Research Apparatus, 1921

These interior images of lab equipment were in the same scrapbook where I found the pictures of the great overall fad of 1920, suggesting that those guys did more than goof around. Both are dated January, 1921. Taking a strictly scientific approach, of course, I would have to say that they feel like the second floor of the Physics Building to me, although I would not swear to it. The only other option would be the Mech Lab and that just doesn’t feel right. If anyone knows  (or even suspects) what they were up to with these gadgets, please feel free to chime in.

RI scrapbook research apparatus January 1921


RI scrapbook tesla coil

There’s one more in this bunch. It’s kind of creepy.

RI scrapbook xray

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33 Responses to Research Apparatus, 1921

  1. almadenmike says:

    The X-ray image of a hand and a ring is quite similar to one of the famous first images taken by X-ray discoverer Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895 of his wife’s hand:–1895/

    • Looking at the Tesla coil photo, I see the same sort of knife switch panels mounted to the brick wall as in the first photo, which makes me think it might be the same room, except the window sills are lower in the second photo.

      Given the reference Melissa found concerning the probable use of the apparatus in photo 1 to study the conductivity of the salted flames for high frequency currents, and that in the 1920s, a Tesla coil was a fairly common way to generate high frequencies, perhaps the two photos are of a single experiment? Perhaps the full paper would tell.

      It would have felt like walking into a true mad scientist’s lab with all of that running at once!

      • I found an earlier paper H. A. Wilson published in 1907 concerning the conductivity of salted flames, and yes, he used a Tesla coil for the high frequency source. So photos 1 & 2 are each part of the same experiment.

        Proceedings of the Physical Society, Volume 20
        “On the electrical conductivity of flames containing salt vapours for rapidly alternating currents” H. A. Wilson and E. Gold. Wilson was still in England at this time. The paper describes a similar setup to what is in photos 1 & 2 here. The setup at Rice has a number of changes though with the flame and electrode design.

        Here is the link to the paper I found. I’ve not found a copy of the later paper that I can access.

      • Ok, my last post on this, I need to get started on Thanksgiving preparation.

        I found this abstract for a paper by Bryan that seems to match the apparatus, particularly in discussing the TWO flames about 7cm wide.

        Conductivity of Flames Containing Salt Vapors.
        Phys. Rev. 18, 275 – Published 1 October 1921

        A. B. Bryan

        Conductivity of a Flame Sprayed with Salt Solutions, as a Function of the Concentration.—The method used is due to H. A. Wilson. The ratio of the potential gradients in the central parts of two flames, each about 7 cm. wide, through which the same current was passed, was determined by means of a quadrant electrometer connected alternately to each of two pairs of probe wires in the flames, by means of a rotating commutator. Both flames were sprayed with identical sprayers. When desired for greater sensitiveness the current through the flames could be increased by applying K2CO3 to the cathodes. Using the conductivity produced by distilled water as a standard, the relative conductivities of various concentrations of potassium carbonate, sodium carbonate, cæsium chloride, calcium chloride, barium chloride, aluminium chloride and boric acid were determined. For the last four the conductivity was found to be approximately proportional to the cube root of the concentration, whereas in the case of the others the relation is more complicated. A theory to account for the cube root relation is suggested. The conductivities due to mixtures of two solutions were found to agree with the values computed from the conductivities due to the components alone. Uranium nitrate gave little or no conductivity.


        © 1921 The American Physical Society

        A. B. Bryan
        Physical Laboratory, The Rice Institute, Houston, Texas.

  2. effegee says:

    The lintel visible through the window at right hand center ground in the second photograph may offer a clue as to its location. I wouldn’t think that there were many places on the campus in 1920-21 that the angle of the view of that lintel would have been possible from inside a room with a brick wall.

    • Looking out that window, it looks like a brick arch from the column back to the wall of the building. My memory is not that good, but that looks more like the cloister on the front of the Mech lab than the Physics lab, but I can’t find a photo of the Mech lab cloister. Perhaps they were in the Mech lab for better power access?

      • effegee says:

        To me the view looks like it is looking through the last arch into the cloister. (The apparent rounded upper left corner is the arch as it meets the wall that we see from its inside side.). That would mean that the cloister ends in the wall we see. The only place the I can think of a cloister ending is the western end of the Physics Building. (Isn’t the “Pershing” water fountain there?). I just can’t remember whether there are windows in that wall or not. If that’s the correct location, we are in looking from a first-floor lab at the leftmost door into the cloister (as seen from the Quad).

      • The columns on the Physics lab cloisters have stone going up to where the arches begin, whereas the Mech lab columns had stone lower portions but brick from about the middle up to where the arches begin (if I recall correctly) which is why I am begining to think this might be Mech lab.

