William B. Jensen

History of Chemistry and Chemical Education, University of Cincinnati

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The Oesper Collections in the History of Chemistry were founded in 1986.  This overview article deals with the apparatus museum portion of the collections, including its history, current displays, collection policies, and publications.



The Oesper Collections in the History of Chemistry were founded in 1986 when the current author assumed the Oesper Position in the History of Chemistry and Chemical Education at the University of Cincinnati.  This position was endowed by the late Ralph Edward Oesper (1886-1977) to the eventual sum of 4.5 million dollars, all of which was specifically intended for the support of scholarly activities in the history of chemistry.  Upon assuming the position, the author found a small collection of historically significant books and chemical journals acquired by Dr. Oesper (Fig. 1) over the years, as well as a collection of photographs and prints related to the history of chemistry.  The decision was immediately made to use part of the endowment to expand these two collections.  As a result, the book and journal collection, which spans the period 1600-1960, presently includes roughly 18,000 volumes and the photo and print collection roughly 2,500 items.  In addition, the author, who had been collecting antique chemical apparatus since high school, soon decided to add a third component to the collections in the form of an historical apparatus collection, which now contains approximately 4,000 artifacts.  In keeping with the goals of Rittenhouse, it is this third collection that is the main focus of this article.

Ralph Oesper

Fig. 1  Ralph Edward Oesper (1886-1977)

Initially the various collections were stored in the chemistry library, in the author’s office, and in various nooks and crannies around the chemistry department.  However, in 1998 additional space was acquired by the chemistry department and the collections were given two large rooms, one of which now houses both the book and journal collection and the photo and print collection, and the other of which houses the apparatus museum, the store rooms, and a small area for restoration work.


Nature of the Apparatus Collection

The apparatus museum houses examples of day to day apparatus used by chemists over the previous four centuries (17th-20th centuries).  Its holdings roughly fall into three categories.  At one extreme we have original items.  With few exceptions, these mostly date from the late 19th century and from the 20th century (Fig. 2).  At the other extreme we have reproductions. These mostly represent selected examples of 17th century, 18th century, and early 19th century apparatus and are based on our extensive print and photo collections (Fig. 3).  They are intended only to be characteristic of their time period and are not meant to be exact reproductions of surviving originals found in various British and European museums.

Original Wolff colorimeter

Fig. 2  An original, circa 1890, Wolff colorimeter manufactured by the A. Krüss Optisches Institut of Hamburg.

Voltaic cell -- modern reproduction

Fig. 3  A modern reproduction of a circa 1820 voltaic cell.

Between these two extremes are the so-called “reconstructions.”  These call attention to a unique feature of an historical collection dealing with chemical apparatus rather than one dealing solely with antique scientific instruments.  Unlike the latter, most day to day chemical apparatus is modular.  In order to show how it was actually used in the laboratory, it must be assembled.  For example, a simple distillation setup requires stands; clamps; a burner, alcohol lamp, or charcoal furnace; a countercurrent condenser; a boiling and collection flask; and, depending on the time period, rubber tubing, corks, various bent glass tubes, and possibly the components for a siphon system if the apparatus predates the advent of laboratory plumbing.  There is no single instrument maker for these various components as in the case of an antique telescope, microscope or balance.  Instead, the various components were manufactured by different companies, most of which are not marked on the components themselves.  At best, they may only indicate the name of the laboratory supply house from which they were originally purchased, though most frequently no information is provided and dating is only approximate.  In addition, the various components used in the resulting museum display may have come from widely different sources, and trivial parts, such as corks and bent glass tubes, almost always are modern reproductions.  He who would wait to assemble a 19th century distillation train until he obtains an authentic 19th century cork, will most likely wait a life time.  In short, reconstructions are composed of components from various sources, combined, where necessary, with reproduction parts (Fig. 4).

Reconstructed artifacts: retorts, receivers, alcohol lamps, tripod, clamp

Fig. 4  An example of reconstructed artifacts. The retorts, receivers, alcohol lamps, tripod, and large clamp are circa 1890 originals but are from different sources, whereas the small stand, ring, porcelain cup, and braided ring are modern reproductions.


Collection Policy 

Aside from the author’s personal apparatus collection, which formed the nucleus of the museum, the vast majority of our holdings are donations from various laboratories around campus and from several dozen colleges and universities spread across the United States from Georgia to Minnesota.  Most items were acquired between 1986 and 1998 and were the result of the author being invited to give a seminar on the history of chemistry in the school’s department of chemistry, followed afterwards by a trip to the basement storage area.  Other significant donations have come by word of mouth, including the M.G. Mellon Colorimeter and Spectrophotometer Collection, the O.B. Ramsay Molecular Model Collection, and the Oberlin College Electrochemical Cell Collection.

In 2008 the museum’s displays were first posted on line and this has now become the most important stimulus for more recent donations.  Thus, in 2010, after discovery of our website, a donor in Colorado offered us one of the few surviving examples of a Craig countercurrent distribution train (Fig. 5).  This was an important instrument in biochemistry in the period 1949-1959 for extraction and purification and formed a bridge between use of the conventional 19th century separatory funnel and the widespread adoption of chromatographic techniques.  A description of this instrument posted on our website inspired, in turn, a second donor in California to give us an even earlier cylindrical version of Craig’s apparatus in 2014 (Fig. 6).

30 unit Craig countercurrent distribution train

Fig. 5  A circa 1955 double-row, 30 unit Craig countercurrent distribution train.

Ca. circa 1949 Craig cylindrical countercurrent distribution apparatus

Fig. 6  A circa 1949 Craig cylindrical countercurrent distribution apparatus.

All of this means that, despite an ample endowment, very few of the museum’s acquisitions have been purchased from antique dealers. A recent exception is a lovely full-sized, early 20th century, bust of Antoine Lavoisier, which was purchased from a dealer in Germany (Fig. 7).

Bust of the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier

Fig. 7  A recently acquired full-sized (13”x 21.7”) plaster bust of the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794).

The only restriction on our collections, aside from relevancy, is what is known as “The Sherman Tank Rule.”  This refers to the massive vacuum-tube based instruments that became common in chemistry in the post World War II area with the rise of commercial mass spectroscopy, NMR, and ESR.  Though, from time to time, we have been offered various instruments from this era, both their bulk and weight have precluded adding them to our collections.  In short, the basic policy is that, if it is too big to fit in a display case, we must pass on it.  However, a recent exception has been the addition of a circa 1964 Siemans Elmiskop IA electron microscope (Fig. 8), made possible largely because the University Libraries made space available for its display in the former Chemistry-Biology Library.

Siemans Elmiskop IA electron microscope

Fig. 8  The circa 1964 Siemans Elmiskop IA electron microscope.


Museum Displays

As is the case with most museums, only about 25% of the collections are on permanent public display. These include 22 display cases within the museum proper (Figs. 9-12) dealing with the following topics:

  1. Balances and Weights I: Ancient – 1820
  2. Balances and Weights II: 1860-1900
  3. Balances and Weights III: 1910-1930
  4. Heating Devices and Assaying Equipment
  5. Specific Gravity and Volumetric Apparatus
  6. Basic Apparatus (flasks, beakers, test tubes, etc.)
  7. Distillation I: 17th century
  8. Distillation II: 19th century
  9. Distillation III: 18th century
  10. Organic Combustion Analysis
  11. Pneumatic Chemistry I: 18th century
  12. Pneumatic Chemistry II: 18th-19th century
  13. Pneumatic Chemistry III: 19th-20th century
  14. Filtration, Sedimentation, and Extraction
  15. Laboratory Hardware (stands, clamps, stirrers)
  16. Electrochemistry
  17. Molecular Weight Determinations
  18. Molecular and Crystal Models, Chemical Slide Rules, 3D Periodic Tables
  19. Gas Analysis and Blowpipe Analysis
  20. Instrumentation I: Refractometers, Polarimeters, Microscopes
  21. Instrumentation II: Colorimeters
  22. Instrumentation III: Spectroscopes

In addition there are also three large display tables dealing with the following topics:

  1. Early Spectrophotometers and pH Meters
  2. Early Spectrophotometers (recent addition)
  3. Craig Countercurrent Extraction Trains (recent addition)

All of the above, with the exception of tables 2 and 3, may be viewed online at:

Other displays not currently online include eight additional cabinets located in the hallway immediately outside the museum which deal with the following topics:

  1. Rotary Evaporators
  2. Melting Point Apparatus I
  3. Melting Point Apparatus II
  4. Boiling Point Apparatus
  5. Calorimetry I
  6. Calorimetry II
  7. Conventional Slide Rules
  8. Mechanical and Early Electronic Calculators.
Museum cases 1-6

Fig. 9  The south wall of the museum showing display cases 1-6.

Museum cases 7-10

Fig. 10  The southwest corner of the museum showing display cases 7-10.

Museum cases 11-17 and demonstration bench

Fig. 11  The north wall of the museum showing display cases 11-17 and the circa 1900 demonstration bench and classroom area.

Museum cases 18-22

Fig. 12  The east wall of the museum showing display cases 18-22.


As well, there are six additional displays scattered throughout the chemistry department that deal with the following topics:

  1. The History of Coordination Chemistry
  2. The History of the German Dye Industry
  3. The Periodic Table
  4. Unusual Balances
  5. Early Chemistry at UC
  6. The Siemens Elmiskop IA Electron Microscope


The Early 20th Century Laboratory 

One of the highlights of the museum is a reproduction of a circa 1900-1910 chemical laboratory, complete with a period fume cupboard and a glass-blowing setup.  This is in a separate room and may be viewed from the museum proper via a floor to ceiling plate glass window that serves as one wall of the laboratory.  As with most of the displays, this laboratory may also be viewed on the museum’s website:


Museum Notes 

Starting in 2010 the museum began a short bimonthly feature called Museum Notes designed to highlight individual artifacts of interest in our collections.  Though several deal with items in our book and journal collection and in our photo and print collection (including busts and oil paintings), the vast majority  describe objects in the apparatus museum.  To date, 32 issues of Museum Notes have been posted on the museum website at:


Museum Booklets

In order to make available in some form the 75% of the collections not currently on public display, it was decided in 2014 to initiate a series of short museum booklets, each dedicated to a particular instrument or laboratory technique of historical importance to the science of chemistry.  Each booklet would include not only photographs of both displayed and stored museum artifacts related to the subject at hand, but also a short discussion of the history of the instrument or technique and of its impact on the development of chemistry as a whole.  Several of these booklets are expansions of short articles that have previously appeared in either the bimonthly series Museum Notes (see above) or the series “Ask the Historian,” which appeared in the Journal of Chemical Education between 2003 and 2012.  It is hoped that, when complete, the series will cover all of the museum’s significant holdings and number around 30 booklets.  The booklets currently completed are posted on the museum’s website at:


Arranging A Tour

Access to the Oesper Collections is by appointment only. Those wishing to schedule a tour should contact Dr. Jensen at 1-(513)-556-9326 or via e-mail at the address appearing at the head of this article.