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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: Patrick Geddes September 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences.
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About a month ago, we spotlighted University of Leeds history research student Chris Renwick’s recent Isis article on the Spencerian influence on Patrick Geddes as a piece of writing that both nicely situates itself in the literature and in historical context, and highlights the importance of the history of ideas in science history.  Word got back to Chris, and he has graciously agreed to do a couple of guest posts for us.  The first kicks off the return of our “Primer” (formerly “hump-day history”) series.

Guest post by Chris Renwick

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Encompassing natural and social sciences, as well as social reform projects that left their mark on cities including Edinburgh and Bombay, Patrick Geddes’ career was wide-ranging, long, and—some might say—characterised by a failure to make the most of his ability to unify seemingly disparate fields with evolutionary theorising.

After leaving Scotland to train as a biologist under “Darwin’s Bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, in the mid-1870s, Geddes first made his name with a series of experiments, conducted in France, Italy, and England in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Like many biologists of his generation, Geddes was unconvinced by the case Darwin had made for natural selection as the prime mover in evolution.  Instead, Geddes—inspired by a range of thinkers, including the much-maligned Herbert Spencer—emphasised the importance of cooperation and mutually dependent relationships in evolutionary development.  To support these views, Geddes examined relationships in the natural world that biologists  often called parasitic. On separating “parasites” from their hosts—in particular, algae that lived in the tissue of flatworms—Geddes found that neither was able to live as effectively as they could together. He therefore (more…)

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…)

Primer: American Functionalist Psychology March 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Today’s video Hump-Day History lesson was originally posted at the Advances in the History of Psychology blog and is embedded from YouTubeThe creator of the video, Chris Green, professor of psychology at York University, has given us kind permission to repost it here as part of this series.

After the jump, a mega-fast primer on ideas about the psyche from Aristotle to the 19th century (we love mega-fast primers here), plus links to longer documentaries of which these are quick recaps. (more…)