During the summer of 1765 a young German scholar, Johann Beckmann (1739-1811), embarked upon a trip to Sweden and Uppsala University. Educated at the University of Göttingen, Beckmann had previously made similar study tours through Europe during the early 1760s. In the Netherlands he had, for example, examined mines and natural history museums, and in St Petersburg he had even been invited to teach natural history at the local Lutheran gymnasium—where he also studied statistical methods of geography. Beckmann was a man of enlightenment, and in the mid 1760s he wanted to learn more about underground mining and minerals, especially at the Falun Mine (in mid Sweden) which at the time was the biggest copper mine in Europe (and hence known as the nation’s treasure chest). In addition, at Uppsala, Beckmann desired to meet and eventually be taught by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist whose claim to fame was on the immediate rise.
Today, Johann Beckmann is a well-known figure within the history of science and technology. He is regularly perceived as one of the founding fathers of science in general—der technologischen Wissenschaft—as well as the study of the history of technology. Apparently, his trip to Sweden in the mid 1760s, and meeting Linnaeus made a lasting impression: “Ohne Zweifel sind die Anregungen, die er während seines Aufenthaltes in Upsala von Linné erhielt, für seine Lebensarbeit bestimmend geworden”, it was claimed in 1911 by botanist Thedor Magnus Fries in an introduction to Beckmann’s travel diary (which Uppsala University published the same year as a centenary tribute): Johann Beckmanns schwedische Reise in den Jahren 1765-1766: Tagebuch. In his diary Beckmann described his Swedish whereabouts; his rendezvous with Linnaeus, his impressions of the small university town of Uppsala, as well as notes from his travels throughout the country where Beckmann displayed a particular interest with contemporary technological improvements at various mines: “14. Sept. fuhren wir … in das berühmte Fahlun, welche Stadt nicht anders aussieht, als wenn sie die Residenz des Vulcans wäre.” In Falun, Beckmann inspected mining techniques and machines. One water-powered mine hoist, designed by “der ehemalige Kunstmeister Rundin, ein Schüler des grossen Polhems” was particularly impressive. In addition, Beckmann made a visit to the Sala silvermine. “Abends um 5 Uhr kamen wir wieder in Stockholm”, he confessed after one of his mining tourist trips. “Überhaupt muss ich noch von dieser Reise anmerken, dass fast alle wohlhabende Schweden, ehe sie aus ihrem Vaterlande reisen, diese Bergwerke besehn, so wie auch die mehrsten Ausländer.”
It might come as a surprise, but in his Swedish travel diary, Beckmann made no particular remarks to the nation’s finest and most important predecessor within the mining-invention-trade: the scientist and pre-industrial inventor, Christopher Polhem (1661-1751). Polhem had passed away some 15 years earlier when Beckmann visited Sweden, yet his reputation and memory was still kept in high esteem. During the early 1700s Polhem had redesigned and made a number of mechanical improvements at the Falu Mine; in addition—at the nearby village of Stjärnsund—he had set up a preindustrial community with a semi-automated factory powered entirely by water. Nevertheless, Polhem was only mentioned by Beckmann when he vividly describes the so called, Royal Model Chamber [Kongl. Modellkammaren] in Stockholm in his diary. “Die Modelkammer ist auf dem alten Schlosse und verdienet von einem jeden Liebhaber der Physik und Mathematik besehn zu werden”, Beckmann avidly stated. “Sie wurde zuerst von Polhem angelegt, dessen Maschinen doch nicht alle hier sind, weil sie im Brand verlohren gegangen.” The Royal Swedish Model Chamber was precursor to Polhem’s so called, Laboratorium mechanicum, a collection of educational models of wood of contemporary equipment, machines and building structures, water gates, hoistings and locks, invented (mostly) by Polhem between roughly 1690 and 1730. Basically, the Laboratorium mechanicum was a facility for training Swedish engineers, as well as a laboratory for testing and exhibiting Polhem’s models and designs. Initially it was located at Stjärnsund, but later Polhem’s models (and others) were assembled in Stockholm to form a Swedish institution (funded by the king) for information and dissemination of technology set up in central Stockholm.
