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The calculating eye: Baily, Herschel, Babbage and the business of astronomy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

William J. Ashworth
Affiliation:
Institute of Historical Research, University of London, Senate House, London WC1E 7HU.

Extract

Astronomy does not often appear in the socio-political and economic history of nineteenthcentury Britain. Whereas contemporary literature, poetry and the visual arts made significant reference to the heavens, the more earthbound arena of finance seems an improbable place to encounter astronomical themes. This paper shows that astronomical practice was an important factor in the emergence of what can be described as an accountant's view of the world. I begin by exploring the senses of the term ‘calculation’ in Regency England, and then seek to reveal how the dramatic growth of vigilance in science, the organization and control of labour, and the monitoring of society and the economy drew upon and informed this disciplined numerical technique. Observations in all these areas could only be trusted if correctly reduced through a single system of calculation assisted by a group of standardized tables and division of mental labour. Within this setting the stellar economy provided an object that was seemingly ordered and law-like and therefore predictable through a powerful combination of techniques.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1994

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References

I would like to thank Janet Browne, Boyd Hilton, Patrick O'Brien, Simon Schaffer and Andrew Warwick for their helpful suggestions. For permission to quote from manuscript materials I am grateful to the Royal Society, the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Royal Astronomical Society, Cambridge University Library, St John's College, Cambridge, and the British Library.

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The calculating eye: Baily, Herschel, Babbage and the business of astronomy
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The calculating eye: Baily, Herschel, Babbage and the business of astronomy
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