The David H.H. Felix Collection and the Beginnings of the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology

Julian Holland

Sydney, Australia

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The Smithsonian’s new Museum of History and Technology opened in Washington in January 1964.  As permanent exhibits were still being developed, the museum was initially partially empty.  The opportunity was taken to borrow several early scientific instruments from the collection of a Philadelphia lawyer, David H.H. Felix (1904-1988).  As a ‘naïve’ collector of antique scientific instruments, Felix purchased items that a more technically informed or experienced collector might have avoided.  This gives a special quality to the Felix collection as capturing some of the scope of fakes and oddities on the mid twentieth century scientific instrument market that is not well understood or recorded in the literature of historic scientific instruments.  Felix’s collection, including most of the items lent in 1964, was sold by Christie’s in New York in 1985.  This article gives an outline of Felix’s biography, examines the development of his collection, considers the Smithsonian loan and draws some conclusions about the state of instrument collecting in the mid twentieth century.

Felix exhibition cases, 1964

Fig. 1   Special exhibit of early modern scientific instruments from the Felix Collection at the Museum of History and Technology, Washington, 1964 (Smithsonian Archives)


Felix Biography

David H.H. Felix was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1904.  His father, Harry Felix, was born Henry Thomas Felix Schmitt in London in 1874.  With both his parents dead, Harry took ship on the SS St Louis for the United States in 1898.  It was perhaps on arrival that ‘Schmitt’ disappeared and he became Harry Felix.  A man of application and intelligence as well as initiative, Harry Felix undertook legal training and was admitted to the bar in 1906, becoming an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia in 1928.  Two children resulted from the marriage of Harry Felix and Miriam Hoffman Sundheim in 1901, David Harry, born on 8 December 1904 and Ursule Louise, born about 1913.

David Felix, 1904-1988

Fig. 2   David H.H. Felix, 1904-1988 (Courtesy of Bill Felix)

David Felix grew up in the Germantown district of Philadelphia.  He was an avid reader from an early age.  He attended the Germantown Academy, a short walk from home, and subsequently Winonah Military School.  Felix graduated from Winonah at the age of 16 and entered the University of Pennsylvania as a day student.  This involved a daily commute by train to West Philadelphia.  At that time chess, which he had been taught by his father, became an obsession.  He and his friends would wile away the commute by playing chess – in their heads!  1

Felix graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1923.  It seems he then made a brief visit to England that year as he is recorded as arriving in New York from Southampton on 24 September 1923, evidently having worked his passage on the Leviathan.  He returned to England, graduating in law from Oxford University in 1926, 2 and was admitted as a Pennsylvania attorney on 25 November 1927.

While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Felix became politically active due to the Sacco and Vanzetti case.  Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and also anarchists.  Their conviction in 1921 for murdering two men during an armed robbery in Boston became an international cause célèbre when many aspects of the legal proceedings were questioned.  Despite the sustained outcry Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in August 1927, a few months before Felix became an attorney.  Controversy over the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti continued for many decades. 3

On 29 May 1930 David Felix married Claire Schoenberger at New Haven.  They subsequently had two sons.  After several years of legal experience, 1930 was also the year Felix became a partner with his father, the firm now styled Felix and Felix in Philadelphia.  David Felix was drawn to left-wing politics leading to a career defending workers’ rights.  He also became a leading figure in the Socialist Party of America in Pennsylvania. 4  Felix attended the International Conference of the Labour and Socialist International held in Paris in 1933.  He stood as a Socialist candidate for the Philadelphia State Senate in 1934 and as a U.S. senator for Pennsylvania in 1938 and 1940, being unsuccessful on each occasion.  His father Harry Felix died in Philadelphia in 1942. 5

David Felix continued his law practice for several decades until his retirement in 1980.  This must have been reasonably remunerative as he ‘enjoyed collecting art and sports cars’, as his obituary states.  He is known to have raced sports cars on a number of occasions in the early 1950s.  David H.H. Felix died at his home in Philadelphia on 17 August 1988 at the age of 83. 6

Felix as Collector

As Felix said in a 1957 letter, his ‘principal interest is in drawings’. 7  He also collected books, Greek pottery, sculpture, and numerous decorative articles.  At some point his interest began to encompass scientific instruments, although ‘as I am an illiterate in science, the attraction these old scientific and mathematical instruments hold for me is akin to the fascination brightly coloured beads used to exercise on the American Indians’. 8

What triggered Felix’s interest in early scientific instruments and when did he begin collecting?  As his son Bill recalls,

“David Felix was an attorney, and a very good one.  He followed this profession because his father was an attorney.  I once asked him if there was anything else he would have rather done instead of being a lawyer.  He answered, Yes, he wished he’d been an astronomer.”

