Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences

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The nineteenth century was an age of transformation in science, when scientists were rewarded for their startling new discoveries with increased social status and authority.  But it was also a time when ordinary people from across the social spectrum were given the opportunity to participate in science, for education, entertainment, or both. In Victorian Britain science could be encountered in myriad forms and in countless locations: in panoramic shows, exhibitions, and galleries; in city museums and country houses; in popular lectures; and even in domestic conversations that revolved around the latest books and periodicals.

Science in the Marketplace reveals this other side of Victorian scientific life by placing the sciences in the wider cultural marketplace, ultimately showing that the creation of new sites and audiences was just as crucial to the growing public interest in science as were the scientists themselves. By focusing attention on the scientific audience, as opposed to the scientific community or self-styled popularizers, Science in the Marketplace ably links larger societal changes—in literacy, in industrial technologies, and in leisure—to the evolution of “popular science.”

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Editorial Reviews

John Brooke
“Here is a history of nineteenth-century science that is refreshingly different. Averting our gaze from the production of knowledge by a scientific elite, the editors and their enthusiastic team take us on an exciting tour of neglected locations where an expanding audience for science was attracted and wooed. Exhibitions, galleries and museums, lecture-halls, clubs and salons all feature in stimulating essays that bring to life the experiences of the  audiences themselves. Readers will delight in the unexpected discovery that these competing sites each played multiple roles in promoting their conception of the sciences.”
Janet Browne
“From the sedate charms of small mineralogical museums to the high drama of the Crystal Palace or electricity as a source of extraordinary theatrical effects, scientific entertainment was big business in Britain in the nineteenth century. Looking and learning was only the half of it. This very readable and important collection of essays takes us deep into the heart of the enthusiastic public response to science in the Victorian era, including careful discussion of the marketing of popular literature, electrical demonstrations, stuffed animals, smells and sounds, conversations, and hands-on-skulls phrenological readings. Every author has something new and intriguing to say about the puzzling question of how to define popularity and how something novel might spread through a society. The intention is to explore the key characteristics of public audiences for science and the birth of what might be called modern consumerism, an audience-based history that truly opens the door to rethinking the notion of a marketplace for knowledge. Any book edited by social historians such as Lightman and Fyfe must command interested attention. This provides an invaluable reexamination of the whole notion of popular science in the Victorian era.”
Quarterly Review of Biology - Anthony J. Dellureficio
"The multimedia experience in science is not as modern a concept as many science enthusiasts may think. This collection of essays depicts the 19th-century British piublic as consumers, seeking out scientific knowledge and engaging themselves in a multimedia scientific market eager for their patronage. . . . The essays are enjoyable to read due to the expertise of the authors."
The British Society for Science and Literature - Adelene Buckland
:This lively and readable collection represents a fascinating step forward in the history of popular science, and should be found on the reading lists of all undergraduate and graduate courses on science, popular culture, and the nineteenth century more generally."
Journal of British Studies - Pamela Gossin
"Cogent, compelling, and creatively crafted, this collection of scholarly essays examines some of the many processes by which scientific knowledge was made, marketed, and consumed as 'popular' in nineteenth-century Britain."
Isis - Peter J. Bowler
"This is a major collection of papers on Victorian popular science and will be essential reading for anyone interested in the field."
H-Net Review - Laura J. Snyder
"Nineteenth-century England is well-trodden ground, but the editors and authors of this book have found an innovative and extremely interesting way to approach it. . . . And by publishing essays that shed light on these sites of scientific consumption, this book itself opens a wintow on the experience of science in the nineteenth century."
British Journal for the History of Science - Angelique Richardson
"Science in the Marketplace offers an important overview of science and consumer culture in nineteenth-century Britain, with each author contributing something new to our understanding of the meaning and development of popular science. A history with a difference, it will be of wide appeal."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226276502
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Aileen Fyfe is lecturer in the department of history at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and author of Science and Salvation, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Bernard Lightman is professor of humanities at York College, author of Victorian Popularizers of Science, and editor of Victorian Science in Context, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Science in the Marketplace

Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences

By Aileen Fyfe, Bernard Lightman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-27650-2


Science in the Marketplace: An Introduction


Visitors to London in the nineteenth century were regularly impressed by its historic buildings, the famous cultural artifacts in its museums and galleries, and its lively theater and entertainment district. For two visitors from India, however, the most striking sites in the late 1830s were the galleries of practical science: the Royal Polytechnic Institution and the Adelaide Gallery. "We saw nothing in London,—nothing in England, half so good," they wrote, remembering the enthralling steam-powered machines and the enormous diving bell at the Royal Polytechnic Institution (Nowrojee and Merwanjee 1841, 138). Although it might be tempting to assume that there is something unique about the consumption of science that we ourselves are surrounded by in our bookstores, on our television channels, and in our toy shops, the experiences of these two visitors remind us that the sciences have long been a part of consumer culture.

