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Primer: Imperial College July 29, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

While much of the history of science necessarily focuses on centers of elite learning, a thorough understanding necessitates examination of the broader foundations of scientific culture.  In the 18th century, the French state established a new emphasis in technical education and augmented it following the Revolution, most notably with the École Polytechnique.  In the 19th century, various German-speaking states emulated the model by establishing the Technische Hochschule, soon followed by the Americans with the foundation of institutions such as the Case School of Applied Sciences, the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Carnegie Technical Schools, as well as technically-oriented universities such as Johns Hopkins and Chicago.

The British also followed this trend, although perhaps not with the zeal of other nations.  The Royal College of Chemistry (RCC) was established in London in 1845 out of the same national anxiety that had already produced the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as out of admiration for the German laboratory chemistry of Justus Liebig (1803-1873) of the University of Giessen—the College’s first hire was Liebig student August Wilhelm Hofmann.  The Royal School of Mines (RSM) opened in 1851, following urging for such an institution by, among others, noted geologist Henry De la Beche, the director of the new Geological Survey of Great Britain.  The two institutions were officially amalgamated in 1853, while retaining distinct identities.

In the latter half of the century, the development of the London technical schools became an important topic for those concerned with the development of science in Britain as a resource for the state and nation.  From 1881 until his death in 1895, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), best known now as an ardent proponent of Charles Darwin’s natural selection and for science in general, became dean of the RSM and the RCC.  In 1881, he tellingly renamed the latter the Normal School of Science, in the French tradition, before the name was again changed to the Royal College of Science (RCS) in 1890.

In 1907, the RSM, the RCS, and the City and Guilds College (est. 1885 as a trade school) were consolidated into the Imperial College of Science and Technology.  Unlike the older British universities, Imperial College defined itself less in terms of excellence in scholarship than it did in providing technical education and pragmatic research directed toward the immediate service of government, the military, the British Empire, and industry.  Combining engineering and science, and excluding traditional university subjects, the new college was unusual in the variety of social backgrounds represented, and in its admission of women (though their numbers were few; their proportion reached a maximum of about 12% of students in 1930, declining to 1% of 1094 students eight years later.  Women had been admitted to the predecessor colleges as well).

During the First World War, many Imperial faculty and students were engaged in special projects, though, in what had been and would continue to be a familiar refrain, faculty protested that the state was not using the potential of science to its fullest.  Imperial also housed war-related R&D work.  After the war, the college established a department of aeronautics and hosted an Air Ministry laboratory until it was moved to a Royal Air Force facility outside London in the early 1930s.  Per its name, Imperial College also came into existence at the time of the peak extent of the British Empire and dedicated itself to the patriotic mission of serving that empire, undertaking botanical, agricultural, entomological, and (to a lesser extent) zoological research pertinent to imperial aims.  It was also dedicated to providing an advanced education to people from throughout the empire.  In an unusual move, following the dissolution of the empire after World War II, the college kept (and keeps) its name, maintaining a special connection with affairs of the British Commonwealth through the 1980s.

Imperial College became a part of the University of London system in 1929, and steadily improved its academic standing through the interwar period.  It was the home of mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead for ten years, as well as of noted physicists Robert Strutt and George Thomson (the sons of Lord Rayleigh and J. J. Thomson, respectively; the younger Thomson was co-winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize).  In this period, though, Imperial’s main strengths were in the biological and earth sciences, and engineering.  By the time World War II ended, Imperial had become a major nationwide center for original scientific and technical research.  Though Cambridge would remain the most important academic scientific institution in Britain, any history of British science should acknowledge that by this point the intellectual base of science had become institutionally diffuse, along the lines of the university systems of Germany and the United States.

On Imperial College, the go-to source is now Hannah Gay’s institutional history, The History of Imperial College London, 1907-2007.  It is a thorough treatment, and therefore necessarily is more of a resource than an analytical narrative (making distillation into a blog post frustrating!), but should be recognized as a key source illustrating the century-long transition from the initial establishment of dedicated technological institutions to the emergence of a more contemporary cultural terrain of science and technology.


1. The History of Imperial College « Humanities Info @ Imperial College London Library - July 30, 2009

[…] entity, bringing together the Royal School of Mines and the Royal College of Science. Have a look at this interesting blog post for a short synopsis of this history. If you are interested in reading further, Hannah Gay’s […]

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