Independent Research Group II (Director: H. Otto Sibum)

Historical Studies on the Material Culture of Science

Over the last decade historians of science have broadened their field of inquiry by studying the material culture of science. However, the respective research undertaken at the independent research group is not to be understood as a mere shift of historians’ interest from texts to scientific hardware but as a diagnostic adventure to study past human performances of specialised work involved in the conceptualisation of nature. Exemplary here is the historical investigation of the emergence and development of a scientific fact, e.g., the mechanical equivalent of heat. Through novel interpretative and investigative methods which explicitly reach beyond the interpretation of written sources it may be shown that within the physical sciences of the 19th century non-literary knowledge traditions were of paramount importance but hitherto not recognised. In fact what has conventionally been identified as an outstanding experimental technique, or at most some form of personal knowledge in investigating natural objects, we can now describe more appropriately as a locally observable amalgamation of heterogeneous knowledge traditions. However, in the early 19th century these forms of knowledge were regarded, if at all, as practical, embodied, apparently incommunicable and therefore to be distinguished from scientific knowledge. Through this performative approach, these forms of knowledge and their interactions with each other have been studied in depth for the first time. By doing so the historical research could show how this specific local knowledge was tied into and affected the emergence and transformation of science in the 19th century. The independent research group has further developed this program by investigating the texture of scientific change at two important cultural transformation periods between the late 18th and 20th centuries.

I. Non-literary Knowledge and Science around 1800

The independent research group is exploring the above mentioned research program in several ways. Project I concerns tracing the historical development which led to the distinction between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge. Here the decoding of non-literary knowledge traditions and the study of their interplay around 1800 are of particularly interest. Such a thoroughly investigation of this major cultural transformation period may lay open the historical preconditions for the emergence of the 19th century expert culture and its related conception of scientific knowledge.

H. Otto Sibum has further investigated the scope of experimental knowledge during the late 18th and 19th centuries, particularly studies of interactions between distinct social groups like artists, artisans, engineers, and scholars. These may clarify the role these knowledge traditions played in the formation of the persona of the experimentalist and the establishment of 19th century laboratory sciences with their peculiar conception of scientific knowledge exclusively based on experiment and precision measurement. One of the underlying issues in the controversies about the meaning of experiment was that the physical manipulation of objects, “the art of experiment,” was not seen as belonging to the scholarly tradition in which a clear distinction between doing and knowing still predominated. Even enlightened philosophers like Diderot, who described the arts as a form of knowing, conceded that this knowledge operated outside enlightened discourse. His encyclopaedic project was one answer to the dilemma of how to give the practitioners’ knowledge a language that could be understood by anyone. Enlightened scholars were striving for a mediation between science and art, theory and practice, and for a short time, the 18th century engineer with his training in manual operations, technical drawing, and mathematics was regarded as this “third man.” In order to understand this complex development of the relationship between theoretical and practical knowledge about nature, Sibum exemplarily studied mediations practiced by Moritz Herman Jacobi while investigating electro-magnetic phenomena.

Annik Pietsch

The study by Annik Pietsch concerns a famous puzzle amongst art historians. Despite the fact that scientific knowledge about light and colour increased around 1800, simultaneously a well established practice of painting vanished. Immature drying cracks, alligator skin, orange peel, and darkening are some of the specific forms of damage that may be found on 19th century paintings. They are the material traces of a historical process usually referred to as the “loss of painting technique.” With her project Binding Media. Painting Techniques in Art, Science, and Industry in 18th and 19th Century Germany, the former conservation scientist Pietsch aims at explaining this process. The investigation will focus on the binder systems used in the easel paintings executed around 1800 in Germany. Pietsch would argue that the mentioned loss in traditional painting techniques around 1800 can only be sufficiently understood by considering the basis of a little studied network of artists, craftsmen, technologists, and scientists exchanging materials, techniques and knowledge about colour and light. To a large degree we are confronted here with non-literary knowledge traditions. Their working practices, codifications of knowledge, and social structure are currently being deciphered. Some strategies of historical investigation may help to illustrate the research. The artists used for their strongly individually shaped training three different sources of knowledge: personal interactions, objects, and texts. In order to investigate the practices of education which took place in different workshops of Berlin, Pietsch concentrates on reconstituting the workshop lives of key figures of Berlin’s painting culture, figures such as Wilhelm Wach, Carl Gropius, and Eduard Magnus, each of them representing a specific mode of practical education through personal interactions. A second strategy is to attempt to recover the working knowledge that painters and other actors gained by investigating objects. Here historical attempts to restore or copy old masters and analyse chemically the materials in use are extremely helpful. The investigations of the painter Wilhelm Krause, the anatomist Friedrich August Walter and the chemist Philipp Lorenz Geiger will show how the general interest of the time for old painting techniques led in their belief to new improved painting techniques. The accompanying picture [fig.1] shows a visual representation of one of four techniques developed by the artist

