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Jan Golinski on the Personas of Humphry Davy April 30, 2018

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The time of Ether Wave Propaganda has come and gone, but happily its archives remain available, and conveniently it can still serve as a place to drop a post should the need arise.

golinski davyProbably a couple of years ago now, I received in the mail an unsolicited copy of Jan Golinski’s book, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016). This was no doubt because I’d previously written about Golinski and Davy on this blog, particularly here. But by this time I’d moved on from academic history and did not get around to reading the book. (Currently, if you want to read me, I’m regularly writing with a talented four-person team about U.S. science policy for the American Institute of Physics here.)

However, the opportunity has come for a brief revival of EWP. I had to have a surgery on April 16 — don’t worry, I expect to be fine — and have been forced to stay home to recuperate. This means I had time to plunge back into the world of early 19th-century science, and so here at last is my review of The Experimental Self.



Primer: Joseph Banks July 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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A young Joseph Banks, painted by Benjamin West, held at the Usher Art Gallery in Lincoln

Two decades ago Harold Carter, in his definitive biography of Joseph Banks (1988), and John Gascoigne, in Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment (1994), could both suppose that Banks (1743-1820) was a neglected figure in the historiography of science.  Following a surge of interest in natural history and the relationship between imperialism and the sciences, no such claim could now hold water — entire conferences are now dedicated to Banks and his milieu (.doc).  This post is intended mainly for my own benefit, to fill out my side interest in the culture of improvement circa 1800, but also just to help me get a personal handle on what now must be considered de rigeuer knowledge for any competent historian of science

The task of briefly summarizing Banks’ place in history is complicated by the reach of his interests, while it is simplified by the fact that he has very little place within the history of published science.  Banks was an institution builder, whose influence was derived from his ability to orchestrate the resources and interests of hereditary privilege and the state, as well as from his commitment to building and maintaining an intellectual community capable of supporting a new scale of work in natural history, estate improvement, and imperial development.


Primer: Agriculture, the Royal Institution, and the Spirit of Improvement April 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Since my interest in agricultural research focuses on the activities of the 20th-century British state, I didn’t really expect to return to Britain’s original Board of Agriculture (1793-1820).  But then the head of our Centre here at Imperial, Andy Mendelsohn, showed up in my office a couple of weeks ago with Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), which he thought might interest me.  Not only is there some good agriculture-related material, but it intersects a number of different interests on this blog.  The book is actually in itself an interesting case to study from a historiographical point of view, which will be the subject of a separate post.

In his 1803 will, Edward Goat referred to the Royal Institution as the “New Society of Husbandry &c lately established in Albermarle Street”

Berman shows quite nicely that the foundation of the Royal Institution (RI) in 1799 was part and parcel of the late 18th-century enthusiasm for estate improvement and philanthropy.  As he argues, “It is not customary to see the RI, the SBCP [Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, est. 1796], and the Board of Agriculture as a triad, but it was the same set of social and economic developments that brought them into being and gave them a similar, if not common agenda; and it was roughly the same group of men who sat on their governing boards” (2).