On November 4, 1646, Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655), first physician to Charles I and the English Aristocracy, decided to spend his day away from his demanding patients and to devote his attention to the vibrant world of colors. He took a good handful of bilberries and carefully inspected the color of their peel and pulp. He then cooked them following a recipe for making a “very beautiful and very oriental” colorant for writing and limning. The recipe he followed has survived as part of an extensive manuscript collection dated to the first half of the seventeenth century.
Continue reading “The Manual as Artifact: On Artists’ Manuals and Craftsmen’s Handbooks” →
Selling insurance against possibly harmful future events became popular among Americans in the late eighteenth century. Among the reasons that more and more people in the former British colonies were drawn to conduct this kind of business was that acting as an insurer required neither formal training nor special equipment. Basically, anyone who was literate and had access to pen and paper could write up a contract that promised some sort of financial compensation for losses or damages to someone, if that person feared a certain event could disrupt his or her comfort and in exchange made a regular payment. Thus, a man named Ephraim Tucker decided in 1793 to issue insurance for “the elegant full-blooded horse Clericus” during its transfer between stables. Philadelphia merchants routinely agreed to insure each other against the so-called dangers of the sea. Churches in New England raised funds to insure the lives of their clergy and the clergymen’s widows and children. Neighbors issued contracts to insure each other’s homes against destruction by fire. Firemen, too, clubbed together to provide financial means for any event that caused one of them to suffer physical harm. The practice of taking on other people’s risks, this shows, was often performed by nonexperts.
Continue reading “Learning How to Construct the Unknown: The Practice of Risk in Early North American Insurance Manuals” →
In premodern China, the population was roughly divided according to professions into four groups: literati, farmers, artisans, and merchants. During this period, artisanal knowledge was mainly transmitted in person. Most Chinese artisans were not as literate as their European counterparts, if literate at all, and written texts played a minor role in the transmission of their specialized knowledge. The master of a workshop taught the apprentices how to perform bodily actions by working alongside them and only transmitted written knowledge with brief and codified texts. Sometimes craft recipes were not even written down; they were memorized by masters and transferred verbally to designated successors in the craft.
Continue reading “Popular and Specialist Artisanal Knowledge in China, Mid-Thirteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries” →
In Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo (1802–1885) wrote, “the book will kill the edifice.” Spoken by Archdeacon Claude Frollo, this phrase signified the view that the Renaissance was “that setting sun we mistake for a dawn.” Understood as a revolution in tectonics away from the organic and toward the classical, the Renaissance had separated sculpture, painting, and architecture—carved and parceled them out from what was formerly a single edifice of Gothic construction. The mechanism? Printing. Whereas Gothic architecture had reflected and affirmed the entire intellectual investment of society, the various arts and sciences were now contained in books.
Continue reading “The Book Will Kill the Edifice? Mechanics Manuals and Learning to Draw in the Early and Mid-Nineteenth Century” →
Writing in 1849 from their Admiralty chambers right off of Whitehall, the Lords Commissioners of the Royal Navy issued a simple memorandum to introduce their new Manual of Scientific Enquiry, a mutable collecting reference reworked and reissued six more times over the course of the century. “Their Lordships do not consider it necessary that this Manual should be one of very deep and abstruse research,” they noted, arguing that “its directions should not require the use of nice apparatus and instruments: they should be generally plain, so that men merely of good intelligence and fair acquirement might be able to act upon them; yet, in pointing out objects, and methods of observation and record, they might still serve as a guide to officers of high attainment.” Pointing to what they considered the most important areas of research conducted overseas, the Lords Commissioners tasked fifteen of Britain’s top men of science with writing short, simple, and clear instruction booklets for naval officers, sailors, surgeons, and those elusive “professional collectors” on how and what to observe while safely bringing specimens (living and dead), notes, and records back home.
Continue reading “‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire” →
How does an expert transmit expertise? What genres of scientific writing are available for doing so? Does the choice of genre matter in the long run? In this essay, I approach these questions by comparing two monographs published in the mid 1940s in the field of microbiology. While the works shared a concern with life at its smallest, they were written in different genres. One, entitled L’évolution physiologique: étude des pertes de fonctions chez les microorganismes, was a general survey of research on microbial nutrition. The other, called Pure Cultures of Algae: Their Preparation and Maintenance, was a manual of techniques for cultivating microscopic algae in test tubes.
Continue reading “The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology” →
Historical museum guidebooks mediate an associative network of ideas, writings, artefacts, and people. Piecing together these contingent and ephemeral encounters, and parsing original work from posthumous orders and emendation, is a difficult task that poses a number of questions. What determines how visitors move through museum spaces? Whose voices lead and regulate? Who watches?
Continue reading “‘A Lady’ in the Museum” →
Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology—from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE.
Continue reading “Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy” →
In 1721, the Dutch craftsman Willem van Laer (1674–1722) published a Guidebook for Upcoming Gold- and Silversmiths. Intended as a manual to educate young novices, the Guidebook discussed a variety of different practices, techniques, and skills that ranged from assays to determine the quality of precious metals to sand mold casting and polishing (Figure 1). Four different editions, including one pirated copy, appeared in less than fifty years, attesting to its popularity. The book was explicitly aimed at teaching young readers how to do and make things. Van Laer reassured readers by saying “there will be few young gold- or silversmiths, who won’t find anything to their liking and benefit while reading this book; they will be led by hand to the knowledge of many things.” Yet, however confident Van Laer might come across in this passage, there is sufficient reason to question the actual success of Guidebook at explaining and delivering these skills. Practical knowledge is often better demonstrated than written down. Van Laer was very well aware of this fact and offered disclaimers warning his readers that full comprehension of the text was only achieved when complemented with manual instruction. This begs the question of what could, in fact, be learned from the Guidebook.
Continue reading “Vicissitudes in Soldering: Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual” →
In 1901, Erich von Tschermak (1871–1962) produced a critical edition of Gregor Mendel’s (1822–1884) paper on “Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden”; and in the same year, William Bateson (1861–1926) submitted an English translation entitled “Experiments in Plant Hybridization” to the readers of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. Tschermak’s edition appeared as volume 121 of the renowned series Ostwalds Klassiker der exakten Naturwissenschaften (Ostwald’s Classic Texts in the Exact Sciences). Historians have rarely noted the paradox that lies in the fact that a paper, which scientists like von Tschermak and Bateson had lifted from obscurity just a year earlier, was almost instantaneously included in the Pantheon of classical contributions to the “exact” sciences. The discipline that Mendel supposedly founded, namely genetics, did not yet exist in 1901, and his alleged “discovery” of laws of inheritance would remain highly contested for at least another decade, even involving accusations of scientific misconduct.
Continue reading “Punnett Squares and Hybrid Crosses: How Mendelians Learned Their Trade by the Book” →