The Laboratorium mechanicum was established in 1756 at the fashionable Wrangels Palace on Riddarholmen in Stockholm. Later the name was altered into, Kongl. Modellkammaren (hereafter The Royal Swedish Model Chamber.) The institution was open to the public—and hence to Beckmann as well—and counted as one of the finest physical model collections in Europe. When Beckmann made his visit during autumn 1765, the model chamber had been in operation for a decade: “Es ist ein sehr grosser Saal, auf welchem mehr als 100 Modelle stehn”, he asserted. “Die mehrsten sind mechanische, einige gehören zur Experimental Physik, und einige wenige sind Modelle von Kirchen und Pallasten.” Following Beckmann, a few people were employed at the model chamber to serve as some kind of guides—“es sind beständige und geschickte Arbeiter da”—but they were also working and crafting new models as well. During his visit, Beckmann seems to have been introduced to the collection by a certain, “H. Prof. Wilke”, who apparently used some of the models in his lectures. Johan Wilcke (1732-1796)—a German-Swedish experimental physics working at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences—also told Beckmann that the existence (and most likely funding) of the model chamber had recently been harshly debated: “Man hatte vor einigen Wochen auf dem Reichstage die Modellkammer als eine unnütze Geldverschwendung abschaffen wollen, bis einer sich die Mühe genommen, einige der vor nehmsten votirenden dahin zu führen und ihnen den Nutzen ad oculum zu demonstriren.” Funding was hence secured, and Wilcke continued by presenting Beckmann with some of the real treasures of the model chamber, Polhem’s mechanical alphabet [mekaniska alfabetet]. These small wooden models were built to illustrate different mechanical principles. Initially, Polhem’s alphabet consisted of some 80 models of machine elements like the lever, the wheel and the screw. Some had gone astray, but Beckmann seems to have understood the basic ideas behind these wooden models immediately: “Das so genante mechanische ABC war artig, es waren nämlich kleine Modelle von allen Arten der Bewegungen und einfachen Maschinen, die die Anfangsgründe der ganzen Mechanik enthielten.”
According to Christopher Polhem, mechanics was the foundation of all knowledge: “mechaniken är en grund och fundament til heela philosophien”, as he stated in one of his many unpublished manuscripts. As a pre-industrial inventor working during the early 1700s, he sincerely believed that physical models were always superior to drawings and abstract representations. Since a writer naturally had to know the alphabet in order to create words and sentences, Polhem argued that a contemporary mechanicus had to grasp his mechanical alphabet to be able to construct and understand machines. In a few short words, these were Polhem’s main ideas for constructing and establishing the different wooden models in his alphabet.
Swedish historians of science, however, have had a hard time to figure out exactly what kind of letters (or sentences) that Polhem’s mechanical alphabet actually referred to. Without a doubt, the small wooden models physical concreteness and enigmatic character have contributed to the fame of the collection. During the latter half of the 18th century the models attracted increasing attention—as apparent, even from foreign visitors as Beckmann. At first, Polhem’s mechanical alphabet was exhibited at the Royal Swedish Model Chamber. In 1802, however, a fire devastated part of Wrangels Palace. Most models were saved and transferred to a newly established pedagogical institution of science, Mekaniska skolan [School of Mechanics] located in central Stockholm—which eventually in 1827 became, Teknologiska Institutet (an institution which today is better known as KTH Royal Institute of Technology). During the 19th century both the model chamber and Polhem’s mechanical alphabet were hence used as pedagogical equipment during the establishment of KTH, Sweden’s first polytechnic and prime institution of higher education in technology. Eventually, all models became dated. Around 1930, Polhem’s mechanical alphabet—and other remaining artefacts from the model chamber—were transferred to the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology.
The Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm was founded in 1924; it opened to the public i 1936, and ever since the late 1930s, Polhem’s models were exhibited as a kind of meta-museological artifacts. Polhem’s alphabet, in short, fitted neatly in different exhibitions—both in Stockholm and at the Mining Museum in Falun (where some models were located)—since they were small and displayable, and could easily be framed as pedagogical museological objects avant la lettre. The cultural-historical and pedagogical significance of Polhem’s mechanical alphabet has, thus, been important as a prime model collection concerning the history of technology and science, both as a pedagogical tool and as a way of displaying and visualising principles of technology. At a time today, when heritage institutions are exploring how 3D technologies can broaden access to their collections—in a similar way that physical models did before—it hence seemed appropriate to use Polhem’s alphabet as a case in point. As is well known, the technologies “needed to digitize, publish, and print cultural heritage resources in three dimensions (3D) are increasingly within reach of memory institutions.” By and large, 3D digitisation activities within the heritage sector are still in their infancy (and this is particularly the case with Sweden). Yet, if previously the costs of 3D technologies created barriers for adoption, as of recent “the combination of low-cost digital cameras, new laser-based scanning systems, and the computational power needed to process large quantities of capture data” has brought them within reach of the heritage domain.
Within the new interdisciplinary research project, “Digital Models. Techno-historical collections, digital humanities & narratives of industrialisation” parts of Polhem’s mechanical alphabet is currently being both 3D scanned and 3D reconstructed by different software. The project is a collaboration between the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology, with a national responsibility for technical and industrial heritage, and the digital humanities hub, Humlab at Umeå University. Based on selected parts of the museum’s collections the project aim is to explore the potential of digital technologies to reframe Swedish industrialisation and its stories about society, people and environments. Situated at the the intersection between digitising archives and visualising history, the project however mainly interrogates the specificity of digitisation—with the ultimate goal of developing a methodology of high relevance for the cultural heritage sector. In many ways, the research project “Digital Models” departs from William J. Turkel’s argument that “the process of digitization creates a representation that shares some of the attributes of an original”—but as he states: “not all of them.” Which attributes that are preserved or displayed, “is not an essential trait of digitization per se, only of a particular process.”