      • Philip Walters says:

        Effegee I think you found it! The room would be in the northeastern corner of PL, looking out a window to the north. I worked in that space a bit my freshman year I think.

      • almadenmike says:

        I wonder what’s in that room now. Labs … or offices?

      • Looking back at Photo 1, the windows are different from Photo 2. While we can’t see out because the shades are drawn, they are much closer together, and sill height looks different.. Looking at Effegee’s photos from the period, the spacing in Photo 1 looks like a second floor space in Physics lab. But they would have to have been close together for the flame experiment in Photo 1 were using the high frequency output of the Tesla rig in Photo 2 as implied in the paper I read by Wilson. High frequencies attenuate quickly if not carried on properly designed transmission line. So I am going to go out on a limb and say the Photo 1 space was probably on the second floor of Physics, and on the east end, if not directly above the space in Photo 2. It would be interesting to read the full text of Bryan’s October 21 paper.

        This has been a lot of fun!

      • Looking at the Physics second floor plan Melissa posted in “Research Apparatus II”, in the east end of the building, there is only one place in the lab where there is a pilaster projecting into the lab space to the right of a window as in Photo 1-it is on the north wall, directly above the 1st floor space where effegee located the Tesla coil.

  3. The first photo appears to be a setup to determine the electrical properties of the flame. Who knows what gas they were burning, but I know from my high school days that an acetylene flame will conduct, and the combustion process is affected by the current. Tag Borland, who also attended Rice and was a key KTRU staffer, used an acetylene flame as a speaker to play music. He did this as a physics project at our high school.

    In the photo, I see a glass front instrument that might be the slide potentiometer part of a Wheatstone bridge that would have been used to determine the electrical resistance, or conversely, the conductivity. Perhaps they were measuring the conductivity of the flames?

    I am clueless as to where the photo was taken though.

    • Looking at the first photo again, I was wrong about the glass front instrument being a slide potentiometer. It is a backlit scale; a beam of light hits it and makes a dot along the scale. If you look behind the scale on the stand, there is a cylinder with a lens in front of it. The cylinder is probably a sensitive galvanometer that moves a mirror in proportion to the electrical input, and hence moves the light beam along the scale. They may have been measuring the small electrical currents in the hot gases of the flames.

      And, I could be completely wrong on all counts, but it is a cool experimental setup.

      • The article at shows a similar unit that was used on the transatlatic telegraph, at least the leveling screw arrangement is similar.

        Fun stuff in these old film photos!

      • Melissa Kean says:

        Physical Review Letters, Physical Review, and Reviews of Modern Physics
        Our Journals
        The Conductivity of Flames for Rapidly Alternating Currents
        Phys. Rev. 23, 195 – Published 1 February 1924

        H. A. Wilson and A. B. Bryan
        PDFExport CitationCiting Articles (5)

        Conductivity of salted flames for high frequency currents.—Theory. Expressions are developed for the capacity and series resistance of a parallel plate condenser in a flame, which enable certain constants to be computed from the measurements of Bryan given in the preceding paper. Calculated density of positive ions increases from.03 e.s.u. in the unsalted flame to 1.5 e.s.u. for the flame sprayed with a solution of 10 gm/liter K2CO3. For the smaller concentration, it varies about as the square root of the potassium present, as was to be expected. The variation with frequency and electric field is slight. Calculated mobility of electrons is found to diminish from 200 to 60 m/sec. per volt/cm as r.m.s. field increases from 9 to 64 volts/cm, in good agreement with values found by Loeb for electrons in pure nitrogen at room temperatures. It decreases markedly as the concentration of potassium increases.


        Received 1 September 1923Published in the issue dated February 1924
        © 1924 The American Physical Society

        H. A. Wilson and A. B. Bryan
        Department of Physics, The Rice Institute, Houston, Texas

  4. Melissa Kean says:

    Note the authors: H.A. Wilson and Arthur Bryan. The scrapbook these pictures came out of belonged to Bryan!

    Great work, Philip.

    • Melissa, I am impressed that you zeroed in on the correct journal abstract so quickly. Given the author’s departmental affiliation, I’d guess this is somewhere in the Physics building. I was going to guess it was a Physics department experiment earlier, but I decided not to go too far with conjecture.

      Thanks for the great work you do Melissa!

      • Now what would be really cool is if the mirror galvanometer or any of the rest of this apparatus turns up in one of you explorations into dusty cabinets and closets.

      • Melissa Kean says:

        I knew what to look for–once you said flames I dimly remembered that Wilson studied flames. I do confess that I’m a little impressed that I remembered that at 3 o’clock in the morning.

  5. Deborah Gronke Bennett BSEE Hanszen 1982 says:

    This kind of repartee is one of the many reasons I love this blog!

  6. Pingback: Research Apparatus, Part II | Rice History Corner

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