Scientific & optical instrument making
The making of scientific and optical instruments including barometers, compasses, telescopes, cameras etc.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Barometer and related instrument making 3: (primarily restoration and repair)
Compass and navigational instrument making: 1
Camera making: 1
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
A barometer is a scientific instrument that is used to measure air pressure in a certain environment. There are various different types of barometer including water barometers, mercury barometers, sympiesometers, vacuum pump oil barometer, aneroid barometers and barographs.
A mercury barometer measures atmospheric pressure in a certain location and has a vertical glass tube closed at the top sitting in an open mercury-filled basin at the bottom. On 5 June 2007, a European Union directive was enacted to restrict the sale of mercury, thus effectively ending the production of new mercury barometers.
Barometer making was once a large industry in the UK and is now reduced to very few individuals.
Traditional barometers have now largely been replaced by microelectromechanical systems (or MEMS) barometers, which are extremely small devices between 1 and 100 micrometres in size (0.001 to 0.1 mm) and are used in smart phones, miniaturized weather stations, electronic barometers and altimeters.
Compasses and Navigational Instruments
The magnetic compass, in navigation or surveying, is an instrument for determining direction on the surface of Earth by means of a magnetic pointer that aligns itself with Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic compass is the oldest and most familiar type of compass and is used in different forms in aircraft, ships, and land vehicles and by surveyors.
Over the centuries a number of technical improvements have been made in the magnetic compass. Many of these were pioneered by the English, whose large empire was kept together by naval power and who hence relied heavily upon navigational devices.
Compasses are often contained with a binnacle, a waist-high case or stand on the deck of a ship which protect the instruments.
The first photographic technologies were produced during the 1830s and 40s and would revolutionise culture and communication in the forever.
French inventor Nicéphore Niépce took the first ever photo in 1827. Eleven years later Louis Daguerre took the first snap of a human being in his pic ‘Boulevard du Temple’ and he would go on to the develop the ‘Daguerreotype’ photographic process. The British inventor Fox Talbot produced his first successful photographic images in 1834, without a camera, by placing objects onto paper brushed with light-sensitive silver chloride, which he then exposed to sunlight. This ‘calotype’ process formed the basis of almost all photography on paper up to the digital age. In 1884, American inventor George Eastman came up with an idea of the photographic roll – one of the first ever to be used in a camera. This process helped his company, Kodak, create the first mass-produced cameras ever sold and allowed the wider public access to photography.
Analogue cameras have no largely been replaces with digital technologies but there is still a demand amongst film camera and dark-room enthusiasts for vintage cameras and camera repair. Leica still manufacture a film camera and large-format cameras are produced for the specialist market.
Scientific instrument making uses a wide range of precision skills including engineering, woodwork, glass work and metal work.
There are various types of barometer:
- Mercury – no longer made although some repairs possible
- Aneroid – still made as decorative items by Comitti
- Barograph making
- Thermometer making
- Sympiesometer making
- Thermoscope making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Many scientific and optical instruments have been superseded by digital instruments.
Training issues: There is no funding available to take on apprentices.
- Legislative issues: Mercury has been banned in barometers since 2008. This means that no new mercury barometers can be made or sold.
Craftspeople currently known
For all of these crafts there will be specialist companies working in repair and restoration in addition to the following makers.
- Brian Walker – at B Cooke & Sons
Sylvester Perera – apprentice to Brian Walker at B Cooke & Sons
- Intrepid Cameras – large format analogue cameras
Note: Francis Barker & Son were notable as a supplier of precision equipment to allied forces in Europe during the Great War and Second World War, particularly compasses and sextants. Francis Barker & Son is now a trademark of Pyser Optics who specialise in precision military grade instruments.
Waugh, Tessa, (2018) ‘The barometer-maker: “The oldest one we’ve worked on here was dated 1705 – well before the internet or TV weather forecasts.”‘, in Country Life.
- Jones, Huw, (2007), ‘EU bans mercury in barometers, thermometers’, in Reuters.
- YouTube Video Made in Britain: COMITTI – The Navigator Clock
- Wikipedia entry on barometers.