Science in the public sphere: Understanding the meanings of "applied science" in the era of war, industrial research and modernism, 1900-1939

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


Where today we might use the word "technology", in the early 20th century the term "applied science" was popularly used to describe the space between science and practice. Understanding how it and other related terms were deployed by scientists, politicians and laypeople, helps us today make sense of how science was interpreted then, and the assumptions that we have inherited through usages and stories from that time. This study will be a second stage in a study of the meanings of applied science from the French Revolution to the end of the Cold War.

With the rapid development of new products, of science and its organisation, in civilian and military fields during the years between the beginning of the twentieth century and the start of the Second World War, there were many claims for the embodiment of "applied science" in artefacts, processes and culture. Its connotations could include industrial research; a form of knowledge and education; modern devices such as telephones, the wireless, and weapons; automation; and the modern way of life as a whole. The study will not evaluate the accuracy of claims about the relations between science and practice, but rather will reveal perceptions of the time.

In scientific circles, the relations between what was termed pure science and its applications were issues in which the term "applied science" was explicitly debated. Again it was implicated in cultural crises in the 1920s including the call for a "science holiday", and became a matter of political dispute in the early 1930s when science was associated with both unemployment and with investment towards rearmament. The gas warfare practiced in World War 1, frequently cited as an example of danger posed by applied science, was to many people a warning of the threat posed by science, but to others, such as JBS Haldane, its use and frequently non-lethal effects was a challenge to the promotion of public understanding of science.

Applied science fascinated the much-read HG Wells and such key literary figures as Aldous Huxley and James Joyce. There was great awareness at the time of the interaction of the private and public spheres, and leading scientists such as Julian Huxley broadcast frequently. The discussions of such intellectuals will be integrated here with the evolution of term's meanings in the public square. Above all, this study will follow their development through public debate, and through historical tales often serving as allegories for present and future, which deployed the term.

The study will make use of the recent digitisation of many newspapers and magazines of the time to survey and interpret the uses they made of the phrase and cognate terms. The Listener Magazine published by the BBC printed many of the science-related wireless broadcasts. This study will look, too, at exhibitions which attracted millions of visitors at the newly reopened Science Museum in London and at the great Empire exhibitions in Wembley and Glasgow. These were considered such important public windows into science that the Royal Society mounted an exhibit specifically on pure science as part of the broader 1924 Wembley exhibition. Finally the study will use the many archives of important people of the time, including the first science journalists such as JG Crowther of the Manchester Guardian as well as scientist-administrators and HG Wells.

Several important leadership activities, associated with the research, will promote the wider discussion of the fundamental issues. To encourage discussion of the meaning of applied science at the time within the wider historical community, there will be a major conference on modernism organised together with leading literary and design historians. To help historians of science engage with the interface between science and practice at the time, there will be workshops on the development of industrial research in the interwar years and on the impact of the First World War.

Planned Impact

Four ACADEMIC BENEFITS will follow from this work.

1. First it will help shift the attention of CULTURAL HISTORIANS, STUDENTS and those concerned with SCIENCE POLICY today towards the ways in which industrial societies have reflected on the potential of science, and the significance of such reflections as complex cultural products in their own right.
This will sensitise scholars to the use of words such as "technology" and "science" and the opportunities of thinking about these as constructed categories. It also problematises contemporary thinking about science and technology, emphasising the heavy cultural freight such terms carry, for the benefit of scholars and students across science studies. Success will be indicated by increased awareness of terms in historical writing and the works exploring such concepts as applied science as important cultural products in their own right.

2. The second impact is INTENDED PARTICULARLY FOR STUDENTS OF HISTORY OF SCIENCE, to emphasise the historiographic opportunities of studying the specific areas of activity at the borders of science and practice in Britain.
This will build on efforts of others to encourage the hitherto relatively neglected study of the history of industrial and military research. This work will enable both scholars and students in history to recognise potential questions of interest to others and the rich research resources available. Its further promotion would enable history of science to make a better contribution to understanding past and present practice. The measure here will be the number of new studies of research within individual institutions such as the military, or funding by agencies such as the MRC, DSIR or indeed EPSRC as historical questions.

3. The third academic impact will be more broadly on a WIDE RANGE OF SCHOLARS concerned with conceptual history. This study will promote the interpretation of discourse about science which is native to the public sphere.
There has been a general wish recently to think more about discourse among laymen as a form in itself and not as a dilution of elite thought. This work will support the use of digitised 20th century mass media to write the history of concepts integrated with more conventionally archive based studies of leading intellectuals. It will encourage others to develop applications and debate methods. There may be benefits for instance to the understanding of lay talk about the environment or climate change. Success will be indicated by such new projects and the utility they find in the one proposed.

4. This study has implications for the academic interpretation of museum collections of science which has long proven both tempting and difficult. This therefore is addressed to CULTURAL HISTORIANS AND HISTORIANS OF SCIENCE.
It will encourage analysis of the role of authoritative assemblies of objects and exhibits as powerful rhetorical tools, which can be empirically investigated in terms of institutional and personal strategies.

It will impact on the services provided by the SCIENCE MUSEUM GROUP as a major public servant which reaches out as a group to five million physical visitors a year and twice as many virtual visitors. This research will enrich its exhibitions and events by helping it become more aware itself of assumptions and collections built into the fabric of the institution. It will also help the museum enable the public to reflect on what they are now seeing and what they have seen in the past both in the museum and outside, in temporary exhibition such as that on nuclear power planned for 2016 or in a permanent gallery on science now in the Master plan. This may be through exhibits themselves or in events, the website or the new ejournal. Success would be measured by the sophistication with which terms such as applied science are deployed and the acquisition of objects which prompt questions about these categories.


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Description The distinction between the resonance and implications of the terms "applied science" and "technology" early in the 20th century
Exploitation Route The work will be integrated by myself into a monograph on the history of the concept of applied science which will help lay users make sense of the category of science over two hundred years and the import of the understanding held in society on the relationship between science and practice.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description This research led to the holding of the opera Three Tales at the Science Museum which attracted audiences of over 600 people
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description HoNEST 
Organisation Pompeu Fabra University
Country Spain 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are leading the historical work on the development of nuclear power in Britain as it related to public engagement with the subject; and we also are involved in developing understanding of the interface between the history and the public understanding of nuclear power today; Robert Bud is a member of the overall management team of the project which has 23 partners in all. He is also a member of the writing group which will produce summary volumes at a European level.
Collaborator Contribution The partners are contributing at a Europe wide level and across a variety of specialties linking public understanding and history; they are also contributing leadership at project and work package level
Impact none yet
Start Year 2015
Description Being Modern (conference) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The conference was fiercely interdisciplinary drawing on contributions from historians of literature, architecture, design, science, culture and music reflecting on the influences of science in the early 20th century. 19 contributions have been submitted for a volume which will be published (subject to peer review) by UCL press with open access online as well as well-printed, affordable printed volume which is expected to be widely interesting to students and the general public as well as academics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Three Tales (opera performance at the Science Museum) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The opera "Three Tales" by Steve Reich and Beryl Koroth uses the experience of the Hindenburg disaster, the Bikini Atoll H Bomb test and development of Dolly the Sheep as steps in a musical journey which engages the audiences in issues around science, technology and culture. Two performances were held in the Science Museum's Imax theatre to full houses of the general public. Most of the participants in the Being Modern Conference also attended. The first performance was held on the centenary of the first use of poison gas on the western front which became the "representative anecdote" of the abuse of science in the interwar years. It was a very successful outreach complement to the Being Modern conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015