The Yale Peabody Museum’s Division of Historical Scientific Instruments was established in 1960 when Professor Derek J. de Solla Price, of Yale’s Department of History of Science, was named curator. Before Price’s appointment, W. J. Cunningham, professor of electrical engineering, put together one of the first inventories of significant electrical and mechanical objects at Yale. In cooperation with Price, these items were some of the first to formally become part of the collection. Price went on to gather other historically significant instruments from around the University. The collection relocated several times, eventually ending up at the Sloane Physics Laboratory. By his death in 1983 Price had inventoried 659 objects and had created a brief card catalog. Many of Cunningham’s inventoried objects were catalogued much later through the assistance of Lyent W. Russell, who supervised the use of most of the physics instruments between 1924 and 1974. Russell reviewed the collection and provided valuable information (on cassette tapes) on the educational and scientific uses of the instruments, their technical operation, and the scientists who used them.
In 1987 David F. Musto was appointed curator and in 1991 storage space was allocated in the Yale Peabody Museum. At that time the instruments inventoried by Price, together with over 1,000 additional instruments, were transferred from the Sloane Physics Laboratory. That year the Division also received a Conservation Project Support Grant from the Institute of Museum Services to assist with the cleaning, conservation and safe storage of the instruments inventoried by Price. With the help of dedicated and skilled volunteers work continued on the remainder of the collection.
In 2003, over 1,800 digital photographs of the collection became accessible online. The collection was also moved to a larger room within the Yale Peabody Museum. Additional instruments from the Sloane Physics Laboratory were transferred to the collection for cleaning, cataloguing and storage. Items formerly belonging to Benjamin Silliman were also returned from the Smithsonian Institution and the Burndy Library, Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology.
Collections Manager Ellen Faller dedicated herself to the go for over 20 years and remains a valuable contributor to the collection through her vast expertise and knowledge. In 2004, Shae Trewin took over from Faller as collections manager.
The activity of the collection significantly increased in 2005 with the introduction of the Museum’s new KeEMU enterprise collections management system, and through more object transfers from the Sloane Physics Laboratory. In October 2005, a permanent exhibit on the History of Astronomy at Yale was erected in the newly renovated interior of Yale’s Leitner Family Observatory located in Farnham Memorial Gardens near the corner of Edwards and Prospect Streets in New Haven. This exhibit was developed in collaboration with the Department of Astronomy at Yale and features objects from that department, the Division of Historical Scientific Instruments and the Division of Mineralogy at the Peabody.