If you like astrolabes, Oxford is the place for you. There are 170 of them in the History of Science Museum. And not just astrolabes. There are also (according to Christopher and Edward Hibbert’s magisterial Encyclopædia of Oxford) ‘armillary spheres, orreries, globes, equatoria, quadrants, sun-dials, instruments of navigation and telescopes’, plus sextants, microscopes and optical devices. Together they constitute a collection of early astronomical and mathematical instruments unrivalled in Britain.

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They are displayed, moreover, in one of Oxford’s most beautiful buildings. It’s the original Ashmolean museum in Broad Street, designed to house Elias Ashmole’s collection, and said to be the first purpose-built public museum in Britain. It was opened in 1683 by the Duke of York, later the ill-fated King James II, whose crowned crest is carved on the glorious north facade with its steeply rising, portalled staircase.

Such a splendid building, possibly inspired by Christopher Wren’s design for the Royal Society in London, reminds us that science can be a beautiful as well as practical endeavour. The buildings on the twentieth century science park half a mile away are decidedly dull by contrast.

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Science in Oxford goes back a very long way. But if you had to pick one treasure from the entire Museum it would have to be something more recent than an astrolabe.

Einstein’s Blackboard. It dates from 1931: 16thMay to be precise. For that was the occasion when the great physicist gave a lecture (one of three in Oxford) on Relativity. Standing before it, you can somehow conjure up his whiskery presence and hear the squeak of the chalk as he wrote equations for measuring the expansion, density, radius and age of the universe.

One eager student liked the lecture so much he made off with the entire blackboard – and subsequently presented it to the museum where it stands to this day. Apparently, it has not been varnished or preserved in any way. No zealous cleaner has mistakenly tried to dust it. The chalk hasn’t crumbled. It’s just as it was in Professor Einstein’s time – a black and white reminder of Oxford’s great scientific as well as literary tradition.

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Andrew Robinson has written more than twenty-five books on a truly impressive range of subjects – including a biography of Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, and of the polymath Thomas Young: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. He has kindly sent the article below on ‘Einstein in Oxford’, first published in University College’s Martlet magazine.
Tony Simcock, former Archivist at the History of Science Museum, writes with an important corrective.

I’m pleased to read your ‘Einstein’s Blackboard’ – tho’ it’s a shame you missed the fact that a cleaner actually DID wipe one of them, in the Museum. The Museum originally had two … I broke silence some years ago by adding it to the Museum’s online catalogue. There’s something wrong with the database; it doesn’t offer links to individual pages for some reason, so the only way I can take you to it is via the ‘search’ page https://hsm.ox.ac.uk/database and search for inventory number 11714 (Einstein Blackboard No.2, 1931; no picture!)

We also notice that in 2005 the History of Science Museum mounted an exhibition in which celebrities (including Tony Benn, Raymond Blanc, Glenda Jackson, and Bobby Robson) were encouraged to write their own blackboards. It makes for interesting reading: https://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/blackboard/