What first stimulated this wish, how much it influenced his collecting of antique scientific instruments, and how much the collecting of instruments reinforced the wish are unknown.

In the absence of solid evidence some conjectures can be offered.  In working his passage across the Atlantic in 1923, did Felix develop an interest in navigation and geographical methods?  A stronger potential stimulus was the opening of the Lewis Evans Collection of early scientific instruments, including astrolabes and sundials, in the Old Ashmolean Building in Oxford in May 1925 while Felix was undertaking his law degree. 9  When Felix attended the Socialist Conference in Paris in 1933 he may have had his first opportunity to see early instruments on the market and perhaps begin collecting them then.

There is, however, no evidence that Felix began collecting instruments before the early 1950s.  The bulk of instruments from his collection were sold by Christie’s in New York in 1985. 10  The auction catalogue indicates that several items had been purchased at the Parke-Bernet Galleries in the 1950s, two items from the Mrs Alfred McVitty sale (2 January 1954) and two from the Metropolitan Museum of Art sale (24 March 1956).  Another lot is recorded as having been purchased at an unknown date from the well known Paris dealer in early scientific instruments, Alain Brieux.  11  All five items were sundials.

A correspondence with Derek J. Price in 1957 sheds considerable light on Felix’s collection at that date.  This correspondence was probably sparked by Price’s appeal for information on dubious instruments.  Price was a pioneer in the history and sociology of science.  At Cambridge in the early 1950s, Price undertook a PhD on historic instruments that soon focused on a late fourteenth century manuscript describing an astronomical instrument, an equatorium, a manuscript Price identified as by Chaucer who had famously written a Treatise on the Astrolabe at almost exactly the same date.  12  While undertaking these studies, Price organised the historic records and apparatus of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge into an Archive and Museum.  He also worked with the instruments of the recently founded Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge.  Price’s realisation of the doubtful character of some of the Whipple instruments led him to undertake a systematic search for other evidently fake instruments.  He circulated an appeal to museums, dealers and collectors.  13

The beginning of the Felix-Price correspondence is missing.  It is likely that Felix wrote to Price in Cambridge and was surprised to receive a reply, dated 23 February 1957, from Washington.  Following his experience with historic instruments in Cambridge, Price was appointed a consultant in the history of physics and astronomy for the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum.  Price’s principal task was to survey collections of instruments in diverse institutions as part of the preparation for the establishment of a (National) Museum of History and Technology. 14

In the first extant letter of the sequence, Felix wrote to Price on 7 March.  Finding Price ‘much closer than I had supposed’, Felix looked forward to meeting him and showing him ‘the few things I’ve got’.  The letter discussed Felix’s silver astrolabe that had been mentioned in his first letter.  Price’s initial reply had evidently referred to forgeries in discussing Felix’s astrolabes (one silver, one brass). 15  Felix had purchased these at an auction in Philadelphia in November 1955 to which they had been consigned by the Iran American Trading Co. of New York.  He paid $180 for the silver and $55 for the brass astrolabe.  Felix also noted a number of other items in his letter, including pocket and portable sundials, a graphometer, proportional rules, several orreries and armillary spheres, and a ‘few old clocks, watches and microscopes’. 16  This was the sort of eclectic assemblage of an opportunistic collector feeling his way into the field.  The letter was accompanied by photographs of the silver astrolabe.

Within days, Price responded.  He had consulted Dr Richard Ettinghausen of the Freer Gallery of Eastern Art in Washington, who confirmed that the silver astrolabe ‘is signed as having been made (not ‘decorated’) by Abd al-A’imma, and that it is dated (in two places) A.H. 1127 = 1715 A.D.’.  This was one of a group of 28 instruments ostensibly by that maker.  Price recognised there was a problem with them.  ‘I do not consider these astrolabes to be forgeries in the strictest sense of the term.  Most probably they were made by [later] workmen, primarily engravers, copying earlier examples in a somewhat blind fashion.’  Nonetheless, he thought Felix had ‘got them very cheap!’.  Price also singled out others of Felix’s instruments as ‘somewhat doubtful’, a sundial signed by Egnatio Danti with a date several decades too late and two cubical dials by Beringer of Dieppe, dated several decades too early for David Beringer of Augsburg in the late eighteenth century.  Price enclosed a copy of his paper on fake instruments presented in Florence the previous year. 17

How Felix might have reacted to these uncertainties privately is unknown, but he quickly responded to Price with a discussion of the implications of fakes.  Had Price visited an exhibition in Paris the previous summer on ‘Le Faux dans L’Art et dans L’Histoire’?  Among a number of articles associated with the exhibition was one in which André Malraux ‘put his finger on the real trouble spot as far as art is concerned, if not science “(le faux) pose les problemes les plus inquiétants de toute philosophie de l’Art.”  There is no doubt this is the real stickler – it renders questionable the entire fabric of “art appreciation” and “aesthetics”.’

