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Schaffer on Metrology May 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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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.


Primer: The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company May 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Click to go to an online exhibit at Cambridges Whipple Museum.

An ad for the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Click to see a larger version in an online exhibit at Cambridge

Although it was perhaps the most important center for the development of mathematical physics in the 19th century, Cambridge University did not develop its reputation for experimental science until after its establishment of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1874. And while the era is best known as a time of “string and sealing wax” experimentation conducted with self-fashioned apparatus, the development and production of instrumentation was also carried out by specialist inventors and manufacturers, one of the more important of whom in England was Horace Darwin (1851-1928), the youngest son of Charles Darwin.

Horace Darwin had long been interested in the development of new kinds of instrumentation when in 1881 he acquired a controlling stake in a Cambridge instrument workshop. The workshop had been started a few years earlier by the mechanic Robert Fulcher to fashion and service instruments for Cambridge’s physiology department. It was backed financially by Albert Dew-Smith (1848-1903), a friend of Darwin who had trained at Cambridge in physiology. Fulcher, whose mechanical talents were deemed limited, was apparently driven out, leaving the way open for Darwin and Dew-Smith to become co-proprietors of what they decided to call the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Darwin obtained sole ownership in 1891.

Under Darwin’s supervision the company grew steadily, expanding its