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Primer: Imperial College July 29, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

While much of the history of science necessarily focuses on centers of elite learning, a thorough understanding necessitates examination of the broader foundations of scientific culture.  In the 18th century, the French state established a new emphasis in technical education and augmented it following the Revolution, most notably with the École Polytechnique.  In the 19th century, various German-speaking states emulated the model by establishing the Technische Hochschule, soon followed by the Americans with the foundation of institutions such as the Case School of Applied Sciences, the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Carnegie Technical Schools, as well as technically-oriented universities such as Johns Hopkins and Chicago.

The British also followed this trend, although perhaps not with the zeal of other nations.  The Royal College of Chemistry (RCC) was established in London in 1845 out of the same national anxiety that had already produced the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as out of admiration for the German laboratory chemistry of Justus Liebig (1803-1873) of the University of Giessen—the College’s first hire was Liebig student August Wilhelm Hofmann.  The Royal School of Mines (RSM) opened in 1851, following urging for such an institution by, among others, noted geologist Henry De la Beche, the director of the new Geological Survey of Great Britain.  The two institutions were officially amalgamated in 1853, while retaining distinct identities.

In the latter half of the century, the development of the London technical schools became an important topic for those concerned with the development of science in Britain as a resource for the state and nation.  From 1881 until his death in 1895, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), best known now as an ardent proponent of Charles Darwin’s natural selection and for science in general, became dean of the RSM and the RCC.  In 1881, he tellingly renamed the latter the (more…)