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Mystery objects on display in the NIST museum. Credit: F. Webber/NIST

Frances Webber, Public Affairs Specialist, NIST Public Affairs Office

Right now, the 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 lightbulb? 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 NBS, that 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 of 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
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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
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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

We’ll post pictures of other mysterious doohickeys on a regular basis. In the meantime, let us know what you think these things might be in the comments!

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on June 14, 2017.

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About the Author

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.

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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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