It seems Felix was sufficiently detached from his antique instruments to view the possible inauthenticity of some of them with historical interest.  He thought Price was ‘probably right’ about the Danti sundial not being original as the engraving and workmanship were ‘far from first class.  This is curious as I bought it from OLSCHKI in Florence’.  Felix also wished to have advice on the Beringer dials.  He was keen to visit Price in Washington, if it wasn’t imposing.  ‘I have never spoken to anyone who had the least pretension to knowledge in this field and, like all neophytes, I am eager to speak to someone who can set me straight.’ 18

Price responded immediately.  ‘I can assure you that it will give me the greatest of pleasure to put myself entirely at your disposal for a day’s visit’ to inspect as many of Felix’s instruments as he could bring and to show him ‘the beautiful things in the Smithsonian collection (recently restored)’ and some of his own pieces.  However, as Price was about to go on a tour of inspection of old instruments – a major part of his job – the visit would have to wait until the second week of April.  The warmth of this correspondence is reflected in an exchange of postscripts.  Felix had added by hand to his typed letter ‘P.S. My stenographer threatens to quit if I write any more letters with strange words like “astrolabe” etc!’ to which Price responded ‘P.S. My stenographer says that “Astrolabes” is nothing compared to some of the horrible words and “English isms,” that she has to put up with.’  19

The Felix Collection at the Smithsonian

The meeting between Felix and Price is unrecorded but this correspondence had consequences for the United States National Museum, in particular its offspring institution, the Museum of History and Technology.  A museum of engineering and industry within the Smithsonian fold had been mooted since the 1920s but it was the cold war context of technological competition which finally gave the impulse for establishing the Museum of History and Technology in the 1950s. 20  The museum was authorised in 1955 and it was in connection with this that Price had a one-year appointment as consultant in the history of physics and astronomy in 1957.  21  A new building to be erected on Constitution Avenue near the Washington Monument would greatly expand the space available for displaying America’s technological and cultural history and related exhibits.  The Museum of History and Technology, with three floors of exhibition space, was opened in January 1964.

A range of permanent exhibits was to be installed progressively over the following couple of years. 22  When the building opened, however, only about a fifth of the exhibition space was occupied.  23  A small temporary display of instruments borrowed from David Felix was clearly an attractive possibility.

Foucault pendulum, Museum of History and Technology, Washington

Fig. 3   Postcard showing a Foucault pendulum and two cases displaying the items borrowed from the Felix collection in the largely bare main hall of the new Museum of History and Technology in Washington, c1964 (Smithsonian Archives)

In May 1964 Dr Walter F. Cannon wrote to Felix to suggest the loan.  Cannon, with a Harvard doctorate on uniformity and progression in early Victorian cosmography, had been appointed curator of classical physics and geosciences in 1962.  24

Felix replied the next day.  ‘I am afraid my so-called “collection” has been exaggerated but I shall be very happy to show you the few things I’ve got’.  25  Twenty-four items were receipted  by the museum on 30 July 1964.  Frank A. Taylor, Director of the Museum of History and Technology, wrote in August to acknowledge ‘the receipt of a collection of horological, astronomical, and other scientific instruments’, noting that these would constitute a special exhibit titled ‘Early Modern Scientific Instruments from the Collection of David H.H. Felix’, to run until the end of December.


Smithsonian exhibition brochure cover

Fig. 4   Cover of brochure accompanying the Smithsonian display of the Felix Collection (Smithsonian Archives)

The instruments were mounted in two display cases in the Foucault pendulum hall – the museum’s main hall.  In November, a press release was issued to draw attention to the special exhibit, noting that the early instruments ran ‘the gamut from a rare mariner’s astrolabe to a 224-year-old German caliper’.  It also stated that Felix had ‘purchased these items from various European shops over a period of several years’.  A brochure describing the instruments was prepared by Walter Cannon.

It seems that the special exhibit was continued into 1965 and that the loan was continued into the 1980s.  The mariner’s astrolabe was reported as still being at the museum, renamed as the National Museum of American History in 1980, as late as 1983.  26  The loan was evidently discontinued a relatively short time before the Felix early scientific instruments were consigned to Christie’s for auction in 1985.

Fakes, Oddities and Genuine Instruments

As the correspondence with Price had made clear, there was reason to treat several of the items in the Felix collection as doubtful in a variety of ways.  The evidence can be examined in some detail in the context of his collection as a whole.

