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Imperial Science
Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in the Victorian British Empire


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Part of Science in History

  • Publication planned for: December 2022
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781108828543

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About the Authors
  • In the second half of the nineteenth century, British firms and engineers built, laid, and ran a vast global network of submarine telegraph cables. For the first time, cities around the world were put into almost instantaneous contact, with profound effects on commerce, international affairs, and the dissemination of news. Science, too, was strongly affected, as cable telegraphy exposed electrical researchers to important new phenomena while also providing a new and vastly larger market for their expertise. By examining the deep ties that linked the cable industry to work in electrical physics in the nineteenth century - culminating in James Clerk Maxwell's formulation of his theory of the electromagnetic field - Bruce J. Hunt sheds new light both on the history of the Victorian British Empire and on the relationship between science and technology.

    • Examines how telegraph technology and electrical physics interacted in the nineteenth century
    • Provides a fresh perspective on the development of the Victorian British Empire
    • Sheds new light on the relationship between science and technology
    Read more


    • Winner, 2021 Antique Wireless Association Houck Award for Documentation

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Lucid, brilliantly well-informed and replete with fresh insights, Imperial Science is destined to be an indispensable classic. Bruce J. Hunt gives us a rich account of how radical developments in cable telegraphy and the theory of electromagnetism were intertwined, with profound consequences for the everyday lives of millions of people all over the world.' Graham Farmelo, Churchill College, University of Cambridge

    'Well before the internet, information flowed through British submarine cable telegraphy. Bruce J. Hunt's fascinating study explores how physicists and telegraph engineers managed competing methods and demands to create this first global communications system. These nerves of empire transformed international affairs, accelerated commerce, provided rapid access to news, and revolutionized physics.' Kathryn Olesko, Georgetown University

    'With impressive skill, Bruce J. Hunt brings together the commercial and engineering practices of Victorian telegraphy with the construction of the new physics of electromagnetic field theory. In so doing, he powerfully reinvigorates the history of nineteenth-century physics as a major academic arena grounded upon, but not determined by, imperial engineering and technology.' Crosbie Smith, University of Kent

    'Illustrated with period images and impeccably referenced, Hunt's remarkable, scholarly text will encourage nonspecialist readers to engage … Highly recommended.' E. J. Delaney, Choice Connect

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    Product details

    • Publication planned for: December 2022
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781108828543
    • length: 320 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 mm
    • weight: 0.468kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Prologue. 'An imperial science'
    1. 'An ill-understood effect of induction': telegraphy and field theory in Victorian Britain
    2. Wildman Whitehouse, William Thomson, and the first Atlantic cable
    3. Redeeming failure: the joint committee investigation
    4. Units and standards: the ohm is where the art is
    5. The ohm, the speed of light, and Maxwell's theory of the electromagnetic field
    6. To rule the waves: Britain's cable empire and the making of 'Maxwell's equations'
    Epilogue. Full circle.

  • Author

    Bruce J. Hunt, University of Texas, Austin
    Bruce J. Hunt is Associate Professor at the University of Texas, Austin.


    • Winner, 2021 Antique Wireless Association Houck Award for Documentation

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