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Any idea what this thing is? Because we’re stumped. Credit: NIST Museum

Jason Stoughton, Leader, NIST Internal Communications and Inquiries Group, NIST Public Affairs Office

The underground storage shelves of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Museum are filled with loads of charmingly weird objects accrued throughout more than a century of scientific work. However, the original purpose of quite a few of these objects is lost in time. They are mysteries. Mysteries wrapped in riddles wrapped in … a thin layer of dust.

Welcome back to Unidentified Museum Objects, our ongoing quest to identify our basement-dwelling enigmas!

Our most-recent installment elicited many responses. Read on for their comments, along with a new batch of head-scratchers from the NIST Museum.

Item 0554 is clearly a frequency signal meter that is centered at 25 hertz. The indicator at the top is a series of reeds that have slightly different lengths. The reed that is in resonance with the input signal vibrates the most. The meter has a very narrow range, which would be consistent with using the indicators to regulate, for example, an alternator that operates at 25 hertz.

Regarding item 0554, the Pennsylvania Railroad (and others?) experimented with trains powered by 25-hertz electrical power in the early 1900s. They had a generator at Pennsylvania’s Safe Harbor Dam which generated AC power at 25 hertz for the railroad. Could be related to that.

Item 0554 is a switchboard meter that appears to have been saved as a souvenir and mounted. They were used, and some still are, at many places, such as generating stations and substations and in railroad equipment. As a test technician, I worked on the equipment at the Safe Harbor and Holtwood dams’ generating stations and at some Pennsylvania Railroad substations. I probably used an identical meter.

Item 0304 is the insides of a classical torsion galvanometer [an instrument used for detecting and measuring electric current]. It is missing a lot, including the magnet and a mirror which would be suspended below the wire coil. A projector would project light on the mirror, which would reflect back onto a scale to measure the deflection of the mirror.

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Item 0554. Credit: NIST Museum
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Item 0304. Credit: NIST Museum

New mysteries!

Item 0373:

The best guess we have for this one is “possibly a floor slip-resistance tester.” It’s also missing a leg. All I know is I don’t want to turn my back on it.

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Item 0373: If there’s a dominant alpha among the unidentified museum objects, it’s clearly this thing. Credit: NIST Museum

Item 0002:

Turns out we know a fair bit about this one, except for what it actually is or does. It was made by Enrico “Hank” Deleonibus, a former glassblower at NIST. He purportedly made it for Joseph Ritter, a NIST researcher in the Inorganic Materials Division around 1970. It’s about 27 centimeters x 5 centimeters.

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Item 0002: Is it just me or does this look like a jumbo version of one of those bubbling Christmas tree lights? Credit: NIST Museum

Item 0268:

It’s made of wood, it’s wrapped with some wire and it’s a bit bigger than a soccer ball. Perhaps a prototype device to finally get to the bottom of how that “walking the dog” yo-yo trick actually works.

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Item 0268: If Ron Swanson had been a guest researcher at NIST, I imagine he would’ve made something like this. Credit: NIST Museum

So, what are these things? Got any ideas? If you have a plausible (or funny) theory, leave it in the comments, and we’ll publish it in the next edition of Unidentified Museum Objects!

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on August 7, 2018.

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About the Author

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In addition to being an unabashed science fanboy, Jason Stoughton is a writer, photographer, video producer, and supervisory public affairs specialist at NIST. Before coming to NIST he worked in broadcast television and video production in a variety of roles from creative director to night shift dub room technician, somehow winning 11 Emmy awards in the process. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and daughter.

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NIST promotes U.S. innovation by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

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