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Wilhelm Fuessl, Deutsches Museum Archives

"The preparation of an online catalogue of scientific photographs of Ernst Mach"

The Deutsches Museum Archives

The Deutsches Museum Archives are considered the leading archives for natural science and technology in Germany.[1] The Archives contain approximately 4,500 linear meters of original documents and special collections. The main holdings consist of about 250 collections of papers of important natural scientists, technicians, and engineers (including the Nobel Prize winners Wilhelm Wien, Ferdinand Braun, and Hermann Staudinger[2]), and include the archives of the Polytechnical Society for Bavaria covering the period from 1815 to 1938 and the archives of the Association of German Natural Scientists and Doctors which – founded in 1822 – remains to this day the leading interdisciplinary scientific association in Germany. Other outstanding holdings are the archives of the Military Research Institute in Peenemünde, dating from 1939 to 1945, and documents of the German atomic research program during the National Socialist era. Also included in the Archives is a special collection unique in Germany: trade literature covering over 14,000 firms, with product descriptions, price lists, sample catalogues, manuals, and so on. The photographic archives contain around 750,000 images.

The collection of papers of natural scientists forms part of central holdings of the Deutsches Museum Archives[3]. The collection’s main emphases are the fields of history of physics and history of chemistry, computer science, mechanical engineering, and aeronautics. These collections comprise a total of about 1,100 linear meters.

Cataloging Archival Collections in Germany

The customary cataloging of archival collections in Germany is based on the description of individual records by title, time period, and contents. Letters are almost never individually cataloged. This practice differs from that of the manuscript departments of German libraries where their “Rules for the Cataloging of Autographs”[4] provides a useful tool to guide their efforts.

Only the manuscript collection in the Deutsches Museum Archives has been described and catalogued in accordance with library practice, a collection of around 20,000 individual letters, handwritten documents, and some selected scientists’ papers, too, totaling about 100,000 individual documents. This is a very small portion of our entire holdings. Such extensive cataloguing of papers is generally only possible when supplementary funding is available, for example from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. In recent years, a portion of the individually registered letters of the Deutsches Museum has been registered in the Central Catalogue of German Autographs in Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek. Begun as a card catalog, it is now being transferred to computer. The project is known as “Kalliope.” Presently around 470,000 letters can be researched using Kalliope.

The search mask clearly shows that the usual form for registering documents is followed:

Reference number

Type of document

Author of the letter

Recipient of the letter




Documentation from the institution possessing the document.

“Kalliope” is thus a classic documentation system for individual letters.

Since “Kaliope” provides only formal catalog descriptions of letters or manuscripts without making the entire letter available to be read online, the Deutsches Museum has initiated a project that goes a step further. The basis of this project[5] is the papers of the theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld who taught in Munich, after whom the science oriented Sommerfeld School is named. In addition to a formal description of each letter, the “Catalog of the Arnold Sommerfeld Papers” project has produced keywords of the contents of all the letters and has digitized each letter. The letters can be searched online using both formal criteria and descriptions of contents. Scanned images of the letters themselves are also available to the degree allowed by German law.

Here you can see the search mask and the results of a search on Jan Rubinowicz.

Notice how both the search result and the hits show not only letters that Rubinowicz wrote or that were written to him, but also those in which his name appears in the letter’s contents (for example that Jan Rubinowicz was mentioned in a letter of Arnold Sommerfeld to Adalbert Rubinowicz, dated January 1st, 1932). The hits can be clicked on individually and a thumbnail appears that can then be enlarged.

The projects just briefly described concentrate especially on the communication of scientific correspondence. There is no doubt that the correspondence, manuscripts, and publications of scientists, as well as their scientific notebooks, are of outstanding importance for research in the history of science and technology. But despite this, it is my impression that these documents are sometimes overemphasized, to the detriment of other objects found among scientific papers. In my experience as the archivist of the Deutsches Museum Archives, it is exactly those documents that are not in written form, that are often given a secondary role in the cataloging practices of many archives and libraries. Among these non-written objects are material samples, photographs, films, computer analyses, and software. Such documents are sometimes only superficially cataloged. Frequently they are not even transferred into the archives. This is especially true of material samples. Also the scientific instruments, with which scientific and technological results were obtained, are generally not included in archival or library collections. Maybe the reason why such non-written document forms were rarely if ever found in the classical collections of papers of the nineteenth century, whereas in recent decades they assumed an increasingly important role. Thus progress is needed in the methodology of how to catalog such objects in order to make them more accepted and available as sources for scientific research. In terms of the theory of knowledge, however, they are of great importance in evaluating scientists, technicians, and engineers.

The Example of Ernst Mach

The next example concentrates on a relatively straightforward category of non-written sources, the collection of scientific photographs among papers. Whereas in the history of art photographs play a dominant role, a similar tendency is not yet apparent in the history of science and technology. Only in the last few years has there been a growing interest in scientific photography. One reason why they have been so seldom used in research until now is that many images in photographic collections exist only as glass plates or slides. In many cases, their problematic state of preservation alone renders them useless to researchers. An additional problem lies in the fact that - at least in Germany - the scientific photography collections of various institutions are not yet accessible through online catalogs. In many cases, the photographic documentation of scientific activities is missing entirely when scientific papers are transferred into archives.

