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I am officially breaking my vacation silence to gush about the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, a delightful walk through the history of science and technology–textiles, engineering, photography, computing. I spent 3 hours there today with Monica and Davide, finally securing our post-museum fatigue by standing transfixed by Foucault’s pendulum.

The museum is made up of seven principal sections, presented in chronological order: scientific instruments; materials; construction; communication; energy; engineering; and transports. I was like a kid in a candy store among Lavoisier’s gasometers, Corning optical fibres, the cinematograph device by the Lumière brothers, Watt’s steam engine, Volta’s first battery, and a type 020 locomotive by Stephenson.

The Musée des Arts et Métiers is a thinking museum. Because all but a few of the pieces on display can be touched or operated, they engage your imagination as you try to figure out what the thing does and why it was designed the way it was. It was like detective work, to look at each machine and infer the problem the inventor was trying to solve and to see how he went about doing it.

I also learned a delightful little etymology today: we were up to our heads in letterpress technologies, and sitting on the floor behind glass was a portable letterpress kit, open to reveal the contents–hundreds of little letters and symbols–which folded up and could be carried like a briefcase. The case is essentially two compartments, an upper compartment and a bottom compartment. It turns out that to keep everything organized, letterpressers would put the capital letters in the upper compartment and the little letters in the bottom compartment–hence: upper and lower case.

Etymologies excite me 🙂

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