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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science

What is the Whipple Museum of the History of Science?

The Whipple Museum of the History of Science is a museum of scientific instruments in Cambridge dating from the Middle Ages to the present day.



Whipple Museum History


Origins and Establishment

The Whipple Museum chronicles centuries’ worth of scientific instruments, books, models, and all manner of related items. It is one of the eight Cambridge University museums and is part of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. The museum was founded in 1944 when Robert Stewart Whipple gifted the university his collection of 1,000 scientific instruments. Its Main Gallery is situated within a room built in 1618 that once served as part of the first Free School in Cambridge.


Collections and Highlights

The museum houses devices dating back to the Middle Ages but primarily focused on English objects from the 17th to the 19th centuries. This collection includes sundials, astronomical instruments, navigational tools, and other devices used to guide and calculate over the centuries. Among the museum's treasures are:


  • Charles Darwin’s microscope from 1846, which he used to examine samples from his voyage aboard HMS Beagle.

  • A 14th-century Planispheric Astrolabe, one of the earliest known English examples.

  • The Grand Orrery from the 18th century, a moving model of the Sun, Earth, and Moon.


Expansion and Growth

Whipple’s initial bequest has since been augmented by instruments formerly used by the university's various colleges, faculties, and departments. The museum's holdings are particularly strong in material dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Instruments of astronomy, navigation, surveying, drawing, and calculating are well represented, as are sundials, mathematical instruments, and early electrical apparatus.


Unique Exhibits

Some unique items in the collection include:


  • A papier-mâché anatomical model of a human from around 1890.

  • The Grand Orrery, from the 1750s, used a complex clockwork mechanism to demonstrate the relative orbits of the planets around the sun.


Ingeborg Brun’s Mars Globe from around 1930, inspired by Percival Lowell’s observations suggesting fair and cooperative communities on Mars.


Museum's Role in Education and Research

The museum forms part of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. The department includes a working library with a large collection of early scientific books, some of which Robert Whipple gave. The museum plays an integral role in the department's teaching and research, making it a place of display and a hub of academic activity.


The Whipple Museum of the History of Science stands as a testament to the evolution of scientific thought and the tools that have been used to explore and understand our world. From its inception with Robert Whipple's generous donation to its current status as a renowned institution, the museum continues to inspire and educate visitors about the history of science.


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