Notes on a forthcoming article

The other day I (that is, Pelle Snickars) got a book chapter accepted for a forthcoming joint German and English book publication – with the working title, The Virtue of Models 2.0. The book is part of work being executed within the German digital humanities working group, Digitale Rekonstruktion, and the title of my chapter is tentatively: ”Metamodeling—3D-(re)designing Polhem’s Laboratorium mechanicum.” In many ways, the text will be a kind of first output of our current project, and what I envision (or at least have promised) to write is the following:


Christopher Polhem (1661-1751) was a Swedish scientist and pre-industrial inventor—sometimes described as “the Father of Swedish Technology” (Lindroth 1951; Johnson 1963, Lindgren 2011). His so called, Laboratorium mechanicum (or the Royal Model Chamber) was a collection of several hundred educational models of wood of contemporary equipment, machines and building structures, water gates, hoistings and locks, invented (mostly) by himself. Basically, the Laboratorium mechanicum was a facility for training Swedish engineers, as well as a laboratory for testing and exhibiting Polhem’s models and designs. It was set up by him in the late 1690s, became a Swedish state-funded institution for information and dissemination of technology and architecture in 1756, and was during the 19th century used at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. 

Around 1930 Polhem’s model collection was transferred to the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology. Ever since it has served—and been frequently exhibited—as a kind of meta-museological artifact, since Polhem’s designs proved to be pedagogical museological objects avant la lettre. Within the new interdisciplinary research project, “Digital Models. Techno-historical collections, digital humanities & narratives of industrialisation” (funded by approximately one million euro by the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, between 2016-19) parts of this collection will be 3D scanned and 3D reconstructed by different software. In short, the project set up is part of the trend were heritage institutions are exploring how 3D technologies can broaden access to their collections (Urban 2016; Ioannides 2014). More specifically we are interested in Polhem’s so called “mechanical alphabet”. Initially, it consisted of 80 wooden models of basic machine elements like the lever, the wheel and the screw. Since a writer naturally had to know the alphabet in order to create words and sentences, Polhem argued that a contemporary mechanicus had to grasp his mechanical alphabet to be able to construct and understand machines. 

3D modelling the mechanical alphabet, however, can be done in various ways. Within our research group, we have for example started co-operating with the animator Rolf Lindberg; on YouTube he has uploaded a number of videos of Polhem’s models (Lindberg 2016). Lindberg, however, did not 3D scan these mechanical models—he computer-animated them. Hence, from a museological perspective, rather than 3D scanning heritage items, it seems easier, and perhaps also more pedagogical and visually enticing to simulate them—that is, building and constructing a brand new virtual object. The original item collected in the museum then becomes a model (rather than vice versa). One of the objectives of the London Charter on computer-based visualisation of heritage promotes “intellectual and technical rigour in digital heritage visualisation”—yet, is a 3D scan (in our case) more rigour than a simulation? (London Charter 2009). Furthermore, in the case of Polhem’s models, the theme of (digital) reconstruction also has a profound historical dimension, since he sincerely believed (as a pre-industrial inventor) that physical models were always superior to drawings and abstract representations. Then again, metamodeling as a scholarly and museological practice might not agree that the same hold true for digital representations—or?

Pelle Snickars, 8 augusti 2016

Pelle Snickars är professor i medie- och kommunikationsvetenskap med inriktning mot digital humaniora på institutionen för kultur- och medievetenskaper vid Umeå universitet. Han är också affilierad forskare vid HUMlab.