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What's In Store: Scientific Instruments and Watches

Brass watch movement by William McCabe, Newry, c.1780. DM:1930.26

Visitors to the What's In Store? gallery can explore Museum collections normally kept in storage. Read more about the collection of scientific instruments, surveyors’ compasses and watches featured in this gallery.

The earliest surviving scientific instruments in Ireland date to the 17th Century. The increased use of brass instead of wood ensured a higher survival rate of instruments and gradually the skill of instrument making developed, particularly in Dublin. Gabriel Stokes, Deputy Surveyor of Ireland in the 1750s, is one of the earliest recorded makers. Other names include Thomas Cave and Alexander Stephens. Most surviving instruments date to the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Well-known makers include Seward, Spear, Mason and Yeates.

Surveyors’ compasses were particularly in demand and there are many examples in the collection. Octants, sextants, microscopes, telescopes and mathematical instruments were produced in increasing numbers, as navigation, astronomy and the sciences developed and expanded.

During the late 19th Century Irish makers found it increasingly difficult to compete with British mass production and were gradually reduced to the role of retailers. An exception was the Dublin firm of Grubb, whose telescopes and precision instruments were internationally renowned. The business survived until 1918 when it was transferred to England, bringing to an end an entire era of Irish instrument making.

The Museum’s collection was considerably enhanced when the extensive Egestorff collection of instruments was acquired in the mid-1990s.

The story of watch making in Ireland is similar to that of scientific instruments. In the 18th Century, watches were produced in the cities and towns of Ireland, especially in Ulster. By the mid 19th Century, however, watch makers were unable to compete with foreign mass production and the craft did not survive the end of the century.

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