[1] Visual representation of a technique of mechanical reproduction of an oil painting. Published by J. Liepmann in 1842. From J. Liepmann, Der Ölgemäldedruck, Berlin: Verlag von C. Sachse & Co., 1842

Jakob Liepmann to mechanically reproduce classical oil paintings. This is interesting in many ways because the artist tries to break down analytically the act of oil painting into clearly definable rules and quantitative measures. These works provide important information about the materials and techniques employed in addition to the practical knowledge of the time. Moreover Pietsch will investigate the changing form of life of Berlin manufacturers and traders of colours in this period in order to see how it effected changes in the working practices of the artists. Here the most important manufacturer and trade business, Gebrüder Heyl & Co is studied. Scientists and philosophers of the time were part of this little-known network. For example Leopold von Henning, Thomas Seebeck, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, Aloys Ludwig Hirt, Johann Nepomuk von Fuchs, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Friedrich Schlegel showed great interest in painting techniques. Their exchanges are investigated with regard to the question of how these interactions gave special meaning to painting materials and techniques, and reciprocally moulded their conceptualisations of light, colour, durability, rationality, nationalism and genius. Amongst other things, this research on the material and techniques of painting will

Simon Werrett

shed new light on the famous controversy over Goethe’s and Newton’s colour theories.

Simon Werrett has undertaken two projects on the history of pyrotechnics. His first study Projecting Modernity: A Social History of Rocketry investigated the development of the first military rockets by the British inventor Sir William Congreve in the early nineteenth century. Following the almost exclusive use of rockets in courtly fireworks displays during the eighteenth century, they were suddenly transformed into objects of scientific and engineering knowledge under Congreve’s direction at Woolwich Arsenal in London circa 1804-12. Werrett asked what the causes of this transformation were and how it effected the practices and knowledge-forms of pyrotechnics. Exploring changes in the social, political, and economic context of English pyrotechny, Werrett brings out the extent to which Congreve’s rockets arose from a conscious application of the principles of industrial economy to traditional fireworking. Congreve justified his rockets as utilitarian contributions to military industrialization, suggesting technical advantages of the rocket such as their lack of recoil would prove more economically efficient for British forces than traditional ordnance. Congreve also hoped to transform pyrotechnic working practices. In the eighteenth century, making and displaying fireworks was the province of a small number of highly-skilled artisans. Pyrotechnic knowledge was often non-textual, learnt by experience, and transferred through practice. When recipes and techniques were written down, it was usually in manuscript books whose circulation was limited to practitioners, but often they were kept secret and restricted to a few individuals. An illustration from such a manuscript book, by John Maskall, made for Congreve’s father in 1785, is shown in [fig. 2].

