Field of Science

Physics' Cabinets

Translation from M. Leone, A. Paoletti, N. Robotti (2009). La Fisica nei "Gabinetti di Fisica" dell'Ottocento: il caso dell'Università di Genova Il Giornale di Fisica, 50 (3), 135-154 : 10.1393/gdf/i2009-10106-9 (pdf)
Origins and development of Physics' Cabinets in Italy
From the seventeenth century, with the birth of Experimental Physics, new scientific instruments made their appearance. These instruments differed radically from the vast majority of antique instruments, because the latter had essentially practical purposes, such as navigation or surveying. Tools such as thermometers, barometers, vacuum pumps and so on, were instead true "physical machines" in order to enable the observation of natural phenomena and demonstration of physical laws according to the experimental method. Gradually, between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the "physical machines" found a specific site of collection, often called "Physics' Cabinet".
The end of the seventeenth century also marks the debut of a new way of teaching physics in academia, and in particular, as first happened at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Leiden, the demonstration with physical machines. Among the most skilled demonstrators we can remember the figure of the abbot Jean-Antoine Nollet, whose treatise Leçons de physique expérimentale (published in Paris between 1743 and 1748) has more than 350 experiments. Very often the physical machines were designed for entertainment of the cultured nobility of the time, and sometimes the devices were also found in the houses of wealthy people and principles. Considerable fame had some private Physics' Cabinets as one of Tsar Peter the Great, Lord Cowper in Florence and Laura Bassi in Bologna, all active in the mid-seventeenth century. Equally significant was the Physics' Cabinet of King Ferdinand II of Bourbon in Naples, active in the following century.
In the universities physical machines were first owned by the same teacher in experimental physics that often made "private lessons" that is paid by the university and lectured by professor often in "his own house". These "machines" were later purchased by universities themselves and flowed, along with donations from private collections, in the Physics' Cabinets, generally established by resolution of the universities. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth century were born in Italy many important Physics' Cabinets. One of the first was that of Turin, whose origins probably date back to 1721. Other important Cabinets were built in Padua (with John Poleni's Theatre of Experimental Philosophy, dating back to 1740), Bologna (the development of which, dating back to 1745, was contributed by Pope Benedict XIV with important donations), Rome (Physical theater of Wisdom, 1748), Perugia (founded by Luca Antonio Pellicciari in 1759), Pavia (1771), Modena (dating from 1772, the date on which Francis III was officially called Fra Mariano Morini of Parma to teach the "General Physics"), Genoa (1784), Naples (Physics' Cabinet of King Ferdinand II of Bourbon, 1813), Urbino (1832).
Special funds were allocated also for the purpose of payment of the "machinist", a skilled craftsman assigned to the maintenance of the "machines" and who performed physically the demonstrative experiences as explained by the "Professor". This character, "often a man of science, he was a skilled craftsman, able also to create new equipment at the request of the teacher. The machinist also had the task of improving and adapting instruments bought by Italian, French, English, German builders or being legacies. Sometimes the same professor was manufacturer and inventor of instruments or he followed closely the realization."
Although the academic Cabinets of Physics were born from the needs of teaching and studing, also the discolsure of the new experimental science was considered important. For example, in Rome, during the pontificate of Pius VI (1775-1799), the teaching of physics was regulated, stating also that during the holiday period, for fifteen days, the professor had to keep at the Physical theater many public lectures with experiments carried out by the machinist.

The Physics' Cabinets and the congresses of Italian scientists
The activity of the Physics' Cabinets, particularly in the Nineteenth Century, however, was not limited to the demonstration of the laws of physics or the repetition of measures that are particularly significant for educational or informational purposes. An important, but until now largely neglected by historical analysis, was the research in physics that was being developed in them. Significant witness of this are the scientific contributions presented during the twelve Congress of Italian Scientists, held annually between 1839 and 1847 (respectively in Pisa, Turin, Florence, Padua, Lucca, Milan, Naples, Genoa, Venice), and later in 1862 (Siena), in 1863 (in Palermo) and in 1875 (in Rome), and in which the experimental results, achieved for the most part in the various Physics' Cabinets located in Italy, were announced.
The Physics' Cabinets, also, as rightly held to be instrumentally and scientifically well-equipped facilities, played a decisive role in the actual performance of these Congress of Italian Scientists. At that time, it was so great the interest and attention to the experimental aspect of physics that before the communication of some new experimental discovery, it was customary that the Presidents of the Chambers of Physics asked to a commission specially appointed, or to the same alleged discoverer, to repeat the experiment in public that was the basis of this discovery. This could be done thanks to the local Physics' Cabine, which provided the necessary equipment.

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