Nineteenth-century scientific attractions may not have had gift shops to rival our modern science centers, but their directors were nonetheless highly skilled in the business of attracting visitors with their entertaining and instructive spectacles. The organizers of the galleries of practical science, for instance, appreciated that they needed to woo potential visitors not just from other scientific sites, such as the British Museum or the Zoological Gardens, but from the National Gallery, the Tower of London, and the West End theaters. They recognized the power of consumer choice and sought to influence it. Even directors who hoped to remain above commercial concerns recognized that they were operating in a cultural marketplace, competing for visitors with a range of other desirable, or less desirable, attractions. The notion of the marketplace is potentially useful for historians, since it directs our attention equally to those who produce and market their wares and to the consumers who choose among them. It may also help us to find a way out of the many problems which currently beset studies of "popular science."

In 1992, a conference in Manchester, UK, was devoted to the topic of "popular science." Reflecting on its proceedings, Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey bemoaned how little had yet been done to study the place of science in popular culture, particularly in comparison with medicine (Cooter and Pumfrey 1994). Since then, established scholars and doctoral students alike have taken up the challenge. The history of "popular science" is now one of the major growth areas in the history of science. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been a particularly rich field, both because more people then had the time, money, and education to pursue an interest in the sciences and also for the practical reason that far more sources relating to nonelite groups have survived. As we realized when we began to imagine this volume, there is no longer a shortage of scholars in this area.

All the enthusiastic study, however, has generated increasing skepticism about the very workability of the concept of popular science. Some would now maintain that the term popular science should be banished from the vocabulary of all historians of science. The main characteristic that the myriad things studied under the rubric have in common—from popularization to phrenology to artisan botanists—is that they are typically regarded as lying outside the boundaries of true "science." Yet a shared exclusion does not imply the existence of any common characteristics that could be used to construct a self-coherent and independent history. Moreover, this negative definition is deeply problematic for the long period of history before the construction of a dominant scientific establishment, for a category can be defined only in opposition to something which is itself clearly defined. Thus, while historians of the twentieth century may be able to work with a definition of popular science as the realm of the nonexpert, early modernists have trouble doing so, and those working on the nineteenth century must grapple with the complexities implied by the gradual emergence of a robust definition of scientific expertise. If popular were to be defined against expertise, the transformation of expertise over the nineteenth century would make it impossible to attach any consistent meaning to popular. We also have to be careful not to take at face value the arguments of those nineteenth-century actors who were engaged in establishing their own authority and who had a vested interest in denigrating certain activities as "merely popular."

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Thomas Huxley and his allies fought to transform the man of science from an untrained amateur steeped in natural theology into a highly disciplined expert who pursued a methodological naturalism. Huxley wished to ensure that it would no longer be the case that "every fool who can make bad species and worse genera is a 'naturalist'!" (Huxley 1902, 1:177). His emphasis on the significance of the changed role of the man of science has been reflected by many historians of science, who cast the nineteenth century in terms of a process they label professionalization. The emergence of the professional scientist is seen as the link between many critical institutional and theoretical developments, while incipient professionalization is invoked to explain many events in the early part of the century. Professionalization can be seen as the underlying motivation behind the support of scientific naturalists for Darwinism and for the decline of natural theology. It would also account for the increasing emphases on laboratories as privileged spaces for producing knowledge, on the training of cadres of male experts, and on the increase in government funding. A coherent and seemingly comprehensive story of nineteenth-century British science can be built upon the professionalization thesis.

Recently, scholars have begun to find problems with this thesis. For a start, it seems that the growth of professionalization in the nineteenth century is more complex than we previously thought. It has been argued that Huxley and his allies did not understand professional in the twentieth-century sense of antagonism to all amateurs or to gentlemanly culture. They also disagreed among themselves on the need for government funding, while the establishment of a naturalistic science may have superseded the demand for "professional" qualifications (Desmond 2001; Barton 1998a; White 2003). Yet, an even larger problem lurks behind the emphasis on professionalization. If the rise of professional and expert science becomes the framework for analyzing the changing nature of the sciences in nineteenth-century Britain, then everything else is pushed to the margins and rendered mere detail. Huxley would have liked that notion. But historians have learned to be wary of uncritically accepting the agenda of historical actors as the foundation for understanding the past. In this volume, we consider what would happen if we emphasized the rise of audiences for science and not just the transformation of the elite. Though we acknowledge the importance of "professional" science, we would submit that a framework built upon it seriously distorts our understanding of the period.

