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Constructing a ‘revolution in science’: the campaign to promote a favourable reception for the 1919 solar eclipse experiments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2003

Program in History of Science, Department of History, Princeton University, 129 Dickinson Hall, Princeton, NJ, 08544, USA


A patriot fiddler-composer of Luton

Wrote a funeral march which he played with the mute on,

To record, as he said, that a Jewish-Swiss-Teuton

Had partially scrapped the Principia of Newton.

Punch, 19 November 1919, p. 422

When the results of experiments performed during the British solar eclipse expeditions of 1919 were announced at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, they were celebrated in the next day's Times of London with the famous headline ‘Revolution in science’. This exemplified the general approbation with which A. S. Eddington and F. W. Dyson's results were received, the upshot of which was widespread approval for general relativity and worldwide fame for Albert Einstein. Perhaps because of Einstein's present reputation, there has been little historical analysis of why his theory should have been so celebrated on the basis of a single announcement of the results of one group's experiments. In this paper I argue that the remarkable public and professional success of the eclipse experiments was the direct result of a systematic and extended campaign by Eddington and Dyson and their associates to create interest in relativity theory, build an audience for the experiments, promote a favourable reception for the results and establish their work as a crucial experiment that would distinguish between the gravitation theories of Newton and Einstein. The campaign was motivated by Eddington's affection for Einstein's theory, and was successful largely because of Eddington's substantial credibility.

Research Article
© 2002 British Society for the History of Science

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