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HOW SCIENTIFIC CONVERSATION BECAME SHOP TALK*

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Abstract

The expansion of print and the rise of specialist disciplines from the early nineteenth century are usually associated with a decline in informed conversation about the sciences and other forms of learning among the aristocracy, gentry and professional classes. Yet an extensive body of evidence suggests that the sciences remained a vital part of conversational culture in England at least through the 1860s. Ultimately, however, discussing specialist knowledge at parties became condemned as ‘talking shop’. This was not so much the result of changes within science, as is usually assumed, but was instead a byproduct of the increasing differentiation of roles throughout society. By the early twentieth century, scientific practitioners had created new places for broad-ranging talk about their subjects, most characteristically in the tea rooms attached to university laboratories.

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1 Translated in Orlando Sabertash [John Mitchell], The Art of Conversation, with Remarks on Fashion and Address (1842), 67.

2 Anon., Etiquette for Ladies [1861], 44.

3 P. Fara, Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (2004); Sutton G. V., Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment (Boulder, CO, 1995); Terrall M., ‘Salon, Academy, and Boudoir: Generation and Desire in Maupertuis's Science of Life’, Isis, 87 (1996), 217–29; Walters A. N., ‘Conversation Pieces: Science and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century England’, History of Science, 35 (1997), 121–54.

4 Collins H., Gravity's Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves (Chicago, 2004); Latour B. and Woolgar S., Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Beverley Hills, 1979); M. Lynch, Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory (1985); Traweek S., Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists (Cambridge, MA, 1988).

5 Cowan B.The Social Life of Coffee (New Haven, 2005).

6 Habermas J., The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Berger T. (Cambridge, MA, 1989 [1962]); Calhoun C., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA, 1992).

7 Miller S., Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (New Haven, 2006).

8 Klein L. E., Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1994), 314.

9 Shteir A. B., Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 1760–1860 (Baltimore, 1996).

10 Morrell J. B. and Thackray A., Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Oxford, 1981). Recent discussions include Musselman E. Green, Nervous Conditions: Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain (Albany, NY, 2006); White P., Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (Cambridge, 2003); Winter A., Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago, 1998); and Barton R., ‘“Men of Science”: Language, Identity and Professionalization in the Mid-Victorian Scientific Community’, History of Science, 41 (2003), 73119.

11 Rudwick M., The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (Chicago, 1985), 1516.

12 For a geographical perspective on this issue, see Livingstone D., ‘Text, Talk and Testimony: Geographical Reflections on Scientific Habits: An Afterword’, British Journal for the History of Science, 30 (2005), 93100, at 96–7.

13 Charles Bazerman's pioneering study, Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science (Madison, 1988), thus leapt from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Bazerman has gone some way to examine the intervening period in The Language of Edison's Light (Cambridge, MA, 1999), as have Gross A. G., Harmon J. E. and Reidy M. in Communicating Science: The Scientific Article from the 17th Century to the Present (Oxford, 2002). Johns A., ‘Miscellaneous Methods: Authors, Societies and Journals in Early Modern England’, British Journal for the History of Science, 33 (2000), 159–86, offers a more realistic view of the Philosophical Transactions.

14 Golinski J., Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820 (Cambridge, 1992); Schaffer S., ‘Scientific Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy’, Social Studies of Science, 16 (1986), 387420.

15 Miller D., ‘The Revival of the Physical Sciences in Britain, 1815–1840’, Osiris, second series, 2 (1986), 107–34; Secord A., ‘Corresponding Interests: Artisans and Gentlemen in Ninteenth-Century Natural History’, British Journal for the History of Science, 27 (1994), 383408; Shteir, Cultivating Women.

16 Jewson N., ‘Medical Knowledge and the Patronage System in Eighteenth-Century England’, Sociology, 10 (1974), 369–85.

17 Desmond A., The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine and Reform in Radical London (Chicago, 1989).

18 Gascoigne J., Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: Useful Knowledge and Polite Culture (Cambridge: 1994).

19 Miller D., ‘Between Hostile Camps: Sir Humphry Davy's Presidency of the Royal Society of London, 1820–1827’, British Journal for the History of Science, 16 (1983), 147.

20 Rudwick M., ‘The Foundation of the Geological Society of London: Its Scheme for Cooperative Research and its Struggle for Independence’, British Journal for the History of Science, 1 (1963), 325–55, at 328.

21 W. J. Brock and A. J. Meadows, The Lamp of Learning: Two Centuries of Publishing at Taylor & Francis (1998), 46–7.

22 The best discussion I have found on the timing of the Season for the early period is the discussion of Mayfair in ‘The Social Character of the Estate: The London Season in 1841’, in Survey of London: Volume 39: The Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part I (General History) (1971), 89–93; for the later nineteenth century, see L. Davidoff, The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season (1986 [1973]).

