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Fran Webber


Unidentified Museum Objects, Vol. I

Tell NIST what they are, and your name could go down in history

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2017 - 11:02

Right now, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) museum in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is displaying a glass globe the size of a large beach ball. When visitors first come upon it, they’re not sure what to make of it. Is it a giant light bulb? A highly impractical fishbowl? Thankfully, they can quickly quench their curiosity by reading the identifying sign that accompanies the object. (This particular artifact is actually for collecting gas samples.)

NIST’s museum collection includes hundreds of artifacts that tell the story of NIST and its predecessor, the National Bureau of Standards. They reflect the larger history of American scientific research. But not every item in our collection has been identified. In fact, we’re in the possession of quite a few... thingamajigs. Knowledge of these things’ original function or purpose has been lost to time. Yet the museum curators lovingly preserve these gizmos in the hope that one day their identities will be rediscovered.

And, beginning with the four unidentified objects below, they’d like your help to solve these mysteries!

Item 0266: A tripod sent by the Masters to control the human race? Or some kind of optical device manufactured by the firm Carl Zeiss of Jena, Germany? We may never know—until it’s too late. Credit: NIST Museum

Item 0305: The museum describes this artifact as an “unidentified metal disk with a ceramic tube.” One theory: It’s a piece that broke off the time machine during a Morlock sneak attack. Credit: NIST Museum

Item 0325: This electrical device is made up of a small motor and a large gear labeled “Flexo-Action. Merkle-Korff Gear Company. Chicago, IL.” A note with the device reads “Stenger. Catholic University. Space Science Lab.” Hopefully, Professor Stenger wasn’t expecting to get this back. Credit: NIST Museum

Item 0426: Although this one has a Department of Agriculture property tag, it appears to be an early (and partially mummified) prototype of Tom Servo. Credit: NIST Museum

NIST will post pictures of other mysterious doohickeys on a regular basis. In the meantime, let us know what you think these things might be.


About The Author

Fran Webber’s picture

Fran Webber

Fran Webber is, among other things, a writer at NIST. She recently received her master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri, completing her thesis research in science communications. A (more) youthful Fran dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. She’s not really sure what went wrong.


Unidentified NIST Item 0325

The item identified as 0325: "Flexo-Action. Merkle-Korff Gear Company. Chicago, IL - Stenger. Catholic University. Space Science Lab" is a motorized display turn-table. Merkle-Korff Gear Company developed the original small gear-motor in the 1920's. Since the item indicates that it  came from  the Catholic University Space Science Lab, it was most probably used as a motorized display for a variety of  items such as the solar system, planets, space vehicles, etc.