UTSIC Curator and UofT Students Foster Curiosity for Science

October 5, 2023 by Dr. Pamela Fuentes Peralta

"Which Canadian scientists first tinkered with x-rays and investigated sending wireless messages? How did the Victorians multiply large numbers? What did 19th-century electrical equipment look like?” These were the appealing questions that invited anyone interested in the history of science to visit one of the events at the Black Creek Pioneer Village Fall Festival last September. Surrounded by historic buildings, Victoria Fisher, Assistant Curator of the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC), and UofT students Tessa Ng, Caroleen Talao, and Adriana Ciocci came to the Festival prepared to answer those questions.

Tessa Ng placing mechanical calculator on the table (top left) Tessa Ng and Caroleen Talao setting up the exhibit (top right) Photo Credit: Victoria Fisher --
Tate Arithmometer (center)  Photo Credit: UTSIC Website

The Black Creek permanent exhibit Invented: Propelled by Imagination explores 19th century science fiction and the inventions which inspired it. Visitors are encouraged to “pull up a chair, flip through a book, open drawers to see what’s inside, and read about the amazing innovations that fueled the fantastical imaginations of the writers and illustrators who shaped how we see the world today!” This interactive atmosphere was the perfect scenario for visitors to engage with the pop-up exhibit showing artifacts from the UofT Scientific Instruments Collection.  Fisher, Ng, Talao, and Ciocci demonstrated how a mechanical calculator works (the Tate Arithmometer) to lots of interested kids and adults. Visitors also were able to get up close to different types of cathode ray tubes, an x-ray tube, instruments for measuring electricity, and an early wireless radio transmitter, while they heard Canadian stories of science and discovery relating to these artifacts. All these instruments are used for historical research and teaching at the UofT, and some of them, like the cathode ray tubes, have a long pedagogical story since they were used by UofT Physics professors, decades ago, to demonstrate the features of these newly discovered rays, consisting of flows of what we now call electrons.  This conversation went both ways, some visitors took this opportunity to share their memories about learning from similar instruments during their school years, "my favourite part was hearing some attendees speak from experience about the instruments they had been involved with while studying physics or mathematics” noticed Adriana Ciocci, a graduate student at the IHPST. 

The history of science proved to attract intergenerational interest, and kids took full advantage of this opportunity. Ciocci “enjoyed hearing the children's questions about the materiality of the instruments, how they worked, and the contexts in which they were used. They seemed to appreciate that our presence allowed for dialogue that would not have been possible in a static exhibit." This outreach event proved that the history of science continues to attract all types of audiences and is an excellent way to inspire future generations. 

Cathode Ray Tube (top)  Photo Credit: UTSIC Website --
Adriana Ciocci overseeing the exhibit table (bottom left) Tessa Ng and Caroleen Talao setting up the exhibit (bottom right) The three of them explained the history of the scientific instruments on display to interested visitors Photo Credit: Victoria Fisher 

You can visit the collections of the UTSIC virtually through their catalogue.

Eric Weidenhammer and Victoria Fisher –Curator and Assistant Curator of the Scientific Instruments Collection– facilitate students and other audiences to explore, examine, and physically interact with the material objects related to the fields of science, technology, and medicine at the University of Toronto. For information about workshops, lecture visits and outreach events, or how to use instruments from the collection for research and teaching, visit https://utsic.utoronto.ca/research-and-teaching/