[2] John Maskall ‘Double Verticle Wheel’ drawing in pen, black ink and grey wash, 16.5 x 10 cm, from Maskall’s “Artificial Fireworks,” unpublished manuscript book, 3 vols., 1785, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, GRI. 920091

Congreve claimed to undo these artisanal traditions with his rockets. On the precedent of naval colleagues then introducing new factory work disciplines to dockyards, Congreve posed his rockets as transparent technologies whose manufacture and use did not rely on tacit skills or artisanry. Werrett shows that whilst these claims fitted a new industrializing and “scientific” rhetoric in the Arsenal, in practice Congreve still needed to rely on traditional skills, techniques, and capabilities to operate his new weapon. This was true both of fireworkers and those who used the weapon. In fact, sailors charged with using Congreve rockets completely reconstructed Congreve’s “system” for employing them in battle in order to make the technology work. Only after traditional knowledge, tacit skills, and judgements were incorporated into the “scientific” Congreve rocket did it succeed to become, in the long term, a major weapon in nineteenth-century military arsenals and ultimately a reverential symbol of the very “modern” scientific-industrial values which hindered its practicability.

Werrett’s second project, now underway, explores and extends the earlier study of the practices, skills, and non-literary knowledge entailed in fireworking. Focusing on the fireworks culture of eighteenth-century Russia, Werrett is considering a number of avenues - changes in fireworks performance techniques through the century and the use of painting, theatre, and poetry as resources for these changes; the persona and status of the fireworker in comparison to artists and natural philosophers in the eighteenth century; the uses of the sciences in pyrotechnics during this period; and finally, the fireworks performance as a resource or context for experimental performances in Russia, particularly in electricity, optics, and chemistry. Werrett hopes to draw attention in this study to the value of exploring performative and non-textual elements in the history of art and science, within which fireworks may provide a valuable point of study located between both fields.

Gerhard Wiesenfeldt

Gerhard Wiesenfeldt concentrated on the visual representation of electrical experimental practice around 1800. Visualising techniques allowing virtual witnessing, as developed in the 17th century, underwent significant changes throughout the 18th century. For example a comparison of experimental researches in Galvanism as performed by Galvani, Humboldt, Ritter, and Volta show a reductionist manner of representing electrical experiments. Although their developed sign systems varied in grades of abstraction, in their approaches towards an instrumental language they shared the attitude of not depicting set ups of the planned experiment any more, but instead visualised what they regarded as the underlying principles of the natural phenomenon. Generally speaking, the disappearance of illustrations of instruments and experiments in a naturalistic fashion in late 18th century textbooks indicates a change in the self-understanding of that science and its practitioners. In a second, related study he investigates van Marum’s electrical experiments to calicinate metals (melting of thin metal wires through electrical discharge).

Figure 3 shows the representation of a calcinated lead-tin alloy wire. Particularly the

[3] Handpainted image of the experimental result of the calcination of a lead-tin alloy wire. From Martinus van Marum, Verhandelingen van Teyler’s Tweede Genootschap, 4. Haarlem 1787

identification and interplay of different knowledge traditions embodied in the production of this image is of importance. The conventional understanding of division of labour - that a natural philosopher performs the experiment, an instrument maker builds the machine, and an artist draws the images - does not match the work performed there or the social structure of the community of Dutch scholars.

M. Norton Wise

The investigation of this transformation period is complemented through the works of short term visiting fellows. As part of his book-length study of the changing practices of physical sciences in modernising Prussia, M. Norton Wise (University of California, Los Angeles) tackled a curious fact of the history of science: that only toward the middle of the nineteenth century scientists of every stripe acquired the habit of trying to represent natural processes in terms of curves, or better, to read nature as curves. This occurred all over Europe, but one place of intense local activity was Berlin. His detailed study of the local culture of art, science, and industry that gave meaning to the curve shows important relations between these close circles of involvement and Hermann Helmholtz’s investigation of the conservation of forces. Furthermore, Myles Jackson (Willamette University, Salem) researched the interrelationships among physicists, musicians,

Myles Jackson

composers, and musical instrument makers in the German territorities from 1750 to 1870. One part deals with the ways in which Naturforscher and physicians drew upon Liedertafel songs in order to form a united group of investigators, collaborating in unison in order to uncover nature’s secrets. Music played a critical role in male camaraderie and national identity for the German savants. The second portion analyzes the ways in which physicists assisted in the standardization of aesthetic qualities, particularly pitch. Wilhelm Weber, Georg Simon Ohm, and Hermann von Helmholtz actively participated in debates concerning an international concert pitch. These physicists also offered suggestions on the improvement of musical-instrument design, particularly organ pipes and reed instruments. The final part of Jackson’s project attempts to understand the ways in which physics helped define and explain nineteenth-century virtuosity. During the 1820s

