This doodad is in the entryway to the Bancroft Library. What is it? If you know, email
    me with the answer at [email protected]   

    As of February 28, 2013, I've only heard from Don Howes on this. Here's what Howsie
    had to say:

    Hi Dan,

    I have looked at that DooDad many times, and it always fell into the “someday I’ll figure
    it out” part of my brain. As I looked at your picture, it HIT me.

    First, for the sake of this discussion, let us ignore the Black and White Switches in the
    lower left corner. They came much later, and for now we will leave the brass valve out
    of it as well.

    That DooDad, the big round, black item with a hand crank, inside the vestibule of the
    Library is an “Improved Electrical Device,” invented by H. Julius Smith and patented in
    1869. It is made of Vulcanite.

    These are the facts, the rest is conjecture on my part, but I truly believe I know what it
    was for, and why the B+W switches are there as well, and I will tell you more later, but I
    have to TRY and get something done today.

    Howsie

    About a week later, I heard from Howsie again. He'd put some clues on Facebook to
    see if anyone could come up with an explanation of the purpose of the device. He
    heard from Charlie Dennett. Here's the story from Howsie:

    Well, Charles Dennett was spot on. The round black device is an electrostatic
    generator. It was made by the A.L. Bogart Co. in NY, patent date 1869, patent #
    93563, (Google patents, has the full text with drawings). It is listed as an "Improved
    electrical device" Invented by Julius Smith in Boston. The open contact switch in the
    upper right corner was to direct the lighting spark from the generator to either of two
    different fixtures. The valve is for the gas.  I am assuming that the gas was turned on,
    switch in position #1, crank the generator, it lights, repeat with switch position #2. It
    seems VERY unsafe having gas on at two locations at once, but almost nothing had
    any type of safety or fail-safe system as we have become accustomed to. The black
    and white switches in the lower left corner came later,(not currently functioning). They
    were cut into the existing cabinet when electrical lighting was added to the Library. (as
    of now, we don't know exactly when that was.)

    Obviously have some facts and some conjecture within my answer, but I think it is a
    very plausible explanation.

    Thanks for bringing up this little mind teaser.

    Howsie

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    Here's another mysterious looking device. This one
    was manufactured in Hopedale by the Dutcher
    Temple Company, but it had nothing to do with the
    textile industry. Click here to see what it was.