23 M. Rudwick, ‘Historical Origins of the Geological Society's Journal’, in Milestones in Geology: Reviews to Celebrate 150 Volumes of the Journal of the Geological Society, ed. M. J. Le Bas (1995), 5–8.

24 Rudwick, Devonian Controversy.

25 D. Miller, Discovering Water: James Watt, Henry Cavendish and the Nineteenth-Century ‘Water Controversy’ (2004).

26 Thackray J., To See the Fellows Fight: Eye Witness Accounts of Meetings of the Geological Society of London and its Club, 1822–1868 (Faringdon, 2003).

27 Darwin to J. M. Herbert, [3 Sept.? 1846], in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, ed. F. Burkhardt et al., iii (Cambridge, 1987), 338.

28 Secord J., Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, 2000), 410–16.

29 Kölbl-Ebert M., ‘Charlotte Murchison’, in The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Scientists, ed. Lightman B. (4 vols., Bristol, 2004), 1440–2.

30 The first half of following section draws on my general introduction in volume i of the Collected Works of Mary Somerville (Bristol, 2004). For more on Mary Somerville, see Neeley K. A., Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind (Cambridge, 2001); Patterson E. C., Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815–1840 (Boston, MA, 1983); and esp. Brock C., ‘The Public Worth of Mary Somerville’, British Journal for the History of Science, 39 (2006), 255–72.

31 M. Somerville, Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age (1873), 130.

32 These problem-solutions, which predate her first experimental paper by fifteen years, are included in the first volume of Mary Somerville's Collected Works.

33 Qureshi S., ‘Displaying Sara Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus”’, History of Science, 42 (2004), 233–57; Schiebinger L., Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston, 1993); and R. Holmes, The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789– Buried 2002) (2007).

34 Somerville W., ‘Observationes quaedam de Hottentotis’, in Medico-chirurgical Transactions, 7 (1816), 154–60. A translation is available as ‘On the Structure of Hottentot Women’, in William Somerville's Narrative of his Journeys to the Eastern Cape Frontier and to Lattakoe, 1799–1802, ed. Frank Bradlow (Cape Town, 1979).

35 Autobiography of Charles Caldwell, M.D. with a Preface, Notes, and Appendix, ed. H. W. Warner (Philadelphia, 1855), 378–80.

36 Ibid., 381–3.

37 M. Edgeworth to F. A. Edgeworth, 16 Jan. 1822, in M. Edgeworth, Letters from England, ed. Christina Colvin (Oxford, 1971), 322.

38 For the reference, see ibid., 322.

39 J. Marcet, Conversations on Chemistry. In which the Elements of that Science are Familiarly Explained and Illustrated by Experiments (2 vols., 2004, [1806]); for Marcet, the best starting point is Bahar S., ‘Jane Marcet and the Limits to Public Science’, British Journal for the History of Science, 34 (2001), 2949.

40 A. Fyfe, ‘Introduction’, to Marcet, Conversations.

41 Journal entry for 8 Jan. 1832, in Life, Letters, and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart., ed. K. M. Lyell (2 vols., 1881), i, 363–4.

42 [Mitchell], Art of Conversation, 21–2.

43 Etiquette for Gentlemen: With Hints on the Art of Conversation, 30th edn (1847), 48.

44 Secord, Victorian Sensation, 155–66.

45 A. Ramsay, diary entry for 1 Feb. 1848, Imperial College Archives, KGA Ramsay 1/10, fo. 20r.

46 Shapin S., ‘“A Scholar and a Gentleman”: The Problematic Identity of the Scientific Practitioner in Early Modern England’, History of Science, 29 (1991), 279327.

47 Etiquette for All, or Rules of Conduct for Every Circumstance in Life: With the Laws, Rules, Precepts, and Practices of Good Society (Glasgow, 1861), 14.

48 Dowager Duchess of Argyll [I. Campbell], George Douglas, Eighth Duke of Argyll, K. G., K. T.: Autobiography and Memoirs (2 vols., 1906), i, 349.

49 Thackray, To See the Fellows Fight, 81.

50 C. Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet. An Autobiography, new edn (1883 [1850]), 179–84.

51 M. Edgeworth to H. Butler, 3 Dec. 1843, in Edgeworth, Letters, 601.

52 J. C. Byrne, Gossip of the Century (2 vols., 1892), i, 260.

53 Morgan M., Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774–1858 (Houndmills, Basingstoke, 1994); see also A. St George, The Descent of Manners: Etiquette, Rules and the Victorians (1993).

