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The Box:  Commonplace artifacts in the Production of Scientific Knowledge

Maria Rentetzi

18 April, 2016

Photo caption: In order to demonstrate the accurate measurement of radioiodine uptake by the thyroid gland, a dummy was specially constructed in the laboratory of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 1961. The dummy, placed in a suitcase-like box that contained also interchangeable mock thyroids and a set of standards of various sizes, was extensively used to calibrate and standardize the measurement techniques and equipment in a number of the UN Member States through the early 1960s. Courtesy IAEA Archive, Photographic Collection, no. 926.

Boxes usually bring to mind storage and transportation; the orderly arrangement of valuable museums  and archives holdings. Boxes contain our lives’ innocent and guilty little pleasures: brownies, cookies, tobacco, cigarettes, forbidden letters.


As early as 1908 artist Washington Tuttle patented a collapsable box for storing and selling tobacco. After its original content was over, it was reused as a lunch box. From 1910 until way after the second world war, the U.S. postal service popularized the metal laundry box. Mailing laundry became a must for students, soldiers, and campers. Technology had not yet replaced concerned mothers and wives.

In the 1920s and 1930s, boxes for packaging goods also caught the eye of industrial designers. In the late 1950s, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hailed the package as one of the 20th century's most useful objects and showcased it an exhibition entitled "The Package." This was a turning point: no longer a mere makeshift object, the package became an item of aesthetic appreciation.

We think of boxes as objects that enclose other objects. But boxes have also been extensively used for enclosing human beings, at either end of their life spans. The maternity box, a Finnish 1930s tradition, was given by the state to all expectant mothers. Along with baby clothes and mattresses, the cardboard box became the baby's first bed. Yet, cardboard boxes were not only associated with the comfort of cribs. Ironically, as the cardboard box became a symbol of commercial prosperity, it also came to signal urban homelessness. Soon after, it became a symbol of financial depression

But what does all this have to do with the advancement of scientific knowledge? How does an ordinary, humble object such as a box, participate in the production of scientific knowledge? Throughout the twentieth century boxes were also epistemic devices, they were technical and conceptual apparatuses. As ‘epistemic’, a box is an artefact that shapes its content and endows it with meaning. Here are some examples from the history of modern natural sciences.

Boxes known as chemical amusement chests that contained blowpipes and test reagents appeared already in the 18th century and were used for amusement and, often, educational purposes. In 1830, when amusement chests proved to be profitable commodities, Robert Best Ede, the chemist who supplied toiletries and perfumes to the Royal Household, marketed them as cheap portable laboratories in a nationwide scale. As a ‘laboratory in a box’ Ede’s small trunks came with detailed descriptions of simple ‘footsteps in Experimental Chemistry’ suitable for young students and amateur chemists. Ede’s ‘little workshop’ was promoted through colourful publicity and was believed to have opened a vast possibility for study and rational recreation.

Think also of the way radium products were packaged, transferred, and shipped. This is itself a package of assumptions about safety and health. In the early 1900s, Pierre Curie carried radium around in his pocket; scientists touched it with their bare hands; and radioactive materials arrived at the Vienna Radium Institute in glass bottles sealed only with corks. The era of protective measures dawned well into the 1920s, as containers for radium needles and tubes were now made of lead or iron.

In the late 1950s at the International Atomic Energy Agency lab in Vienna a new kind of small, portable dosimeters, known as TLDs were placed in plain plastic boxes. They were then sent to hospitals all over the world to calibrate and standardize nuclear medical technologies.  How were they sent? Simply by post. As soon as dosimeters were placed in postal boxes, a link was established between the IAEA’s dosimetry lab and bodies such as the World Health Organization. In addition, a global joint dosimetry audit program was set up. This in turn led to the creation of national networks of hospitals for cancer therapy and of secondary laboratories (SSDL) in the United Nation Member States for standardizing radiation measurements.

Last but not least, among the most valuable diagnostic uses of radioactive isotopes during the 1960s was to measure the uptake of radioactive iodine by patients with thyroid disorders. There was no standard method for this, and so the IAEA embarked on a further major standardization project. It constructed calibration equipment--a box-like suitcase including a figure of the upper part of the human body and a number of variously shaped standard vessels containing mock iodine. From the spring of 1962 to the end of 1965, a IAEA scientist carrying the calibration box visited 199 medical isotope laboratories in 41 countries. His mission was to standardize the measurements for the uptake of radioactive iodine worldwide.     

Boxes are commonplace artifacts that can play crucial epistemic roles. The box embodies the knowledge that goes into the calibration suitcase and its function; it carries assumptions about safety; it standardizes medical practices; it confirms the global, powerful role of diplomatic and scientific institutions.  

Historically, it was objects that led to the construction of specific boxes, thus establishing an intimate relation between content and container.  But if the content shapes the container, is the reverse also true? Boxes and all kinds of containers classify, tag, preserve, transport, and organize knowledge. The time is ripe to unpack them and explore their role in the production of knowledge about our world.

Presented at 4S 40th Annual Meeting, Denver Colorado, 11-14 November 2015

Acknowledgments: Austrian Science Fund (FWF): M 1727- G16

* Maria Rentetzi: is Lise Meitner Fellow (FWF) at University of Vienna. Institute for Philosophy and Associate Professor at the National Technical University of Athens. Department of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law. School of Applied Mathematics and Physical Sciences

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