What do an 18th century microscope, an Edison cylinder phonograph from 1905, an early De Forest radio, early IBM Apple computers, computer chips and all types of clocks have in common?
In the lobby of the University of South Carolina’s Swearingen Engineering Center, display cases are crowded with an eclectic collection said to rival that of MIT that shows the march of technology in everything from early scientific instruments, radios, televisions and computers, to everyday household items such as clocks and egg beaters.
The exhibit is the work of Carter Bays, an emeritus professor of computer science in the USC College of Engineering and Computing, and Tony Ambler, who was dean of the college from January 2011 to December 2015. What began in 2012 as two display cases at the building’s entrance has grown to a collection of 13 cabinets with more than 300 items. Freestanding items include a treadle sewing machine, a console radio, an early washing machine and a video bowling game.
Nearly all of the pieces have been collected and are owned by Carter. The remaining pieces were contributed by Tony, who is now an academic director in the Office of Economic Engagement at USC. “The items vary in value from thousands of dollars down to 50 cents,” Carter says. Many of the pieces were acquired through eBay or rescued from junk piles.
The exhibit started when Carter, who retired from teaching in 2002, paid a courtesy visit to the then new dean. Both men share not only academic careers in engineering and computing science, but also a love of antiques and collecting.
Carter, who describes himself as an antiquarian, has been a collector all of his life. While teaching at USC, he also became part owner of a large antique mall in Pennsylvania and began acquiring period American furniture. That led to an interest in early American sewing machines and a desire to build a collection. He is now widely regarded as the authority on the subject and is the author of The Encyclopedia of Early American & Antique Sewing Machines, which is now in its third edition.
One of Tony’s contributions is an Intel 4004 computer chip set, the first commercially available microprocessor by Intel. In 1972 as an undergraduate intern in the United Kingdom with Marconi Radio Systems, Tony’s job was to wire up the first ever samples of the Intel 4004. They had been brought to the United Kingdom for use in a military radar system. “I went out of my way to purchase that on eBay,” he says with a smile.
Tony expected the exhibit to be completed with the integrated circuits display and some of the related pieces, but Carter had bigger ideas and kept adding to it. With Tony’s help, the displays expanded over a couple of years to include a look back into the history and advancement of technology.
One thing Carter added was a large collection of antique clocks to look at the progression of technology in measuring time. “Clocks are a tremendous demonstration of how technology advances,” Tony says.
Carter adds, “People come to look at all this stuff and see things whirring around and things spinning and pendulating.” While one clock has been running for three years on a single battery, Carter stops by periodically to wind some of the others.
Radio technology is also a major part of the exhibit. Two of the prized pieces on display are a De Forest Audion — one of the first vacuum tubes — and the De Forest D10 model radio — one of his first. The vacuum tube, from 1913, came out of an experimental radio station. The first commercial radio station wasn’t launched until 1920. “This is a De Forest Audion that he made, and he was really protective about it,” Carter says, pointing to a sheet of paper in the display that details how De Forest threatened to prosecute people if they violated his patent.
Other electronic technology comes from the military. Carter points to a World War I camp telephone. “It has some leaves sitting in the top of it, which is just how I received it. I want to find out if those leaves are from France or somewhere.”
The oldest item on display is a microscope. The accompanying explanation card says: “This style, developed by Edmund Culpeper, circa 1730, was popular throughout much of the 18th century. It was the earliest design that utilized a reflecting mirror to aim light through a specimen, thus eliminating the requirement that the instrument has to point directly at a light source.” Each of the items on display is accompanied by a similar card, the product of Carter’s research.
A portion of the exhibit is devoted to household technology. A Regina vacuum cleaner from 1910 not only demonstrates that year’s technology, but also cultural roles. The vacuum is a two-person operation; one person would pump the container to provide suction, while another person would run the vacuum head across the floor. Carter says an ad for the machine shows a man operating the vacuum, while a woman does the pumping.
The household display also demonstrates that new technology is not necessarily always better. The common egg-beater is one such example. The eggbeater invented in the mid 1800s is basically the same egg better used today.