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Experimenting with soot and shellac
Photo by Colleen MacPherson
The date marked on the top of this smoked drum kymograph is 1971, so it’s not ancient, but it is old enough to demonstrate just how far technology has advanced in recent times.
The kymograph currently resides in the office of Dr. William Albritton, dean of the College of Medicine, who is collecting outdated pieces of equipment in anticipation of displaying them once the Academic Health Sciences building project is complete. This particular artifact – a recording device for physiological and pharmacological experiments – takes Albritton back to his own days as a medical student.
Here’s how it works. The kymograph is accompanied by a smudge pot that, when lit, produced black smoke. Strips of paper were held over the smudge pot until coated in soot, Albritton explained. The paper was then attached to the drum, the kymograph turned on and, as a drum rotated, a stylus would etch into the soot whatever was being measured – blood pressure, heart beat, respirations. In the photo, right, tracing lines can be seen on the soot-coated drum paper, as can various fingerprints and smears.
To preserve the results, the paper was carefully removed from the kymograph, dipped in a vat of shellac and hung to dry. Combining soot and shellac meant experiments involving the kymograph were what Albritton described as “some kind of messy.”