Bourgeois Berlin and Laboratory Science

Bourgeois Berlin and Laboratory Science

M. Norton Wise

Laboratory science, in the modern sense of laboratory teaching and research carried on at universities, only came into existence in the first half of the nineteenth century. The development occurred in all European countries but with quite different historical trajectories. This book project took up the issue for Prussia: How did laboratories enter the universities, and especially the University of Berlin, where they had been excluded under the neo-humanist vision of higher learning, which separated the pursuit of the ideal from that of the real, or the Humboldtian nurturing of the mind from material interests? It sought its answers rather broadly, in the historical dynamics of the industrializing military state of Prussia and the middle-class citizens who saw themselves and their capacities as the motors of the future.

What classical languages were to the Gymnasia and Universities, mathematics, and science were to a variety of new schools established to modernize the military (Kriegschule and Vereinigte Artillerie- und Ingenieurschule) and to promote modern industry and civil engineering (Gewerbeinstitut and Bauschule). Teaching laboratories first appeared in these state-supported institutions. One crucial feature of their organization was that they drew many of their teachers of mathematics and science from among young university faculty, and it was these same people who carried the interests of the technical schools back into their university teaching. Especially notable for this book are the teachers—Magnus, Dove, Mitscherlich, Dirichlet—of the circle of ambitious young men who founded the Physikalische Gesellschaft zu Berlin in 1845, including Emil du Bois-Reymond, Werner Siemens, and Hermann Helmholtz. This group provided the concrete basis for exploring the rich interaction of artistic interests, classical values, mathematical methods, and precision instruments that shaped the science that came to be called modern. It was a science that emerged at the crossroads of intellectual and technological culture and it is just this cultural crossroads that the book sought to illuminate.