Inside the Collection

History week: science delivers our daily bread

Portrait of Frederick Bickel Guthrie on a bronze medal with the text " the F.B.Guthrie Award for cereal chemistry"
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

It’s International Year of Chemistry and History Week, which this year has food as its theme: a perfect time to meet Frederick Bickel Guthrie, the chemist on this medal. Guthrie worked with a better-known Australian scientist, William Farrer, to develop strains of wheat that were resistant to both drought and rust, a fungus that damages grain and reduces yields. Rust is causing problems in the wheat industry again today.

Glass container with wheat rust
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

This sample of rusted wheat was collected in 1890. Farrer’s Federation wheat variety helped the wheat industry revive in the following decade. This is why he featured on our first $2 banknote alongside drawings of wheat stalks.

William Farer Portrait on the $2 note
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Farrer systematically crossed wheat varieties and selected for desirable qualities, but he only grew small plots of each type. In a world-leading research program, Guthrie made a miniature roller mill to produce flour from the small quantities of grain that Farrer produced. He carefully analysed the flour’s gluten, bran and pollard content, noted its strength and colour, baked tiny loaves of bread from it, and advised Farrer which varieties were most nutritious and gave the best quality bread.

Different kinds of wheat that was modelled for the $2 bank note
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Here are the wheat stalks that artist Gordon Andrews used as models for his banknote drawing. They are in very good condition, stored in our archives along with his sketches. The fact that wheat can be stored for long periods helps make it a valuable commodity and a staple crop in many countries.

1960's Silver coin "Australia Three Pence" with three strands of wheat
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Wheat also featured from 1938 to 1966 on our pre-decimal currency, on the threepence coin. Like the $2 note, it is a testament to the value of this crop to our daily lives and national economy.

Brass and wooden Chondrometer
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Guthrie popped up again when I decided to research the use of instruments like this chondrometer, made by Henry Simon in England. Despite the fancy name, it’s simply a device for measuring a small volume of grain (in the conical vessel) and weighing it by hanging the little bucket from the steelyard, whose base screws into a hole in the top surface of the box: a neat, portable unit for checking the density of a sample taken from a wheat crop. Density is a guide to wheat quality and determines the space required to store and transport the crop.

I was surprised to discover that this instrument is so crucial to wheat economics that in 1918 the NSW government set up a ‘chondrometer investigation committee’. I wondered if Guthrie was a member of this body – and one contemporary news item confirmed that he was. The committee considered the available chondrometers and approved a model that combined various features of those on the market.

Brass and wood chondrometer
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Donated by Tooth and Company Ltd under the Australian Government’s Tax Incentives for the Arts Scheme, 1986.

Back in the basement, I discovered a NSW standard chondrometer, with the name of Sydney maker AL Franklin faintly visible on the steelyard. This instrument complies with the main recommendation of the committee: to cover a smaller range of densities, from 32 to 75 pounds per bushel (compared to 13 to 70 on the Simon chondrometer and 0 to 80 on others) and thus give more precise measurements.

Wheat Mill model
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Our collection includes objects that represent every facet of the wheat industry and the everyday use of wheat products, from ploughs to harvesters, from a wheat wagon to grinding mills, from flour bags to toasters. This 1880s model shows all the processes that take place in an automated flour mill. I was intrigued by the final step: the ‘silk dressing machine’ above the bags. It turns out that silk is still the best material for dressing (sifting) flour. One more search was in order: do we happen to have any dressing silk in our collection? The answer is yes: two swatch books with silk of varying mesh sizes! The moire effect makes them a bit tricky to photograph, so here is a small sample of one of them.

Wheat sifter made of silk
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Gift of David Sheedy, 1991

2 responses to “History week: science delivers our daily bread

  • Hello , in 1971 / 72 i used to work for Ray Franklin , as a parting gift he gave me a set of his fathers Balances which i am trying to restore , i need advice and would like your help .

    • Hi Garry,
      That’s so interesting to hear! You might find some useful information about balances made by Franklin on our collection website. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, you can send us a collection enquiry and one of our curators will get in touch to see whether we can help.
      Kind regards,
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

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