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Early Experimental Graphs

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Laura Tilling
Department of History of Science and Technology, Imperial College of Science and Technology, London SW7 2AZ.


The graphical presentation of experimental data in the physical sciences has several advantages which today are too familiar to require very detailed enumeration. Its greatest strength lies in the clarity and succinctness with which it displays the information contained in tabulated results: for the experimenter a graph provides a rough and immediate check on the accuracy and suitability of the methods he is using, and for the reader of a scientific report it may convey in a few seconds information that could only be gleaned from a table of measurements by hours of close study. There are occasions where only the analysis of experimental graphs will provide the information we require, but usually the actual analysis of results is carried out nowadays by computational methods. The use of graphs is therefore not so much a necessary part of scientific procedure as an extremely useful one, and one that is often taken very much for granted.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1975

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1 I have searched the following journals for experimental graphs: Acta eruditorum; Annals if philosophy; Edinburgh journal of science; Edinburgh philosophical journal; Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences, Paris; Mémoires de l'Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres, Berlin; Mémoires présentés bar divers savans à l'Académie Royale des Sciences, Paris; William Nicholson's Journal of natural Philosophy, &c; Novi commentarii Academiœ Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitarœ; Observations sur la physique (later Journal de physique); Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society; Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. With the exception of the Berlin Mémoires, no experimental graphs used for analysis of results are to be found in any of these journals for the eighteenth century. M. C. Shields, who examined a large number of periodicals, lists the graphs he found, both in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; however, the majority of these are either not experimental or are not accompanied by any comment or analysis. See his paper, ‘The early history of graphs in physical literature’, The American physics teacher, v (1937), 6871.Google Scholar
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