The Tintometer, Anthropology and the Science of Color

Figure 1. The slide holder with a series of numbered yellow-tint slips. Courtesy Emily Martin.

Figure 1. The slide holder with a series of numbered yellow-tint slips. Courtesy Emily Martin.

In 1898, physician and marine biologist A.C. Haddon set off with a group of scientists from Cambridge, England. They aimed to study the residents of what they considered the antipode — the opposite side — of the earth, in particular the Islanders of the Torres Strait, between New Guinea and Australia. The Cambridge expedition’s cargo contained a seemingly mundane instrument, the tintometer. It was taken along for the purpose of comparing color perception by the Torres Straits Islanders with that of the English researchers.

During this era, various scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, among them Jesse Fewkes, made repeated trips to the Aboriginal Peoples living in the U.S. Southwest. And biologist Baldwin Spencer traveled from the cities of southern Australia to visit Aboriginal Peoples in the north. What were these explorers doing in colonial territories all over the world? In part, it seems they were early anthropologists. As well as biological specimens, they collected masses of ethnographic artifacts that have since become the foundations of major museum collections. But later scholars have castigated these early investigators for being influenced by ideas of their time about human evolution, ideas we would rightly call racist today. And scholars have relegated them to the prehistory of anthropology because they lacked the special anthropological method, participant observation, which some say was not invented until Malinowski did his fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands beginning in 1914.

I found that following an apparently modest material object could lead straight into the assumptions and practices of Haddon’s 1898 investigations. My research in the archives of Haddon’s journey has convinced me that the scientists involved were intent on overturning some of the evolutionary ideas of their day. In doing this they took important steps toward the canonical anthropological method of participant observation at a surprisingly early stage of ethnographic work.

I knew that the Cambridge group was interested in cross-cultural psychological testing of all the sensory modalities, from hearing and vision to touch and smell. But my curiosity was piqued by Haddon’s off-hand remark about the tintometer; he wrote that it had been “generously lent to the expedition by Mr. Lovibond” to measure the “relative degree of sensitiveness to different colours” [1]. I wanted to know who this Mr. Lovibond was, how he came by such a specialized scientific instrument and why he loaned it to an expedition headed to the opposite side of the earth.

Figure 2. Illustration of the tintometer from Lovibond’s lecture to the Society of Dyers and Colourists, 1887. Public domain.

Figure 2. Illustration of the tintometer from Lovibond’s lecture to the Society of Dyers and Colourists, 1887. Public domain.

Lovibond’s Tintometer

It turns out that Lovibond was an English beer maker. In his own words, “The writer was formerly a brewer, and this work had its origin in an observation that the finest flavour in beer was always associated with a colour technically called ‘golden amber,’ and that, as the flavour deteriorated, so the colour assumed a reddish hue. It was these variations in tint that suggested the idea of colour standards as a reliable means of reference” [2]. The device he invented enabled subjects to view numbered slides of the three primary colors, red, yellow and blue, in a large number of different tints and compare them to vials of beer. The goal was to match beer that had the desired “golden amber” color with a specific slide. Then that slide could be compared to other sample vials to assure the beer’s quality.


Lovibond made it plain that the data he gathered with the tintometer had to be standardized in order to be scientific. As he explained, although vision is sensitive to different colors, it cannot define color depth quantitatively. For this, one must relate color sensations to some “physical colour constants” [3]. There is a dilemma here: Color is a concept that depends on a human person seeing something in the world and then describing it, using a language shared with other people. Since perception of color is an individual, subjective matter inflected by particular languages, standardizing it or even arriving at standard colors for comparison in the first place were open questions. Precisely because he was aware of the subjective nature of judging color, Lovibond went to great lengths to overcome this problem. In his words, since the eyes were “the sole judge of difference,” the eyes of observers had to be as identical as possible to achieve the constant conditions needed to adhere to the scientific method. One condition he could control was fatigue. And so the color “matchers” were instructed to stop at the rst sign of fatigue and do some other work until they were rested [4].

