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Why scientific equipment is one of the most fascinating niches in antiques


Scientists have long employed a range of elegant, genius and sometimes macabre instruments which have fascinated and repulsed generations in equal measure. From antique medical equipment like the tongue guillotine (yes, really!), to microscopes and cameras, this niche area of collectables offers variety to the collector. Moreover, although some equipment can be worth thousands of pounds, there are many more items within reach of collectors with a more modest budget.

With meteoric advances in science over the years, scientific equipment is one of the more dynamic areas of antiques, with some of the most bizarre items. The appeal for many, particularly in the sub-category of medical tools is varied. For some, owning a piece of equipment that lay on the fringes of technology is exciting, for others the ’creep factor’ is the attraction (remember the tongue guillotine?). And then, of course, comes the ‘sought after’ factor. Not generally produced for popular consumption as, for example, the vinyl record, scientific equipment does not have the same nostalgia pull for many, often leading to bizarre and wacky items being available to the seasoned collector and novice alike.

If we look at the areas of collectables that can be found under the wider category of scientific equipment, it is easy to see why this is a fascinating area that offers huge scope to the collector.

Medical tools and equipment

Forerunners of our modern doctors, dentists and surgeons saved lives with tools that wouldn’t look out of place in a garden shed and those pieces of antique scientific equipment that survive today give us a glimpse of how their contemporary equivalents have developed over time. These are popular items amongst collectors for not only their social history value but also for their aesthetic values, for while many may be seen as macabre, many more are highly decorative. The types of collections available to put together are varied – do you want to collect antique curios, bottles, or military medical equipment? Or do you want to specialise in a particular era in time, e.g. the Victorian period? Or is budget a deciding factor? Many collectors start with an assortment of medicine bottles as these are within budget for a novice, but may go on to specialise in antique medical tools from the Regency period, which will obviously be more expensive.

Measuring/recording devices

Whether you are cooking, measuring up for new curtains or taking a maths exam, measurements are all around us, and the types and units of measurement vary around the world. It makes sense then that antique scientific equipment for taking measurements are also varied, be they for time, distance or navigation. A novice collector may want to specialise in items for measuring time, such as obelisks, sundials and hourglasses, while the more seasoned collector may focus on the much more niche area of navigation, with antique maps and globes. As well as the variety of items available in this area of second-hand scientific equipment, the price bracket is suited to all budgets.

Exploration and discovery

Our fascination with the early pioneers of scientific exploration and discovery, such as Joseph Banks, Darwin and Scott makes the collection of related antique scientific equipment a desirable pastime. The ‘heroic age of polar exploration’, widely considered to date from the late 19th century through to the early 20th century is characterised by the discoveries of men such as Shackleton. An antique barometer used on the Antarctic expedition was valued in 2018 at £12,000-£15,000 and a plate from Scott’s research ship, Discovery, was estimated at £800-£1200. Add into the mix antique scientific equipment used for navigation, such as compasses and sextants, and the appeal to collectors is easy to understand.

Weather equipment

We have always been fascinated by the weather, striving since 1643 with the invention of the first barometer, to predict what it will be. From barometers to antique barographs, weather vanes to thermometers, this area of scientific antiques is as relevant today as it has always been.

Pharmacy items

Think antique chemists, apothecaries and pharmacies and the scope for this area of antique scientific equipment widens considerably to offer the collector endless choice. This sub-category includes not just bottles and jars, but also scales, shop displays, and cabinets.

The joy of collecting antique scientific equipment lies in the fact that you do not have to be a scientist to appreciate the utilitarian beauty of many pieces. Nor do you have to be a social historian to appreciate the place they hold in the development of our modern equipment. You may simply just be fascinated and want to own a piece of history. The overlap between antique scientific equipment and other areas of collectables makes this a unique area, and when visiting Hemswell Antique Centres, collectors of antique scientific curios and equipment will find everything they are looking for.

Our selections of scientific instruments and paraphernalia include everything from microscopes and thermometers to compasses and barographs. Featuring over 300 dealers, arranged throughout four buildings, Hemswell offers antique collectors the perfect surroundings to browse at leisure.

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