Gadi Algazi

and 30s musicians called upon physicists (particularly Weber and E.F.F. Chladni) to draw upon universal laws of nature when analyzing the performances of virtuosi, such as the famed Italian violinist, N. Paganini. Another important study most recently began by Sibum and Carry Asman (Humboldt University, Berlin) is Gottfried Semper’s investigation of the “dynamical development of forms in art and nature.” These discussions of how practical knowledge was perceived and reclassified between 1500 and 1850 benefited from Gadi Algazi’s (Tel Aviv University) methodological reflections about investigating the invisible labour required to remake the scholar’s way of life. During his stay, discussion considered whether and how studies of the labour processes and studies of practices of investigating nature could fruitfully illuminate each other. Our discussions were meant to prepare grounds for a joint project about modes of knowledge and their historical transformations. Together with Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge, UK) Sibum is preparing a joint editorial project of a historical dictionary of friction.

II. Changing Cultures of Precision: Practicing Physical Sciences in the Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

David Aubin

This project aims at reworking the large-scale development of the physical sciences from the late nineteenth century to the present, currently concentrating on science circa 1900. David Aubin investigates the early history of astrophysics and spectroscopy in France. Through the work of Jules Janssen in particular he shows how astrophysicists carved for themselves a space of competences by orchestrating large scale transformation of three long-established cultures: the laboratory, the observatory, and the field expedition. In addition, as part of a collaborative project with Department III, he has displayed, behind the apparent conflictual relation between the Paris Observatory and the City in the nineteenth century, the way in which they shared cultures of

precision, observation, and circulation which placed the observatory at the center of the modernizing city and provided strategies for reconfiguring astronomy [fig. 4].

[4] The Paris Observatory as Discipline Space for Science. From Le Monde Illustré, journal hebdomadaire, 6, no. 251 (1862), p. 69

Together with Richard Staley, Sibum explored the further development of the cultures of precision, i.e. the technical and cultural dimensions of Henry A. Rowland and Albert Abraham Michelson’s engagement in measurement projects. In particular the close linkage between engineering, physics and industry is peculiar to these researches. Both understood the search for natural standards to be productive of new science in a variety of ways. As strongly bent on a universal system of units as he was, Rowland emphasised that the regime of absolute standards employed in his experiments entailed new and unexpected effects. Similarly, Michelson’s search for a suitable natural standard disclosed a fine structure to the spectra of elements that had not hitherto been visible with the

Charlotte Bigg

finest diffraction gratings. Charlotte Bigg contributed to this project with a study of the different cultures of precision involved in the practices of spectroscopy by different groups around the turn of the century. By paying close attention to the instruments themselves, and to the various contexts in which they were adopted, adapted, manipulated, and utilized, Bigg has sought to characterise these different cultures starting from their material practices. The doctoral thesis she completed in 2001, Behind the Lines: Spectroscopic Enterprises in Early Twentieth Century Europe, examines a family of spectroscopes as they were employed for different purposes (demonstration, experimentation, testing, manufacture) in different contexts, whether scientific (astrophysical observatories, chemistry and physics laboratories), metrological (National Physical Laboratory, Bureau International des Poids et Mesures), industrial (steel-making, mechanical parts industries, instrument making workshops), or military. Particular attention was paid to the values embedded in these different uses of the spectroscope, what each culture thought should be measured by the instrument, how to read the evidence produced, and what they meant by “precision” [fig. 5]. Such an approach complements the often theory-based characterisations of the cultures of physics, chemistry, and astrophysics; it brings out, in particular, the crucial role played by instrument makers and suppliers in defining and sustaining these cultures and in making them communicate, since the transfer of techniques, technologies, and skills often operated through their workshops, catalogues, and products. Thus, for instance, Bigg shows how the high-precision spectroscopy developed by the likes of Rowland and Michelson was adapted by instrument-makers

(Adam Hilger, Zeiss, and Bausch & Lomb) for the different circumstances and values of chemical laboratories where they became employed for the routine analysis of chemical elements.

