Artifact Corner: Victorian Desk Thermometer

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another Artifact Corner. Today we will be looking at this table or desk top thermometer, comprised of a figure holding a shield and an axe. All of the pieces are cast metal, covered in gilt, and then screwed together. The thermometer is affixed to the shield, and along side it are etched the temperatures ranging from 40 to 80 degrees. Clearly this thermometer was meant to be used indoors. This piece is Victorian and came to us via the Webb family. Let’s take a look at the history of thermometers.

The first attempt to measure temperature was a device called a thermoscope, and was invented by Galileo between 1592 to 1593. This device used a tube filled with liquid, most often water. The water would descend in the tube as it got hotter and would rise in the tube as the temperature got colder. This system of determining temperature was very rudimentary, as it only told you that it was getting warmer or colder outside. There was no actual measurement of the thermal conditions. In 1638, Robert Fludd made a thermoscope with a scale, which could be considered the first iteration of a thermometer. Now, you could tell the temperate up to a certain level of degree. About five years later in 1643, one of Galileo’s students, Evangelista Torricelli, invented the barometer. A barometer is used to measure air pressure and used to predict changes in weather patterns. His new invention used mercury to measure these atmospheric changes, which would become important to development of thermometers later on.

The thermometer that we would recognize today was invented in 1709 by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit. Fahrenheit was born in a German speaking section of Poland in 1686. He was a physicist who spent most of his life in the Netherlands devoted to the development of meteorological instruments. In 1709 he developed a thermometer that used alcohol as the liquid for measuring temperature. In 1714 he created the mercury in glass thermometers that we have all likely seen. This new thermometer was far more accurate than any of it’s predecessors. This meant that the temperature could be measured with certainty. Fahrenheit also developed the scale that Americans still use to this day to measure temperature. Fahrenheit established that 32 degrees is the freezing point and 212 degrees is the boiling point for water.

Today we use very little mercury in our thermometers due to it’s harmful health effects. Most modern thermometers use alcohol or spirit based solutions. Even more thermometers are now digital, which contain no mercury whatsoever. Our little desk thermometer does contain mercury, because it was made more than 150 years ago, and health and safety standards have changed dramatically since the Victorian era. We do have some patina on the artifact, but overall, it is in good condition. We hope you enjoyed this look back at the history of thermometers. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music by Benjamin Tissot,