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Update and Preview August 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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full map

This is basically a quick post to serve as evidence that I am still alive and well. I’m now living in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.  The last month has been incredibly busy as I’ve transitioned back to life in the United States, and into a new job, all toting along a one-year-old.  I have had some opportunity to work on my interests in the history of science, but not ones that will result in a blog post. However, one of the big things I’ve been doing is inspired by the continued traffic I’m seeing on my “Agricultural Colleges in Britain” post.  Basically that post presented a chronological list of Britain’s colleges.  But it turns out to be possible—thanks largely to the British zeal for local history—to pinpoint their locations (and the locations of agricultural research facilities), even for those that are now long gone.

So, what I’ve been doing is working on my skills with Javascript and (partially inspired by Alex Wellerstein’s marvelous work on Nukemap) the Google Maps API, to create a temporally dynamic map of Britain’s landscape of agricultural research and education.  The above image is a non-dynamic still, which aggregates all locations I have mapped even though they might not have co-existed in time.  I have the time variable working, but I don’t have all the foundation/closure/name-change information programmed in.  And, as you can see from the image, I have put little effort into making it look pretty.  I can’t say when this will go up, given my schedule, but I think it’s an interesting exercise.  It nicely demonstrates that any historical appreciation of agricultural science and education in Britain cannot take into account the experiences of a single location or handful of locations, but must contend with the full research and education landscape, with which agricultural experts during any part of the twentieth century would have been well familiar.

New Guide to UK Institutions for Agricultural Education and Research November 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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A while ago, I assembled tentative lists of agricultural colleges, agricultural research institutes, and some related institutions in the UK in the twentieth century. Since then, I have been in contact with Carrie de Silva of Harper Adams University College, who has put together a more expansive “Short History of Agricultural Education and Research: Some key places, people, publications and events from the 18th to the 21st centuries”. She emphasizes that it is more of a tentative guide to chronology than a well-verified academic study (the same goes for my lists), so use it with due caution, and feel free to suggest amendments to her. It is nevertheless a very useful and unprecedented effort to survey the lay of the historical land on this topic.  It is available here.

Let’s Talk about Farm Amalgamation May 21, 2012

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National Archives of the UK, MAF 142/457

In the early 1960s, British civil servants secretly contemplated how to rid the nation’s agricultural economy of inefficient, small-scale farmers.  Or, at least, that was how it might look if their deliberations became public before they had formulated any actual policy.  In reality, they were slowly and cautiously formulating a response to pressures being put on small farmers by market conditions.  Here are a few illustrative figures on farm sizes in Britain by size, adapted from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food’s (MAFF) A Century of Agricultural Statistics (1968):

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Agricultural Colleges in Britain March 26, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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Studley Castle Horticultural College for Women, 1910.
Source: Windows on Warwickshire (click for original)

Update: Carrie de Silva of Harper Adams University College has assembled a more complete and thorough list than the one which appears below.  It is available online in pdf here.  Like the list below, she emphasizes that her chronology is tentative, and is open to correction.

A few weeks ago, I spent some time chopping together a list and outline history of the various agricultural colleges founded in Britain and Northern Ireland, generally culled from various sources on the internet.  I have fairly reliable foundation dates for all but a few.  The actual names of the institutions are harder to nail down, because not only did they change, but they seem to have been referred to variously by the name of the county in which they were located, the farm on which they were built, or perhaps the village or town which they were near.  Further, sometimes a generic name like “farm institute” will be applied to a place that’s really maybe called an “agricultural college” or “farm school”.  But, rather than wait to polish all this up through intensive research, I’ve assembled my tentative list in this post in case it may be of use to anyone.

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Minor Reform and Epochal Narrative: Wartime Coordination of Research with Practical Needs May 23, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research, Technocracy in the UK.
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I am currently working more-or-less full time again on my book, which is about what I am now calling the “sciences of policy” (operations research, management science, systems analysis, decision theory….). But, while I was doing the spade work for my new project on experts in and around the British state (focusing initially on agricultural and food expertise), I found some interesting parallels between my old and new projects. I thought one of these parallels might make for an interesting post, since I am unlikely to put it into print anywhere else in the near future.

Some of the early parts of my book deal with what, in my present draft, I characterize as “a series of important, but ultimately minor bureaucratic reforms proposed by a small group of scientists and engineers between 1939 and 1941.” These reforms were the establishment of scientific advisory posts and “operational research” (OR) teams in the British Army’s Anti-Aircraft Command, the Air Ministry, and the Royal Air Force.

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Some Thoughts on the Study of Historical State Expertise February 13, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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Although I identify as a historian of science, my current project to survey expertise in the British state makes no real effort to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific forms of expertise.  In a subsequent post I intend to elaborate on my beliefs that such distinctions have not mattered much to historical actors either.  For now, however, since I don’t want to extend my survey to basically anyone with specialized skill, which would include, say, clerks, I’ve needed a working definition: anyone a) whose input affects the design of a policy, or b) who must apply a policy in concrete situations.

