London 1600-1800 workshop: Day 1

This Metropolitan Science project has been in progress for a couple of months. In a public sense, though, it launched on 16 and 17 June with an open workshop on the theme of ‘Communities of Natural Knowledge and Artificial Practice’ between 1600 and 1800. The programme was organised by Jim Bennett, project consultant and Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum, and its aim was to put together a historiographical overview of the various London institutions, sites, and communities that might be candidates for the project’s detailed attention; to make sure, as Jim put it in his remarks outlining the workshop’s scope, that when the project team inevitably leave things out of our final account we will at least have an idea of what we’re missing. Those communities and practices shape our project’s working definition of ‘science’, and their constitutive role in the life and self-understanding of London is the subject of our inquiry – how a city without a major seat of learning came to be regarded as a global centre of science over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Jim pointed to the rhetorical note sounded by Thomas Sprat, whose apologetic History of the Royal Society continually evoked the commercial vitality and craft skill of London as ideal contexts for a new community explicitly dedicated to the production of natural knowledge. Also in the introductory session, Alexandra Rose outlined the Science Museum’s plans for a new gallery to open in 2019, ‘London: Science City’, with the collection of scientific instruments built for George III by Stephen Demainbray at its core. It tells the story of London’s development as an early modern scientific centre through the instrument trade, from 1600, when Elizabeth I encouraged the settlement of skilled engravers and craftsmen from the Continent to address deficiencies of native skill, to the late eighteenth-century, when Jesse Ramsden and his contemporaries were regarded as the finest scientific instrument-makers in Europe.

Jane Desborough, also part of the gallery’s curatorial team, kicked off a session on cultures of practice with an account of instrument makers as a profession that emphasised its complexity – the exponential growth of the early modern city and the opportunities and challenges it afforded, the important and often-overlooked role of wives and daughters as contributors to and inheritors of businesses, the division of tasks between multiple makers and craft guilds, and the uneasy mixture of collaboration and competition that informed the sense of instrument makers as a craft and knowledge community. Philip Beeley took up several of these themes in his account of practical mathematicians, beginning with the flourishing trade in manuals and how-to guides, and using these to trace connections between communities. Stationers and publishers collaborated with teachers of practical mathematics on publishing mathematical textbooks, which also advertised courses of instruction; these were often attended by practitioners such as seamen, gaugers, carpenters, and surveyors (and frequently took place in instrument makers’ shops). These groups also linked the practical mathematical community, through correspondence and membership of London mathematical clubs, with the more traditionally exalted citizens of the Republic of Letters, including Isaac Newton, John Wallis, and the ubiquitous John Collins.

Trade card for Anthony Thompson, who traded in Smithfield 1640s-60s, illustrating a sector (Science Museum).

Kevin Tracey further explored these interactions by looking at the role of the Stationers’ Company, pointing to the number of publishers of mathematical works who had served apprenticeships in other guilds (including those connected with the instrument trades). Kevin argued for the need to view London as, in Adrian Johns’s phrase, an ‘interlocking domain’ in itself, linking craft, guild, domestic, and commercial networks, and for greater attention to the significant amount of mathematical printing produced by those who were neither expert stationers nor adept mathematical practitioners but who benefitted from privileged access to one, or more usually several, of these networks. Sarah Tyacke, looking at the map-making trades, also emphasised the diversity of processes and people involved, the emergence of new communities (of incomers from the Continent and government employees, in contrast to the old apprenticeship system), and the variety of uses and clienteles for early modern maps.

All of these trades, communities and practices had roots in London that predated the seventeenth century. The next session was dedicated to ‘new spaces’ of knowledge and practice, some deliberately established as such and others emerging more organically. Josh Scarlett kicked off with Gresham College, arguing for its significance in its own right and not merely as synecdoche for the Royal Society which it hosted for fifty years, and which he heroically managed to avoid mentioning by name until his final sentence. Josh pointed out that Gresham’s professorships in Astronomy and Geometry were the first in Britain, predating Oxford’s Savilian chairs by twenty-five years, but that these innovations were not accompanied by much long-term planning or outreach, relying on the assumption that the new foundation would be a significant draw in and of itself. Next, your reporter gave a lightning tour of the early Royal Society and its roots in the communities around Gresham and the College of Physicians, emphasising once again the plurality of its institutional identities, the embodiment of much of the knowledge and skill essential to its collective function in practitioners who were deliberately excluded from the privileges of membership, and the complexity of efforts to preserve, codify, and make public the institution’s accumulated knowledge and activity. Finally Katy Barrett took a break from her pithy and comprehensive live-tweeting of the day to address the less purposeful but correspondingly more varied and flexible space of the coffee-house. These were sites of discussion, projection, commerce, and conversation, as well as sites of reading and themselves the subjects of literary representation (usually, as Katy argued, in either utopian or strongly problematized terms). Clustered around important civic institutions, coffeehouses provided a new and less regulated space for scientific discussion – although patchy survivals and exaggerated representations make it difficult for historians to be sure of what was actually said in them.

Gresham College, London: looking into the court. Engraving, 1784.

In the next session on trading companies, Edmond Smith discussed the use and abuse of knowledge, and gaps in knowledge, in the promotion of trading company ventures. Taking as his example the early seventeenth-century ventures to find the North West Passage, Ed pointed to the rhetorical deployment of mercantile experience and direct observation to keep open the possibilities of future discoveries (even if, as in the case of the Passage, they proved spurious). Anna Winterbottom, meanwhile, examined the English East India Company as a London institution, a vector for new specimens to the city (including animal and plant specimens, materia medica, and automata), and a promoter of natural knowledge among its servants. Last was Patricia Fara, who unravelled the links between the Royal Society and the Royal Company of Adventurers trading into Africa – spoken of by contemporaries as ‘twin sisters’ – to argue for the coproduction of 17th-century science and global capitalism.

The day’s last panel addressed a second round of new spaces – Collections, the Royal Society of Antiquaries, and the Freemasons. A joint presentation by Kim Sloan and Vicky Pickering explored the significance of early modern collections to the development of London’s scientific identity – universal collections such as that of Hans Sloane, or the more specialist ones of James Pettiver or the Duchess of Portland. Kim raised an important point in linking collections to libraries, of which they were often seen as extensions. Vicky Pickering took up the tale with an introduction to the wonderful Enlightenment Architectures project, a digital encoding of Hans Sloane’s original collection catalogues that will allow researchers to track not just the development of the collection but the emergence of new knowledge, taxonomies and disciplines from the collection’s compilation, expansion and maintenance. Anna Marie Roos then explored 18th-century efforts, championed by Martin Folkes in particular, to unify antiquarian and scientific endeavours (which some contemporaries argued should be kept separate). Folkes’s diary of his travels in Italy shows the overlap, staging scientific demonstrations in classical buildings but also applying scientific methods to antiquarian research into chronologies, weights and measures, astronomy and architecture. Finally Diane Clements examined the role of freemasonry, pointing to the overlapping memberships of the Masons and the Royal Society, an early enthusiasm for using lodges as scientific lecture halls that was gradually displaced by fraternity ritual, and arguing that their ultimate importance lay in the networking possibilities they afforded.

After a day of presentations that highlighted above all the diversity of London’s knowledge communities, and their internal complexity, Celina Fox’s guest lecture refreshingly put the City back in the frame. London, and in particular the Square Mile, was a matrix that made near neighbours of most of them. Celina dwelt on the overlaps created by packing these new and old sites of knowledge production and practice into a tight space already teeming with the activity of government, trade, finance, and the court. These provided, in admittedly variable measure, patronage, finance, and legitimacy to new enterprises, with royal patronage – especially from women of the royal family – becoming more significant as the period wore on. That made it a wrap for day one, with more to follow – on medical bodies, offices of state, workshops and laboratories, and city companies – on Saturday. For more of which, over to Jasmine


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