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Primer: The British Association December 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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In 1830, Britain was on the cusp of one of its most famous eras of scientific activity.  The year before Charles Darwin unassumingly set out aboard the Beagle, the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology came off the printing press to wide and immediate acclaim.  The experimentation of Michael Faraday and James Joule in the 1830s would help spark the development of modern electromagnetic theory and thermodynamics in the ensuing decades.  The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos was already beginning to churn out rigorously prepared physical theorists.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

However, the future, as always, was unclear, and there were a number of people who were gloomy about the state of affairs in British science.  One was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Charles Babbage, who was frustrated in his search for funding for a calculating engine he had designed (and for which he would be most remembered thanks to the folk history of computing).  In 1830 he gave vent to his gloom and frustration through a book entitled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes, which was picked up by the Edinburgh experimentalist and scientific journal editor David Brewster (best known today as the name behind Brewster’s angle), who ran extracts in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and published his own screed in the Quarterly Review.

Babbage and Brewster were concerned that British science, unsupported by the state (which had just dissolved the Admiralty’s floundering Board of Longitude in 1828), was well behind the Continent, particularly France, where post-Revolutionary governments generously supported science and engineering.  Their missives proved divisive, giving offense to those who felt they were deeply unfair in their criticisms, and raising the particular ire of William Whewell, a mineralogy professor and general savant at Trinity College, Cambridge.   However, widespread dissatisfaction with the scientific leadership of the Royal Society—and especially the 1830 election of the Duke of Sussex as its president over the reluctant but widely respected astronomer John Herschel—led to wider perception of the need for something new at the national level.  Organizing with leading figures in the prospering Yorkshire Philosophical Society, in particular Rev. William Vernon Harcourt, the founders of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its first lackluster meeting in York in September 1831.

The organization of societies and clubs was much in vogue in Britain at that time.  Over the preceding few decades local philosophical societies had multiplied rapidly, cultivating special interests and establishing museums in subjects capable of being studied at the local level, such as antiquities and geology.  Likewise, nationwide scientific societies had proliferated.  The Geological Society had been founded in 1807, the Astronomical Society in 1820, along with societies such as the Asiatic Society and the Royal Society of Literature, both founded in 1823.  More broadly, with the Industrial Revolution fostering intense technological, economic, and social change and anxiety, any number of organizations were being established cultivating interest and advocacy in a variety of religious, political, cultural, and economic matters.  Learning was in the ascendant among the upper middle class in response to what was widely appreciated as a dangerous but intellectually tantalizing new era.

Once notable holdouts such as Whewell were persuaded to participate, the establishment of a new society dedicated to the general cultivation and display of knowledge of the natural world was widely (though, of course, not universally) welcomed.  The association held spirited annual meetings at rotating locations, a then-novel model borrowed from the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (Society of German Nature Researchers and Physicians).  It attracted consistent and flattering press coverage as well as patronage—monetary and intellectual.  At the 1833 meeting in Cambridge, the association embraced, and was embraced by, the intellectual Samuel Coleridge, who called for a learned “clerisy” to guide Britain intellectually and morally, and forbade the members of the association from calling themselves “philosophers”.

Coleridge’s injunction against philosophy was concomitant with a new and narrower vision of science being pushed by the British Association’s central cadre that was based in the disciplined rigor then accumulating in the physical sciences, and that also sought to distinguish it from the work of amateurs, even as the association cultivated amateur support.  This vision sidelined the more freewheeling—and Revolution-tainted—theorization of the previous century’s natural philosophy, and tended to downplay the intellectual merit of such popular areas as geography, botany, and zoology.  In turn, it pushed a vision of science as apolitical and religiously benign.  If clearly secular in its content, it was morally uplifting in its practice.  And, of course, science was closely bound to practical technological development and national ambition.

Whewell coined the term “scientist” to describe the members of the British Association, and the association’s mission to advance its vision of “science” went a long way in establishing an idea of “science” as a cordoned-off variety of activity and knowledge distinguished by the application of method.  Ultimately, this move had the effect of rhetorically papering over the many epistemological divisions between and within the various sciences.  While, as a historian of physics, I am appreciative of the work and advocacy of the British Association’s founding cadre, I nevertheless view the hiding of the intellectual richness of the sciences behind the vague term “science” to be one of the greatest rhetorical disasters in history.

The key book on the early years of the British Association is Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1981, out-of-print by Oxford), by Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray.  It’s very much a product of the early-1980s golden age in the history of science, an impeccably researched project and prosopography, with a very explicit emphasis on the social and political context.  Given the importance of the subject matter, I’m going to throw it into my personal canon.

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