Of the 24 items lent to the Smithsonian, seven were various kinds of sundial, including a 16th century gilt-brass German compendium.  Of the three telescopes, one was a late 17th century Italian example, made of pasteboard and turned wood, with an objective lens signed ‘Carlo Antonio Buttieri in Roma’.  Besides the mariner’s astrolabe, the loan included two planispheric astrolabes, one of which was displayed with four latitude plates below the mater.

As a private collector, Felix had no one to please but himself.  He had no particular brief and could collect opportunistically whatever took his fancy.  The two astrolabes from the Iran American Trading Co. initiated this area of his collection.  The Felix items in the 1985 auction included the silver (pseudo) astrolabe (lot 329), four brass pseudo astrolabes (lot 330) and a ‘fine and unusual Lahore brass astrolabe’ (lot 331), besides the mariner’s astrolabe (lot 328).  If anything, the doubts cast on his first two astrolabes by Price in 1957 only encouraged Felix’s interest.  According to his obituary, Felix was a member of the ‘Astrolabe Society of Paris’.  This began as an interest group of collectors associated with the dealer Evelyn Butler in London in the mid 1960s and became ‘The Astrolabe Society, London’ in 1965. 27  After a period of decline the society was resurrected in 1976 as the Société Internationale d’Astrolabe based in Paris with some 65 members from Europe and the United States.  Alain Brieux, ‘the most knowledgeable dealer of antique scientific instruments in Europe at the time’, served as secretary. 28

Felix’s involvement in the International Astrolabe Society was well after his loan to the Museum of History and Technology in 1964.  The loan included two planispheric astrolabes, one the silver instrument ostensibly made by the great Persian astrolabist, ‘Abd al A’imma, and a brass example described as a Persian instrument of 1690 (AH 1102).  The brochure gave brief descriptions.  No indication was given that these were anything less than fully authentic and operational astrolabes.  Price’s analysis of seven years earlier was overlooked. 29

Felix had mentioned the silver astrolabe in his first letter, with Price expressing his suspicions in the reply.  As Felix said in the first extant letter (7 March 1957):

“As a matter of fact, until you mentioned it in your letter, I never knew that an astrolabe had mortises on the tympans [latitude plates].  You are quite right – there are no mortises on the tympans of my silver astrolabe, nor is there a recess on the mother [mater]….  I find that one can revolve the alidade on the dorsum of the silver astrolabe without disturbing the tympans (though it is sometimes necessary to hold the front tympan when revolving the rete).”

As already noted, Felix sent photographs of the silver astrolabe to Price who consulted Ettinghausen at the Freer Gallery.  Ettinghausen confirmed that it was signed as having been  made by ‘Abd al-A’imma and dated in two places A.H. 1127.  ‘Abd al-A’imma has been described as ‘probably the best known and certainly the most prolific of Persian astrolabists’, a member of a school of astrolabists based in Isfahan active from the late seventeenth century to the fall of the Safavid dynasty (c1678-1722; A.H. 1089-1145).

Felix’s silver astrolabe in 1985

Fig. 5   Felix’s silver astrolabe illustrated in the 1985 auction catalogue, lot 329 (Christie’s, London)

Astrolabes bearing ‘Abd al-A’imma’s signature fall into two groups.  Both have rich calligraphy and elaborate metalworking, the first group being astronomically accurate while the second ‘can at best be called degenerate’.  Felix’s silver astrolabe falls in this ‘degenerate’ group, virtually every example of which ‘carries a date below ‘Abd al-A’imma’s name in a cartouche on the reverse side, but few of the good group are dated, and rarely within the signature cartouche’.

The authors of a 1972 article on ‘The ‘Abd-al-A’imma Astrolabe Forgeries’ concluded that ‘because the degenerate astrolabes are generally dated, we suppose they are deliberate forgeries rather than innocent but poor imitations’.  They also observed that ‘the plates are not notched, so that it is difficult to hold them in a fixed position’, one of the diagnostic features Price had pointed to in his first letter to Felix.  Having analysed various details of design, inscription and language, the authors conclude that the:

“evidence leads us to postulate the existence at an unknown date, but perhaps as early as the eighteenth century, of a decadent school of incompetent astrolabe makers, who included “copies” of ‘Abd al-A’imma instruments in their production.  A principal reason for supposing these astrolabes to be deliberate forgeries rather than innocent but degenerate imitations lies in the fact that they are dated.  Eight of the nine degenerate astrolabes [listed in Table 2 of the article] are dated in the cartouche below the maker’s signature, with dates in the early eighteenth century, in contrast to the good ‘Abd al-A’imma astrolabes, which are rarely dated in that position.  Hence, the dates of the degenerate astrolabes could not have been copied; they must have been deliberately used to identify the instruments with the most glorious period of the Isfahan school.”30

Felix’s fake ‘Abd al-A’imma silver astrolabe was mounted in the temporary display at the Museum of History and Technology with the four latitude plates shown separately.  The absence of a tongue to hold each plate in place in the mater can be seen by close examination of the photograph in Fig. 1.

