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Schaffer on Metrology May 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post discusses four articles that Simon Schaffer published in the 1990s on the development of standards of measurement in Victorian Britain, focusing especially on work done at Cambridge University:

1) “Late Victorian Metrology and Its Instrumentation: A Manufactory of Ohms,” in Invisible Connections: Instruments, Institutions, and Science, ed. Bud and Cozzens (Bellingham: SPIE, 1992).

2) “Rayleigh and the Establishment of Electrical Standards,” European Journal of Physics 15 (1994): 277-285.

3) “Accurate Measurement is an English Science,” in Values of Precision, ed. M. Norton Wise (Princeton UP: 1995).

4) “Metrology, Metrication, and Victorian Values,” in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman (University of Chicago Press: 1997).

The rise of metrology at Cambridge coincided with the establishment of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1871 (beginning work in 1874).  Schaffer emphasizes the importance of accepted standards for industrial development, the creation of telegraph networks, the fostering of trade, and the growth of Empire.  However, he also places special emphasis on the specific questions involved in the particular history of the Cambridge standards program. When James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) became the first director of Cavendish, the use of the laboratory to develop precision instrumentation required strict group discipline from students, which ran against the grain of the liberal intent of Cambridge’s mathematical tripos, then in its heyday, as discussed in the video above.

Maxwell was able to link the search for suitable standards to his physical theories of electromagnetism and its identity with light.  To establish the identity, it was necessary to link precise measurements of the speed of light (a task of major interest since the 1849 when Hippolyte Fizeau made his measurements) to a measurement of electrical resistance (the ohm).  This fundamental physical significance of precision experimentation helped integrate the work of the Cavendish into Cambridge instruction in physics, but it also helped the cause of establishing a natural unit of resistance against a conventional one proposed by the German engineer Werner Siemens.  (3) deals with this topic in the most detail.

Maxwell himself did not fully succeed in developing Cavendish into a successful standards laboratory, but his successor at Cavendish, Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919), did.  The incorporation of cutting-edge laboratory practice into the Cambridge curriculum provided a boon to providers of teaching instruments, especially Horace Darwin’s Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company.  Rayleigh and his deputy Richard Glazebrook (1854-1935) likewise became key players in the establishment of the National Physical Laboratory in 1900, placing standards work in state hands, and keeping pace with the German Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, established in 1887.  Glazebrook became the first director of the new lab.

Article (4) takes a rather longer view, discussing the question of standardization from three different perspectives in 19th-century Britain, linking standards more fully to questions of morality and values.  The first perspective is that of John Herschel (1792-1871), who advocated the establishment of a newly precise—but nonetheless traditionally British—standard length based on precision craftsmanship, contrasting this to the rationalist (French) folly of attempting to establish an entirely new system based on a definitive measurement of a natural value.  To create a lasting measure was an accomplishment of highly developed skilled labor, and thus a testament to the moral fiber of Britain’s industrious scientists and instrument makers.

This contrasts to Maxwell’s later insistence on a natural standard of electrical resistance.  For Maxwell, natural objects (like molecules) and laws were divinely created and universally uniform; to uncover their measure was to make a natural theological demonstration of God’s order.  This sort of argument was repugnant to contemporary scientific naturalists like Thomas Henry Huxley (who compared such doctrines to the eternal fixity of species), John Tyndall, and especially mathematician William Clifford.

Schaffer’s other example is astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), who advocated the view that natural measures had already been found by divinely inspired ancient civilizations and were reified in the dimensions of their monuments, most notably the Great Pyramid of Giza.  I won’t say more here, except that this example is part of an interesting theme in much of Schaffer’s post-1990 work on antiquarian Orientalism, and the enduring assumption of the wisdom and knowledge of the ancients, which British Imperialists contrasted with what they perceived to be the atavistic peoples of the Empire.  This links up to Schaffer’s observation of Newton’s belief in the perfected natural philosophy of ancient Chaldeans, through to the work he is putting out now (see, notably, his recent second Tarner lecture).  I imagine there’s still much more to be written on the topic.  After all, this ultimately has to link up with the incessant shows about the “secrets of the ancients” that now air on the science channels.

Now, these four pieces, though well-crafted, all tend to revel in their narrative details in a way that is very typical of the history of science scholarship of the past twenty to thirty years.  All locate the subject within an immediate context (e.g., Cavendish) and a general cultural context (Victorian Britain), while making it difficult to locate the subject in an intermediate context (e.g., the wider world of precision instrumentation).  (4) is a partial exception, which uses its comparative approach nicely.

