strainers and lids, your desk has one full of old cables and chargers for long departed gadgets, or you have a sewing box with buttons and zippers. When you own over seven million things acquired over 169 years, your odds and ends are a bit more confusing.

Sometimes it's a case of a missing label or misplaced item and they can be found, sometimes it's the case that Sir Henry Wellcome took a liking to something for his collection.

It's a wide ranging collection, and 325,000 items can be viewed online. You can see Britain's Black Arrow R4 rocket, Crick and Watson's DNA model, Charles Babbage's Difference Engine #2, the fastest steam train in the world, Victorian anti-masturbation devices, a lifecycle of prosthetic limbs, and a lunar Charlie Brown.

The Science Museum now needs the public's help to figure out what these bits and pieces are, ranging from six steel cylinders in a case through to complex machinery.
posted by MattWPBS (34 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Now I want a Chinese incense clock.
posted by briank at 6:38 AM on July 20 [7 favorites]


Regarding this one, I have a hard time believing they actually don't know what a scroll saw is. They don't even look very different these days, that one's just operated with a pedal like an old sewing machine.
posted by echo target at 6:42 AM on July 20 [13 favorites]


I'm a little surprised that they couldn't figure out what a Geissler tube is. I mean, it's got a Wikipedia article.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:42 AM on July 20


Any archaeologist would be able to tell you that these are all ritual objects
posted by Merus at 6:50 AM on July 20 [77 favorites]


They’re all cow tools.
posted by barrett caulk at 6:57 AM on July 20 [53 favorites]


I have a hard time believing they actually don't know what a scroll saw is.

Same thought... but it's possible. Wellcome curators probably know a lot about scientific instruments but I doubt many of them have spent much time on a shop floor.

It's likely that the Wellcome team isn't really like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ so much as they are using the opportunity to be in dialogue with their audience. The Wellcome is literally the richest collection-based nonprofit in the world and for many years they didn't really have a high priority on outreach (because they didn't need to to raise money). That's changed in recent decades, and they are engaging in a lot of really brilliant and original work to get their thinking and their collection out in public. I am certain they have pretty good theories about many of these but lack detail and know they might be wrong, so they're having the fun of sharing the work with audiences. Which is really good practice anyway - people often know stuff museum staff don't. Like, regularly.

Anyway, my guesses:

  • The copper wedge - very similar to the croze used by cask makers.

  • The fan thing: seems like a collapsible fan to fit into a travel bag, nothing more.

  • Six cylinders: cocktail set? Toiletries?

  • The two super science-y apparati on stands look like perhaps attempts to build a better distiller. Even the glass rods with the bulbs are probably distilling related - imagine holding one end (using forceps) with some liquid in it over a candle and heating just that end, while the other globes pick up condensation and the one at the end gets you the most refined distillate.

  • The wood and steel thing with basket on the end: culinary tool, maybe an egg separator.

  • posted by Miko at 7:33 AM on July 20 [13 favorites]


    Ditto on the treadle-pedaled scroll saw, clearly.

    Also, I have an (inherited) brass microscope from the 1800s which has a box inside its wooden storage case that is similar to the object with the "six cartridge-like cylinders" - it's used to hold a set of eyepieces of various magnifications which slip into the "cartridges" for protection when not being used. If they have a telescope or microscope in their collection that has tubing with the same internal diameter, that's what this might be as well.
    posted by TwoToneRow at 7:41 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


    The wood and steel thing with basket on the end: culinary tool, maybe an egg separator.

    As soon as I saw it, I was like, melon-baller. The spaces prevent the melon (or cookie dough or what have you) from sealing to it.
    posted by headspace at 7:49 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


    Unidentified brass object consisting of tube with fan enclosed looks like... a fan. Like probably it used to have a fabric piece on the fan end and a handle at the other end, but I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than part of a handheld fan.
    posted by showbiz_liz at 7:49 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


    I actually have my own mystery object that we never managed to identify, although consensus was "maybe a handle for a parasol or buggy whip."
    posted by showbiz_liz at 7:50 AM on July 20


    My favourite item in The Wellcome Collection is described in its catalogue as a "gall bladder stuffed with rice, taken from an executed Chinese criminal. Acquired before 1936".

    I saw it on display there once, accompanied by a small card explaining that the curators had no idea what this item's purpose might have been. Guesses included a snack, a magical charm, a musical instrument and all points in-between.
    posted by Paul Slade at 7:57 AM on July 20


    Was the gall bladder taken from the executed person and then stuffed with rice or did the person have a gall bladder stuffed with rice which was taken from them at the time of their execution?
    posted by jacquilynne at 8:07 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


    "What will you have for your final meal?"

    "Fifteen pounds of cooked rice."

    "Fifteen pounds?!?"

    "I'm sending a message to the future."

    "I don't see how--"

    "Fifteen. Pounds. Of cooked. Rice."
    posted by phooky at 8:15 AM on July 20 [25 favorites]


    How cool would it be to have some obscure piece of knowledge you thought nobody but you would ever care about, and then be able to use it to identify a mystery piece in a museum?

    And yeah, you have to wonder how many of these objects have missing pieces that would make them much easier to identify.
    posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:41 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


    Dried rice is good for sucking up moisture... I guess someone wanted a mummified bladder. Maybe it was for medical research?
    posted by kaibutsu at 8:47 AM on July 20


    WRT the item in the first link, it's clearly A Thing in a Box. If they want me to tell them just which Thing in a Box it is, they'd better take it out and take a better picture of it.
    posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:15 AM on July 20 [13 favorites]


    Several photo captions say that they know what the items are, but not when/where it was made (the Geissler tubes) or they are looking for details and stories about how they were used (the jigsaw). It's not like all the objects are completely unknown.