To my comfort, I soon found this bifurcated view of expertise casually expressed in conversations within the British civil service.  One inquiry into the worth of a research branch of the Agricultural Land Service of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries asked for comments on its work’s bearing on either the “formulation” or the “administration” of policy.  I’ll be on the lookout to see whether this pairing is a term of art, or simply an off-the-cuff way of distinguishing obvious functional divides in bureaucratic work.

From the wartime "Growmore Leaflet" No. 62, "Beating the Wireworm"

Another issue is the overlapping of expertise and representation.  In British agriculture, the importance of location was well appreciated, and knowledge of local conditions was considered a form of expertise to be consulted as a matter of course in the formulation and administration of agricultural policies.  Bodies such as the Agricultural Improvement Council (AIC) sought out membership that represented the full diversity of farming conditions in the English and Welsh countryside (Scotland and Northern Ireland even had their own separate advisory bodies).  Likewise, it went without saying that the powerful National Farmers’ Union was always to have at least one representative on the council.  The National Union of Agricultural Workers also had a representative throughout the AIC’s existence.  Later a land agent was included as well.

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The Agricultural Improvement Council for England and Wales, 1941-1962 February 6, 2011

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From time to time, as part of my survey of expertise in the British state project, I will post here some raw research results until the time arises when I can create a more permanent home for them.  Recently I have been looking at the Agricultural Improvement Council (AIC) for England and Wales.  This post contains a complete list of AIC members, and some background information, which I have assembled from archival files and do not believe to be readily accessible elsewhere.

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Sketch: UK Agricultural Research and Education January 7, 2011

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Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901)

It is difficult to trace the lineage of agricultural research in Britain without the bottom falling out from underneath your feet, putting you in freefall until you land with a thud in the eighteenth century.  Since this is well outside the scope of my project, I will just note a few reference points before scrambling back toward the twentieth century: the growth of experimental farming by “improvement”-minded landowners (good ol’ Turnip Townshend and co.), the 1791 foundation of the Veterinary College of London (later the Royal Veterinary College), and the 1796 foundation of the Sibthorpian Chair of Rural Economy at Oxford through the benefaction of John Sibthorp (1758-1796), who was Sherrardian Professor of Botany there from 1784 until his death (having replaced his father, Humphrey, who held the post from 1747 to 1783).

A Board of Agriculture existed in England from 1793 until it was wound up in 1820.  The Royal Agricultural Society of England was founded in 1838, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was founded in 1844.  For reference, the Board of Longitude was wound up in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820, the British Medical Association was founded in 1832, and the Chemical Society of London was founded in 1841.

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Preliminary Survey: Literature on Agricultural Research to 1945 November 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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The importance of agricultural research in the intellectual history of science should be self-evident.  Justus Liebig (1803-1873) was a key figure in both the development of laboratory methodology and agricultural science.  Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) famous experiments were in plant breeding.  Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) most celebrated work was on the cattle disease, anthrax.  William Bateson (1861-1926), who coined the term genetics, was the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, 1910-1926.  Statistician, geneticist, and eugenics proponent R. A. Fisher (1890-1962) was employed by the Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919 to 1933 (and temporarily relocated there from 1939 to 1943).  Interwar and postwar virologists and molecular biologists did a great deal of work on the economically destructive tobacco mosaic virus.

In these examples, problems of agriculture form a motivating context for contributions to biology, statistics, and other fields.  The history of agricultural research itself remains somewhat difficult to discern, even though it apparently constitutes a long, sizable tradition.  We do have some enumeration of accomplishments in research and technique, written in retrospect by practitioners.  For the case of the UK, the following resources are available:

Technocracy in the UK November 6, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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Having managed to get settled pretty well at Imperial College London and in my new place in Shepherds Bush, I am now starting my new project in earnest.  After a few days of preliminary research, I have found myself knee-deep in the historiography of British agricultural science, which already is pretty fascinating.  In the earlier part of the century, the agricultural experimental stations (and this is something historians of this stuff know well) turn out to be caught between problems of improving agricultural yield, studying the nutritional requirements of plants and livestock, suggesting how agriculture can best meet the nutritional requirements of the nation, but also doing academic research in the nascent field of genetics.

The key figures immediately turn out to be politically interesting, as agricultural science is hyped heavily for its social relevance.  At the same time the science becomes a central battleground over the question of the “planning” of fundamental science when the genetics of Lysenko become a scandal.  John Boyd Orr — director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen from 1914 to 1945, and first director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization — turns out to be an advocate for world government who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.  (World government, by the way, is a topic explored in respect to airpower and atomic weapons in the thesis of recent Imperial PhD Waqar Zaidi)

But all this is getting ahead of myself, and there will be more details to come.  What I’d like to do now is introduce the broader research program of which all this is a part.  The title of my project is “British State Expertise in Food, Construction, and Defence, 1945-1975”. (more…)