The other astrolabe in the Felix loan was probably the one purchased with the silver instrument as mentioned in the correspondence with Price.  As Felix stated in his letter of 7 March 1957:

“The brass astrolabe also has no projections [on the tympans] but it does have the recess in the rim of the mother …. the tympans move quite freely when the alidade is revolved.  However, it has obviously had some rough treatment in the past since it is no longer flat.”

The brochure simply described it as ‘Persian Astrolabe (1690) – An example of the small portable brass type most in demand’.  No latitude plates were shown separately but Cannon recorded on the specimen sheet that there were four plates, three of which were more crudely engraved than the mater and fourth plate.  Felix was the source of the date AH 1102 (1690 AD) which would be consistent with Felix having shown the astrolabe to Price subsequent to the extant correspondence.  It is not clear if this is one of the ‘four brass pseudo astrolabes’ (lot 330) in the 1985 auction, ‘each fancifully engraved with designs resembling those on Indo-Persian astrolabes’.  31

The zenith of Felix’s astrolabe collecting was a ‘fine and unusual Lahore brass astrolabe’ offered in 1985 as lot 331.  This large astrolabe (25 cm diam.) was signed ‘made by the weakest servant (of God) Jamal al-Din ibn Muhammad Muqim ibn ‘Isa ibn Allahdad astrolabist to the royal court of Lahore in the year 1077 AH [=1666]’.  The sale estimate was $10,000 to $15,000.  This was not part of the Smithsonian loan and was presumably acquired later.

Mariner’s astrolabe in the Smithsonian exhibit

Fig. 6   A mariner’s astrolabe featured with the two planispheric astrolabes in the Smithsonian exhibit (Christie’s, London)



The mariner’s astrolabe in the Smithsonian loan is also a curiosity.  While there is no reason to call it a fake, nor can it be described as an original mariner’s astrolabe.  Its provenance cannot be traced before the 1964 loan.  The museum press release of November that year asserted that this mariner’s astrolabe was one of only 17 in the world.  It was added to the tally of known mariner’s astrolabes begun in the 1950s by David Waters at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  As expensive maritime instruments made in small numbers that had largely gone out of use by 1700, few examples were known to exist at the beginning of the twentieth century.  The ‘Felix astrolabe’, as it came to be known, was designated NMM 19 on Waters’s list.  Since then, the rise of maritime archaeology has led to the recovery of many more sea astrolabes from wreck sites and now more than 80 are known.  In this context the Felix astrolabe can be re-evaluated.  No comparable example is known and it lacks many of the features characteristic of genuine examples.  It is most likely a model made in the early twentieth century for display or teaching. 32

As noted above, Price cast doubt on the authenticity of other instruments in Felix’s collection, all sundials.  Sundials comprised a significant element of Felix’s collection and formed a prominent part of the Smithsonian display, filling half of one of the display cases.

The first of the sundials Felix described in his letter of 7 May 1957 was signed ‘Egnatio Danti MDCXXIV’ (1624), to which Price added a marginal note ‘d. 19 Oct 1586’.  Danti was an Italian priest who came from a family prominent as artists and scientists.  So it is not surprising that he devoted himself to mathematics and astronomy.  He was professor of mathematics at Bologna and wrote a treatise on the use and construction of astrolabes.  Price informed Felix that there are ‘two or three false Danti astrolabes, but I have never heard of a doubtful dial by him’.  As already noted, Felix had bought the Danti dial from a well known dealer in Florence, where Danti spent some of his career, but the lack of finesse in the engraving and workmanship reinforced the notion that this was not a genuine example of Danti’s instrument making.  This ‘Danti’ sundial was not among the loans to the Museum of History and Technology, nor was it included in the 1985 auction, so presumably Felix disposed of it at an earlier date.

Felix sundials at the Smithsonian, 1964

Fig. 7   Sundials in the Felix exhibit at the Museum of History and Technology, 1964 (Smithsonian Archives)

One of the two Beringer cubical sundials was lent to the Museum of History and Technology and can be clearly seen in the centre of the photograph (Fig. 7).  Felix stated that these were dated 1708 and 1725 and that the maker was Beringer of Dieppe.  Price expressed his doubts:

“(Beringer) looks rather like David Beringer who worked in Augsburg, Nuremburg and district in the last quarter of the 18th century; his cubical dials, many of them being of wood with printed paper faces were especially popular.  Zinner records a dial signed by Beringer of Dieppe 1725, but unless it is a clearly different man, the date seemed too early.  1708 makes it even worse.  The Dieppe instrument making industry cracked up and went broke ca.1660 when the increasing magnetic deviation made all dials of their patent device quite unworkable and horribly inaccurate.  If Beringer is not a fraud, but really a new Dieppe man this is quite interesting as evidence of revival.”