In his efforts to determine which slides best represented the primary colors, Lovibond needed to achieve agreement among different observers. Those observers had to evaluate colors in exactly the same kind of environment, which he called “bright light.” His standard for bright light was very specific: “The white light used for this purpose is that of a so-called sea-fog away from the contaminating influence of towns. The fog on Salisbury Plain in southern England furnished the light actually used.” Such specific demands for standard light took time to achieve, and indeed Lovibond commented that “the standards of equivalence were only arrived at after two years’ observation by a staff of trained observers” [5]. As will become apparent, he was striving for a universal standard that could be used in different industries and different locations. Paradoxically, that standard was constructed in a singular place; its qualities would not be easy to replicate. After the two years’ work, the tintometer was equipped with “sets of coloured glass slips, the glasses composing each set being all of the same colour, but regularly graded for depth of tint.” Each slip was marked with a “color number” and a “tint number” — the color number placed over the tint number [6]. The slips in each color series represented tints that the observers found just barely distinguishable from each other.

In addition to standardizing conditions, Lovibond knew he needed to develop numerical measures in order for observers’ findings to be taken as scientifically valid. Numerical measures, such as gradations on a scale that measures weight or intervals on a grid that represents quantity, were considered, scientifically speaking, to be directly comparable across different cases. Lovibond presumed that individuals, no matter how different they were, could be exactly matched by means of quantitative measures. This was why the tinted slides each had two numbers, one for the basic color and one for the tint. The slides formed an arithmetical progression, so that in the red series, number one and number two viewed together would be the same intensity as a red number three [7].


Figure 3. The tintometer. Courtesy Emily Martin.

Figure 3. The tintometer. Courtesy Emily Martin.

The scientific credibility of its quantitative measures endowed the tintometer with the potential to be used in many settings and to become profitable as well. Lovibond secured a patent for the device in England in the early 1880s and in the United States in 1887, no doubt because from the start he perceived its commercial potential and wanted protection from imitators. As he put it, “the invention of an instrument for easily measuring, and recording colour and tint, places a new power in the hands of investigators in many departments of science, as well as those who are interested in the question of colour alone, opening up new channels of research which, from the want of such an instrument, have been wholly impracticable, or only possible on narrow lines and under great difficulties” [8]. As early as 1887 he was promoting the tintometer to cloth dyers and steel manufacturers, and by 1895, the London Times was listing its use for “the quality of flour, the turbidity of water, the degree of refinement of petroleum and for many other purposes” [9].

From Lovibond to the Torres Straits

It is not known for sure how Haddon heard about the tintometer in time for the 1898 expedition, let alone how he convinced Lovibond to loan him the instrument. A possible link is the London Times article previously quoted, which Haddon could have read. Whatever the link, my curiosity was now thoroughly whetted, and I decided to try to get my hands on an actual tintometer. I looked online and bought one that was for sale in an Amsterdam antique shop. I had read many descriptions of the device and its use, and I wondered if I would learn any more from being able to handle and inspect the actual object. I was reminded of a comment from Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. In an archive, Larson found notes written by Patrick Prendergast, the assassin in the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Seeing the obvious pressure Prendergast placed upon his pencil as he wrote gave Larson direct evidence of Prendergast’s angry emotional state [10].

Sure enough, holding an actual tintometer in my hands did lead to some new insights. The one I bought was housed in a mahogany box, handmade, carpentered with dovetailed joints. The box’s solid brass hinges and the bone label on the lid were mortised.

Figure 3. The label on the tintometer box. Courtesy Emily Martin.

Figure 4. The label on the tintometer box. Courtesy Emily Martin.

