“What’s this Gadget?”: Solving Mystery Photos

We asked “What’s this Gadget?” about a set of twenty-five uncaptioned photographs from the Harris & Ewing Collection, and you definitely put on your thinking caps – or maybe your psychographs – which we learned the smiling woman below is “wearing”!

[Woman seated with a psychograph, a phrenology machine, on her head] Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1931. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.36580

[Woman seated with a psychograph, a phrenology machine, on her head] Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1931. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.36580

This previously uncaptioned photograph shows a psychograph, a phrenology machine meant to measure the shape of your head in order to determine what mental skills you possessed. We don’t know what the results were for this subject, but a number of Flickr users recognized this device, and one fellow even said he’d tried one out!

The thought-provoking image above was just one of the photographs added to our Mystery Photos album in the Library of Congress Flickr account, with the most recent batch all focused on some kind of contraption.

The amount of information located for the photo below by our diligent Flickr watchers was astounding, and all backed up with citations, photographs and other sources. We learned about both the man and the scientific gadget depicted, and the photo went from being wholly unidentified to having this detailed caption: [Charles Greeley Abbot, astrophysicist and Secretary of the Smithsonian, with his device: a silver-disc pyrheliometer which measures direct beam solar irradiance]. See the comments to this photo in Flickr.

[Charles Greeley Abbot, astrophysicist and Secretary of the Smithsonian, with his device: a silver-disc pyrheliometer which measures direct beam solar irradiance] Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1913 and 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.04702

[Charles Greeley Abbot, astrophysicist and Secretary of the Smithsonian, with his device: a silver-disc pyrheliometer which measures direct beam solar irradiance] Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1913 and 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.04702

And here, two men in white coats examining a ball turn out to be dentists using a dental X-ray machine to determine if a golf ball’s core is centered. The collaborative research by Flickr users included: websites, digitized periodicals and newspapers, other Harris & Ewing photos and even an online auction site. And of course, the starting point was careful study of the photograph and a bit of educated guesswork to get the ball rolling, so to speak!

[Dr. B.L. Taylor (left) and Dr. Walter A. Rath (right), dentists, using a dental x-ray to examine the cores of golf balls to see if they are centered] Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.43996

[Dr. B.L. Taylor (left) and Dr. Walter A. Rath (right), dentists, using a dental x-ray to examine the cores of golf balls to see if they are centered] Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.43996

Out of the twenty-five mystery photos of gadgets we added in this batch, only six remain unsolved, and even those have generated good speculation which may lead to a definitive identification. And some of the newly identified photos could still use a few more details, so keep up the clever sleuthing!

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