The basis for Felix’s identification of Beringer as based in Dieppe is unclear.  The museum brochure described the sundial as ‘Decorative Dial – Made by David Beringer of Nuremberg in the 18th Century, this sundial is suitable for the breakfast table’.  David Beringer was born in Nuremberg in 1756, the son of an ironsmith, became a compassmacher there in 1777 and died as the result of an accident in 1821.  33

Perhaps the business about Dieppe and the date was a red herring, or perhaps the lent Beringer sundial was not either of the dials referred to in the correspondence with Price.  The museum specimen sheet describes this as:

“Wooden, paper covered cube, each side 7cm, on [?] wooden, tiltable stand.  5 dials each with brass gnomon.  Max, dims.: 4” x 5½” x 10”. Signed ‘D. Beringer.’”

The 1985 auction catalogue described it as a wooden cube dial ‘signed D. Beringer, early 19th century’.  Without a knowledge of the present location of the two (or three?) Beringer cubical dials formerly belonging to Felix it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions.  But as Zinner associated Beringer with instruments dated 1725, 1736 and 1776 and associated the name with Dieppe and Augsburg, there remains a firm  possibility that some fraudulent practice was associated with Beringer-type dials at an unknown date.  The entire dials may have been fraudulent or, given that the dial faces were printed paper, fraudulent paper faces could have been applied to original Beringer cubes at a later date.

Beringer cube sundial

Fig. 8   Beringer cube dial, lot 287 (Christie’s, London)

One other curiosity in the Felix loan deserves mention.  This was called ‘Bird armillary, Italian, 17th/18th c.’ on the museum specimen sheet, with a detailed description to which was added at some later date ‘Obviously a married piece.  The stand, globe [‘bird’ presumably intended], armillary and paper equator are each independent’.  The compound nature of this item was acknowledged in the museum brochure: ‘“Married Instrument” – A bird, his stand, an armillary sphere, and its paper equator each were made separately in the 17th Century and later combined into a decorative device.’

It is perhaps significant that this oddity was one of the few loan items that were not offered in the 1985 auction.  While ‘the marrying of two complementary items was not uncommon in the 19th century antiques trade’, the ‘bird armillary’ is a virtuoso confection. 34

Compound artifact from the Felix collection

Fig. 9   A compound artifact from the Felix collection – detail from photograph not reproduced here (Smithsonian Archives)

When it first appeared on the market and whether it still exists as a compound artifact are unknown.  But the documentation of its existence contributes to the complex history of the trade in antique scientific instruments.

The subsequent fate of these instruments has not been traced, with the exception of the mariner’s astrolabe.  35  Many of the items may have passed through several hands and the present owners – private collectors or institutions – may be unaware of their provenance in the Felix Collection.  A modern forensic examination of several of the problematic instruments would shed further light on the character of the scientific instruments trade in the mid twentieth century.


Collecting early scientific instruments was for David Felix both an aesthetic quest and a process of discovery.  This was one of a number of areas of collecting interest, of which drawings took precedence.  It seems that his collecting of early instruments was largely if not entirely limited to the 1950s and 1960s.  And, although his collecting was on a relatively small scale, he drew on a wide range of sources in Europe (Brieux in Paris and Olschki in Florence) as well as American sales.  That several of the instruments he purchased were fake or dubious – as emphasised in this article – reflects a small-scale market with a principal emphasis on aesthetics and a very limited underpinning of historical scholarship.  The Smithsonian’s receipt for the Felix loan, reproduced in the appendix, shows that there were several genuine early instruments in the collection.  Felix’s example also shows how isolated collectors of early instruments could be, with very limited published sources to guide them, very little museum expertise to draw on and almost no social network of fellow collectors and enthusiasts to provide encouragement and with whom to compare notes.  But that collectors like Felix provided a market for serious dealers like Alain Brieux added to the quickening interest in the scholarly evaluation of early instruments, leading to the impetus to undertake national inventories of historic scientific instruments, and later, in the 1980s, to the establishment of the Scientific Instrument Commission and the Scientific Instrument Society.

Had it not been for Derek Price’s initial investigation of fake instruments and his subsequent appeal for information, and Felix’s response to that appeal, leading to the loan of many items to the Museum of History and Technology, our knowledge of Felix’s collection would have been limited to the 1985 auction sale catalogue.  This article provides a basis for comparison with other mid twentieth century collections to establish a better understanding of the antique scientific instrument market in the decades following the Second World War.