The label was hand printed:

“Tintometer” PATENT
J.W. Lovibond, Salisbury

The object inside the box was a binocular instrument with space to hold color samples at a distance of about 14 inches. It too was made of mahogany, handcrafted and embellished with a mortised bone label reading

“Tintometer” PATENT
J.W. Lovibond, Salisbury No. 1437A

These details made it plain that Lovibond’s scientific instrument was not yet mass produced. Each tintometer must have been a unique item, even though its purpose was to generate exactly comparable data. I could also see that the instrument must have been expensive in its time — mahogany and bone were used for fine furniture and precious items such as jewelry and snuff boxes. The glass slips too must have been expensive. Other early scientific instruments (for example, the air pump invented by Robert Boyle) were also costly, so much so that they had their own itinerant operators who demonstrated them in middle-class households [11]. The expense of making the tintometer must have been off set by the prospect of using it as a standard in any number of major industries; indeed, this future hope of profit was built into the patent claim on the box and the tintometer itself.

Figure 5. The box for the tintometer. Courtesy Emily Martin.

Figure 5. The box for the tintometer. Courtesy Emily Martin.

Holding the tintometer and its box also demonstrated its mobility. The container’s hinged top was designed with hook-and-eye closures so the contents could be held securely inside. I could see that its intended use for testing in the field — in different breweries or different industries — was built into the object. Then there was the built-in slide holder; this was a rack of tiny wooden slots to position about 88 colored slides at the ready, their marked ends uppermost. The observing subject, prone to fatigue, was literally present in the materiality of the instrument. The tintometer was designed to constrain the observer so that he viewed colors only under standard conditions.


To place the tintometer in a larger context, my next step was to wonder why Haddon was interested in taking such a thing along on his expedition. The story begins with the 19th century German psychology lab of Wilhelm Wundt, whose introspective methods strongly influenced the Cambridge expedition. Wundt’s Leipzig lab, the first of its kind in the world, was dedicated to developing ways of measuring human psychological response. Numerically measured reaction time between a sensory stimulus and a psychological reaction (seeing a symbol, recognizing a word, naming a color) gave a standard for comparison in milliseconds. According to this standard, Wundt’s laboratory could compare the reaction times of different individuals in different circumstances [12].

Perhaps even more important, the individual had to be standardized. Because there was too much variation among subjects, Wundt turned to long and rigorous training periods. Only if observers “themselves were standardized could they become interchangeable parts in the production of scientific psychological knowledge” [13]. Wundt insisted, “No observer who had performed less than 10,000 of these introspectively controlled reactions was suitable to provide data for published research” [14]. Standardization also extended to the daily lives of lab members outside the context of experimental practice. James Cattell, a student of Wundt, related how he followed a strict scheme of physical exercise and he remarked in a letter to his parents that the lab members were all required to walk three to six miles a day [15].

Wundt and his collaborators aimed at measuring processes in what has been called “the generalized mind,” those parts of mental life shared alike by all human adults. As historians explain, “Being practised in appearing in experiments helped to make sure that the results were representative of the ‘universal features of adult human mental life’” [16]. Viewing the subject as having a generalized mind meant that experimenter and observer could switch roles between trials without affecting the format of the experiments. In summary, the observer was not exactly hooked up to machines in the Wundt lab; rather, the observer had literally become the machine, capable of automatically producing data [17]. With training, the subject could register the moment at which he had recognized a stimulus and thus reveal the reaction time between the appearance of the stimulus and the mind’s psychological, introspective recognition of it.

Taking their cue from Wundt, the Cambridge expedition’s scientists assumed that the social and natural environment determined how the mind perceived the world. So they also assumed that if they immersed themselves in the daily life of villagers on the islands, they could serve as appropriate experimental subjects comparable to the native inhabitants. Their introspective reports of reaction times to a stimulus (a word or a color) could then be measured and compared to the reports by natives of the Torres Straits. One can get a sense of what immersion meant at that time by examining photographs of the expedition anthropologists. In several photos, they stand informally, slouching, barefoot, wearing grubby clothes and miscellaneous felt hats. It is evident that their bodies were covered with local dust, and their feet in contact with the local earth.

