Field of Science

Burros and Steampunk Geology

The Alpine areas of the Italian provinces of Piedmont and Liguria are rich in minerals and in the second half of the 17th century naturalists begun to collect and study them.
First museums in the city of Turin opened to the public in 1759, in 1805 the collection of the two most important were assigned to the University of Turin. The collection comprised in 1830 more than 9.900 specimen of minerals, rocks and fossils. The mineralogical museum of the university played also an important role in geological mapping of the two provinces and especially in the prospection of extractable rocks and minerals.

Important contributions to both the collection as to g
eological research came form the Italian Prof. Angelo Sismonda (1807-1878), since 1833 to 1878 Director of the Museum of Mineralogy of the University of Turin.
One of the most remarkable heredity by Sismonda is this portable laboratory kit for mineralog
ical analysis on the field owned by him. In this particular case it was designed to be transportable on the back of a donkey or mule during field work.

Fig.1. and 2. "Steampunk" field laboratory for prospecting work used between 1833 to 1878 by the Italian geologist Angelo Sismonda. On the top side of the bag bottles of glass for samples and chemicals, in the foreground drawers with mortars of porcelain to prepare samples and in the background heavy equipment like hammer and forceps. On the right tubes of glass for analysis equipment.

Fig.3. Not
Sismonda, but a good impression of field work with the help of a donkey: "Postcard showing a prospector and burro standing on a hill overlooking a number of old mine structures and mine tailings, probably in Colorado. The caption on photograph identifies this person as Frank Gimlet, living on the site of the abandoned mining town of Arbourville, Chaffee County, Colorado. He authored “Over Trails of Yesterday,” a series of tales and poems, and entertained tourists in the 1940s.", picture from Image Database Arthur Lakes Library/ Colorado School of Mines.

Sismonda also published the first geological map of the two Italian provinces of Piedmont and Liguria in 1862, this work was for decades to come the most important publication about the geology of the western Alps.

Fig.4. "Carta Geologica di Savoja, Piemonte e Liguria" (first edition 1862).

Sismonda was followed in 1878 by the experimental mineralogist Giorgio Spezia (1842-1911). In 1886 Spezia began to conduct experiments on the behaviour of minerals, especially quartz, under high pressure and temperature. Some of the used mechanisms were constructed by Spezia himself; in 1900 he finally succeeded in the production of artificial minerals, an important step in the industrial production of synthetic materials.

Fig.5. "Steampunk" apparatus utilized to synthesize quartz created by Giorgo Spezia. On 1906 the scientists produced by hydrothermal synthesis crystals of quartz, with the apparatus on display (unique survived of the two developed).


GALLO, M.L. & COSTA, E. Mineralogen im Piemont zwischen 1800 und 1900. Mineralientage München Messetage 2010: 172-174


  1. This is fabulous! I'd like to repost the kit photos and a link to your site. What attribution should I use for the kit photos?

    Hera von Hedwig

  2. The photos are credit by me and free to use and distribute under a Creative Commons Licence (I simply like to get a feedback on the material or photos posted), beside the infos and description already given maybe for interest: the photos were taken in the special exhibition about collectors and collections of minerals in the western Alps during the Munich Show 2010, the kit is property of the museum for mineralogy and petrography of the university of Turin


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