Conservation of Instruments - Part 1

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  Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by David St. John


Mr. St. John has retired as Chief Engineer for Berger Instruments, where he was the principal design  for optical alignment for 27 years.  


The men that I knew as instrument makers for over thirty years thrived on the challenge of technical problems.  The more subtle the task of discovery, the more intense their enthusiasm.  They understood the cost of commitment to traditional concepts.  While they were satisfied with the task of creating new and more precise instruments, they were frequently in conflict with changes within the industry.  Instrument makers were often disgruntled.  Scarcely a month would pass without some rumbling of discontent.  In spite of this conflict they remained loyal to their employer and continued with purpose and continuity of excellence throughout their final years.

These craftsmen thought in a manner that set them apart from other workers in the factory.  Their goal through life was accuracy.  They developed a keen sense of observation.  Evaluation of errors was a daily exercise.  There was a continuous attraction to the nature, cause, consistency, or randomness of error.  Frequently as individuals or as a team they were compelled toward a solution.  The instrument makers were unique observers of minutiae.  They were comfortable with their expertise and exploited techniques to their advantage.  Each was fascinated with detail which often provided the substance for success in a new design.

Although instrument makers in general had an appropriate respect for the abilities and knowledge of others and tended to develop lasting relationships, they could be extremely stubborn, vain and anti-social.  Each one had his own peculiar strength but often looked to one another to overcome difficulties on a cooperative basis.  Their persistent fine-honing of proven technique often resulted in a degree of precision and durability few machines could attain in that day's industrial climate.  I knew them as energetic men that could inspire enthusiasm in fellow workers.  They had an ability to discover attainable solutions to difficult problems.  Leaders, each one, with durable optimism, they would display a relentless drive to overcome technical barriers.  Then, in an instant, without warning, they could play the most laughable childish pranks on one another to break the tension of the moment.  There would be uplifted spirits for days after such an incident.

The men I speak of were my mentors.  I have long-term knowledge of their way of thinking, their loyalties, and commitments.  These men were an extended family and comprised an important part of my learning.  They were an elite group of craftsmen working comfortable with "old world" technique in the midst of an otherwise technically advanced community.  I came to understand and eventually embrace many of their concepts.

Through their efforts I became intrigued with precision measurement and my interest has never diminished.  Though they could be hard task-masters, they took little from life and gave back much.  I was comfortable with their consistency.  There was no lack of appreciation or affection between us over the years.  Each one worked into their late 80's; I witnessed their last days.  The time of their passing brought a quietness, a subtle but permanent loneliness to daily life.  There was a sense of obligation to pass on what had been taught, but there was no longer the need.  The time of work simplification was upon the industry.  It was an age of machine operators, set-up men, numerically-controlled machines and assemblers who thought that they were instrument makers.  There was little desire to learn the old way, to be meticulous and driven to accuracy.  The age of the American instrument maker of the 19th century was gone.  Still a young man, I witnessed the closing of a door on the need for creative men of their kind who were taught by great men of the past.

Consequently, when someone speaks lightly of the restoration of surveying instruments, I reflect with great care because the term is essentially out of place.  More essential is a grasp of the concept of conservation as it applies to the other treasures within the museum community.  Surely we possess historical treasures of surveying's past.  These artifacts deserve appropriate care which can only come through an appreciation of the philosophy of conservation, and current thought on examination, preservation, restoration, documentation, display, transport and storage.  The effort consists of a panorama of obligation.  It draws detailed expertise from several disciplines and commands the highest of ethics.  Surely not every instrument requires such detailed work.  But what happens to an important find, an historically significant instrument if there exists no standard of practice related to current thought within the museum community?  Who is prepared for the technical task; the pulling together and gleaning of detail from research, the documentation and actual setting in motion the tools and techniques of the past at specially prepared work stations?   The field of conservation related to scientific instruments is essentially new to the North American continent.  The task is immense.  The instrument makers as an elite group of craftsmen and the products of their thoughts deserve more than a few spokesmen, however well prepared.  For my small part, I am keenly aware of the limitations on time and resources.  A standard of practice should exist for the conservation of artifacts related to surveying history.  I am also aware of what little time is left for me to complete this effort.  I have therefore severely restricted myself to the field of surveying instruments and the 19th century.  It is far better to complete a segment of the effort than to leave behind a broad work unfinished.