This article could not have been prepared without the generous assistance of several people in supplying copies of documents and providing advice, all of which is gratefully acknowledged:

Randall Brooks (Canada) – information on Felix watches in 1989 auction

Cliff Davies (Wadham College, Oxford) – information on Felix’s residency in 1924-1926

Jan Deiman – Price’s 1956 paper on fake instruments

Elizabeth B. Dunn (David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University) – information on David H.H. Felix Papers

Seb Falk (Cambridge) – his Price/equatorium paper and the Price-Singer letter

Bill Felix – biographical information about his father

James Hyslop (Christie’s, London) – permission to reproduce illustrations from 1985 auction catalogue

Richard L. Kremer (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire) – David Felix obituary

Jodi Lacy (Adler Planetarium, Chicago) – Price-Felix correspondence

Joan Parker (Felix’s daughter-in-law) – email correspondence

Tony Simcock (MHS, Oxford) – checking museum visitors books for 1925-1926

Frank en Loes Sperling (Holland) – scan of the relevant pages of the 1985 auction catalogue

Steven Turner (NMAH, Washington) – Felix loan documentation and photographs, Smithsonian Archives



Appendix – Felix Loan to the Museum of History and Technology, 1964



  1.  The information from Bill Felix, email.
  2.  Felix was resident at Wadham College, Oxford, 1924-1926, and while there played cricket for the college; Cliff Davis, Wadham College archivist, email.
  3.  To avoid any confusion it should be noted that the David Felix, author of Protest: Sacco-Vanzetti and the Intellectuals (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965), was a different person, an academic at the City University of New York.  He was still alive in October 2008, described as Professor of History Emeritus at CUNY, and still promoting his view of Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt.
  4.  Duke University holds the “David H.H. Felix Papers, 1929-1946”, 1.6 linear feet of documents relating to Felix’s Socialist activities; Register of the David H.H. Felix Papers, 1929-1946, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.  Duke University has a long history of collecting papers relating to the Socialist Party.  It purchased Felix’s papers from a rare materials dealer in September 1990; email from Elizabeth B. Dunn, Duke University.
  5.  New York Times, 31 March 1942.
  6.  Philadelphia Enquirer, 23 August 1988.  Felix’s widow died in 1993.
  7.  David H.H. Felix to Derek J. Price, 7 March 1957, Derek Price papers, Webster Papers, Series 1, Folder 224, Adler Planetarium, Chicago.
  8.  ibid.
  9.  See A.V. Simcock (ed.), Robert T. Gunther and the Old Ashmolean (Oxford, 1985), p. 28.  Tony Simcock kindly examined the Museum of the History of Science visitors books for 1925 and 1926 and found no entry for David Felix, so his first acquaintance with the Lewis Evans Collection remains unknown.
  10.  ‘Fine Scientific Instruments, Clocks, Watches and Related Books’, Christie’s New York, Thursday, 31 October 1985.  More than 70 instruments from the Felix collection were distributed throughout the auction in 70 lots.
  11.  On Brieux, see Willem F.J. Mörzer Bruyns, ‘Alain Brieux, Dealer and Scholar in Paris: His Archive on Scientific Instruments’, Nuncius, Annali di Storia della Scienza, 16/2 (2001), pp. 703-09.
  12.  Seb Falk, ‘The scholar as craftsman: Derek de Solla Price and the reconstruction of a medieval instrument’, Notes and Records – The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 68 (2014), published online 5 February 2014.
  13.  Derek J. Price, ‘Fake Antique Scientific Instruments’, Actes du VIIIe Congrès International D’Histoire des Sciences (Florence 3-9 September 1956), pp. 380-94: ‘Clearly the presence of fakes in public and private collections is embarrassing to their owners, the experts and the dealers concerned.  In what follows therefore I shall cite only publicly available evidence, omitting all mention of the considerable bulk of confidential information provided willingly and most helpfully by all the dealers, collectors, curators and official organisations concerned.’  The paper was illustrated ‘for convenience’ with examples from the ‘otherwise genuine and very fine’ collection of the Whipple Museum.  The Piltdown skull, an apparent evidence of the antiquity of man in Britain ‘discovered’ in 1912, had been shown to be a forgery in a book published in 1955.  This stimulated Price and others to a greater awareness of the possibility of forgery among scientific artifacts.
