Project (2004-2005)

Brass Instrument Psychology: Timing—1840–1940

The term “brass instrument psychology,” a common term used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to describe laboratory psychology, shows the centrality of scientific instruments in the origin and development of experimental psychology. The discipline arose in the mid-nineteenth century at the juncture of a set of problems shared by physics, physiology, and philosophy.

These problems included the relationship between changes in the physical world and the experience of those changes, the limits of sensory experience, the nature of sensory qualities, the speed of reaction to physical stimuli, the nature of error in judgment and action, the perception of time, the relationship between bodily changes and emotion, and the locus of sensory and motor activity in the nerves and brain, just to name a few. The success of the new experimental physiology with its use of increasingly accurate and careful laboratory methods and instrumentation became a significant model for the new experimental psychologists.

Because of the centrality of scientific instruments in the manipulation and control of stimuli used in early experimental psychology, an understanding of their origins, uses and limitations is essential to the understanding of the successes and limitations of the discipline itself. Because experimental psychology arose at the juncture of those other scientific disciplines, a study of instruments they used in common also casts light on the development of those disciplines in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Since the sources of scientific instruments used by early experimental psychology were varied, the history of such instruments also casts light on the transfer of technology from one scientific discipline to another, indeed often from such scattered sources as artillery trajectory research and the determination of longitude.

The development of instruments discussed in this work and their influence on the development of psychology are those used for research and demonstration . The time span selected is roughly from the publication of E.H. Weber’s De Tactu in 1834 up through the publication of R. S, Woodworth’s Experimental Psychology in 1938, and the C.H. Stoelting Company instrument catalogue of 1939.

This project had to do with the experience of time and time reactions, one of the starting points for experimental psychology. Specifically, the topics were:

  1. Time measurement. These are time measuring devices, including chronoscopes, chronographs, kymographs, and similar devices.
  2. Time production instruments. These are devices that produce timed stimuli. They included pendulums, gravity fall devices, clockwork markers, multiple interval timers, and electromagnetic time marking devices. They include both stimulus devices and calibration devices.
  3. Response devices. These are represented primarily by keying devices beginning with the Morse telegraphic key and including lip keys, voice keys, and other similar devices.

In order to make full use of new technology in the presentation of graphic materials, this timing section of the larger work was created to be published online, as part of the Virtual Laboratory. It made use of links to original sources in the Virtual Library of the Virtual Laboratory of Life, both textual and graphic. It also included virtual reality photographs of many of the instruments so that they could be rotated and even manipulated online.