What the thing?!
January 30, 2007 11:15 PM   Subscribe

What is this thing?

Stolen from the Purdue Alumnus magazine in hopes that someone will be able to sate my own curiosity.

Also, a blatant self-link to a site where I could host the image. My apologies.
posted by ztdavis to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Sock-darning egg? (With a fancy display stand, and spherical rather than egg-shaped.)
posted by ottereroticist at 11:38 PM on January 30, 2007

Some sort of item involved in print-making?

I'm curious too.
posted by Good Brain at 11:42 PM on January 30, 2007

I don't think it's a darning egg--it would be a very awkward shape (you don't want the toe of your sock to be a hemisphere), and it's hard to imagine a self-respecting housewife displaying such a thing.
posted by hippugeek at 11:55 PM on January 30, 2007

failed search for answer to same question here, FWIW.

Department of HG googles to "Human Genetics" which doesn't make much immediate sense, as well as Human Geography and "History and Government" so not many clues there.
posted by Rumple at 12:09 AM on January 31, 2007

one sweet lookin' gavel
posted by Kudos at 1:23 AM on January 31, 2007

There is an L.V. (Laurie) Brown who is a horticultural scientist, but that person lives in Berkshire in the UK, so probably not our person. (Department of Horticulture/Gardening?)

The black color of the ball and its transfer to the inside of the base suggests to me that the ball has been rotated inside the base, and possibly some black compound in between; could it be a mortar/pestle that works by rotary grinding instead of pounding?

Here is a dauber that doesn't look completely dissimilar to this object; perhaps the black stuff is ink and this was rolled around to blot/dry it.

Finally, it occurs to me that wooden spheres are used as pendula and dowsing devices in various Thelemic "magick" rituals. This was found in a storage area in an old psychology department; psychology departments used to investigate parapsychology too and so as a sort of romantic long shot it's fun to wonder if this might not be some sort of occult device.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:43 AM on January 31, 2007

The linked article says (1) why the "mortar and pestle" idea was considered and discarded and (2) that L.V. Brown is known to be dead.
posted by mendel at 3:20 AM on January 31, 2007

To me it looks like this is the hitter for a gong. That is, there is a metallic or leather thing hanging somewhere, with this thing in it's base below it. It is pulled out and hit with this thing and makes a loud sound.

I come to this, because the handle is the same as the old British school bells.

This would also fit with the item being used in an educational setting.
posted by markesh at 3:42 AM on January 31, 2007

It does resemble a strange gavel... Masons ?
posted by lobstah at 3:43 AM on January 31, 2007

I'm going with Kudos and lobstah. My first thought upon seeing the picture: "Looks like a gavel to me."
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:49 AM on January 31, 2007

Is there any way you can search Purdue records to find which faculty L.V. Brown was graduated from in 1929?

I strongly doubt that it's a gavel of any kind. If it were a gavel (or the hitter for a gong), the handle would be longer. If you used this as a gavel or a hitter for a gong you'd likely smash your fingers.

As for HG: Purdue had a Department of Hydrogeology in 1910 according to Google and still has one. Perhaps that's HG?
posted by watsondog at 5:44 AM on January 31, 2007

It may be completely decorative rather than functional. Perhaps some sort of trophy? The article says L.V. Brown's name was "printed" on the base. But printed how? Engraved?
posted by vacapinta at 5:50 AM on January 31, 2007

And, yes, what did L.V. Brown graduate in? Can you as an alum, look this up?

It seems odd that Don could also have looked up and gotten in contact with L.V. while L.V. was alive. Why didnt he?
posted by vacapinta at 5:56 AM on January 31, 2007

To me it looks like this is the hitter for a gong.

Department of Hitting Gongs?

Sorry, nothing more useful to add.
posted by p3t3 at 5:56 AM on January 31, 2007

The ball looks fuzzy. I wonder if it was used to generate static electicity?
posted by Goofyy at 6:18 AM on January 31, 2007

It's not unlike one of these, although there are no markings on it, which would seem to rule that out. And what's that metal plate by the handle?
posted by edd at 6:36 AM on January 31, 2007

Good Brian and ikkyu2 both bring up the thought of daubers and printing presses. I've found a few images of early printing efforts which clearly show daubers. Like the one ikkyu2 linked, they're shown as only a half sphere and not a full sphere. This pdf describes a dauber as being made of rolled felt.

If the black stuff turned out to be dried ink, you may have a dauber despite the shape being unusual.
posted by onhazier at 6:40 AM on January 31, 2007

This makes it look less fuzzy, so I think that's a result of the scan, Goofyy. From here, where a pill crusher is suggested.
posted by edd at 6:43 AM on January 31, 2007

It's vaguely reminding me of a pomander of some strange kind. The little plate near the handle could be a port where one put in some sort of scent medium that then diffused through the ball. The stand is just to hold it when not in active use (say holding it under one's nose or waving it around like a censer to create a cloud of scent).
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:50 AM on January 31, 2007

"Department of H.G." may not refer to a university department. If the thing originated in an industrial setting, it may have some other meaning.