  14.  As Price wrote to Charles Singer in England in November 1957: ‘I have just returned to my office (in the United States National Museum) after the last of a long series of foraging trips in which I have had the fun of poking in the attics and cellars of all the oldest institutions in this country, in an effort to find all the treasures of vintage scientific apparatus for this museum.  It has been quite a successful and exciting business, but very weary and involving much too much travel for my tastes.’; Price to Singer, 15 November 1957, Singer Papers, Wellcome Collection PP/CJS/A.47. Copy kindly supplied by Seb Falk, Cambridge.
  15.  Price had recently devoted considerable attention to astrolabes, having published ‘An International Checklist of Astrolabes’ in Archives internationale d’histoire des sciences, 32-33 (1955), pp. 243-63, 363-81.
  16.  Watches ‘From the Collection of the late David Felix’ were offered at Christie’s New York, fine watches, wristwatches and clocks, 28 October 1989.  Did Felix know that his father’s maternal grandfather was a watch case maker?
  17.  Price to Felix, 13 March 1957.
  18.  Felix to Price, 20 March 1957.
  19.  Price to Felix, 22 March 1957.
  20.  Robert C. Post, ‘“A Very Special Relationship”: SHOT and the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology’, Technology and Culture, 42, no. 3 (July 2001), pp. 401-35, at pp. 411-13.
  21.  At the end of 1957, the Smithsonian was pressing Price to accept appointment as curator of physics and astronomy in the developing Museum of History and Technology but he moved on to an academic career at Princeton and Yale.
  22.  The electricity hall, for example, was to be ‘opened in sections beginning in the winter of 1964-65, while the chemistry exhibition was ‘not scheduled for completion until the end of 1965’; Robert P. Multhauf, ‘A Museum Case History: The Department of Science and Technology of the United States Museum of History and Technology’, Technology and Culture, 6 (1965), pp. 47-58.  see pp. 55 & 57.
  23.  Post, p. 421.
  24.  J.B. Morrell, ‘Susan Faye Cannon (Walter Faw Cannon) 15 October 1925 – 6 November 1981’, Isis,  74, no. 1 (Mar. 1983), p. 88.  This was more or less the position Derek Price had declined four years earlier.
  25.  Felix to Cannon, 27 May 1964, Felix loan file, 255535, Smithsonian Archives.
  26.  Alan Stimson, The Mariner’s Astrolabe, A survey of known, surviving sea astrolabes (Utrecht, 1988), p. 92.  The Museum of History and Technology had been officially redesignated the National Museum of History and Technology in 1969; Post, p. 411, n31.
  27.  The society met weekly in members’ homes and was interested in antique scientific instruments more broadly.  Talks were given on a range of topics.  In 1968 the society had 22 members including five Americans but it is not known if Felix was one of these.
  28.  Anthony R. Michaelis, The Scientific Temper: An Anthology of Stories on Matters of Science (online version – p. 95, ‘The two Astrolabe Societies’).
  29.  This is no criticism of Cannon, the MHT curator, who prepared the temporary display.  He did not have Price’s expertise in early instruments and was presumably unaware of the 1957 correspondence which survives in Price’s files.
  30.  Owen Gingerich, David King and George Saliba, ‘The ‘Abd al-A’imma Astrolabe Forgeries’, Journal of the History of Astronomy, 3 (1972), pp. 188-198.  The article notes three authentic ‘Abd-al-A’imma astrolabes, all from the Hoffman Collection, as being in the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology.  Was this acquisition stimulated by the Felix loan?  Among the list of ‘degenerate’ astrolabes in the article (Table 2) is one dated A.H. 1127 then located in the Freer Gallery of Art (Mayer XXIX).  The verso of the Freer astrolabe is shown in Fig 2 of the article and has a kursi (throne) of distinctly different profile from the Felix silver astrolabe so is clearly a different instrument.
  31.  Had Felix’s initial 1955 purchase from the Philadelphia auction house encouraged the Iran American Trading Co. to consign further astrolabes there, accounting for the unusual tally in the 1985 auction?
  32.  ‘It is a very curious instrument as it has many of the features of a sea-astrolabe yet it entirely lacks its characteristic massive robustness.’  Stimson noted the lack of a provenance, thought it ‘unlikely (it was) ever intended for use at sea’, and concluded that ‘although the workmanship appears to be eighteenth century in style it may be considerably later’; Stimson, p. 92.  Cannon had noted the ‘Very modern appearance’ on the museum specimen sheet.
  33.  Bruce Chandler and Clare Vincent, ‘Three Nürnberg Compassmacher: Hans Troschel the Elder, Hans Trochel the Younger, and David Beringer, Metropolitan Museum Journal, 2 (1969), pp. 211-16.
  34.  Anthony J. Turner, ‘Paris, Amsterdam, London: The Collecting, Trade and Display of Early Scientific Instruments, 1830-1930’, in Peter de Clercq (ed.), Scientific Instruments: Originals and Imitations – The Mensing Connection (Leiden, 2000), pp. 23-47, at p. 33.
  35.  Halloran Collection #117, Jervis Bay Maritime Museum, Huskisson, New South Wales, Australia.