In 1998 the papers of the physicist Ernst Mach (1838-1916) were handed over to the Archives of the Deutsches Museum. Mach was one of the most creative researchers of his time. He worked as a scientist in the fields of optics, acoustics, ballistics, and gas dynamics, and his theory of cognition became very important. Later Mach concentrated on physiology and the history of physics. Between 1999 and 2001 our archivists catalogued and produced a voluminous printed inventory of his papers[6]. Among these are nearly 950 original photographs taken by Mach and his colleagues between 1885 and 1895.

Some examples:

Already during the cataloging it was obvious that access to the photographic material among the papers was very limited for researchers, since most of the images were exposed on glass plates. But at the same time, there is great demand for Mach’s scientific photographs in many different disciplines. Mach plays an important role in the history of scientific photography and in wave dynamics. In order to assist researchers working on Mach, the Archives has therefore begun a new project in the past few months, the ‘Online Catalogue of Scientific Photographs of Ernst Mach’. The first results are already available. When the project is finished it will be the first time ever that the complete photographic collection of a scientist will be available online.

Our ultimate goal is to make the entire collection of 942 photographic plates in the Mach papers available to users in a convenient form. The project will also provide support for the researcher on site as well as for the online user. To this end, we have digitized all the photographic originals. The reproduction equipment included a professional reflex camera (Nikon D1X) with six Megapixel resolution and corresponding interchangeable lenses for close range shots. All the images were individually prepared and reviewed. The originals were generally photographed with 300 dpi. Each image is between ten and nineteen megabytes in size.

From the digital data four black and white images of each original were printed on photographic paper. These prints will soon be available to visitors in the reading room of the Deutsches Museum Archives. Visitors to the reading room can pursue their research using the registry of photographs in the printed Mach-Findbuch as well as the prints.

The primary target group for this project is not the Archives visitor in Munich, however, but the virtual user on the Internet. Thus we have entered the catalogue descriptions of the 950 photographs into a special database and linked them to their respective images. A few weeks ago this database was made available on the world wide web.

At the moment the user can make queries on a searchmask, but a left and right truncation option is planned. At present around 480 images can be researched and the remainder will be available shortly. Specific keyword suggestions for searches are not yet listed, nor is there an English translation at this point. The query ‘Welle’ (‘wave’ or ‘soundwave’), for example, produces 97 hits.

The thumbnails in the preview can be enlarged into images with good resolution.

In the upcoming weeks we will make an alphabetical keyword list available to the user that should facilitate research. In a further step, many photos will be able to be juxtaposed next to each other on one screen so that the viewer can compare images. And we also plan to make it possible to research the images using the historical classification numbers given by Ernst Mach and his son Ludwig; this should help to reveal thematic as well as chronological relationships. The original classification numbers can be found on almost all the images among Ernst Mach’s papers. A comparison with other collections in the Archives of the Deutsches Museum has also shown that Ernst Mach also sent numerous photographs to scientific colleagues throughout the world. In these other collections photographs with Mach’s original classification numbers can be found. For example, among the papers of Friedrich Ahlborn (1858-1937) Head of the Hydrodynamic Research Station at the Berlin-Adlershof Airplane Works from 1914 to 1918, we have found a number of Mach’s photographs. We also hope to discover more examples of Mach’s photographs in other external archival collections in the future, and in this way be able to compile a complete virtual catalog of Mach’s photographic images.

The virtual collection of Mach photographs should provide a starting point in the future for enlarging the fund of scientific photographs in general. Our next project is the digitizing of microscopic photographs in the fields of chemistry and botany. We plan to limit the digitizing of photographs to those from the period between around 1880 and 1920. This is based on our assumption that the scientific photography of this period had a profound influence on human perception and knowledge of natural science. It was our desire with the Ernst Mach project to contribute to research focusing on scientific work at the turn of the century and on the visualization of research results. But we have to realize that the photography collection here at the Deutsches Museum Archives can only make a limited contribution to such research. A network for registering national and international collections of scientific photographs does not yet exist. Without one, research in the history of science will continue to neglect these kinds of sources.

[1] Wilhelm Füßl / Eva A. Mayring: Eine Schatzkammer stellt sich vor. Das Archiv des Deut­schen Museums zu Naturwissenschaft und Technik. München 1994; Wilhelm Füßl / Eva A. Mayring: The Archives and Special Collections of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, in: Science & Technology Libraries 14, 1994, 7-16.

[2] Stephan Diller / Wilhelm Füßl / Rudolf Heinrich (Bearbeiter): Katalog des wissenschaftlichen Nachlasses von Hermann Staudinger (Veröffentlichungen aus dem Archiv des Deutschen Museums, Bd. 1), München 1995.

[3] See the overview under:


[5] Michael Eckert / Karl Märker (Hrsg.): Arnold Sommerfeld. Wissenschaftlicher Briefwechsel. Band 1: 1892-1918. Berlin / Diepholz / München 2000.

[6] Wilhelm Füßl / Margrit Prussat (Bearbeiter): Der wissenschaftliche Nachlass von Ernst Mach (1838-1916) (Veröffentlichungen aus dem Archiv des Deutschen Museums, Bd. 4). München 2001.