Olivier Models at Union College
Union College’s Permanent Collection includes an extremely unique and priceless collection of Theodore Olivier’s stringed models, used for demonstrating the relationships and intersections of geometric shapes in space. This collection is the largest single group (forty-six) of Olivier models to be held in one collection around the world. Nine of the eleven models on display here in Castrucci Gallery are newly conserved as part of an ambitious project, initiated in 2015 by former Union College President Stephen Ainlay and the Permanent Collection, to conserve the entire collection. We have had 30 models conserved thus far. The conservation work has been meticulously done by Christine Puza, Associate Conservator of Furniture and Wood Objects, at Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, MA.
Former President Stephen J. Ainlay provided “seed” money to begin this project and for an assessment survey of the collection to be done by our conservators at Williamstown Conservation Center which provided an estimate of costs which enabled us to apply for grants and seek the above funding. Additionally, we received a grant from the Conservation Treatment Grant Program, administered by Greater Hudson Heritage Network, made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts.
Funding for this ambitious project has also been provided by the following alumni:
David Mixer (Class of 1974), Board of Trustees
William Perlstein (Class of 1971), Board of Trustees
David Strom (Class of 1976), one of Professor Stone’s students who assisted him with cleaning the Olivier’s between the late 1960s through the 1970s
Tony Versaci (Class of 1991), President’s Council
1830s These models were made in Paris in by Pixii Père et Fils for French mathematician Theodore Olivier (1793-1853), who invented them to indicate the intersection of surfaces in his teaching of descriptive geometry. Similar stringed models had been created prior to Olivier’s, however his were the first models of this type which were adjustable.
1855 Professor William Gillespie purchased Olivier’s original set from his widow after Union College declined to fund the purchase. True to form, when then President Eliphalet Nott found out about the possibility of purchasing the models for the College, he jumped at the chance, but College Treasurer Jonathan Pearson (Class of 1835), reigned in Nott’s enthusiasm as he did not have board approval.
1868 Professor Gillespie taught Civil Engineering at the College from 1845 to 1868 and the College acquired the models after his death in 1868, along with many other scientific instruments and books.
Late 1800s The models were used as teaching aids until the end of the nineteenth century.
1910 The models were put on display in Carnegie Hall’s drawing labs.
1930s As part of the National Youth Administration, they were restrung by high students.
Early 1940s Student William C. Stone (Class of 1942), saw the models at some point during his studies at the College.
After WWII The cabinets in Carnegie Hall were removed and the models stored in an attic where they deteriorated.
1950s William C. Stone, now Professor of Mathematics, began using a few of models in his classroom as early as the 1950s.
1956-57 A Smithsonian Museum curator viewed the models stored in the attic, claiming they were priceless and would like to have them for the museum if possible. The Union College Trustees declined, though a few other scientific instruments did indeed go to the collection, and are now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
1958 The models were exhibited in Old Chapel by Wayne K. Nowack, Assistant Professor of Art. Photographs and information about this exhibition was featured in the New York Times Magazine, after which more inquires came, including from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
1960-1980s Professor Stone cleaned and restrung the models, assisted by William Fleming in the machine lab and students Norman Thompson, Class of 1974; David Strom, Class of 1976; and Gregory Mateja, Class of 1982.
1975 The models were exhibited at the Schenectady Museum, now MiSci.
1990s Several models were displayed in the former Science and Engineering department display cases between Biology and the Wold Center, and the rest of the models were stored in Professor William Zwicker’s office, previously Professor William Stone’s office.
1991 Endowed fund in Stone’s name was purportedly established to maintain the Olivier Models.
1995 Stewardship and responsibility of the models was transferred to the Union College Permanent Collection.
2006 Museum-quality exhibition cases were purchased for display of a selection of models in the Mathematics Department, on the second floor of Bailey Hall. The rest of the models were moved to Schaffer Library for storage. Purchase of these cases was made possible through the generosity of the Stone family, in memory of Professor William Stone, who first restored the models.
2010 Museum-quality storage cabinets were purchased to rehouse the models in their current storage area in Schaffer Library. This purchase was funded by the President’s Office.
2015 The conservation project began.
2018 Three conserved models on view in the Mandeville Gallery exhibition, Probability & Uncertainty. The main event held in conjunction with this exhibition was an Olivier model demonstration and talk by Professor Jeffrey Jauregui. During the program, Professor Jauregui spoke about the mathematical principles demonstrated in each of the models, as well as their purpose in the study of mathematics in the early to mid-1800s. The event was featured in the Times Union.
2018 The exhibition cases in the Mathematics Department were separated and moved to the Castrucci Gallery, in the Peter Irving Wold Center, for the remainder of the Science and Engineering building project. The maintenance and additional work on the cases was supported by a number of alumni donors to the Mathematics Department.
Other Collections West Point, Harvard University, and the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris, among others, have examples but Union’s collection is the largest in the world. Cornell has second generation examples which were made in the US, and based on our original Olivier’s.