In the Cambridge expedition, as in Wundt’s laboratory, experimenters and subjects would trade places. In one photo an expedition member, W.H.R. Rivers, is using a psychological instrument of the day, the color wheel. Rivers and his companion (his name is Tom) are on the same side of the table but Rivers is not testing Tom, he is showing Tom how to use the color wheel so that he can test Rivers. It was the exchange of subject with observer that allowed the anthropologists to claim that the results of their trials — conducted under carefully managed conditions by trained humans — could be generalized to all other settings and all other subjects [18].

The assumption informing this psychological work was that residents of the Torres Straits Islands were no different from the expedition anthropologists [19]. The notion of a generalized mind entailed that the context in which such minds were trained determined their specific characteristics. It is not often realized that the expedition anthropologists trained themselves to participate with the “minds” of Torres Straits Islanders; they imagined they could immerse themselves and “faithfully follow their way of life.” The experimenter “would serve as a one-person research instrument because he would literally think and feel as they did” [20]. Plausibly, there is resonance between the ideas behind Wundt’s laboratory training, aimed to make subjects comparable through experience of the same regimen, and the practice of immersion in the environment and social life of the Islanders.

With immersion methods in place, the expedition members set about testing all the sensory modalities of both the Islanders and themselves. The tintometer was used as Lovibond intended, but in the context of a broader concept of cultural differences. The anthropologists knew that different cultures had different names for the colors. Drawing on earlier expeditions and dictionaries, they mentioned that some cultures had no word for brown, or combined green and blue in the same name. When Haddon asked the Islanders to draw rainbows and name the colors, he noticed that they did not have a clear term for “blue.” He called this a “defect of colour nomenclature.” Remarkably, however, Haddon was reluctant to conclude that there was any difference of a physical sort between the color vision of the Islanders and the English anthropologists. He tested 18 Islanders and 18 Englishmen using the tintometer, recording the numbers of the slides they picked to distinguish red from yellow from blue. The results showed that, overall, the Islanders were better at this than the English. Some of the variance he explained by guessing that among the English were two individuals with a mild form of color blindness (“red-green blindness”). But he concluded that the Islanders generally perceived color more accurately on his tests than the English did [21]. This finding carries more significance than one might think at first. There were claims at the time of the expedition that lower animals and “primitive people” had less developed color perception than civilized man. In the Reports Haddon printed a full-page chart showing the superiority of the Islanders’ color per- ception compared to the Englishmen’s [22].

Figure 6. Chart showing color vision comparison between 18 Torres Straits Islanders and 18 English anthropologists on the Cambridge expedition. From Alfred C. Haddon et al., Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, vol. 2 Physiology and Psychology (Cambridge: The University Press, 1901), 70. Public domain.

Figure 6. Chart showing color vision comparison between 18 Torres Straits Islanders and 18 English anthropologists on the Cambridge expedition. From Alfred C. Haddon et al., Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, vol. 2 Physiology and Psychology (Cambridge: The University Press, 1901), 70. Public domain.

The Story of Hearing and Pearl Diving

Although many late 19th century writers thought color vision was less developed among those regarded as primitive, the opposite was true of other senses. The expedition anthropologists in charge of psychological testing, W.H.R. Rivers and C.S. Myers, were preoccupied with Herbert Spencer’s widely accepted 19th century evolutionary theory that “‘primitives’ surpassed ‘civilised’ people in certain psychophysical ways because more energy remained devoted to this level in ‘primitives’ instead of being diverted to ‘higher functions,’ a central tenet of late Victorian ‘scientific racism’” [23]. The reasoning was that simple subsistence activities of primitive people, such as hunting, would require them to have acute distance vision and highly developed senses of smell and hearing. The Reports refer to this theory and present a firm disproof of it. Smell was shown to be less acute among the Islanders, and so was hearing. Rather than describe them as physically inferior, the anthropologists put their less acute hearing down to the amount of time they spent diving for pearls — an enterprise they had been forced into, first by European and then by Japanese traders. Pearl shell companies wanted divers to work in deeper water. This required divers to board company boats and stay in more distant reef waters for days at a time, often under arduous and brutal conditions. This meant they could not work their gardens during the week and so became dependent on buying goods for cash at the company store. Haddon describes the invidious cycle:

