The Royal Institution and the Spirit of Improvement

The Royal Institution is now best known as the scientific home of Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy, and (for a short while) Thomas Young.  As such it was one of the cornerstones of nineteenth-century British chemical and physical research.  However, it was founded as part of a movement among the landed elite that saw the advance of chemistry as being of a piece with agricultural improvement, land enclosure, estate development, political economy, and philanthropy.  See the latest post at Ether Wave Propaganda for more on this topic, drawn primarily from the 1978 book Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 by Morris Berman.

About Will Thomas

Will Thomas is a junior research fellow at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at Imperial College London. He is originally from Minnesota, and received his PhD in the History of Science from Harvard University in 2007. From 2007 to 2010 he was a post-doctoral historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics near Washington, DC. There he developed the Array of Contemporary American Physicists resource. His primary interests are in 20th-century America and Britain, and in the histories of physics and the sciences of policy analysis. He maintains the blog Ether Wave Propaganda, usually posting about the problems of maintaining a constructive historiography, and about argumentative systems in all eras.
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2 Responses to The Royal Institution and the Spirit of Improvement

  1. Orwin O'Dowd says:

    Improvement was reshaping British agriculture from the C17, under pressure of emigration to and competition from the New World. At issue were substances like bonemeal, peat, potash and lime, their constitution and action in plant physiology. Physiology emerges as a leading focus in Newton’s chymistry and guided the work of Newtonians through the C18. New in Whewell’s time was the identification of atomic compounds, as in Dr Wilhelm Schuessler’s Cell Salts. His work shares an archaic language of chemistry (Natrium for sodium; Kali for potassium) with the early soil science, through the 1940s. Britain in this time was importing guano, and Darwin’s comments on “leaf mould” inspired the Soil Association and thereby organic agriculture, for a lingering confusion about “vitalism”. The legacy of the Royal Institution passed to grain farming in the colonies, to return with a vengeance in the 1950s.

  2. Will Thomas says:

    Orwin, thanks for the comment — if you’re still there: sorry it has taken me three weeks to acknowledge it!

    This is neither here nor there, but I’m struck by how certain questions in agricultural research move through very long expanses in time. I was particularly taken by a 1941 letter from T. H. Middleton to the new Agricultural Improvement Council, discussing the possible use of salt as a manure for cereals:

    “It should be realised that the question of the uses of salt in agriculture has a long history. Salt was first extolled as a manure for use in this country about two centuries ago. Its reputation was high early in the last century. Sir John Sinclair lists ten uses in agriculture. Farmers employed it largely in the middle of the century, but when Lawes and Gilbert got to work it “lost its (agricultural) savour”. Lawes roundly declared that farmers were wasting a great deal of money on it and in 1864, when a discussion was staged on salt as a manure at the Royal Agricultural Society of England Council, it was questioned whether, except in the case of certain green crops, salt, for which Sinclair thirty years earlier had claimed so many uses, had any substantial value as a fertiliser.

    As Sir John Russell explains, salt has had little attention paid to it the last fifty years, because of its presence in common potash manures and it is regrettable that in the present emergency scientific guidance on its potential usefulness cannot be given with any certainty.”

    Two hundred years of consideration on a question of empirical science reduced to a shrug of the shoulders!

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