Mutated light bulbs, glass-encased scientific scales and what looked like an ancient hairdryer were perched alongside scientists, French art collectors and a lot of men wearing blue jeans and glasses Sunday morning.
The scene was the vintage laboratory equipment auction at Harvey Clars on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. The event, looking more like Frankenstein’s laboratory than a sales show, raised $34,000 which will be used primarily to buy new science equipment for physics students at UC Berkeley.
All but four of the items auctioned Sunday came from the dusty attic of the university’s physics department. The items were taken out of storage earlier this year when the science building was emptied in preparation for seismic retrofitting.
“This is a department that has not thrown anything away for 50 years,” said Thomas Colton, co-coordinator of the auction and responsible for laboratory support at UC Berkeley.
Fifty years might be an understatement. The oldest object discovered in the attic was a diffraction grating – an optical device that concentrates light waves in order to view their spectrum – dating to 1895. The grating, though, along with other items of historical importance, will form part of a university collection and was not for sale Sunday.
Amid the auction house’s usual pianos, paintings and ornate rugs, and available to weekend bidders, was a 400-piece vintage mix of leather, glass and wood that included potentiometers, voltmeters, ammeters, balances, prisms diffraction gratings and diodes.
The department first discovered the hot market for the instruments at a “test the waters” auction four weeks ago, in which 15 items raised $3,240.
“The air was electric. It was just phenomenal,” said Virginia Rapp, director of development of the physics department.
A Tinker Toy set built to model molecules sold for $220 and a demonstration-sized slide rule sold for $450. Yale statistician William Kahn purchased seven traditional-sized slide rules for $200.
“Buying them was one of the high points of my life. I actually still use my slide rules,” Kahn said.
He is not the only one who puts relics of science to use. Former Berkeley physics students Donald Shipley, 54, and Jon Ferguson, 53, both engineering consultants, bought a potentiometer – a type of electronic resistor – at the auction and immediately tested it out.
“We calibrated it against a $1,000 Hewlett Packard meter and it worked just as well,” said Shipley.
Mad-scientist hair and nerdy, black spectacles were common in the predominantly male crowd Sunday. Most of the attendees were engineers and physicists, some retired and many new to the auction experience.
“Anytime you have a specialty auction, it brings people out of the woodwork,” said auctioneer Jane Alexiadis.
The crowd also included architects, collectors, dealers and artists, who bought the equipment for aesthetic purposes or for use in their work. Before the auction began, all had gathered to squeeze, test, tap and measure the 400 retro-items.
The most expensive sale was a microscope built in 1900 that sold for $3,750. The microscope was one of the few pieces not pulled from the university attic. Susan Catmull, 50, bought the microscope for her husband, a physicist who fell in love with it at the preview.
The most expensive attic items were wooden balances. The most valuable went for $1,200.
“Everyone understands what a balance does. It is not just used in physics. It will be valuable and useful years from now,” said Ferguson at Sunday’s auction.
At the auction preview, editor of Moxi magazine Emily Hancock could not tear herself away from the balances. “They are works of art, so beautiful,” she said.
Less beautiful but much prized was the 1917 “model of the Cavendish experiment,” a wood mounted metal tower flanked by two large lead balls that sold for $350. English scientist Henry Cavendish used an identical contraption to measure the earth’s gravitational constant for the first time at the end of the 18th century.