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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Unidentified Museum Objects, Vol. I

mystery objects at NIST museum

Mystery objects on display in the NIST museum.

Credit: F. Webber/NIST

Right now, the NIST museum in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is displaying a glass globe the size of a large beach ball. When visitors first come upon it, they’re not sure what to make of it. Is it a giant lightbulb? A highly impractical fishbowl? Thankfully, they can quickly quench their curiosity by reading the identifying sign that accompanies the object. (This particular artifact is actually for collecting gas samples.)

NIST’s museum collection includes hundreds of artifacts that tell the story of NIST, and its predecessor NBS, that reflect the larger history of American scientific research.

But not every item in our collection has been identified. In fact, we're in the possession of quite a few … thingamajigs. Knowledge of these things’ original function or purpose has been lost to time. Yet the museum curators lovingly preserve these gizmos in the hope that one day their identities will be rediscovered.

And, beginning with the four unidentified objects below, they’d like your help to solve these mysteries!

tripod device with lens. The words "Carl Zeiss, Jena, Nr. 400" appear on a cylinder that extends below the tripod's platform. Below that is a graduated dial, presumably for raising and lowering the platform.
Item 0266: A tripod sent by the Masters to control the human race? Or some kind of optical device manufactured by the firm of Carl Zeiss of Jena, Germany? We may never know—until it’s too late.
Credit: NIST Museum
a metallic disk with a pair of metal tubes coiled on one side, a ceramic tube is on the other side
Item 0305: The museum describes this artifact as an “unidentified metal disk with a ceramic tube.” One theory: It’s a piece that broke off the time machine during a Morlock sneak attack
Credit: NIST Museum
geared mechanism with an electric plug. Attached to the plug's wire is a tag that reads "231." The device is geared to another smaller gear on a device with what looks like a flywheel coming from the front of it.
Item 0325: This electrical device is made up of a small motor and a large gear labeled “Flexo-Action. Merkle-Korff Gear Company. Chicago, IL.” A note with the device reads “Stenger. Catholic University. Space Science Lab.” Hopefully, Professor Stenger wasn't expecting to get this back.
Credit: NIST Museum
Item 0426: Although this one has a Department of Agriculture property tag, it appears to be an early (and partially mummified) prototype of Tom Servo.

We’ll post pictures of other mysterious doohickeys on a regular basis. In the meantime, let us know what you think these things might be in the comments!

*edited March 2, 2021

About the author

Fran Webber

Now at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fran Webber was, among other things, a writer at NIST. A (more) youthful Fran dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. She’s not really sure what went wrong, but at least now she works with marine biologists, which is close, right? 

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Item 305: best guess... some type of ancient thermocouple.
Bottem picture a scanner part by robert jerreld dratch part of a plasmonic thing for a moleculer scanner Item 0426 mystery plasmonic scanner part.
Item 0426: if it has flat disc or sensor under the dome, is very possibly a pyroheliometor ( probably not this spelling) used in the field to measure the ambient solar energy. Judging from the size, it may also measure temperature and humidity.
For Item 0266, if it's Zeiss I put my money on something optical. I immediately think polarimeter, but after some additional thought and the glass/quartz disc/filter I think maybe something along the line of spectrophotometer. Not at all sure about the rod on the right that appears to be moveable up and down... Item 0305. Appears to be water cooled via the 1/4" tubing. It appears to bolt onto something that then has an environment requiring ceramics so I think high temperature. I go towards TGA/DSC or maybe an analyzer that has a high temperature combustion chamber, perhaps along the line of analyzers by LECO Corp. Can you please put me on a mailing list for updates when new items are posted. Thanks! Dan
0305 looks like a high voltage feed through, with water cooling.
0266: turbidimeter??
The Zeiss group says on twitter that 0266 is a Pulfrich Interference Stage, delivered in 1920 to the Bureau of Standards in Washington. I am impressed that they can figure out the year and where it was delivered. They must have some record about this specific object. Check out the twitter conversation here:
Awesome! Thanks for letting us know!
I have no idea what any of this is but I love the witty descriptions of each, also the "not sure what went wrong" in bio of author. Thank you for the dedication you all put towards this type of work, it is nothing short of amazing.
Great Work! Thanks for setting up an activity such as this. I look forward to all notices. I may not know much about these particular objects but since I'm pretty old I may have run across some objects I can help with. Again, Thanks! Bob
Item 0325 is missing an original top wheel. It's designed to allow an object to be mounted on it and turned by a motor, very slowly. This website has pictures of a more intact device from the same company:… My guess, considering it was in an astronomy lab, is that it might have had a small telescope mounted on it. There aren't any current physics/astronomy faculty at Catholic University named "Stenger" - probably long since retired.
0305 looks to be part of a vacuum or atmosphere furnace to provide access for optical (i.e infrared) temperature measurement. If the refractory tube came up to the temperature of the furnace contents it would also take on temperature related color and an optical pyrometer could then read the internal process temperature without compromising the atmosphere within. Of course, it could be off of a time machine too !!! 0426 There it is... I mistakenly left that on the curb on trash day 20 years ago, and it disappeared... may I have it back?

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