In this volume, we offer a route toward a more balanced perspective, by reinstating the wide range of popular engagements with science that took place in nineteenth-century Britain. We have brought together some of the latest scholarship on the problem of defining popular science and have sought to provide some coherence by limiting the time frame and by not attempting to cover everything. We are not, for instance, dealing with what has variously been called "ethno-science" or "low science" (Cooter and Pumfrey 1994; Sheets-Pyenson 1985), terms which imply an expectation of being involved in the creation of new knowledge. Most of the audiences in this volume saw their role as consumers, whether of books, lectures, zoological gardens, or galleries of practical science. Admitting this does not mean retreating to an older view of such audiences as passive sponges. Recent scholarship on consumers (e.g., Radway 1992; Agnew 2003) emphasizes that they are fickle and selective and they appropriate and adapt what they choose to their own purposes. Individuals select from the sources available to them to create their own amalgams of knowledge about the natural world.

The chapters in this volume also present a more nuanced image of those who have so often been labeled popularizers. In their efforts to make certain sorts of knowledge more widely known, they acted under a variety of motivations, from the lure of financial reward to religious zeal, philanthropic educational ambitions, or the desire to supply genteel recreation. To encourage our contributors (and readers) to think about these activities in a different light, we have emphasized the roles of sites and experiences. This emphasis helps move the focus away from the scientific community and the self-confessed popularizers and encourages us to think about audiences: where might people encounter and interact with the sciences, and what sort of experiences might they have there? Emphasizing the variety of sites where the sciences might appear also helps make the point that printed books and periodicals were far from the only (or even main) sources of information for the wider public: this volume has essays dealing with country houses, museums, galleries of practical science, panoramic shows, exhibitions, lecture halls, and domestic conversations, located both in London and throughout the rest of Britain.

Sites, Experiences, and the Sciences in the Nineteenth Century

By taking "the site" as one of our points of focus, we are reminded of the need to situate activities connected with the sciences (Livingstone 2003). This need to situate activities applies even to books and periodicals, forms which have often seemed disembodied and universally available—much as science itself has, until recently, been regarded—but which book historians have now shown to be grounded in specific places, both of production and of consumption. At the start of the nineteenth century, the sites we might consider include soirées, the lectures at the Royal Institution, the expensive tomes written by gentlemen-naturalists and the private collections of those gentlemen. These sites tended to be limited to the members of polite society and were most likely to be in London. But as the century progressed, more and more sites came into play, from workingmen's lectures, penny magazines, and galleries of practical science to public gardens, arboretums, and civic museums. In general, these sites were accessible to more social groups than those of the early century, although some sites did continue to cultivate an exclusiveness in the midst of the general move toward inclusivity; social class might be one reason for this exclusiveness, but the attempt to maintain a scholarly reputation could be another.

Although London was easily the biggest city in the country, with the largest potential audience and the widest variety of attractions, a growing number of these sites could be found in other cities. At the start of the century, Edinburgh and Dublin had been the most prominent alternative centers for polite and learned society, and they followed London in gaining an increasing range of sites catering to wider audiences. But from mid-century onward, the growth of such newly industrial cities as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, and Belfast stimulated intense civic pride that encouraged the establishment of public museums, gardens, and lecture halls. The expanding railway network enabled smaller towns, which lacked formal sites of knowledge, to be visited by traveling lecturers who would transform the town hall or church hall for a night. Their example reminds us that sites are not static. Not only may a site be experienced differently by different groups of visitors at any one point in time, but visitors at different points in time are almost certain to have different experiences.

Historians of science have become well aware that both the transformation of the scientific elite and the emergence of new audiences for science took place during a period when the book trade was being transformed. Books on natural history and natural philosophy had already become a part of polite culture in the late eighteenth century, but only the wealthy could afford them and only the well educated could understand them. The technological advances and wider socioeconomic developments of the first half of the nineteenth century enabled publishers to increase the number of books produced, while also reducing average prices. As James Secord has argued, "the steam-powered printing machine, machine-made paper, public libraries, cheap woodcuts, stereotyping, religious tracts, secular education, the postal system, telegraphy, and railway distribution played key parts in opening the floodgates to an increased reading public" (Secord 2000, 30).