The National Conservation Advisory Council (NCAC) has defined conservation as "a process which encompasses three explicit functions: examination, preservation and restoration.  Examination is the preliminary procedure taken to determine the original structure and materials comprising an artifact and the extent of its deterioration, alteration and loss.  Preservation is the action taken to retard or prevent deterioration or damage in cultural properties by control of their environment an/or treatment of their structure in order to maintain them as nearly as possible in an unchanging state.  Restoration is the action taken to return a deteriorated or damaged artifact as nearly as is feasible to its original form, design, color, and function with minimal further sacrifice of aesthetic and historical integrity."  (JAIC 18, 1978:52)

A review of many journals and literature related to the conservation of works of historic importance indicates continued efforts in the area of research (conservation science), with development of ethics and standards of practice related to fine art, paper, books, photographic materials, glass, statuary, ancient metals, etc.  Little pertinent information can be found that is directly related to the conservation of early scientific instruments.  There has been minimal interest in this important aspect of American history as shown by the content of literature.  There have been attempts by some interested individuals to provide limited prescriptive data which often proves inadequate when reviewed and if used by an unskilled practitioner could be dangerous to self and damaging to the artifact.  Opinions are prolific but often lack substance.  Outside of communication within the conservation community there is little remedial direction offered to the serious enquirer.  There exists at this time within the surveying profession little common ground for communication.  There are exceptions, of course, but the constraints far outweigh the freedom of access to potentially useful information that could support serious study or attract conservators to the field.

Conservators in general have access to extensive and growing documentation on methods of practice in their respective fields.  There is within the conservation community a vital and "functional grasp" of the term "restoration."  There are variants, of course, justifiable and essentially understood.  From meetings with practicing conservators and extensive written communication, one finds the conclusion that a standard of practice would be beneficial.  One of the problems is that there has not been sufficient interest in the field and few are qualified in the are of scientific instruments.

Bedini's work is exceptional.  His effort relates significantly with the lives of many of the early makers.  Through his work we understand the lineage of some makers, their training, the locations of their small shops, inter-relationships with one another, what instruments they produced and how many businesses were carried on or terminated.  The new journal Rittenhouse continues to expand our knowledge of makers and their instruments and it is a welcome addition to our sources of information.  There is little question that such works are valuable to the field of conservation.  There is, however, a dearth of information about the instruments themselves.  There exists little common language; we lack terms and definitions in the broad sense related to components, their function, innovation for the period and the progress of the maker over his life.  There are exceptions, I'm sure, but in general, there exists no ease of comparison, nor convenient way to communicate.  Similarly, there exists no standard for examination, treatment, storage or display.


Restoration is an intrusive process.  When it must be done, an opportunity presents itself to gather detailed information about materials, designs, precision, innovative features from the period, and specific details that separate the maker from his peers.  Without guidelines, established terminology, and definitive procedure, little information can be secured by one practitioner, for use by another.  The technique should be consistent, produce maximum results, provide historical advantage and impart no damage to the artifact.  The findings of one conservator should be reproducible by another, with the exception of expanding on the original work.  Documentation should follow in a firm format to enable those entrusted with the preservation of an artifact to maintain and extend the original restoration effort for many years.  There should be a listing of areas that may need attention to assure that treatments were in fact adequate (such as corrosion, sterilization, or galvanic couple).  Definitive information can be extracted by the use of a standard which will provide insight into the maker's execution of thought.  The proposed standard should be sensitive enough to detect changes in the work of a maker over his career.  Such sensitivity requires an intimate knowledge of period materials and technique available to the maker during his lifetime.

The treatments and equipment available to the conservator should be adequate to provide stability to a broad spectrum of materials throughout the period of interest, and enable effective treatment for similar materials regardless of long term deterioration due to field use or storage.  An artifact used typically in an arid location may well require different treatment than one by the same maker used near the ocean or in a mining environment.  The proposed standard should be sensitive enough to distinguish between two such artifacts and provide protection in excess of a century.

The availability of a standard will not be an end in itself.  The museum community, historians and collectors must be encouraged with information to support the assessment of value of early scientific instruments to be made with relative ease.  There are many small institutions that are not able to afford the services of a fulltime conservator.  The standard will assist such institutions in the maintenance of their collections and provide a basis to qualify outside services.

The standard could provide the means for networking on materials and treatment with automatic revision through the network system.  To formulate such a standard requires long term commitment.  To set such a document in motion will require cooperative effort.  The publication of the standard, in one sense, is incidental to the project.  To stimulate effective application within the conservation and museum communities could take a long time.




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