[5] The first prototype of the interferometer devised in 1897 by Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot for the absolute measurement of lengths and wavelengths. This instrument is characteristic of the practices and values of the Fresnelian tradition of French optical physics. In P. Connes, From Newtonian rays to Wellsian heat rays: The history of multi-beam interference’, Journal of Optics 17 (1986), 21

The study of research practices in this period equally requires historiographical as well as methodological reflections on how to investigate the working knowledge of scientists. Several research strategies are pursued here to integrate the practices of theorising in particular. David Aubin suggests that the highly theoretical objects of research as much as experimental entities can be studied historically as emerging from scientific practice. His investigation of the chemical element helium is exemplary in this respect and he demonstrates that its manipulation requires big social structures and complex skills. Helium is a material whose large-scale production during World War I shows how realignments between science, industry, State, and the military were

Richard Staley

required. Furthermore in collaboration with Amy Dahan (Centre Koyré) he provided a long-term survey of the social and historical development of the domain of dynamical systems theory and chaos from Poincaré at the end of the 19th century to the 1980s. Richard Staley investigated further experimental work on electron theory and the co-creation of “classical” and modern physics in the early development of relativity, having completed two chapters for his book Physics circa 1900. H. Otto Sibum has expanded his studies on the role of sense perception for the development of physical sciences. He first investigated a philosophy of the natural sciences written by a German artisan in the 1860s, mainly his discussion of the role of sense perception, and second he studied the emergence of the argument of deanthropomorphisation as the precondition for theoretical physics. Karl Hall’s work concerned the physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, concentrating on Polanyi’s research agendas in the 1920s. In particular, Polanyi led a cross-disciplinary collaborative project with the Soviet physicist A. F. Joffe at the Siemens AG laboratories in Charlottenburg, a project aimed at developing a new generation of light, cost-effective, high-voltage insulators. This collaboration of physicists, chemists, and engineers in the laboratory eventually foundered, in part because the laboratory space did not prove to be as unproblematically cosmopolitan as the working philosophies of the scientists entering it. Hall is completing a study on how the chemist Polanyi came to demarcate research practices within the larger political economy of the day, and uses this work to illuminate the historical motives for Polanyi’s subsequent adoption of “tacit knowledge” as a crucial aspect of laboratory life.

III. Workshop
What’s in a Line: Drawing as Intelligence (18-19 December 2000)

Organizers: Lorraine Daston, H. Otto Sibum

The process and purposes of drawing in science have only sporadically attracted the attention of historians. The aim of this workshop was to examine the phenomenon of drawing in science within a broader context that embraces artistic and technical drawing as well, concentrating on the period ca. 1750-1850 and addressing two themes: the intelligibility of drawings and the form of intelligence drawing presupposes and cultivates.

Intelligibility: Drawings are enlisted to communicate knowledge that in principle or only with great difficulty can be expressed in words, either because the knowledge in question does not conform to the linear structure of texts, or it is knowledge of the hand rather than that of the head. These questions of what can be communicated, how, and by whom by means of drawings formed one focus of the workshop.

Intelligence: The central role of drawing instruction for members of intellectual elites as well as artisans is a striking feature of many European educational systems, especially those with reforming ambitions, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why was the ability to draw such an important part of the training of the head and hand during this period? How was it taught, and what cognitive skills did it presuppose and promote?

Speakers were Horst Bredekamp (Humboldt Universität, Berlin), Werner Busch (Freie Universität, Berlin), Beryl Hartley (Linacre College, University of Oxford), Antoine Picon (École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, Paris), Madeleine Pinault-Sorensen (Musée du Louvre, Paris), Marcus Popplow (MPIWG, Berlin), Henning Schmidgen MPIWG, Berlin), M. Norton Wise (University of California, Los Angeles).