It was generally publishers, not writers, who were the driving forces behind the expansion of popular publishing. Both commercial publishers, such as W. and R. Chambers and Charles Knight, and charitable publishers, such as the Religious Tract Society, believed in providing instruction and information for those who had previously had little access to it, though they disagreed over the role of Christian instruction (Fyfe 2004). By mid-century, these publishers had helped create a robust market for cheap books on the sciences, particularly among a new polity of consumers consisting of a family readership among the middle and working classes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, that market expanded, helped by the repeal of the remaining taxes on knowledge, the introduction of the rotary press, and a gigantic explosion in newspaper and periodical publishing. Science continued to be featured in the increasing number of miscellaneous periodicals, but there were also ever-more publications devoted just to the sciences, for general readers as well as experts (Barton 1998b; Cantor et al. 2004).

The nineteenth century was also a period of museum growth. Existing museums were expanded and new museums were founded, especially after the Museums Act of 1845 enabled civic museums to be established throughout the provinces. As well as such great national museums as the National Gallery (founded in 1824) and the South Kensington Museum (1857, the precursor of both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum), two hundred metropolitan, provincial, and university museums were founded in Britain (Rupke 1994, 13–15). Among them were important science museums, such as the Museum of Practical Geology (1851) and the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington (1881). In addition to these museums of public education, there was a wide range of more commercial enterprises, ranging from the relatively long-term—such as the Adelaide Gallery (1832–45) and the Polytechnic (1838–81)—to such decidedly ephemeral shows as the exhibition of the so-called Aztec children who took London and Dublin by storm in the summer of 1853.

At the start of the century, access to most museums had been governed by gentlemanly conventions of politeness, and some collections remained in gentlemen's private cabinets or country houses, where they were accessible only to polite or respectable classes of society. But by the end of the Victorian era, most museums had been opened up, from the country houses, which welcomed hordes of day-trippers, to the national and municipal museums, which were proudly open to all at no cost and even began to open on Saturdays and evenings. With greater accessibility came the increasing efforts of managers to control the experiences of audiences and to enforce rigorous behavior codes for working-class visitors.

Although noise and conversation were increasingly banned from museums, there was an abundance of other opportunities for listening to and talking about the sciences. Conversation remained central to the practice of science, though the conventions of late Georgian and Regency science were replaced by the display of expertise after midcentury. Throughout the Victorian period, middle-class urban audiences attended glittering social gatherings, or conversaziones. Science figured prominently among the displays of the fine, industrial, and decorative arts, antiquities, archaeology, literature, ethnography, technology, and music that stimulated discussion (Alberti 2003). Such events could be staged as fund-raisers, and they might also be used in efforts to improve and educate the working classes.

Public lectures were another popular social activity throughout the century, from the fashionable lectures for Regency polite society, through evangelical missionary meetings, to the philanthropic attempts to educate workingmen. Such was the demand for lectures that it became possible, in the second half of the century, to earn substantial amounts of money from lecturing. Like their competitors, science lecturers became increasingly skilled in the use of colorful visual aids, from displays of exotic specimens to spectacular optical illusions. The sciences could thus be encountered in an incredibly wide variety of venues and in a multiplicity of forms, often incorporating elements from print, display, and the spoken word at the same time. An emphasis on scientific elites and professionalization ignores all of these crucial dimensions of nineteenth-century science.


Excerpted from Science in the Marketplace by Aileen Fyfe, Bernard Lightman. Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Science in the Marketplace: An Introduction
Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman
Section I: Orality

2. How Scientific Conversation Became Shop Talk
James A. Secord

3. The Diffusion of Phrenology through Public Lecturing
John van Wyhe

4. Lecturing in the Spatial Economy of Science
Bernard Lightman
Section II: Print

5. Publishing “Popular Science” in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain
Jonathan R. Topham

6. Sensitive, Bashful, and Chaste? Articulating the Mimosa in Science
Ann B. Shteir

7. Reading Natural History at the British Museum and the Pictorial Museum
Aileen Fyfe

8. Illuminating the Expert-Consumer Relationship in Domestic Electricity
Graeme Gooday
Section III: Display

9. Natural History on Display: The Collection of Charles Waterton
Victoria Carroll

10. Science at the Crystal Focus of the World
Richard Bellon

11. “More the Aspect of Magic than Anything Natural”: The Philosophy of Demonstration
Iwan Rhys Morus

12. The Museum Affect: Visiting Collections of Anatomy and Natural History
Samuel J. M. M. Alberti


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