The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has recruited the public for a massive, Antiques Road Show-style project. Sadly, there won’t be a British narrator while you go through their online digital archives, but there will be a chance to proffer clues about a wide range of old school scientific devices. Visitors can look through the images in the digital archives, emailing NIST with any information they might have about the objects. Knit together, the collective clues will have the potential to uncover the dates and uses of these somewhat enigmatic gadgets that are in the NIST museum collection.
Click here to see some of the scientific instruments and take a gander at what they might be.

Bechstein Photometer

The only thing really known about this medium-sized contraption is its dimensions and that it measured the luminosity of surfaces. The archives don’t indicate the year this photometer was made, but the straggling electrical cord provides a decent hint.

Project Tinkertoy Wafer Tube Amplifier

Although it looks like a setup for music in the lab, this record-playing amplifier has its roots in Project Tinkertoy, an effort to standardize electronic equipment pieces. The transparent box gives a glimpse of the amplifier and three standardized wafer tubes. NIST used this amplifier from 1954 until 1958.

Dust Spot Tester

Dusty itself after years of sitting, the dust spot tester evaluated air filter efficiency. The portable tester was brand new in 1938, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term of office.


Looking good for its 103 years, this galvanometer measured electric current in NIST’s Heat Division. Its narrow coil yielded a shorter period, or length of time for a signal to complete a cycle.

Air Sampling Flask From Explorer II Balloon

This flask achieved great heights during the 1935 stratosphere flight of the Explorer II Balloon. It captured air samples from a record-breaking 72,000 feet for the National Geographic Society and NIST.


Patented in 1888 and older than NIST, the Western Electric Company’s millivoltmeter measured sensitive differences in electric potential within a circuit. NIST purchased this particular millivoltmeter in 1902, and it looks a little worse for the wear.

Reed Type Vibration Galvanometer

NIST relied on this type of galvanometer to fine-tune standard voltage transformers. The reed could resonate at slightly different frequencies, which made it useful for more than 25 years. It wasn’t until 1945 that NIST replaced the reed type vibration galvanometer with an electronic version.


Before Bausch and Lomb Optical company made contacts, they manufactured saccharimeters. These devices measured the concentration of sugar in imported heavy syrup and molasses, using the science of polarization. NIST bought this sweet machine in 1948.

Siphon Type Coulometer

More than a century ago, NIST utilized this coulometer, or voltameter, to measure the amount of electricity present in a given material. The platinum bowl served as the cathode, which connected to an anode in a separate flask via a siphon containing an electrolyte.

Wooden Box With Multiple Terminals and Dials

As the name implies, NIST isn’t quite sure what this is exactly or how old it is. Its likeness to some other wooden boxes in the collection, however, means it’s most likely a resistor box.

Wood Heads

Paper weights? Pieces of art? NIST’s best guess is that these heads were used for hearing aid testing.

Friction Meter

The friction meter, created in 1940, came in handy for testing fabric smoothness. Researchers translated the dial gauge’s reading into a coefficient of friction, making the seemingly abstract quality of “smooth,” scientific.