54 The English Gentlewoman: Or, Hints to Young Ladies on their Entrance into Society (1845), 18.

55 Etiquette for Gentlemen, 51.

56 [Mitchell], Art of Conversation, 110.

57 F. Trollope, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840), 137–8.

58 Marcet, Conversations, i, 2–3.

59 Secord A., ‘Botany on a Plate: Pleasure and the Power of Pictures in Promoting Early Nineteenth-Century Scientific Knowledge’, Isis, 93 (2002), 2857, esp. 40–5.

60 [T. E. Kebbel], ‘Shop’, Cornhill Magazine, 11 (1865), 489–94, at 494.

61 C. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (n.d.), 357.

62 H. Rushing, ‘The Gorilla Comes to Darwin's England’ (MA thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1990).

63 ‘Horrid Girl’, Punch, 1 June 1861, 226.

64 Alberti S., ‘Conversaziones and the Experience of Science in Victorian England’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 8 (2003), 208–30; Secord, Victorian Sensation, 410–21.

65 R. Doyle, Bird's Eye Views of Society (1864), 45–6.

66 The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1892, ed. N. Barlow (1958), 106.

67 Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, ed. L. Huxley (2 vols., 1900), ii, 429.

68 White, Thomas Huxley.

69 Cowan, Social Life of Coffee.

70 A. Desmond, Huxley: Evolution's High Priest (1997), 227, and B. Lightman, ‘“Fighting even with Death”: Balfour, Scientific Naturalism, and Huxley's Final Battle’, in Thomas Henry Huxley's Place in Science and Letters: Centenary Essays, ed. A. Barr (Athens, GA, 1997), 323–50.

71 Collini S., Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain (Oxford, 1991), 223–4.

72 Davidoff, The Best Circles, 59–70.

73 D. Nevill, The Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill, ed. R. Nevill (1906), 355, quoted in H. Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (1989), 65.

74 There were, of course, notable practitioners of science among particular families within the social elite, such as the Balfours and the Rayleighs (for this, see Opitz D., ‘“Behind Folding Shutters in Whittinhame House”: Alice Blanche Balfour (1850–1936) and Amateur Natural History’, Archives of Natural History, 31 (2004), 330–48, and Schaffer S., ‘Physics Laboratories and the Victorian Country House’, in Making Space for Science: Territorial Themes in the Shaping of Knowledge, ed. Smith C. and Agar J. (Basingstoke, 1997), 149–80. These important instances of ‘country-house science’ need to be balanced with an understanding of the role of science within upper-class households more generally, and especially in metropolitan settings – the possibilities for what could be called ‘town-house science’.

75 Collini, Public Moralists; T. W. Heyck, The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England (1982). On the move towards professional life in England more generally, see Perkin, Rise of Professional Society.

76 Kohler R. E., ‘The Constructivists.’ Tool Kit’, Isis, 90 (1999), 329–31.

77 J. Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995), 123.

78 J. Pettigrew, A Social History of Tea (2001).

79 Gould P., ‘Women and the Culture of University Physics in Late Nineteenth-Century Cambridge’, British Journal for the History of Science, 30 (1997), 127–49.

80 R. J. Strutt, John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh (1924), 128–9.

81 A. E. Munby, Laboratories: Their Planning and Fittings (1921).

82 P. J. Smith, ‘A Splendid Idiosyncrasy: Prehistory at Cambridge, 1915–50’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 2004).

83 Godwin H., ‘Early Development of The New Phytologist’, New Phytologist, 100 (1977), 14, at 3.

84 Tea Phytologist, 23 Jan. 1934, vol. x, no. 1, p. 1; see also the issues for 27 Nov. 1939, vol. x + 1, no. 1, p. 1, and Mar. 1984, vol. T42 no. 24T, p. 1. The motto was a variant on the University's famous maxim, ‘Hic lucem et pocula sacra’, literally translated as ‘from here, light and sacred draughts’.

85 Heyck, Transformation.

86 Collini S., Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford, 2006), 451–72.

87 Shapin S., A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago, 1991).

88 Gooday G., ‘Illuminating the Expert–Consumer Relationship in Domestic Electricity’, in Fyfe A. and Lightman B., eds., Popular Science: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experience (Chicago, 2007).

89 White, Thomas Huxley, 4–5.

90 Snow C. P., The Two Cultures, ed. Collini S. (Cambridge, 1993), 23.

91 Ibid., 17.

* An extended version of this essay is published in Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, ed. Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman (Chicago, 2007), ch. 2. I am grateful for comments from Patricia Fara, Aileen Fyfe, Jan Golinski, Ludmilla Jordanova, Larry Klein, Bernie Lightman, Margaret Meredith, Don Opitz, Simon Schaffer, Anne Secord and Paul White.

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