The Government-Surplus Machines That Power a Cutting-Edge Science Museum

The Exploratorium in San Francisco is a magical place, full of interactive exhibits that will make you lose track of time. The machines that power the exhibits, and those used to build the exhibits, are almost as fascinating as the exhibits themselves. Although not part of the interactive experience, the museum’s workshop is on display, too. Mechanical engineer Tom Tompkins is used to being watched by Exploratorium patrons as he goes about his work. He tells us about his 40 years at the museum, many of which he spend procuring the machines they use.

“By the time I got to the Exploratorium,” he continues, “we had National Science Foundation [NSF] grants for exhibit development. Because we were an NSF contractor, we were able to get our hands on ‘federal excess personal property’ through the General Services Administration [GSA]. During the Carter presidency, after the war in Vietnam had wound down, the West Coast was awash with machinery. The GSA was willing to shuffle this stuff off to educational institutions whenever they could—they sent us weekly catalogs of everything that was available. Essentially, we got a lot of this equipment just by paying the freight, which was a great deal, except for a couple of heavy mistakes.”

Like the one time he ordered a small instrument and got a 1,500-pound machine built in the 1930s! After paying that freight bill, Tompkins began inspecting cast-off government equipment before ordering. Many of the machines used at the Exploratorium are antiques, or even historic. But that’s not what they are for.

“As a museum,” he says, “we’re a teaching institution not a collecting institution. We don’t take care of things like a collecting institution would. Years ago, a woman in San Francisco really wanted us to have her collection of scales. It was an amazing collection, with scales going back to ancient Assyria. So I sent her in to talk to Frank. Afterwards, when I asked him how it went, he said, ‘I told her she can give them to us if she wants, but we won’t take care of them.’

“Frank,” in this case, is Frank Oppenheimer, the founder of the Exploratorium and younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Read more great stories about the Exploratorium and the machinery behind the exhibits at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Amy Snyder)

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