Project Description

The Smelling Machine



The osmoscope measured the intensity of odors using an exponential scale in powers of two. The process works by dilution of the odor by air. This tool was created around 1938, and works by diluting the odor in the air. The device is then inserted into a test tube, and holes in the side of the tube allow air to enter. A sliding jacket is then drawn up the osmoscope to progressively cover the tube and holes in order to create a more intense odor.

The application of the osmoscope to psychology is to test olfactory perception. Once the odor becomes increasingly stronger due to the sliding jacket, the two probes at the end of the osmoscope would be inserted into the nose of a human subject. A small amount of gas would be rapidly passed directly into the olfactory regions, allowing the subject to experience and assess the odor for their experimenter. This osmoscope was used in Pierce Hall at Harvard University up until the 1970s. Today, Pierce Hall is a central building of the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (1997-1-1960)–ca 1938 (Image osmoscope)


Linda Brown Buck

Linda Brown Buck (born 1947) is an American biologist best known for her work on the olfactory system. She was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Richard Axel, for work on olfactory receptors. In 1991 Buck became an assistant professor of neurobiology at Harvard University where she expanded her knowledge of the nervous system.


In Labs Today…

The Murthy Lab in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, has engineered mice that smell light.

At Harvard Medical School, the Liberles Lab investigates how the olfactory system processes external information.  The Datta Lab studies how the brain processes smells, and extends these studies to behavioral understanding of how the brain uses this information to execute behavior. The Wilson Lab uses the fruit fly brain as a model to study how neural computations in the brain influence the integration of sensory information.