I wrote this earlier today but wasn’t able to post it until now because in a totally unexpected turn of events my flight left on time:
This dispatch is coming to you from deep in the bowels of Terminal B at Intercontinental Airport–the very worst spot, in fact, Gate 84, where I’m waiting for Charon to announce that boarding has begun.
Even here, though, I have something pretty interesting to think about. When I was cleaning out that lab space in Anderson Biology last week I stumbled upon a couple of file drawers full of equipment catalogs. I didn’t think too much about them at first but I did grab a big bunch to look at later. I got to that yesterday and found it extremely compelling. The bulk of the catalogs dated from about 1970 through the late 1990s. Many were frankly boring. They hawk rubber stoppers and corks, plastic tubing, power sources, etc. These things, whatever their merits in general, don’t change very quickly and so don’t hold much interest for me. I’m sure it’s possible to write a history of bottle stoppers but I don’t think it would be especially dramatic. (I could, of course, be wrong about this.)
What really did grab my attention, however, were the catalogs that offered equipment for data acquisition. This is a huge oversight, but I had never really considered how complicated collecting and storing information in a laboratory setting could be. These catalogs are jammed with tricky machines, as researchers wrestled with this problem in an era of rapid technological change.
There are a lot of these catalogs and most of them are undated, although some have separate price sheet inserts that sometimes have a date. I know the image directly above—which looks like a fire in a microwave oven but is actually titled “villus on section of small intestine”—is from 1979 because it’s an ad torn out of Science magazine. This last one, though, perfectly captures the strange ingenuity on display in some of these catalogs:
If I’m not mistaken, that’s another IBM XT she’s got there.