For the past seven years, David Pantalony has spent much of his time poking around dusty museum and university storerooms in Rome, Paris, and rural England. He’s been searching for long-forgotten devices like the Clang Analyzer and the Phonautograph—late-19th-century instruments for studying sound designed by Karl Rudolph König, one of the founders of modern acoustics. This year, as a fellow at MIT’s Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Pantalony is writing a book about König’s workshop in Paris, which drew leading physicists, physicians, and musicians. Pantalony, who recently worked as a curator of scientific instruments at Dartmouth College, seems bemused that a collection of tuning forks will compel him to travel halfway around the world. However, he has discovered that König’s work is an important part of several larger stories, about the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the 1800s, the cross-fertilization between musicians and physicists, and the role of the craftsman in the sciences. “The history of instruments is small and obscure, but it actually opens up into so much territory that it’s potentially about many, many other things,” he says.
Many of the 27 other scholars at the Dibner Institute this year would agree that their individual projects, while seemingly narrow in scope, actually say volumes about particular time periods and provide insights that are valuable to other researchers. The fellows are a diverse lot, including graduate students, scholars who have earned their doctorates in the past five years, and well-established historians of science. According to George Smith, PhD ‘79, the Dibner Institute’s acting director, the fellows are chosen more on the strength of their proposed projects than for their academic or professional backgrounds. “Their projects are far afield, even in style. But while here, they develop a real sense of the integrity of these projects, why it’s worth doing,” says Smith.
The Dibner Institute was established in 1992 to support advanced research in the history of the natural sciences, mathematics, and technology, and the fellowship program is its operational core. The institute is a consortium involving MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University, and it is supported by the Dibner Fund, which was created by Bern Dibner. Dibner was an inventor, engineer, and science history enthusiast who founded Burndy, a manufacturer of electrical connectors. Finalists for the fellowship are selected by a rotating committee of former Dibner fellows. Graduate student fellows, however, come from doctoral programs at the consortium schools and are nominated by their departments. During their year at MIT, the researchers have few commitments other than pursuing their projects, whether they involve rummaging through vast storerooms of archived material at NASA or searching for a long-dead scientist’s relatives in Russia. Here are a few of the projects this year’s fellows are pursuing.