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University Museum Collections Frits Zernike (1888-1966): Life and Work

Part 5: Frits Zernike, alias MacGuyver

Zernike was a skillful experimenter and a gifted tinkerer, as he had already shown when he made the adjustments to the galvanometer. But he proved this also during his regular working days at the laboratory on the Westersingel, in the city center of Groningen. The part of the building in which Zernike worked most of his life has been replaced, but luckily we still have the photographs!

These photos show his office: an amassment of instruments, tools and books. Also, many of the instruments that were made or adjusted by Zernike are visible in this picture. And it gets better, because the University Museum holds most of these instruments in its collection, together with matching literature.

Obviously, material was needed for his craft projects. And although Zernike allegedly once said that a paperclip is the most important object for any experiment, he also often snooped around the offices of colleagues to search for useful parts. Colleagues were actually warned to lock their offices and Zernike was not allowed to stay in the lab alone at nighttime. But, thanks to a benevolent porter, who left a small cellar window open at night, Zernike could still enter.

Zernike’s skills turned out to be useful out of office as well. At a congress in Paris, the lift with Zernike and some others in it got stuck between two floors. When Zernike saw the data of the manufacturer on the lift's typeplate, he remembered the technical specifications of this particular lift. After a few minutes work, he got the lift in operation again. Whether he used a paperclip for this, we unfortunately do not know.

Last modified:16 March 2023 3.19 p.m.
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