The hidden treasures of Stirling Hall
Stirling Hall has a secret. Few of the people who visit the curved corridors of the Physics Department’s distinctive circular home realize that the building is more than just lecture halls and laboratories. Stirling’s very design and décor pay homage to science, mathematics, and engineering, with mosaics and geometric designs representing anything from the spectrum of light emanating from the sun to proof of Pythagoras’ theorem.
In the basement, behind walls hung with photos of such physics giants as Rutherford, Geiger, and Mosley, there’s an Aladdin’s cave of physics artefacts, secreted away in a nondescript storage cupboard.
In recent decades, after realizing the possibility – and, to him, the danger – of the collection being dispersed and lost, Electronics Technologist Bernie Ziomkiewicz has squirreled away hundreds of items – some of which pre-date Confederation and up to 40 per cent of which represent the ingenuity and craftsmanship of generations of Queen’s scientists.
His view is shared by Professor Emeritus Malcolm Stott (Physics). “Although there are many artistic qualities to the pieces in the collection, they’re not just beautiful to look at,” he explains. “The instrument makers who devised this equipment did so to demonstrate the fundamental laws of nature. These were people using their brains and hands in innovative ways and achieving so much with so much less than we have today. It’s truly humbling to see.”
The collection began when the Department of Physics inherited a special telescope during the dismantling of the 1855 Kingston Observatory located in City Park. So special was the telescope, the story goes, that when some interested experts from the Smithsonian in Washington came to assess it in hopes of acquiring it for their own collection of U.S.-made instruments, the telescope mysteriously vanished, only to be “rediscovered” once the experts had left. This valuable astronomical instrument was the first of its kind to be used in Ontario and was the early handiwork of a young Alvan Clark (1804-1887), a celebrated American astronomer and telescope-maker for whom two of the moon’s craters are named.
Another unique artefact in the Stirling Hall cupboard is the works of the original Grant Hall clock built by Nathan Dupuis, BA 1867, MA 1868, LLD 1911, the first Dean of the Faculty of Practical Sciences, the forerunner of Queen’s engineering.
Ziomkiewicz and Stott say their goal is to inventory and photograph every item in the collection – a time-consuming and laborious cataloguing project that is still less than 20 per cent complete after five years of consistent summer work by students. However, along the way they’ve been able to take advantage of the art conservation skills available at Queen’s – the University being home to one of only five art conservation departments in North America – to complete some restoration work.
Ziomkiewicz notes that the slow nature of the process is due, in part, to some of the artefacts being incomplete and others being trickier to identify than others.
When physics was first taught at Queen’s in the 1850s, the atom hadn’t yet been discovered, and the study of quantum and nuclear physics was still in the future. Physicists of the time were concerned with heat, light, sound, and optics. The artefact collection, consequently, spans a period during which there was an enormous evolution in understanding abouProfessort the world around us and a shift in thinking about what characterizes the subject of physics. A revolution in laboratory equipment took place about 30 years ago. Physics and Engineering Physics alumni who graduated in the 1980s and earlier might well recognize in the collection pieces of lab equipment that modern-day graduates wouldn’t know how to use.
Ultimately, both Stott and Ziomkiewicz dream of a clearly inventoried and photographed collection of artefacts that illustrates “the way physics was done and taught” in the past. In the meantime, they’re looking for help to find a suitable space for the collection, and securing the funding needed to support the inventory process for a unique scientific collection that’s important not just to Queen’s history, but also to Canada’s.