The premium is placed on detail in these kinds of pieces because this is where the devils are supposed to lurk.  Where a history piece revels in detail, be on the lookout for a negatively-formulated thesis, usually along the lines of “science is supposed to be unproblematic, but in fact it is messy and full of culture-imprinted disputes”.

Thus we have Schaffer in (3): “The values which such [precision] measurements yield are supposed to escape the value-system which gave them such high status.  In fact, they are the results of this system….  Precision is the result, rather than the cause, of consensus among scientific practitioners.”  Later: “Precision itself may be neither necessary nor sufficient to establish conviction”.  In (4): “The development of universal standards was supposed to produce consensual uniformity but was just as likely to breed bitter dispute”.

These negatively-formulated arguments are not supposed to bash straw men; they are supposedly an entry in a long-term struggle against the prejudices ingrained in us based on our heritage in the history of ideas.  In (2): “Intellectualist condescension distracts our attention from these everyday practices, from their technical staff, and from the work which makes results count outside laboratory walls”.

It is necessary to do some historiographical history to fully appreciate the impetus behind the negatively-framed thesis.  One impetus is in the sociology of knowledge.  These pieces may be seen as direct follow-ups to late-’80s pieces “Glass Works” and “Astronomers Mark Time” wherein the acceptance of experimental results and astronomical observations is taken to require a combination of trust in results and disciplined (i.e. trustworthy) work habits, in accordance with Harry Collins’ sociology of calibration.  This was a thesis requiring repeated illustration to achieve academic victory.

Another impetus is the end of natural philosophy.  As natural philosophical systems-building gave way in the 19th century to the establishment of certain claims within constrained domains of knowledge, certainty could only be established by disciplined scientists achieving precise measurements that could unequivocally endorse specific claims.  Instrumental standardization was a central component of the historiography of objectivity that arose in the mid-’90s, focusing on a transition that is supposed to have occurred between the eighteenth century and the construction of the “modern” period.

Finally, there is the historiography of values.  By the mid-’90s, the history of science profession more-or-less decided to define the ontology of its history in terms of the “proliferation” of various kinds of stuff: facts, specimens, instruments, images, techniques, metaphors, standards, and so forth.  Patterns of proliferation are determined by the value ascribed to this stuff, value being provided by “culture”.  As Schaffer informs us in (3): “Undoubtedly a Victorian value, precision badly needs a cultural history which maps its historical credibility instead of assuming its methodological validity”.  By learning about this value, we can learn about what made the proliferation of Victorian science and Victorian Empire simultaneously possible.  (4) was an explicit continuation of the project to use the history of scientific practice as a means of studying systems of cultural values.

In a historiography where various experimental results and knowledge claims are seen as heavily disputed and contingent on local circumstances, it is values alone that seem to take on a larger, epochal significance and thus become a worthy subject of study for serious scholars.  It is not even necessary to study actual proliferation; it is only necessary to decode the values inhabiting instances of the history of the thing said to be proliferating.  In this historiography, institutional history and the history of scientific works are small fish—unless research into these small histories can be seen as commenting in some way on the big game of values.

It is a hallmark of an “ornamental” historiography, that the worth of scholarship comes to rest on the reaffirmation of truisms about its grand topics, such as Victorian values, while leaving the “intermediate” context of its immediate subject matter difficult to discern.  Schaffer’s pieces on metrology are products of useful research on the local subject matter, but because their main arguments only traffic in warmed over points about Victorian industrial and Imperial culture and the over/under-determination of knowledge, the detailed content of the papers lacks a substantially revealing context.  The links between standards and Victorian ideals certainly bears mention, but one wonders whether the links can sustain a “cultural history” as promised.  Can we really learn anything new about it and its contexts by studying accumulated instances of dispute surrounding it?  To my mind this question remains, fifteen years later, one of the pressing problems of current historiography.

To wind this post up on a more concrete note, here’s Schaffer again on Lord Rayleigh’s term as the director of Cavendish.



1. Thony C. - May 11, 2010

Schaffer’s post-1990 work on antiquarian Orientalism…

Will, do you know if Schaffer discusses anywhere in this work the efforts of John Greaves (1602 – 1652), who was the first person to make accurate measurements of the pyramids 200 years before Charles Piazzi Smyth.

