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probably made in Edinburgh

Postcard of Saccharometer.
© National Museums Scotland


This gilded brass instrument, known as Bates saccharometer, was used to ascertain the quantity of sugar in liquids, and thus the alcohol content of beer. It was made bought in 1879 from Peter Stevenson, a scientific instrument maker based in Edinburgh between 1836 and 1900. It is pictured here in its fitted case, with five different weights and a thermometer.

This is a special-purpose hydrometer, used for determining the alcohol content of beer, for taxation purposes. A graduated stem is attached to a hollow bulb, weighted so the entire instrument can float with the stem upright. The temperature of the liquid was taken: readings were taken at 62 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which the Imperial gallon was defined. Thus, the specific gravity of a sample multiplied by ten gave the weight in pounds of an Imperial gallon of the bulk liquid.

Saccharometers were developed at the end of the 18th century for determining the strength of sugar solutions, in particular in brewing, to measure the alcohol content for taxation. Thomas Thomson (1773-1852), who opened the first practical chemical laboratory in Edinburgh, devised a saccharometer for use in the brewing industry. Used by the Scottish Excise from 1805, it was legally adopted in 1815, but later disallowed in favour of R.B. Bates' instrument.

Record details

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Online ID: 000-100-044-212-C
Image Rights Holder: National Museums Scotland
Project: 0098: National Museums Scotland
Project description | View all records in project
Ref: National Museums Scotland  T.1879.6.2
Date: 1879
c. 1850
Dimensions: 8.50" x 3.75"
What: Saccharometer, bates' / case
Subject: 22. PHYSICS, Hydrostatics (Departmental Classification)
Who: Bates (Eponym)
P. Stevenson, Edinburgh (Maker)
Where: Scotland, Midlothian, Edinburgh
Description: Bates' saccharometer for ascertaining the quantity of sugar in liquids, e.g. in brewer's worts, in a case
  • For hydrometers and their various special purposes, see Turner, G. L'E., Nineteenth Century Scientific Instruments. London: 1983, p 72 
  • For Peter Stevenson, see Bryden, D.J. Scottish Scientific Instrument Makers 1660-1900. Edinburgh, 1972. p 57 
  • For Robert Brettell Bate's role in the development of this instrument, see McConnell, Anita, R.B. Bate of the Poultry, 1782-1847: the life and times of a scientific instrument maker. London: 1993, esp pp 9-18 
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