Although the collection of objects relating to science was not unknown in antiquity, its appearance in the European Renaissance was more than a mere revival. It was a conspicuous manifestation of the spirit of that age, and not unrelated to the simultaneous rise of modern science. In natural history the formation of "cabinets" for instructional purposes, as well as for the edification and amazement of the public, was practiced at least as early as the sixteenth century. Today's great museums of natural history have descended from these cabinets. The custom of collecting scientific instruments is nearly as old, although the objective could scarcely have been the same as that of the natural history collector. In the latter field the permanent preservation of objects for their taxonomic value has an obvious justification. But the preservation of instruments has no such rationale, and remained an incidental event motivated by a variety of nebulous considerations long after the natural history museum had become an established institution.
The popularity of experimental physics and astronomy, as part of "natural philosophy," extended to the ranks of rich and noble persons in the sixteenth century; in fact the need for increasingly expensive apparatus made natural philosophy dependent upon their interest. From the point of view of the patron, the gratification attainable through support of this popular intellectual pastime was only one incentive to participation. For the instruments were often works of art. An aesthetic tradition already existed among the makers of the astrolabe and sundial, and the virtuosity expended upon their design influenced the maker of other instruments then in the process of introduction, such as the clock, microscope, and telescope. The power of this aesthetic convention is strikingly illustrated by the extension of its influence even to the early designers of steam engines in the eighteenth century. No one who has seen one of the still existing collections of decorative instruments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries will wonder at their appeal to the scientifically inclined princes of that time (see 58-66, figs. 23-25).
Possibly the earliest such collection to assume the aspect of a museum was that of the Landgraf Wilhelm IV of Hesse who