It doesn't look like any Thelemic instrument I've ever seen...
posted by hermitosis at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2007

I am a Mason. It could be a gavel that you lift up and drop back into the sounding pad, but I've certainly never seen one like this. "Spherical gavel" searches turn up Star Trek stuff. There is another name for a gavel that doesn't look like a mallet, but I can't remember what it is right now.
posted by mattbucher at 7:59 AM on January 31, 2007

Ink ball was definitely my first thought, but Glaister's Glossary of the Book indicates that despite the name, ink balls were flattish opposite the handle rather than spherical (which makes sense really; you'd break your wrists trying to ink with that thing). See some examples here.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:18 AM on January 31, 2007

I was a Rainbow Girl - call it the teenage girl's introduction to Masonry - and in my tenure as the head of my Assembly, I used a spherically headed gavel that I had a dickens of the time keeping on my podium - those things tend to roll.

The handle on my gavel was longer than the handle on this object, but gavel was still the first thing that came to mind when I saw this. The gavels in my experiences with Masonry and its related organizations are used only for short, sharp strikes, so a short handle wouldn't necessarily preclude this from being a gavel, and the little stand would be very, very useful for keeping such a gavel from rolling off of the podium.
posted by angeline at 8:36 AM on January 31, 2007

If you look at the base, it looks as if there is a hole at the bottome of it that the handle goes into. Also note that the base is worn roughly where that metal plate at the top of ball is at. I'm assuming this is from where all the action / friction from using the object would take place.

So my money - from looking at all the pictures here it looks like it would be an ink ball / dauber with a detachable flat side.
posted by bigmusic at 8:40 AM on January 31, 2007

Statistically we can rule out that this is any kind of tool or mechanically purposeful device.

What we see here is a "novel type" award of sorts; a "Gag Gift" if you will, presented to LV Brown at some point in his educational career at Purdue. More than likely this was an award discarded the day it was given. LV received the award at class, everyone had a good chuckle and there it sat on the instructor's desk or lectern. From there it was moved to the instructor's office and later to a supply closet where it would spend the next 30 years.

The award was assembled out of various parts reasonably accessible to a college professor and his co-conspirators of the day. The piece that had the property sticker probably did come from the Dept. of Hydrogeology as suggested by watsondog and the handle probably was unscrewed from either a gavel or maybe even a school bell as suggested by markesh. A small placard was made with our friend LV Browns name and placed in the base. The black ball, and all that it is associated with, lends even more credence to the assumption of humor behind the award itself.

Back to the numbers... It is unlikely that dear old LV would have had any sort of tool on campus that he used on a regular basis. Further, it is even more unlikely that LV had any sort of tool on campus that only he alone used exclusively and lastly, it is even more unlikely that this tool could be viewed by probably well over 3,000,000 eyes and no one have the faintest idea of its purpose.
posted by bkeene12 at 9:05 AM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

bkeene12 writes "Further, it is even more unlikely that LV had any sort of tool on campus that only he alone used exclusively and lastly, it is even more unlikely that this tool could be viewed by probably well over 3,000,000 eyes and no one have the faintest idea of its purpose."

I used to have a tool on my desk for sentimental reasons that I seriously doubt anyone could identify. It was custom made by my father for a very specific purpose. To make identification more difficult the tool was used with another common tool that lives in my toolbox. You see one off custom tools like that quite a bit in trades work, it's possible this is one.
posted by Mitheral at 10:53 AM on January 31, 2007

I'm actually going to chime in on the ink ball idea. Yes, it is an atypical shape, but that doesn't automatically rule it out. However, ink balls used by hand-printers needed to be soaked in urine to soften up occasionally, during which the covers were removed. Since I don't see any way of removing the cover (whatever material the object in the photo is made of), it seems more damning evidence than the shape.

Unless you get proof-positive that it's a ceremonial object for Freemasonry, I'd still vote for ink ball.
posted by terceiro at 2:58 PM on January 31, 2007

Best answer: I submitted this to Purdue's Library "Ask a Librarian" folks. They sent it to the head of archives and special collections, Sammie Morris, who said:

"I've looked through the course catalogs and yearbooks here, and there is not a department that had the initials H.G. in 1929. However, the name on the object, L.V. Brown, stands for Lewis Victor Brown, who graduated from Purdue in 1929. Brown got his B.S. degree in electrical engineering. Looking under EE, I see that there were courses in hydraulics, hydraulic engineering, and heat engineering.

As of 1934, Brown was working at the Indiana Bell Telephone Company.

The only departments at Purdue in 1929 that started with "H" are Home Economics, History and Economics, and Horticulture. Since Brown graduated in engineering I'm thinking none of these apply.

My best guess would be that the H.G. is really "H.E." and stands for hydraulic engineering or heat engineering."

When I first saw it I wondered if it was the handle of one of those old electrical devices teachers would use to discipline students by shocking them. The sockets next to the handle look as though something should plug in there, as opposed to repositioning the handle (no need, it's a sphere) or having two handles at once, which would be too close together as to be held by anyone other than children. So I'm not leaning towards anything in printing. I suppose Brown might have been a Mason though it just seems like there should be a simplier explanation such as experiments in using electricity for psychology. In the 30s Electroconvulsive Therapy was becoming popular which demonstrates the trends at the time. Hopefully someone with a better understanding of electricity or devices used in those times can say more.
posted by jwells at 9:05 AM on February 1, 2007

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