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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: William Thomson January 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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William Thomson, Age 28, Well-Established

William Thomson (1824-1907) was the son of James Thomson, an Irish professor of mathematics who moved from the University of Belfast to the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1832.  William was raised in a latitudinarian tradition of religious tolerance, and in a whig tradition of progressive social reform.  In Glasgow, he was exposed to a scholarly environment from early on, and it was assumed he would follow in his father’s academic footsteps.  In 1841 he departed to Cambridge, where he studied for the mathematical tripos, becoming a student of the coach William Hopkins his second year.  He finished second wrangler in the January 1845 examination.

Before Thomson had even arrived at Cambridge, his father had begun the process of maneuvering him into position to take over the chair in natural philosophy at Glasgow.  William duly obtained it in 1846 at the age of 22, and held it until his retirement in 1899.  By the 1840s, natural philosophy had already begun a long process of transformation, which Thomson himself did much to mold.  Traditionally, the basis of natural philosophy was the development of theories of the materials of the universe and their powers on each other, resulting in schemes for explaining various kinds of physical phenomena, as mediated by the power of experiment.  And indeed, to qualify for the Glasgow chair, Thomson had been encouraged to seek out what limited experimental work was done at Cambridge, and, after completing the tripos, he had traveled to Paris where he assisted in the laboratory of Victor Regnault (1810-1878) at the Collège de France.

At Cambridge, meanwhile, the mathematical tripos had classically been considered an appropriate foundation of a liberal education, instilling in students analytical habits of mind. (more…)