Get Physical Exhibition

Let’s Get Physical:
Instruments and the Teaching of Physics in the 18th Century

Until 26 May 2013

In the 18th century, study of the physical properties of the natural world was known as experimental philosophy, or natural philosophy. In experimental philosophy the role of the experiment was paramount. A course would cover approximately the field of present physics, but could also include some chemistry.

Taught with a hands-on approach, theory was explained and visualized using a range of demonstrational instruments. One of the lecturers defined his lessons as about natural bodies, their

“effects discoverable by the senses alone, and to their natural properties or qualities which have been constantly found inherent in all bodies that have fallen under the human observation”

During the 18th century the popularity of experimental philosophy spread across Europe. Initially, demonstrational instruments were often a professor’s private property, and ownership of the right equipment was the prerequisite for some lectureships. But universities, societies, and academies began to build lecture theatres for physics and started to purchase their own stock of demonstrational equipment. At the same time, itinerant lecturers spread physics to more remote areas of Europe.

This is an online version of the Museum’s Let’s Get Physical exhibition which displayed books and related archive material from the collection. This material reveals the instruments and teaching of physics as was the fashion in the 18th century. These books show some of the most attractive illustrations of demonstrations of natural philosophy.