Some natives own their own boats, and make up crews on a system of sharing; others hire themselves out to white men. They generally start out on Monday and return on Friday or Saturday. All the time they are away they feed on tinned meat, biscuits, flour and other white man’s food. They get accustomed to this food, and as they are away from home, so much, they cannot ‘make’ their gardens. Thus it comes about that agriculture, as well as fishing, is greatly neglected, and a considerable portion — and in some instances the bulk — of their food has to be bought from the stores. Should the supply of pearl-shell fall off , or the price be lowered, the natives would suffer greatly; and if the storekeepers left the island, the people would practically starve. As it is, many are considerably in debt to the traders, and often the traders have to advance supplies of flour and food to ward off starvation. With all their apparent prosperity, the people are really in a false economic condition, and their future may yet be temporarily deplorable. [24]

Hence the expedition anthropologists not only contradicted the prevailing notion of their time that Islanders were animal-like in their sensory acuteness, they also traced the causes of their failing hearing to the political-economic forces of colonialism and expanding capitalism.

The Scientific Method

Anthropologists have sometimes cited their forbearers’ interest in the scientific method as evidence of the desire for a kind of distant, uninvolved, objective scientific knowledge. This point might be well taken if they had produced data only about physical types. The Haddon expedition anthropologists did use calipers to measure heads. But of the six volumes of their reports, with several hundred pages in each volume, only a little more than three pages total were devoted to the physical characteristics of the Islanders. Instead, they provided what they called “portraits,” photographs of individually named Islanders. Numerous photographs convey a different kind of relationship between scientist and subject. One portrait of the Torres Straits Expedition anthropologists is included in George Stocking’s important history, After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951. Never a fan of the expedition, Stocking claims in his caption for this photo that their assistant is “unnamed.” In fact, as Anita Herle has established from her work as a senior curator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, all their assistants and associates were carefully identified by name [25].

In another photo, a group of Islanders are standing behind expedition members who are seated on the ground at their feet. An Islander named Pasi stands with his hands resting on the shoulders of two anthropologists. It doesn’t look as if these “subjects” were being regarded — or regarded themselves — as mere specimens [26], although the emotion-imbued relationships suggested in these images had yet to be termed part of “participant observation.” Malinowski devised the term and took all the credit in the 1920s. But the 1898 Cambridge expedition had already beaten him to the punch.


Lovibond is now a trademarked brand, owned by The Tintometer Ltd. The company is still manufacturing its original product, realizing the commercial potential its founder envisioned. Computerized and even more portable, the Tintometer is used today for testing beer, water, swimming pools, blood, petroleum and many other things. Color research has continued to the present as well, albeit with a different kind of standard, the Munsell Color Chart. There are many debates in anthropology and linguistics about whether color perception is “universal” because different color names are simply overlaid on the same physical spectrum [27]. Some philosophers argue that color perception is, by definition, something that only an ob- server’s eye can behold, and that standard measures that purport to allow comparison among individuals are meaningless [28]. The same debate applies to the material gathered by the method of participant observation: The “participant” part seems to rely on individual experience, while, somewhat paradoxically, it is twinned with the antithetical term “observation.” The modest tintometer prototype, combining the subjective quality of color perception with objective quantitative measurement, shows how long ago the anthropological struggle over this paradox began. In ways that echo the dilemmas faced by the Cambridge expedition of 1898, field-working anthropologists today — prone to being influenced by all of their life experiences, including fatigue — still struggle with how to combine their subjective impressions with quantitative measures for comparison across cultures.


