Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 8
  • Cited by
    This article has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.

    Cahan, David 2015. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.

    DONNELLY, KEVIN 2014. On the boredom of science: positional astronomy in the nineteenth century. The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 47, Issue. 03, p. 479.

    HEGGIE, VANESSA 2013. Experimental physiology, Everest and oxygen: from the ghastly kitchens to the gasping lung. The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 46, Issue. 01, p. 123.

    Nasim, Omar W. 2011. The ‘Landmark’ and ‘Groundwork’ of stars: John Herschel, photography and the drawing of nebulae. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Vol. 42, Issue. 1, p. 67.

    Felsch, Philipp 2009. Mountains of Sublimity, Mountains of Fatigue: Towards a History of Speechlessness in the Alps. Science in Context, Vol. 22, Issue. 03, p. 341.

    Schmidgen, Henning 2005. Physics, Ballistics, and Psychology: A History of the Chronoscope in/as Context, 1845-1890.. History of Psychology, Vol. 8, Issue. 1, p. 46.

    Piccolino, Marco 2003. A “lost time” between science and literature: the “temps perdu” from Hermann von Helmholtz to Marcel Proust. Audiological Medicine, Vol. 1, Issue. 4, p. 261.

    Schmidgen, Henning 2003. Time and noise: the stable surroundings of reaction experiments, 1860–1890. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Vol. 34, Issue. 2, p. 237.

  • The British Journal for the History of Science, Volume 34, Issue 2
  • June 2001, pp. 173-197

Exit the frog, enter the human: physiology and experimental psychology in nineteenth-century astronomy

  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 June 2001

This paper deals with one of the first attempts to measure simple reactions in humans. The Swiss astronomer Adolph Hirsch investigated personal differences in the speed of sensory transmission in order to achieve accuracy in astronomy. His controversial results, however, started an intense debate among both physiologists and astronomers who disagreed on the nature of these differences. Were they due to different eyes or brains, or to differences in skill and education? Furthermore, they debated how to eliminate them. Some, for example, wanted to eliminate the observer, and prescribed the use of new technologies like the electro-chronograph or photography, while others believed in discipline and education. By debating the nature of these differences, astronomers and physiologists sketched both different conceptions of ‘man’ and different paths to objectivity. These diverse conceptions, moreover, were tied to current nineteenth-century debates, such as the benefits or disadvantages of railroads, telegraphy and the standardization of time and longitudes. By focusing on the debates surrounding the speed of sensory transmission, this paper reevaluates the history of astronomy, physiology and experimental psychology. Furthermore, in investigating astronomy's relation to the human sciences, it uncovers profound connections in the traditionally separate histories of objectivity and the body.

L'heure sera distribuée dans les maisons,

comme l'eau ou le gaz.

Adolph Hirsch

Hide All
I wish to thank Ladina Bezzola, Peter Galison, Kristen Haring, Simon Schaffer, Klaus Staubermann and the participants of the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of the Physical Sciences for encouragement and advice. This paper was possible in part thanks to support from the Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte. I especially want to thank Christoph Hoffmann for transcribing portions of Hirsch's correspondence. All translations from the French and German are mine.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *