The underground storage shelves of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Museum are filled with loads of charmingly weird objects accrued throughout more than a century of scientific work. However, the original purpose of quite a few of these objects is lost in time. They are mysteries. Mysteries wrapped in riddles wrapped in … a thin layer of dust.
Welcome back to Unidentified Museum Objects, our ongoing quest to identify our basement-dwelling enigmas!
A railroad tale
Our most-recent installment elicited many responses. Read on for their comments, along with a new batch of head-scratchers from the NIST Museum.
T. Jach writes:
Item 0554 is clearly a frequency signal meter that is centered at 25 hertz. The indicator at the top is a series of reeds that have slightly different lengths. The reed that is in resonance with the input signal vibrates the most. The meter has a very narrow range, which would be consistent with using the indicators to regulate, for example, an alternator that operates at 25 hertz.
J. Proctor writes:
Regarding item 0554, the Pennsylvania Railroad (and others?) experimented with trains powered by 25-hertz electrical power in the early 1900s. They had a generator at Pennsylvania’s Safe Harbor Dam which generated AC power at 25 hertz for the railroad. Could be related to that.
D. Lilly writes:
Item 0554 is a switchboard meter that appears to have been saved as a souvenir and mounted. They were used, and some still are, at many places, such as generating stations and substations and in railroad equipment. As a test technician, I worked on the equipment at the Safe Harbor and Holtwood dams’ generating stations and at some Pennsylvania Railroad substations. I probably used an identical meter.
M. Mendenhall writes:
Item 0304 is the insides of a classical torsion galvanometer [an instrument used for detecting and measuring electric current]. It is missing a lot, including the magnet and a mirror which would be suspended below the wire coil. A projector would project light on the mirror, which would reflect back onto a scale to measure the deflection of the mirror.
The best guess we have for this one is “possibly a floor slip-resistance tester.” It’s also missing a leg. All I know is I don’t want to turn my back on it.
Turns out we know a fair bit about this one, except for what it actually is or does. It was made by Enrico “Hank” Deleonibus, a former glassblower at NIST. He purportedly made it for Joseph Ritter, a NIST researcher in the Inorganic Materials Division around 1970. It’s about 27 centimeters x 5 centimeters.
It’s made of wood, it’s wrapped with some wire and it’s a bit bigger than a soccer ball. Perhaps a prototype device to finally get to the bottom of how that “walking the dog” yo-yo trick actually works.
So, what are these things? Got any ideas? If you have a plausible (or funny) theory, leave it in the comments, and we’ll publish it in the next edition of Unidentified Museum Objects!