Thanks to Maria Vesperi for her encouragement and editorial contributions and to Jane Anderson for being my fellow traveler in the history of early expeditions. Anya Urcuyo helped significantly with research into Lovibond’s tintometer. I greatly appreciate the assistance of the librarians at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and especially Senior Curator Anita Herle. A version of portions of this article was published in “The Potentiality of Ethnography and the Limits of Affect Theory,” Current Anthropology 54, Supplement 7 (2013).


1. Alfred C. Haddon et al., Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, vol. 2, Physiology and Psychology (Cambridge: The University Press, 1901), 70.

2. J. W. Lovibond, Light and Colour Theories and Their Relation to Light and Colour Standardization (London: E. & F. N. Spon, Limited, 1915), 5.

3. J. W. Lovibond, An Introduction to the Study of Colour Phenomena: Explaining a New Theory of Colour Based Entirely on Experimental Facts (London: E. and F. N. Spon Ltd., 1905), 37.

4. Lovibond, An Introduction to the Study of Color Phenomena, 37.

5. Joseph W. Lovibond, “The Tintometer— a New Instrument for the Analysis, Synthesis, Matching, and Measurement of Colour,” Journal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists 3, no. 12 (1887): 187.

6. Lovibond, An Introduction to the Study of Colour Phenomena, 3.

7. Alan Gall, “Joseph Lovibond & His Tintometer,” Journal of the Institute of Science & Technology, Summer (2010): 11.

8. Lovibond, “The Tintometer—a New Instrument for the Analysis, Synthesis, Matching, and Measurement of Colour.”

9. “The Tintometer,” The Times, November 11, 1895.

10. Thanks to Maria Vesperi for this reference.

11. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Uni- versity Press, 1985).

12. “The Tintometer.”

13. Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Emphasis in original.

14. Edwin Garrigues Boring, “A History of Introspection,” Psychological Bulletin 50, no. 3 (1953): 172.

15. Ruth Benschop and Douwe Draaisma, “In Pursuit of Precision: The Calibration of Minds and Machines in Late Nineteenth-Century Psychology,” Annals of Science 57, no. 1 (2000): 1–25.

16. Benschop and Draaisma, “In Pursuit of Precision,” 19.

17. Deborah J. Coon, “Standardizing the Subject: Experimental Psychologists, Introspection, and the Quest for a Technoscientific Ideal,” Technology and Culture 34, no. 4 (1993): 776.

18. Simon Schaffer, From Physics to Anthropology – & Back Again (Cambridge: Prickly Pear Pamphlets, 1994), 17.

19. Henrika Kuklick, “Fieldworkers and Physiologists,” in Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary Essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition, ed. Anita Herle and Sandra Rouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 174.

20. Henrika Kuklick, “Personal Equations: Reflections on the History of Fieldwork, with Special Reference to Sociocultural Anthropology,” Isis 102, March (2011): 21.

21. Haddon et al., Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, 17.

22. Haddon et al., Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, 72.

23. Graham Richards, “Getting a Result: The Expedition’s Psychological Research 1898-1913,” in Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary Essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition, ed. Anita Herle and Sandra Rouse (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 1998), 137.

24. A.C.Haddon,Head-Hunters: Black,White, and Brown (London: Methuen & Co., 1901), 121– 22.

25. Anita Herle, “The Life-Histories of Objects: Collections of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait,” in Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary Essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition, ed. A. Herle and S. Rouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

26. Anna Grimshaw, “Visual Anthropology,” in New History of Anthropology, ed. H. Kuklick (Malden, MA: Wiley, 2009), 297.

27. B. Berlin and P. Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

28. L. Wittgenstein and G. E. M. Anscombe, Bemerkungen Über Die Farben (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

Emily Martin teaches anthropology at New York University. She is the author most recently of Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. She is currently working on a historical ethnography of experimental psychology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *