Political correctness and the history of science

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will be already aware that the historian David Wootton has written a new book entitled The Invention of Science: A New History of The Scientific Revolution; in The Times (unfortunately behind a pay wall) Gerard DeGroot doesn’t so much review the book as perform a very nasty, vindictive hatchet job on it. DeGroot doesn’t just raise the spectre of eurocentrism in his critic he formally slaps Wootton in the face with it from the very opening paragraph of his review. This raises the question as to whether he is right to do so and whether Wootton is guilty as charged. Before I address these points I would like to briefly review what exactly eurocentrism with respect to the history of science is.

There used to be a brief standard sketch of the history of science, that probably arose some time in the Enlightenment but which owes much of its ethos to Renaissance historiography. This outline usually goes something like this. Science[1] was invented by the ancient Greeks. After the collapse of civilisation in the Dark Ages (a deliberate use of a discredited term here) science was rescued and conserved (but not changed or added to) by the Islamic Empire before being retrieved in the Renaissance by the Europeans, who then went on to create modern science in the Scientific Revolution. This piece of mythology reflected the triumphalist historiography of a colonialist Europe in the throws of dominating and exploiting large parts of the rest of the world.

During the twentieth century historians, many of them Europeans, dismantled this piece of fiction and began to explore and elucidate the histories of science of other cultures such as Egypt, Babylon, China, India and the Islamic Empire, creating in the process a much wider and infinitely more complex picture of the history of science, consisting of transfers of knowledge across space and time throughout the last approximately four thousand years. This newly acquired knowledge exposed anybody who still insisted on propagating part or all of the earlier fairy story to the charge of eurocentrism, a charge that when considering the whole of the history of science is more than justified.

Unfortunately, as I have commented in the past, this also led to an over zealous backlash on behalf of the previously wronged cultures particularly on the Internet. One only needs to state that X (a European) discovered/invented Y (some piece of science, technology, medicine, mathematics…) for some over assiduous commentator (almost always not a historian of science) to pop up saying, that’s not true Z (an Indian, Islamic, Chinese, or whatever scholar) discovered/invented Y long before X was even born. Occasionally these claims are correct but much more often they are inaccurate, exaggerated or just plain false. Any attempt to correct the informant leads inevitably to an accusation of eurocentrism. Eurocentrism has become a sort of universal weapon used indiscriminately whether it is applicable or not.

Wootton’s book deals not with a general universal history of science but as it very clearly states in its subtitle with the Scientific Revolution a historical episode that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period. Whether one is, as a historian, a ‘revolutionary’ or a ‘gradualist’ there is no doubt that following its reintroduction into Europe during the High Middle Ages that which we call science, irrespective of its original sources, underwent a radical change that led to the emergence by, at the latest, the nineteenth century, science as we know it today. The major difference between Wootton and myself is that he thinks this process took place almost entirely within the seventeenth century whereas I see a timeframe stretching from the fourteenth century to at least the middle of the eighteenth.

Wootton is writing about a historical phenomenon that took place exclusively within Europe to accuse him of eurocentrism is to say the least perverse. If this were not a European phenomenon then the so-called Needham question would simply be nonsensical. Joseph Needham (1900-195) was the twentieth century’s greatest historian of Chinese science and instigator of the monumental, on going seven volume Science and Civilisation in China. The question that Needham posed runs as follows “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilisation or Indian civilisation?” He could have equally well have posed the same question for the Islamic Empire. Many historians have tacked this question respective the three cultures and their answers are as diverse, as they are inconclusive. Some approach the question by trying to address the reasons for the decline of science and technology in China, India or the Islamic Empire whereas others try to isolate the factors that led to the Scientific Revolution in Europe. Although he doesn’t directly address the Needham question Wootton’s can be seen as an example of the latter.

If I were to be charitable to DeGroot it would appear that his main error lies in his interpretation of the word science as used by Wootton in his main title. It is clear that what Wootton intends is ‘modern science’ as used by Needham in the quote of his famous question above. DeGroot, I think disingenuously choses it to mean any form of scientific activity from anywhere and anytime in human history. We can see this conflict of interpretations in the following quotes from DeGroot:

…to assert that science was invented between certain dates in western European history automatically imposes a proprietary right – by defining science in a certain way it becomes, in essence, European.


A different intellectual climate existed in India, China and the Middle East, [in the Middle Ages] however. Outside Europe, minds were more open to progress and curiosity fired scientific enquiry. For instance great strides were made in pure and applied mathematics, optics, astronomy and medicine in the Middle East long before Columbus set sail [Wootton sees 1492 and Columbus’ first voyage as the starting point of the Scientific Revolution]. As early as the 10th century, brilliant scientists (not exclusively Muslim) were drawn to centres of learning in Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara. These scholars considered Europe an intellectual backwater, yet hardly get a mention in this book. In other words, the so-called Scientific Revolution seems like a revolution only if we ignore what was happening outside Europe.

The first quote is a clear accusation of eurocentrism and the second is DeGroot’s attempt to justify his accusation. Nothing he writes in the second quote is wrong but also none of it has any real relevance to the book that David Wootton has written. Interesting is his attempt to deny that the Scientific Revolution ever took place. Whether you think that the very real change in the nature of science that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period did so in the form of a revolution or more gradually over a longer timeframe to deny its very existence is to fly in the face of the historical facts. Whatever happened in the Islamic Empire between the eighth and twelfth centuries, the Golden Age of Islamic science, other than provided some of the foundations on which Kepler, Galileo, Newton et al built their new science, none of it had very much relevance to what took place in Europe in the seventeenth century.

This point is spelled out very clearly by A. Mark Smith in his recently published book, From Sight to Light, an essential volume for anybody interested in the history of optics. Smith’s book is a counter argument to David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From Al-Kindi to Kepler. Lindberg had argued that Kepler was, so to speak, the crowning glory of the European perspectivist tradition of optics that begins with the introduction of the work of Ibn al-Haytham into Europe in the thirteenth century. Following the same path, starting with ancient Greek optics, Smith, an expert on al-Haytham and Arabic optics, wants to show that Kepler is in fact a break with the perspectivist tradition and a new beginning in the theory of optics, a revolution if you will. Well aware that he might face charges of eurocentrism Smith devotes several pages of his introductions to explaining why such a charge would not be justified. He closes his explanation with the following paragraph:

The same holds for the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It may well be that certain key ideas, laws and concepts that contributed to that evolution were anticipated by Arabic or, for that matter, Indian, Chinese or Mesoamerican thinkers. And it is certainly the case that there was a lively cross-cultural marketplace of commodities and ideas between the Latin “West” and Arabic “East” throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The fact remains, though, that it was in Europe that those ideas, laws, concepts were eventually assimilated, refined, channelled, and combined in such a way as to form the basis of what most of us today would characterize as modern optics. Any claim to the contrary strikes me as historically perverse. Furthermore, to contend that the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries happened in Europe is not to give Europe proprietary rights to that science or to accord Europe cultural exceptionalism or superiority for having developed it. I therefore strongly resist any charge of being trapped, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in some grand, master narrative or of engaging in hegemonic discourse.

If we substitute modern science for modern optics in Smith’s eloquent speech for the defence I think we can safely reject as baseless the accusations of eurocentrism that DeGroot makes against Wootton.


[1] Throughout this post I shall be using the word science as a collective noun for science, technology, medicine and mathematics to save time and effort whilst writing.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Myths of Science

The Penny Universities

The Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi famously quipped about his colleague Paul Erdös that, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”. However this theorem producing process didn’t start with Erdös in the twentieth century but became an established routine as soon the coffee house made its appearance in Restoration England in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The first coffee house in England, The Angel, opened in Oxford in 1650 closely followed by The Queen’s Lane Coffee House in 1654, which is still in existence. London’s first coffee house, owned by Pasqua Rosée opened in 1652. The Temple Bar, London’s second coffee house opened in 1656.

From the very beginning English coffee houses became the favourite haunts of the virtuosi, the new generation of natural philosophers pushing the evolution of science forward in England in the second half of the seventeenth century; the circle around Christopher Wren in Oxford and the members of the Royal Society in London quickly becoming the habitués. The famous discussion between Wren, Hooke and Halley about an inverse square law of gravity and the shape of the planetary orbits took place in a London coffee house. Later, after he moved to London in 1696, Isaac Newton would hold court in the evenings in a coffee house distributing unpublished mathematical manuscripts to favoured acolytes privileged to sit at the feet of the maestro.

However these intellectual exchanges went beyond the informal meetings of the virtuosi in their free time. The coffee house became know as the penny universities, one penny being the going price of a cup of coffee. The proprietors offered courses of study as well as lecture courses in a wide range of subjects to those willing to pay a penny. As well as foreign languages these courses covered the new sciences. William Whiston, Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor in Cambridge, offered courses in the new natural philosophy in the coffee houses, following his fall from grace and expulsion from Cambridge because of his religious views. Francis Hauksbee, demonstrator of experiments at the Royal Society under Newton’s presidentship, also improved his income with similar courses. Abraham de Moivre, impoverished Huguenot refugee, mathematician and fervent Newtonian eked out a pittance in the coffee houses, teaching chess and mathematics and instructing punters how to calculate gambling odds.

Later in the eighteenth century the group of religious dissenters, radical liberal politicians and scientists, christened by Benjamin Franklin “The Club of Honest Whigs”, which included as well as Franklin, the chemist Joseph Priestly, the mathematician Richard Price, the natural philosopher John Canton, the military physician John Pringle and the physician Benjamin Vaughan held their regular Monday meetings in the London Coffee House in St Paul’s Churchyard.

Many were the scientific and mathematical debates and disputes that were carried out in the eighteenth century coffee houses of England.

I drink my daily cup of coffee at Amir Der KaffeeMann in Erlangen, excellent beverages personally roasted by Amir, the Persian proprietor, and for the price of a cappuccino I will entertain you with a history of science lecture of your choice.


Filed under History of science, Newton

Reaching for the stars

I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday at a conference in the Albrecht Dürer House in Nürnberg. You might ask if I suddenly moved over to the art historians but this was a history of astronomy conference. Dürer wrote an important maths book, which was published in 1525 and which I’ve blogged about in the past. However this wasn’t his first excursion into the mathematical sciences, in 1515 he was involved in the production and publication of the first ever (in Europe, there are earlier Chinese woodblock star chart prints) printed star maps. The conference that I intended was to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of this historical event.

Albrecht Dürer House Nürnberg Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer House Nürnberg
Source: Wikimedia Commons

These star maps or charts are often erroneously referred to as Dürer’s star maps, although in fact Dürer was only one of three people responsible for their creation and was viewed as the junior partner. If you look at the bottom left hand corner of the southern hemisphere map there are three coats of arms.

Direr Southern Hemisphere Star Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dürer Southern Hemisphere Star Map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Going from right to left, the first one consisting of a pair of open doors is Dürer’s; the family name being originally Türer, meaning porter, which comes from Türe the German for door. The second a sword flanked by two stars is Conrad Heinfogel’s a priest and astronomer and the third the imperial eagle surmounted by the poet’s laurel wreath is the coat of arms of Johannes Stabius mathematicus and Imperial Historian. The Latin text immediately above the three coats of arms states that Johannes Stabius commissioned the piece, Conrad Heinfogel positioned the stars and Albrecht Dürer circumscribed the images.

Johannes Stabius portrait by Albrecht Dürer

Johannes Stabius portrait by Albrecht Dürer

Johannes Stabius (real name Stöberer; before 1468–1522) was a graduate of Ingolstadt where he became professor of mathematics. He moved with Conrad Celtis to Vienna where he became part of the so-called 2nd Viennese School of Mathematics as well as being appointed Imperial Historian. He is most well known today for the Werner-Stabius cordiform map projection.

Oronce Finé's World Map using a cordiform projection Source: Wikimedia Commons

Oronce Finé’s World Map using a cordiform projection
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He had strong connections to Nürnberg and had previously worked with Dürer on the Triumphal Arch for Maximilian I, one of the largest ever woodblock print.

Maximilian's Triumphal Arch Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maximilian’s Triumphal Arch
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also in 1515 Stabius and Dürer had produced a world map.

Dürer-Stabius World Map 1515 Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Dürer-Stabius World Map 1515
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Conrad Heinfogel (?–1517) (from whom there are no known portraits) had been a pupil of Bernhard Walther (c.1430–1504), who was Regiomontanus’ partner in his astronomical activities in Nürnberg and who continued his work after Regiomontanus died; some of his observations of Mercury would be used by Copernicus in De revolutionibus. Walther had owned the Dürer House before Dürer and this was one of the reasons that Dürer bought it. Amongst his other astronomical activities Heinfogel was employed to position the stars on a set of manuscript star maps produced in Nürnberg in 1503. This earlier set of maps almost certainly served as one of the templates for the 1515 Dürer maps. A probable second source for the maps was a 1435 set of manuscript star maps of unknown provenance now found in Vienna. However the means of transmission of the information from Vienna to Nürnberg is not known.

In the top left hand corner of the southern hemisphere map is the coat of arms of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Cardinal Matthäus Lang and in the top right hand corner a dedication to him. Lang was a fervent supporter of the sciences and it was he, for example, who commissioned the first account of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the earth on which Johannes Schöner based his 1523 globe displaying the route taken. The bottom right hand corner is an acknowledgement of Maximilian I, patron to both Stabius and Dürer.

Dürer Northern Hemisphere Star Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dürer Northern Hemisphere Star Map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The four corners of the northern hemisphere map contain portraits of astronomer/astrologers: Top left Aratus 4th century BCE author of the Pænomena an astronomical poem. Top right is Ptolemaeus. Bottom left is Manilius a 1st century CE Roman astrologer, whose astrological poem Astronomica Regiomontanus had published in Nürnberg in 1473. Bottom right is the 10th century CE Persian astronomer al-Sufi, author of a famous star catalogue.

The two star maps are bounded by the ecliptic and contain all of the 1022 stars from the Ptolemaic star catalogue with the Ptolemaic numbering. Dürer produced the images for the forty-eight Ptolemaic constellations. The maps set new standards for star maps in the Renaissance and, because printed and widely distributed, influenced many star maps and celestial globes in the following century. Hans Gaab has identified about sixty such objects most notably Peter Apian’s star map from 1535, a rather unsuccessful attempt to include both hemispheres onto one chart.

Peter Apian Star Map 1535 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Peter Apian Star Map 1535
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the publication of Tycho Brahe’s new and much more accurate star catalogue at the end of the century the Dürer maps ceased to be influential.

Happy conference goers returning from lunch break 19 September 2015

Happy conference goers returning from lunch break 19 September 2015

The conference on Saturday covered all the above in much greater detail and the Dürer house now has a semi-permanent exhibition detailing the history and pre-history of the star maps, including at the moment originals, which however will be replaced by facsimiles in the future. Well worth a visit if you are in Nürnberg. (Get in touch and I’ll do my history of astronomy tour of Nürnberg for you, which ends with the Dürer House!)

If you can read German and wish to know more Hans Gaab, who is a fount of wisdom on all things astronomical historical in Nürnberg, has written a book on the Dürer Star Maps, Die Sterne über Nürnberg: Albrecht Dürer und seine Himmelskarten von 1515 (Schriftenreihe der Nürnberger Astronomischen Gesellschaft) that was officially presented on Friday as part of the celebrations, highly recommended.

The Dürer Star Maps again in a hand coloured edition

Source: Ian Ridpath's Star Tales

Source: Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales

Source: Ian Ridpath's Star Tales

Source: Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales


Filed under History of Astronomy

Let the debate begin!

David Wootton, whose new book The Invention of Science I featured recently on my list of books I have to, and want to, find time to read, was on the BBC’s flagship news magazine, Today, this morning talking about his book (starts at about 49.20 mins). Wootton started off his short slot by denying the ancient Greeks any form of scientific status and joining the, in the mean time fashionable, chorus of those slagging off Aristotle. Another notable member of this particular chorus being Steven Weinberg in his recent To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. He then went on to claim that the medieval scholars only discussed problems without end but didn’t achieve any resolution or progress; a claim that certainly had Pierre Duhem, Alistair Crombie and David C. Lindberg all rotating violently in their graves. Wootton thinks that science only starts after Columbus discovered America, thereby introducing the concept of discovery into intellectual discourse and according to the flyleaf of his book, the first discovery or change introducing the scientific age was Tycho’s observation of the nova in 1572.

Wootton’s book is a highly explosive grenade lobbed into the middle of the revolution contra gradualism debate at a time when the gradualists are very much in ascendance, within the history of science community. Those on the revolution side will eagerly clutch his good points, and I’m sure they are there in abundance, in order to shore up their sagging positions, whilst the gradualists will be forced to sharpen up their arguments to refute Wootton’s thesis of a reinstated Scientific Revolution.

I for one, a declared gradualist, welcome the conflict as it can only serve to bolster the history of science as a discipline. As I quoted Frank McDonough in a recent edition of Whewell’s Gazette, “The role of the historian is to move the debate forward, no more, no less”. So, let the debate begin.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Head of the BBC Science Unit didn’t just jump the shark; he did a backflip over it!

Yesterday evening the BBC4 television channel showed a documentary film about Ada Lovelace called Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing. I haven’t seen this, so I can’t comment on it and this is not what this post is about. In the run up to the programme Andrew Cohen, Head of the BBC Science Unit, tweeted the following tweet advertising the programme.

Thank this woman for your smart phone. WTF! From all the inane comments that I have read over the years about the Countess of Lovelace, I think this one wins the prize for the biggest heap of festering bovine manure that anybody has, to my knowledge, ever uttered about her.

Whatever has been said about who was responsible for the notes appended to her English translation of the Menebrea memoire on the Analytical Engine, she or Babbage (and I still personally think that all of the available evidence points to Babbage as being their principle author) there is one thing about which all historians of computing agree one hundred per cent: Neither Babbage nor Lovelace nor Babbage’s machines had any influence whatsoever on the invention and development of the modern computer in the second half of the twentieth century and thus on your smart phone. In fact most of the pioneers who created the modern computer and thus ushered in the computer age had never even heard of either Babbage or Lovelace.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but Mr Cohen your statement is pure unadulterated crap and not something I would expect from someone who glorifies under the title Head of the BBC Science Unit.


Filed under Uncategorized

A breath of fresh air

I’m supposed to be preparing a lecture on the eighteenth-century pneumatic chemists and I noticed this morning that today is the birthday of Stephen Hales who was responsible for a small invention that made pneumatic chemistry possible, so I decided to write a post about him.

Stephen Hales, aged 82, by J.McArdell after T. Hudson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Hales, aged 82, by J.McArdell after T. Hudson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hales, who is largely unknown today, except by experts, was regarded in the eighteenth century as one of the most important English natural historians with an international reputation amongst both natural historians and chemists. Born on the 17th September 1677 the tenth child and sixth son of Thomas Hales, heir to the Baronetcy of Beakesbourne and Brymore. As a younger son he was destined for the clergy and duly ordained in 1703 after graduating BA in 1700 at Corpus Christi College Cambridge. He obtained a fellowship in the same year and qualified MA in 1704. He remained in Cambridge until 1708 devoting his time to the study of the sciences mostly in tandem with William Stukeley, who would later become Newton’s physician. The two of them, being Cambridge men, studied Newton’s physics and astronomy as well as John Ray’s natural history.

Family connections found a curacy for Hales, which was the start of his long and successful church career, the high point of which was being appointed private chaplain to Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales and mother of George III in 1751. He was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by the University of Oxford in 1733 and is said to have turned down the offer of a canonry at Windsor from George II. Princess Augusta held him in such esteem that she had a monument erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey after his death in 1761, at the ripe old age of 83.

Stephen Hales monument Westminster Abbey Copyright: Westminster Abby

Stephen Hales monument Westminster Abbey
Copyright: Westminster Abby

However as stated above Hales was not only a successful pastor but also a very successful and important amateur natural historian making him an excellent example of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglican clergymen who devoted themselves to the study of the sciences making substantial advances to many fields. This historical phenomenon, of course, makes a mockery of the claims of the Gnu Atheists that religion and science are incompatible and that belief in God somehow hinders scientific thought.

Hales who became a member of the Royal Society in 1718 devoted his scientific studies to the circulatory systems of plants and animals. The results of his experimental studies on plants where published in his Vegetable Staticks. Hales determined the direction and force of sap flow in plants by inserting glass tubes into the stump of a vine with the branches cut off. He also inserted glass tubes containing water into the root systems of plants to determine the water absorption rate. Hales’ greatest achievement in his plant studies was to measure the transpiration rate. Through a series of complex and ingenious experiments he was able to determine how much water a plant perspired during its growing season and to demonstrate that this transpiration helped to draw water up through the roots.

Hales carries out similar experiments over many years on the circulatory systems of animals, which he published in his Haemastaticks in 1733. He later published both books together as his Statical Essays. Using the same method of inserting glass tubes into arteries and veins of various animals, Hales made the first ever blood pressure measurements. He then went on to measure cardiac output and compare pulse rates and blood pressure. These experiments were conducted on live animals without the benefits of sedation, which led his friend and neighbour, Alexander Pope, a dog lover, to condemn him for his cruelty to animals.

During his plant experiments Hales noted that air was expelled by his plants along with the water and he set out to devise methods to collect and measure the quantities of air thus produced. This is where Hales becomes interesting for the pneumatic chemists, who succeeded him in the eighteenth century and thus for my planned lecture. Hales devised a series of apparatuses to collect the air, which culminated in his invention of the pneumatic trough. A device that could be set to the general purpose of collecting gases separated from the generating apparatus.

Pneumatic Tr From Vegetable Staticks, opposite page 262 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pneumatic Tr From Vegetable Staticks, opposite page 262
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The pneumatic trough would go on to be further developed by Henry Cavendish, William Brownrigg, Joseph Priestly and Antoine Lavoisier all of whom would use it in the discovery of various gasses, most notably hydrogen and oxygen; discoveries that would lead to the discovery of the composition of water and the beginnings of modern molecular chemistry. All of these researchers acknowledged their debt to Hales and his invention.

Throughout the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century all of the great natural historians who laid the foundations of modern biology also acknowledge their debt to Hales for his pioneering work in both animal and plant physiology. It is only in the late nineteenth century that he began to be forgotten and to slide into obscurity; to become only the subject of study of specialist historians of science and no longer to be counted amongst the great natural historians.

As we have seen Hales was not just a brilliant theorist but also a very practical investigator designing and building complex experimental apparatus with which to conduct his researches. He applied this practical bent to the solution of an important social problem. His researches into air were a continuation of work begun in the seventeenth century by people such as Boyle and Hooke into air and its properties. One of the central concerns of these researches was the investigation of bad or foul airs, like those found in swamps, mines and enclosed spaces, such as prisons or ships. In fact Brownrigg’s development of Hales’ pneumatic trough was dedicated to this research. Hales was one of several researchers to invent a ventilator driven by bellows worked by hand and in larger versions by windmills to provide fresh air to enclosed spaces. Hales’ ventilators were a success and were widely employed in ships, prisons and mines.

Image of a Ventilation Bellows devised by Stephen Hales Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Image of a Ventilation Bellows devised by Stephen Hales
Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Hales is a classic example of those small scientific researchers, who upon investigation turn out not to be so small after all, who get lost and forgotten in our hagiographical presentation of the so-called giants of science. Next time you are at your doctors having your blood pressure checked spare a thought for the Reverend Stephen Hales the very first person to measure blood pressure.

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Filed under History of Chemistry, History of medicine

When Living in the Past Distorts the Past; Or, Why I Study the Victorian Era

What you are about to read is somewhat off topic for the Renaissance Mathematicus, but as I’ve said on a number of occasions I reserve the right to post here what I will, after all it’s my blog. I received an unsolicited email from Jacob Steere-Williams, who is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston asking me to post this on Whewell’s Ghost. As I only post Whewell’s Gazette there theses days, I didn’t think it was a very good idea but because I found Jacob’s post well worth reading I have decided to post it here. Although it doesn’t deal with the history of science, Renaissance or otherwise, it does deal with some general historiographical points that I consider important so I offer it to my readers to read, contemplate and digest. I’m sure Jacob would also be interested in any thoughts it provokes amongst those that read it.

I am a Professor of Modern British History (and the History of Medicine) at the College of Charleston, and have written a piece that responds to the recent article on Vox about a couple who live as if they were Victorians: http://www.vox.com/2015/9/9/9275611/victorian-era-life

I study history, namely the Victorian period in Britain that roughly spanned the lifetimes of the well-known and indefatigable writers Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde.

Like the flâneur, itself an idealized literary type from the nineteenth century, I perambulate the Victorian world, consuming its echoes through the traces of modernity. Fueled by my own curiosity of the period, I am consumed by the past. But unlike a bygone wandering traveler, as a professional historian I interrogate, criticize, and find meaning in the past. Both in the classroom and the archive I privilege the historian’s however fallible creed, to approximate the past “was eigentlich gewesen [ist],” as it essentially happened, the dictum of the Janus-like nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke.

It’s with a good bit of vexation, then, and no little amuse, that I recently read about privileged hipsters living the solipsist dream of a phantasmagorical Victorian world in the twenty-first century.

Don’t get me wrong. The winding of a mechanical clock and brushing of ones teeth with a boar bristle brush in the morning, and the heating of wax and plunging of a personally-monographed seal on a hand-written letter in the evening by the Edison bulb with a bit of sherry all sound lovely, albeit in a kind of super-ego stroking masturbatory way. Eschewing the technology of the present, however, for that of the Victorian past, is an odd perversion of the Thoreauvian luddite sentiment towards simplicity and nature. This is made all the more dogged when one “blossoms” into their “true self” through the ritualized play of what university-aged Brits today might call perpetually living in period specific “fancy dress.”  The Victorians themselves of the 1880s would have rightly called this behavior Silver Fork Snobbery.

Yet, the political rationalist in me embraces the freedoms that have it made possible for a handful of twenty-first century Americans to choose to happily obtain that 14-inch waist through tightlacing a corset, all the while finding time to delight in a weekend stroll on the high-wheel tricycle.

Again, don’t get me wrong. We historians have long embraced material culture as an arbiter of the past. An antique kerosene space heater, a crinoline skirt, and even a bar of Castile soap are all indeed are primary source traces that help us to understand and interpret the past. Yet they don’t do so in and of themselves. We as human actors—either today or in the past, the difference being critical— provide and attach meaning to material objects, apart from their Kantian ding an sich (the thing in itself). Plucking nineteenth century objects from museums and dusty attics and revitalizing them to navigate the twenty-first century is a kind of Frankensteinian Promethan dream. Decontextualizing these objects from the time and place in which they were created doesn’t privilege the lived experience of the past, but rather is the akin to the scholarly sin of being ahistorical.

The irony of the twenty-first century posturing of Victoriana material culture would not have been lost on the nineteenth century critic Karl Marx, who as early as the 1860s fully articulated the concept of “commodity fetishism” to explain how objects gain culture power in the marketplace apart from their inherent labor value. In this way, subverting twenty-first century technology for its nineteenth century counterpart is a fuller expression of bourgeois capitalism. But what Marx would have found disdainfully surprising is the inversion of historical commodities being fetishized. It’s the professional historian in me that sees this behavior and what it undergirds as a dangerous foray into historical revisionism. At its core living the Victorian dream is a performative act that tells us more about twenty-first century tensions and fears than nineteenth.

Such idealization of the Victorian period represents a decontextualized distortion of the past. At a deeper cultural level, it signifies the staying power of what the philosopher Walter Benjamin identified as the shock of modernity. Yet the great irony of finding refuge in the Victorian era is that the Victorian themselves were disillusioned with the fast-paced technological and social changes of their time. There were moral panics surrounding the railroads, where riders were sickened with the medico-moral disease “railway spine,” which struck Dickens himself. The Victorian period saw for the first time in history the collapse of space and time. Sure, the age that domesticated nature via industrialization was at times bubbling with bravado over science and technology, yet Victorians were also frightened by what they had produced.

Aristocratic Victorians were fond of ‘retiring’ to their country estates to relieve the mounting fast-paced pressures of steam engines, timetables, and telegraphs (and, lest we forget, the urban poor). I suppose that twenty-first century hipsters are finding refuge in an idealized version of the past would strike those uber wealthy Victorians as perfectly normal. For the rest of us it’s perfectly odd. For professional historians, it’s down right dangerous.

In the world we live in today our interpretations of the past loom as large as ever. My own state, of South Carolina, for example, has been emblazoned of late because of the discord between an object of the past—the Confederate flag—and competing interpretations over its meaning. The past, it seems, is perpetually being made handmaiden to political perversions. The wearing of nineteenth century clothes and cooking with nineteenth century utensils is far from an innocuous appropriation of powerless objects from the past. There is a very real danger in a cherry-picked, tunnel-vision version of history, one that ignores power, inequality, racism, and privilege.

For a truly authentic Victorian experience, kids these days might be better off lounging around an opium den, or cordoned from society from the effects of hysteria. Ever try the gripping effects of typhoid fever or cholera—you can’t understand the Victorian world without them.

Jacob Steere-Williams

Assistant Professor, Department of History

College of Charleston


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