Narratives of science and practice in mid-nineteenth century Britain: applied science, stories and story-telling

Lead Research Organisation: Science Museum Group
Department Name: Science Museum Research



This fellowship is proposed under 'Science in Culture'. For two centuries the phrase 'Applied science' and its close relatives were much used to describe essential aspects of science. Nonetheless, their scope and meaning linking science and practice are still not well understood by historians. This research will be devoted to exploring the early decades in which these concepts came to be widely cited, in 19th-century Britain, and also develop a methodology for this study. It will focus on the allegorical narratives used to interpret the ideas. Multiple voices will be accessed through recently-digitised 19th century newspapers and periodicals. To understand stories and story-telling, the study will draw on methods developed in literature, folklore and organisational studies.

The interpretation of the term 'applied science' varied considerably, including a thing in itself or, else, the application of pure science. Rather than philosophically, its interpretation was largely expressed through allegorical stories of past success. These narratives were cycled, during the 19th century, between various contexts of discussion including debates about the nature of modern society and industry, the identity of the engineer and education.

This work will thus be valuable for historians interested in applied science, in Victorian Britain, education and political economy, and because of the work on narrative, historians more generally. The Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge will be a project partner.

There is a practical application too. The allegorical stories inherited about applied science are still important parts of public discourse and in museums. The Science Museum is opening a new major gallery on science in 2014 and in its interpretations will need as good as possible an understanding of the stories it has inherited. Other museums will also benefit.

The fellowship will be held over nine months by Robert Bud who has both published extensively on the history of applied science and of its nineteenth century context, and is an experienced curator.

Questions and Outputs

The phrase 'applied sciences' was coined by Coleridge in 1817 in conceptualising the huge Encyclopaedia Metropolitana. The work will cover the sixty years between that industrial revolution period and the 1870s era of discussion of the meaning of science, its education and institutions,

This research will ask how applied science was rendered in articles, reports of speeches and advertisements.

1.How can we understand the development and use of the concept in Britain in the sixty years after the term was coined in 1817
a.How was the category of applied science constituted by the stories told and what were the functions of the phrase itself?
b.How was historical experience of the relationship between science and practice translated into retailed and standardised narratives, and how did these change?
c.What was the relationship between the accounts of leaders and the retelling of such accounts, stories and models in periodicals and newspapers which structured the public sphere of the early nineteenth century?
d.How does the understanding obtained in this way complement understanding derived from other sources?

2. How can techniques developed in other historical spheres, in folklore studies, in studies of organisations and in political science be deployed to help the understanding of the recounting of stories in such public domains?

Direct output will be peer-reviewed papers, on the 19th century concepts of applied science, and on the use of methodologies of analysing stories. An article will also be submitted to History Today, and the Science Museum will benefit immediately. Sessions on the analysis of narrative will be organised at conferences of the museums community and of the social-science historycommunity. The work will also underpin a future book on applied science over two centuries.

Planned Impact

The broader beneficiaries of this research will be three-fold. First among them will be Museums and their audiences. For these institutions are reservoirs of not just of artefacts but also of the stories that give them meaning and which they embody for the public and posterity. Huge efforts are put into effective communication of the stories and these need to be matched by the equally agile deployment of the stories beyond their truth and falsity.

Museums of Science and Technology, in their very name, are necessarily concerned about the relations between the two components of their responsibility yet the nature of this relationship is not normally their central concern. The stories they inherit, indeed, seem often to make unproblematic relationships in particular instances. Until recent years, for instance, the Science Museum labels on certain of its iconic steam engines were identical to the entries in the catalogue of the 1876 Loan Exhibition on Scientific Apparatus. Iconic samples such as 'Original mauveine prepared by William Perkin' have been displayed to express specific science-technology relations with little factual warrant for their material authenticity but embodying narratives central to institutions. This research will enable museums to be more adept in deploying such stories, not just to problematise their accuracy but to help visitors reflect on their telling.

The emergence of the web has greatly increased the opportunity for story-telling not just by museums, but increasingly by wide variety of stake-holder groups encouraged to contribute to telling of stories. The factual accuracy of these stories may sometimes not be high but their form and their own history can be illuminating. Through the broader methodological insight into the use and meaning of allegorical stories about science, this work will help museums help give meaning to these inherited tales.

Such museums include such large institutions such as the National Museums of Scotland and the Museum of Wales, smaller specialist institutions such as Catalyst and of course international counterparts. The Science Museum with 2.5 million visitors a year will also be such a beneficiary. This research will have direct impact on the major 'Making of Modern Science Gallery' to open in 2014. It will contribute to the Public History project which is also connected with the development of this gallery.

Beyond the museum, this research will also have impact on public discussion about science and technology. Personal decisions about subjects of University study, corporate research investment and government science policy are underpinned by concepts of science-technology relations. Sayings about the utility of science attributed variously to Benjamin Franklin and Michael Faraday still circulate widely despite their lack of factual authenticity. Examples are still drawn from nineteenth century accounts of eighteenth century experiences to support current institutional developments. This work will help develop
a sophisticated response to stories often otherwise taken as if true.

The success of popular accounts of distinct successes since Longitude testifies to the enduring interest in the elegant retelling of these allegorical tales. This work will help writers and broadcasters as producers of public history, be more adept at thinking about these stories and responding creatively to them.

The third impact will be on historians whose concerns are much more general. As is shown for instance by the December 2010 UCLA conference on 'New Approaches to Historiography' historians whose interests span a wide area are becoming more adept at the deployment of stories. This work with its use of digitised periodicals on the one hand and methodological investigation will make a contribution to this wider endeavour.


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Bud R (2012) "Applied science": a phrase in search of a meaning. in Isis; an international review devoted to the history of science and its cultural influences

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Bud R (2013) Embodied Odysseys: Relics of stories about journeys through past, present, and future in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A

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Bud R (2018) Selling visions: Kantianism, cameralism and applied science realized through encyclopaediae in Germany and beyond in Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science

Description The key discovery of this work was the way in which deployment of the term applied science in the general press served to make sense of Britain's broader cultural and political developments such as the German challenge and threats to empire as well as talk specifically about science.
Exploitation Route This work alerts policy makers to the ways in which discourse and tales about science and technology have wider policy resonance.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description AHRC leadership fellowship
Amount £134,023 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/L014815/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 02/2016
Title conceptual history 
Description My approach links the Begriffsgeschichte developed in Germany and Skinner's approach to intellectual history to narrative and the work of analysts of dialogue and discourse such as Bakhtin and Burke. It emphasises the folk-historical accounts of origins and heroes circulating in the public sphere and the use of digitised newspaper analysis to access these accounts. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2012 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The formation of the CASTI network. Casti stands for "Conceptual approaches to science, technology and innovation". A volume based on the work I and others have conducted in this area is in preparation by members of the network. I shall also contribute the article on twentieth century science to the Encyclopaedia on the history of the press to be published by Edinburgh University Press 
Description CASTI 
Organisation University of Bonn
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am a member of the new research group, CASTI standing for Conceptual approaches to science, technology and innovation. The work I did as part of my grant identifies key relevant historiographic approaches for writing the history of concepts of science
Collaborator Contribution The University of Bonn has created a website for CASTI and a newsletter will follow. A variety of joint publications are now being planned. Meetings have been held in London and at the University of Agder, Norway. The key quality of this project is that it will bring together research tools found useful by different teams in the writing of the history of concepts. This grows out of the historiography of Koselleck at Bielefeld but has hybridised with many other complementary approaches.
Impact The key output so far is the website. Further outputs will include a collaborative volume to be submitted to Cambridge University Press early in 2015
Start Year 2014