    To me, some of the items look custom made for someone doing a specific task, so if they are one-of-a-kind it might be extra hard to figure it out. The glass contraption with little vents, for example. Getting specific items made for you to your specifications seems to have been pretty common for the period, much more so than now. Plus some, like the copper alloy tool, might be used for a ton of different things.

    I do hope that the call to the public to help out will be successful. It would be fun to know the specifics of some of the tools.
    posted by gemmy at 9:26 AM on July 20 [6 favorites]


    Several photo captions say that they know what the items are, but not when/where it was made (the Geissler tubes) or they are looking for details and stories about how they were used (the jigsaw). It's not like all the objects are completely unknown.

    I'm about 99% sure those captions did not contain that information when I wrote my comment earlier this morning. Maybe the Guardian got an annoyed e-mail from the folks at the Science Museum saying, "we've had 10,000 e-mails yelling at us for not knowing what a scroll saw is, can you correct your captions please?"
    posted by Johnny Assay at 10:11 AM on July 20 [16 favorites]


    I'm about 99% sure those captions did not contain that information when I wrote my comment earlier this morning.

    I am 100% sure! Yes, they've been edited.
    posted by Miko at 10:50 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


    These are fascinating. I think I want a friend who doesn't have cats to have a Chinese incense clock so I could go over and see it (after the pandemic), because at my place it would end up being a hazard.
    posted by bile and syntax at 11:04 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


    Been watching Dark on Netflix and I'm pretty sure that first link is a time machine. Fill up the tank with nuclear goo and it will be easy to find out what the rest of them are!
    posted by rikschell at 11:18 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


    I have a mystery item on my desk. Some sort of physiology apparatus. Made by Sanborn Company, now owned by Agilent. I wondered for years what it was. Finally got in touch with a company historian at Agilent. After much research, he concluded that he had no clue what it was either.

    It is shiny, it has a toggle switch, has a sensor for either sending or receiving a signal (IR? light? laser?) and it is heavy enough to make an interesting paperweight. Many people have asked me what it is, fiddled with it, and given up trying to figure it out.
    posted by caution live frogs at 11:30 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


    Was the gall bladder taken from the executed person and then stuffed with rice or did the person have a gall bladder stuffed with rice which was taken from them at the time of their execution?

    Judging by their placement of the comma, I'd say it's option 2.
    posted by Paul Slade at 11:47 AM on July 20


    Yes, they've been edited.

    Sure would be handy if MeFi staff could pop up a note about that before the comments, so we don't all think that nobody reads the articles anymore.
    posted by McNulty at 12:19 PM on July 20


    The wooden handle with the semi-circle metal cage thing is totally a dog ball thrower.
    posted by stillmoving at 12:30 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


    I think the wedge-shaped tool might be a device for opening drums or canisters of Calcium carbide (CaC₂). Carbide was formerly used in huge quantities to produce acetylene gas for lighting and welding. It was shipped in oil drum-like containers with friction-fit metal lids to keep out moisture. As acetylene is very explosive, regular steel tools couldn't be used as the risk of a spark was too great.

    My late grandfather was on essential service at British Oxygen's Cricklewood plant during the war. They made oxygen and acetylene in the same plant, and I remember his descriptions of the place. In the early part of the war, carbide was shipped in from Norway, and I remember my grandfather describing the non-sparking phosphor-bronze wedges the BOC workers used to open the containers. This tool may be one of them.

    I don't want to think about what any of the Wellcome Collection items could be. Likely early bespoke surgery tools, so usage considered somewhere between squicky and downright gruesome.
    posted by scruss at 1:11 PM on July 20 [4 favorites]


    I have a mystery item on my desk. Some sort of physiology apparatus

    oooh can you share a picture of it?
    posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:04 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


    I'll bet you that they would know what they've got if they tore it down and put up a parking lot.
    posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:47 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


    >My favourite item in The Wellcome Collection is described in its catalogue as a "gall bladder stuffed with rice, taken from an executed Chinese criminal. Acquired before 1936".

    This article has a photo of it, as well as info about a few more mysterious and interesting objects from the avrious London museums.
    posted by flug at 7:00 PM on July 20


    The two super science-y apparati on stands look like perhaps attempts to build a better distiller.
    posted by Miko


    One possibility for these kind of mystery objects is that they were prototypes that just didn't work and were abandoned with no further explanation or documentation. Or they were a step in the development and refinement process, and the end result looked different enough to not be easily associated with the prototypes.
    posted by Pouteria at 10:07 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]


    I guess someone wanted a mummified bladder.

    Isn't that the premise of all those pharmaceutical commercials targeting older men?
    posted by fairmettle at 2:12 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


    I wish there was some indication of scale on the photos. Can't really be sure whether the melon baller thing is sized for melon balls, tennis balls or cannonballs. Although given that it's from the Wellcome Collection, most likely it's for some utterly horrifying medical purpose we're better off not knowing about, as scruss says.
    posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:02 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


    These all look like things you could smoke something through, for a guaranteed chill time.
    posted by turbid dahlia at 6:07 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


    These sorts of calls always remind me of Roman dodecahedra. Apparently the True Purpose of these Remains A Mystery, but at some point someone put up 3D printer plans for them and people started making cheap ones for their speculated "decorative" purpose.

    Now you can find endless videos online showing how to use them for knitting, how the different sizes of the holes are great for keeping the gauge correct while making fingers for gloves, etc. It's not proof of their original purpose, but it definitely seems like they're a purpose-built knitting/crocheting tool now.
    posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 4:53 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


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