Even Time Has a History

HARTING THE COURSE An occasional series on undergraduate classes

Though most Harvard students will never have the time to study time itself, those enrolled in History of Science 117: "Instruments of Time and Space" are doing just that this semester.

Students taking this class learn about the history of time and time measurement, from their earliest beginnings to the modern era, and use many of the University's resources for a handson approach to the subject matter.

The class, which meets on Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m., is taught in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments in the basement of the Science Center.

Many of the collection's instruments will be used for teaching purposes, said David S. Landes, Coolidge professor of history and professor of economics, who is teaching the class with Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments William J.H. Andrewes, who is also a preceptor in history of science.

"Students will have a chance to look at, open and examine some of these clocks and watches," Landes says.


Projects during the semester will also require students to build models of some earlier time-keeping instruments to learn what makes them tick.

"When you have to build an instrument, you really learn what makes it go," Landes says.

Many students say the hands-on experiences this class will provide are unique and not found in many other classes.

"It's great to be in a class where you are actually working hands-on with historical pieces of technology," says Jeff D. Krauss '97, a history of science concentrator. "I've heard about this museum for a long time and [taking this class] is a good way to come in and see all the pieces."

Thomas F. Haas '97, a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator who is taking this class as an elective, agrees.

"It appeals to me because you get a better feel for the material when you are dealing with the real objects," he said.

Students also say the class combines many different fields of study and thus draws a wide spectrum of interests.

"I wanted to take [this course] because it is interdisciplinary and it combines fields like astronomy [and] mathematics with cartography and gadgetry," says Alissa K. Wall '97, an Earth and Planetary Sciences concentrator.

"It's neat to work with the collection," she said. "I was always looking for a way to get my hands on these things."

On the first day of class, even though about 30 students shopped the class, only 12 were eventually permitted to enroll. Of those, about six were accepted as auditors, according to Martha R. Richardson, assistant to the curator.

The class size was limited due to constraints imposed by the space available and the handson and project-based nature of the course, Richardson says.

Landes, who says he developed a very early interest in the subject matter, said it captivated him when he started collecting time-keeping instruments himself.

"It's proved to be an extraordinary window on larger issues of technology and social values," Landes says. "It touches on so many dif- ferent aspects of life and work that people can use it very effectively as a device for understanding people and societies, or even personalities."

Since the class covers time measurement into the modern era, students will also have an opportunity to visit the laboratory of Robert F. Vessot, associate of the Harvard College Observatory. Vessot works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics--one of the leaders in building atomic clocks, Landes says.

In addition, Norman F. Ramsey, Higgins professor of physics emeritus, who received the 1989 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on atomic time-keeping, will also visit the class.

"It is a very enjoyable class to teach and it is a fun subject," Landes says. "The students are not just doing it for credit, they really enjoy it; proof of the fact that we enjoy it is that I'm teaching it even though I'm retired.