What is this stuff? UPDATED

I’ve been trying to clean out my office on the 5th floor of the library recently, and in this process a number of really interesting things have  bubbled up to the surface. Sometimes envelopes and boxes just sort of appear in my mail or even on the floor outside my door without any indication of where they came from or who sent them. Sometimes I immediately take these things down to the Woodson, other times they work their way down to the bottom of a pile and I forget about them for a while. Then I clean up and find them again.

These pictures are like that. I have no idea where they came from and no clear idea of when they were taken. But more importantly, I don’t know what they are. They are, in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, “known unknowns.” What’s fascinating about them is that it’s not the people in them that command your attention, but rather the machinery.  What on earth is this stuff? There are many more of them than what I’ve put up here and all of them have equipment as the star of the show. I’ve even had a hard time guessing what discipline these things are being used for or what building they’re in. My best wild guess is that they were taken in the mid to late 1950s.

This is my favorite. What is she putting in that machine?

This is the only one that's even remotely funny. I'm guessing she was an English major.

Out of the whole batch, there’s only one I can even begin to identify. This is the back of Tom Bonner’s head, and so I would guess that the machine he’s sitting at must be some part of the Van de Graaff accelerator.

Any information or speculation would be most welcome.

Update: Lots of good information in the comments, and I also got this great explanation of the first photo from an emailer. Thanks for the help everyone!

“The first picture appears to have been taken during a lab session in a course we called Power in the early 60s.  It was taught by Mr. Waters and I believe it ended when he did.  It dealt with “Rotating Machinery”, i.e., Motors and Generators (large ones!).  The box-looking thing with the blade suspended above it was a “Water Box” which was used to present a load to the unit under test.  In my day, these were outside those windows of the Mech Lab Building.  You can see one cable connected to the box, the other to the blade.”
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11 Responses to What is this stuff? UPDATED

  1. No idea on where, but I agree with your when.
    Looking at these pictures though brought back a memory. I did many things during my tenure at Lovett, that many were not aware of. One of my very favourite things to do was to take potential students on tour of the campus. I would show them some of the things that I thought were interesting, and more so if they were interested in architecture. One day I was taking one such student and his parents on a tour. We ended up in the basement of what I think today is the Space Science and Technology Building, and we found an experiment in progress involving a tunable laser. The grad student didn’t mind and gave us a wonderful lecture as to what he was doing, how he did it, and how some of this would eventually be used by the Navy, which would be able to tune lasers to wavelengths appropriate to use in a submarine environment and use them in place of sonar (since using sonar alerts the enemy that you are there). A fascinating afternoon.

  2. Grungy says:

    Your favorite young woman appears to be using a radiation detector.
    A Google search of the name “Tracerlab” turns up several hits for doing Carbon14 testing of samples held in mica and viewed in either a shielded or unshielded manner. My guess is that she is sliding a sample into a lead-shielded chamber and the “geiger tube” cable is going to a sensor to read the radioactivity of whatever is being sampled.
    Which department this might have been in is someone else’s guess.

  3. Hugh South says:

    The top picture is before my time (I was an electrical engineer in the class of 1971), but I think the photo shows an EE lab class in motors and generators that took place in the Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory. I took a similar class, though much of the power equipment had been removed by the time I came along. However, there used to be a power engineering option in EE at Rice, and there were quite a few courses on synchronous machines, transmission lines, transformers, and the like. In the photo there is the motor itself, the device for adding load, and the panel for setting up the equipment. To be certain about the photo though, you will need to find an EE from an earlier class.

  4. Ed Chen says:


    Page 23.

    The “64” Scaler is an inexpensive, manually operated instrument with many features not obtainable in other scalers in its price range. It uses six plug-inTracerlab Duo- scales, and can be operated in conjunction with a wide variety of accessory equipment.

  5. Deborah Bennett ('82) says:

    I suspect the first picture may be in the lab in Abercrombie. When I was an EE undergrad around 1980, I remember seeing a big black panel like the one in the picture. And at the time, the floor of the lab area was criss-crossed with those troughs with the metal plate coverings. I asked about them, and was told that back when students studied power systems (such as electrical distribution by power companies), their lab experiments included running power cables through the troughs between those big black panels.I don’t remember if the back of Abercrombie has those large windows, but I’m sure you can find out. The large roundish thing in the center does look like some kind of electrical generator or motor. I do wonder what is the large plate to the right which looks like it is being lowered and raised from a concrete trough filled with water.

  6. Kathy says:

    English majors ARE easily amused by SE tricks….

  7. The first photo is almost certainly a power engineering lab in Abercrombie. You can see cars out the window, so it is on the back side of the building. From Google satellite photos, it looks like AbLab has been expanded. When I was there, it was T-shaped.

    Note the high current, high voltage cables plugged into the distribution panel in the floor. The big board behind “Joe Test” with the clipboard on the left is for controlling the flow of the electricity. Note the unshielded mad scientist switches, clearly a lab for real men. The student in dungarees and penny loafers on the right is operating a salt water rheostat, where you control the resistance by dipping one of the electrodes in a salt water bath containing the other electrode. It sounds like a crazy contraption, but it was a practical method for high current controls for decades. My stage tech teacher in high school told us that they used one of those as the main stage dimmer at the Paris Opera House. Note the power winches, including one to raise and lower the electrode in the salt water rheostat. I expect the student behind the rheostat is holding the winch control in the hand that has the cigarette. Love those big negatives.

    Power Engineering was still taught when I was at Rice (1975-1981), but I don’t know anyone who took the course. I remember walking through that lab at one point. It was in the North wing of the building.

    BSEE 1981, Will Rice College

    • Hugh South says:

      I don’t remember the salt water rheostat, but maybe we did not use it. The “lab for real men” comment brought back memories. When I took the class there were various stories about students getting their clothes coated with copper from vaporizing cables that had been improperly connected. In any case, it looks like we have enough replies to nail down the first picture.

  8. Wendy Kilpatrick Laubach ('78) says:

    The second picture looks something like the wall of tubes and whatnot that used to be a permanent fixture in the office of my father, Dr. John E. Kilpatrick (Chemistry). His office was at one end of the old Chemistry Building, backing up to the service spaces behind Valhalla, directly beneath the old lecture hall, before renovations in the late 1970s or early 1980s converted that area into a fire stairwell. On closer inspection, I think this office and setup are slightly different.

    Does anyone else remember exploring the steam tunnels that connected many of the old buildings? I had a friend back then whose name I’ve now forgotten, who knew where all the tunnels went and who amused himself by hacking into the phone system — in those long-ago days when computers had vacuum tubes, filled up a large room, and were not connected to each other.

  9. Tom Bonner ('63) says:

    The last picture is of my father looking at data collection equipment. The scales of 64 count electrical signals from radiation detectors (most likely gamma ray or neutron detectors) with an output to the mechanical registers every time the total reaches 128 events and resets the electronic counter. From my fathers relatively slim silhouette and the vintage of the scalars, I would guess the picture is from the early 1950s. From the panel of knobs and meters and what looks like a large cylinder (which is probably a pressure tank) in the background, I would guess this is the 1939 vintage accelerator which is the subject of yesterday’s atom smasher post.

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