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Junk? No ... Gems!

An artifact discovered in Sanders Physics
An artifact discovered in Sanders Physics

Remember mimeograph machines? IBM Selectric typewriters? Those clunky portable phones of the 1980s? Outmoded technology that was once state-of-the-art often finds its way to basements and attics and the town dump. But if it survives long enough—as in 100 years—it can become an object of wonder and veneration.

Take, for example, an original Morse telegraph, recently discovered in the attic of Sanders Physics, apparently donated to Vassar by its inventor, Samuel F.B. Morse, when he was a trustee of the college more than 140 years ago. Like many other pieces of equipment in buildings throughout the campus, the telegraph was apparently set aside when it was no longer useful, but it wasn’t properly inventoried because it wasn’t old enough or unusual enough at the time to be considered valuable.

Along with numerous other artifacts squirreled away in Vassar’s many attics and nooks and crannies, the telegraph has now been unearthed and will be a centerpiece of the Vassar College Artifacts Project.

The idea to search Vassar’s attics for discarded but valuable teaching tools was hatched by college historian Betty Daniels '41 and biology prof Kate Susman. The two struck up a conversation in February 2011 while they were riding a bus to New York City to attend a gala marking the college’s 150th anniversary. Susman and Daniels have since been joined by more than a dozen other faculty, former faculty, and staff members who meet monthly to discuss how the artifacts should be catalogued and displayed—some of them on the campus, others at various museums. 

Teaching aids for physics, used around the turn of the 20th century A Samuel Morse telegraph Equipment stored in Sanders Physics Glass anemones crafted by glassmakers Rudolph and Leopold Blaschka A hand-cranked electrical generator One of the many Olmsted display cases featuring bird specimens Cell drawings, aided by early microscopes and stain techniques Historical photographs of Vassar’s first observatory Early physics equipment A bellows, likely used in chemical or mechanical studies An electrical board in Sanders Physics classroom

Other treasures already found: glass replicas of jelly fish and other organisms crafted in the early 20th century by glass makers Rudolph and Leopold Blaschka, whose artistry is revered worldwide; an original Zeiss microscope, still in perfect working order, in its custom-made wooden case; and chronographs and other devices used by famed 19th century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who taught at Vassar from 1865 to 1888.

Susman said she knows the Artifacts Project will take some time but believes it’s worth the effort. “Some of the things we’ve found are priceless,” she said. “We want to restore and display them in a way that celebrates the history of teaching here.”

—Larry Hertz

Look for upcoming stories about other rediscovered historical gems on the Alumnae/i Hub.

Posted Tuesday, July 3, 2012