The Wave Maker

By Emily Gold Boutilier / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
Fourteen years ago, when Dean Hudek joined the physics department as director of instructional laboratories, he set about cleaning and uncluttering the labs in his charge. In the process he uncovered dozens of antiquated gadgets, some more than 100 years old and all tucked away and long forgotten.

Among them was an intriguing and beautiful wood-and-brass apparatus. Brass rods stand on a base of stained wood and brass plates. A hand crank sets the entire gizmo into motion, producing a rippling, sinuous choreography as the rods rise and fall in succession. Hudek believes the device was a teaching tool for demonstrating the movement of light waves. No one is certain of its exact age, but historians do know that Charles Woodward, president of a scientific society in England, invented the same kind of wave-demonstrating apparatus in the 1860s.

The wave machine is one of seventeen pieces of old lab equipment on display in the John Hay Library. Together these objects evoke an era when scientific devices were not only functional and instructional, but also artistic and graceful. The teaching tools of today may be high-tech and cutting-edge, Hudek remarks, but something has been lost. Gone is the polished wood, the shiny brass, the craftsmanship. Of today’s teaching tools, Hudek says, “They’re strictly utilitarian.”

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November / December 2003