Research report: The Armsby respiration calorimeter

By Nicole Welk-Joerger (History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania)

The Armsby respiration calorimeter was the first of its kind in the world. Completed by 1902, and based on Wilbur Atwater’s human device, Henry Prentiss Armsby’s device was large enough to accommodate and calculate heat production in cattle. These calorimetric measurements not only helped determine the metabolism of these large food animals but determine the nutritive quality of the foods they ate. Through the first half of the 20th century, the device was converted to accommodate sheep, humans, and even used to measure the metabolism of microorganisms until its accession into a museum in the 1960s. With a generous travel grant from SIS, I was able to visit Pennsylvania State University’s (PSU) archives to research the device and visit the outside of the calorimeter building while the inside was undergoing repairs.

My visit proved that there is still much to learn about this device and its position in America’s nutrition science history. The archive holds over one-hundred detailed lab reports of experiments that were completed with the device. Many of these books contain loose sheets of paper outlining the tireless work scientists and their assistants spent on calculating not only heat, excrement, and emissions from cattle, but quality control of the device. The publications that resulted from these experiments were printed in English and German with worldwide circulation.  Scholars from around the world visited the device. And scientists that worked with Armsby and the Animal Nutrition Institute (the calorimeter its main feature) proved to be very involved in the early 20th-century political climate of the U.S.

Earlier this year while preparing the museum for repairs, staff found a treasure trove of new materials related to Armsby’s calorimeter and the Animal Nutrition Institute. They found a box of documents and photographs sitting within the calorimeter’s old, non-working freezer beneath a toppling pile of bulletin reprints. The items are currently being held at PSU’s Pasto Agricultural Museum until they can be properly processed with Special Collections. However, given my connections and the timing of my visit, I was able to get a sneak peak of the primary source material. They appear to highlight Armsby’s earlier publications with the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station, his course materials as a professor at PSU, and photographs of the scientists who worked with the calorimeter after Armsby’s death in 1921.      

All images were used with permission from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.

Archives consulted

  • “Science in Agriculture Vol. 23, No. 4, 1976,” Henry P. Armsby Article Reprints, 1892-1976. PSUA 75. Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.
  • ‘"Die nutzbare Energie des Timothyheues." Landwirtschaftliche Jahrbucher, 1904.’ Henry P. Armsby Article Reprints, 1892-1976. PSUA 75. Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.
  • “Calorimeter—Foreign Visitors,” Photographic vertical files, Physical Plant 1855-present. PSUA 1184. Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.
  • “Small photograph of Dr. Armsby,” William Frear papers, 1883-1922. PSUA 362. Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.
  • “Calorimeter Log Book,” Animal Nutrition Institute records, 1882-1960. PSUA 44. Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.