2. Will Thomas - May 11, 2010

I don’t believe so, but I can’t say for sure: I haven’t been reading ahead for this series. As a matter of fact, looking through my files again, I’m not entirely sure just how ongoing of an interest this has actually been of his. I may have overstated it here, and maybe conflated it in my mind with some of his other work on global science from this past decade.

3. Will Thomas - May 18, 2010

As an addendum:

These pieces ought to be read in context of other material appearing around the same time. Smith and Wise’s William Thomson biography, Energy and Empire functioned as a sort of node of scholarship around 1990. As I have pointed out, it was a crucial later entry in the attempts to come to grips with what happened to natural philosophy in 18th-century Britain.

Insofar as the creation and use of precision instrumentation accompanied by widely-accepted standards relating to the rise of modern physics is concerned, these pieces ought to be read with:

Graeme Gooday, “Precision Measurement and the Genesis of Teaching Laboratories in Victorian Britain” British Journal for the History of Science 23 (1990): 25-51, which offers a general context and pre-history to the establishment of the Cavendish as a teaching laboratory.

Bruce J. Hunt, “The Ohm is Where the Art Is: British Telegraph Engineers and the Development of Electrical Standards,” Osiris 9 (1994): 48-63, which offers similar context, discussing the rise of electrical standards in engineering applications, also predating the Cavendish standards program.

Wise’s edited volume, Values of Precision (1995) is a focal point of this research. Gooday’s The Morals of Measurement: Accuracy, Irony, and Trust in Late Victorian Electrical Practice (2004) is a further elaboration on the values-precision link.

The literature itself does not make clear how closely coordinated it seems to have been as it was produced.

4. Blogs - May 26, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #11…

&This week’s links fall into a few groups. Happily, people seem to be finding the time again to write (excluding me), making for some interesting reading. A couple posts by the ever-talented The Renaissance Mathematicus: Circumnavigating …

5. William Burns - January 4, 2013

Schaffer appears in a recent BBC radio programme about CP Snow’s the two cultures (yes, again) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01phhy5.

Schaffer makes the statement (I’m paraphrasing) that Snow’s ends were right but his means wrong. Its very hard to understand what meaning Schaffer is reaching for, but perhaps the resident Schafferologists here might have an idea…

(Schaffer pops up about 7 minutes in, then again after Stefan Collini has spoken for a bit.)

Will Thomas - January 4, 2013

That was a good program — thanks for sharing it, William. I think both Collini and Schaffer are talking good sense here, up-to-date with the scholarship, which is careful to distinguish the intellectual history from the on-the-ground history, and to show how the two interrelated (particularly on the subject of education). Guy Ortolano’s book is all about this. By the way, did you catch Schaffer referencing Edgerton’s description of Snow as an “anti-historian” of his times?

Schaffer is a bit opaque on the bit you mention (which didn’t seem to be the main point, anyway). On the one hand, you have the claim that Snow was mischaracterizing the Britain of his day—it was interested technology, and it funded science a great deal, and the gap between science and public culture wasn’t that big. But, if you believe that, then you would ostensibly also believe that Snow wasn’t saying anything very useful about what needed to be done. On the other hand, though, Schaffer does seem to think that there was a useful task to be done, which is the “absorption of the natural sciences and technology into public culture, lest the nation be disabled economically and politically” (paraphrasing).

Schaffer doesn’t elaborate, but you could just take him to mean that it is always laudable to get people talking to each other, even if they are already doing so to a fairly satisfactory degree. There is always the element that, like Snow, science studies is in large part built around the notion that work must be done to get the science-society relationship right. The science-studies claim is, of course, a modification of the discourse in which Snow was participating, much as Snow-Leavis was less a repetition and more a modification of Huxley-Arnold, as Schaffer quite rightly points out at the end. Do we risk special “economic and political” trouble if we don’t do more concerted work to keep the natural sciences well integrated into “public culture”? I’m skeptical, if indeed that is the implication, but the general sentiment that natural science should be well “absorbed” in public culture is, of course, praiseworthy.

William Burns - January 18, 2013

Thanks for the insightful commentary, Will. I agree with your point that absorbing natural sciences into ‘public culture’ is praise-worthy but also your skepticism concerning the risks of special economic and political trouble. Yes I did catch the reference to anti-history!

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