Structuring Imperial Knowledge about India at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 excited curiosity in nineteenth-century contemporaries and continues to garner interest among scholars today. Attracting some six million visitors and comprising over 100,000 exhibits that filled 76,720 square meters of exhibition space, it entered media, memory, and historiography as an emblem of British industrial capabilities, free-trade ideology, and imperial globalization.[1] Yet it is seldom discussed in relation to the consequential contemporaneous transformation of modern sciences into a set of powerful, highly institutionalized social practices.[2]

To what extent did sciences of the time shape the representation and structuring of the knowledge on offer at the exhibition? An especially interesting site at which to study such effects are the Indian courts at this world fair, embedded as they were, in the spatial, taxonomical, and textual frameworks of contemporary science, while also leading to substantial transformations in British knowledge about India. Continue reading “Structuring Imperial Knowledge about India at the Great Exhibition of 1851”

Medical Knowledge and the Manual Production of Casebook-Based Handbooks

In the 1850s, a physician at St. Bartholomew Hospital in London struggling with an unclear case of fever with affection of the bowels might have wanted to find information about the patient’s prognosis or an alternative medical treatment. Likewise, a medical student preparing a case for presentation to the hospital society, might have wanted further information about typhus fever, namely, its course, average prognosis, possible complications, and treatment. Both doctor and student would probably visit the library of the hospital’s “Medical College” to find comparable cases and case reports in voluminous bound casebooks. Continue reading “Medical Knowledge and the Manual Production of Casebook-Based Handbooks”

‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire

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.”[1] 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”

Constructing Authority in Early British Aviation

By definition, experts play a vital role in creating, sustaining, and disseminating any particular body of knowledge. But what constitutes an expert? How is authority obtained? Does this change over time? There are no absolute answers, which is to say that the question of who is considered to be an authority is culturally and socially constructed, and therefore interesting to historians. Here, I will consider the construction of authority in British aviation in the early twentieth century, paying particular attention to its manifestations in the public sphere.[1] Because aeronautics was the subject of intense media scrutiny, but as yet lacked formal criteria for demonstrating expertise, anyone who wanted to claim the mantle of authority at some point had to come to terms with popular expectations. Continue reading “Constructing Authority in Early British Aviation”

Diffusing Knowledge about Poland in Britain in the First Half of the 19th Century

Europe in the 1830s and 1840s was marked by political ferment, with various kinds of nationalism and political ideology challenging the international system established by the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15. One potential tool at the disposal of revolutionaries was public opinion abroad, insofar as the international order depended on enforcement by the great powers—Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy, Russia, France, and Great Britain. The last of these was particularly interesting for those on the Continent with a national or liberal agenda because it offered a safe haven for political exiles, its press laws were liberal, and it had a sizeable educated and moneyed public that was interested in constitutional and national questions—a public that might sway government policy or offer financial and moral assistance. Lucy Riall has highlighted the role played by the media and public opinion campaigns in Great Britain during Italy’s struggle for national independence.[1] Poles too sought to use such tools. Continue reading “Diffusing Knowledge about Poland in Britain in the First Half of the 19th Century”