The Whipple Museum takes its name from Robert Stewart Whipple (1871-1953) who presented his collection of 1000 scientific instruments, and a similar number of rare books, to the University in 1944.
Robert Stewart Whipple had a life-long connection with the world of scientific instruments. His father, George Mathews Whipple, was a scientist and later superintendent of the Royal Observatory at Kew. Whipple himself started his working life as an assistant at Kew and later left to become assistant manager at the well known instrument maker L. P. Casella. He came to Cambridge in 1898 as personal assistant to Horace Darwin (youngest son of Charles Darwin), the founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Whipple rose to become Managing Director of the firm and later its Chairman.
Whipple was also involved in various learned societies and institutions; he was a Founder-Fellow of the Institute of Physics, a Fellow of the Physical Society, where he served as Vice-President and Honorary Treasurer, and President of the British Optical Instrument Manufacturers' Association, amongst others. His interest in the practice of science lead him to amass an outstanding collection of antique scientific instruments. As Whipple himself said:
I little thought when I bought an old telescope, for the sum of 10 francs from an antique shop in Tours in 1913, that I was embarking on the slippery slope of collecting.
Whipple was not alone in his enthusiasm for the history of science; its importance was being increasingly acknowledged by the academic world. At Cambridge in 1936 there was an exhibition of the historical scientific apparatus owned by various colleges and departments within the University. Soon after this initiative, a History of Science Lectures Committee was established. This committee, and the Cambridge Philosophical Society, were involved in negotiations concerning Whipple's wish to donate his collection to form the basis of a museum within the University. The desire for the development of the history of science as a subject of study and research was emphasised throughout, as is exemplified by the memorandum submitted to the University:
... it is important that the museum should be much more than a well arranged repository of historic scientific apparatus. It should be designed and maintained as a valuable teaching instrument and a cultural accessory to modern research.
In November 1944 an exhibition was held in the East Room of the Old Schools to mark the official presentation of Whipple's collection of scientific instruments and rare books to the University. Because of lack of space within the University's facilities, the collection was initially stored in various buildings, including the basement of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Girton College and two rooms in Corn Exchange Street. The growing collection moved in 1959 to its permanent home, the old Perse School hall. In 1973-75 extensive work restored the Perse Hall to its original form.
At the same time, a library was created for the new Department of History and Philosophy of Science. At the centre of this Library are the rare books donated by Whipple. Within this collection are publications on scientific instruments, ranging from medieval instruments for astronomical observations to early 20th-century industrial technology. The collection also includes famous works such as Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, explaining his theory of gravity and Christiaan Huygens's Horologium oscillatorium, detailing the invention of the pendulum clock.
From these promising beginnings, the rare book collection has grown substantially and now numbers 3000 volumes. In addition, the Library continues to develop a teaching and research collection that serves the Department's and University's needs.
In keeping with Robert Whipple's wishes, the History of Science Lectures Committee and the Philosophical Society of Cambridge, the Museum and Library, together play an active role in the teaching of history and philosophy of science.