The Armsby Calorimeter

April 08, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Chances are you have walked by the Respiration-Calorimeter Building on Penn State's University Park campus and not noticed it. If you did, you may have thought this modest one-and-a-half-story brick structure, tucked between Armsby and Patterson Buildings, was a simple utility or storage building.

Inside, however, is one of the University's historic treasures -- the Penn State Armsby Calorimeter.

The respiration calorimeter was proposed in 1898 by animal nutrition Professor Henry P. Armsby, who used it to perform experimental research on animal metabolism, a growing field of study at Penn State at the turn of the 20th century.

A calorimeter is an instrument used to measure the amount of heat that is absorbed or released during physical and chemical processes. This allowed Armsby to measure how much energy an animal was able to derive from a certain food source.

Here's how it worked, and how it is still used as a teaching tool for students even today:

Using the calorimeter, Armsby and researchers after him would measure an animal's respiration, feed and water intake, and excrement, and from these measurements accurately calculate rations for beef cattle and sheep based on the nutritive values of a particular feed. Animals weren't the only experimental subjects -- the calorimeter also was used in the 1950s to study nutrients and energy metabolism in humans.

The building is recognized as a landmark in the history of U.S. agriculture and played a key role in revitalizing waning enrollments and transforming the then-School of Agriculture in the subsequent years. The late 1800s were the industrial boom and engineering and manufacturing were the economic focus in the country. In academic year 1902-03 there were 15 agriculture students of the 602 enrolled at the institution. In 1906-7 it had risen to 45, and in 1914-15 the number was 767.

In 1969 the calorimeter was converted to a museum, and in 1979 was named to the National Register of Historic Places. To arrange a visit to the Calorimeter, contact the College of Agricultural Sciences at 814-863-1383 or

  • The Respiration-Calorimeter Building on Penn State's University Park campus

    The Respiration-Calorimeter Building on Penn State's University Park campus in 1939.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

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Last Updated April 09, 2015