Taking (history of) science to town: Manchester meetings

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

The University of Manchester

For academics, it is conference season. Conferences are, when you stop to think about them, strange events, with their own sets of rituals and performances. Large ones take over the lives of their organisers, though few take over their locations in the way that meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) did in the 19th century.

Today known as the British Science Association, in the 19th century the BAAS was its annual meeting, usually held in August or September at different cities and towns across Britain, Ireland and, on seven occasions between 1884 and 1929, the Dominions.

Unlike most conferences today, the BAAS meetings attempted to combined the presentation of new scientific research with activities that would interest a wider public. This public was made up of local members of the middling and upper classes and the families of speakers and organisers. In addition, talks were occasionally organised for other groups, such as schoolchildren or working class men.

Both because of the peripatetic nature of the BAAS meetings and because of the wide range of people attending, events beyond the formal disciplinary sessions were a very important part of the whole. Local people, institutions and businesses were extremely keen to show themselves off to the visiting men of science, visitors were keen to see something of the area and all were keen to be entertained as well as informed.

As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, next week I will be at the biggest conference ever held for my discipline and, because it is inManchester and has exceptionally full social and public programmes going alongside its academic programme, I have found the BAAS meetings often in my mind.

Next week at the International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, there will be 1,700 delegates (huge forhistory of science) and we will be visiting local museums, scientific institutions, leisure facilities and sites. We will have receptions, dinners and performances, some of which are open to anyone in the area with an interest in operas about Turingchemical displaysVictorian science spectaclesbeercomedy and more.

Please come, please tell your friends, please read the programme!

Manchester is the place to do it, evidently. Meetings there scored the highest attendance of all 19th-century BAAS meetings. In 1861 there were 3,138 delegates (25% of whom were women and 0.5% overseas delegates – percentages that will be very different for ICHSM next week!) and in 1887 this had risen to 3,838 (although, with science in the process of professionalising, it’s interesting to note that women were now just 13% of attendees).

In 1861 the Manchester Guardian reported that the available excursions included an invitation to Worsley New Hall, the seat of the Earl of Ellesmere, and plenty to reflect the region’s industrial might and natural resources. There were the Worsley Coal Mines and Astley Deep Pits, where members would be accompanied and addressed by an interesting mixture of company representatives, government officials and scientific gentlemen. They added,

other excursions will be to the salt mines near Northwich… the glass and chemical works at St. Helens; the copper mines at Alderley; the Manchester Waterworks, from Woodhead downwards; and Buxton.

A very large number of business premises were listed as open to the inspection of delegates, and locals created displays of everything from watercolours to geological specimens. There was also an “exhibition of plants and flowers at the Botanical Gardens, Old Trafford” and it was reported that

A number of noblemen and gentlemen have promised to contribute to the show; and there is a fine specimen of the Victoria Regia in bloom. The band of the 1st Royals will be in attendance.

The 19th-century BAAS meetings were an event for a city in a way that conferences today simply are not. Of course the BAAS now holds not annual meetings but the British Science Festival, and it is festivals that have largely taken on the outward-looking role that most conferences have foregone.

One reason that conferences are less visible than they might otherwise be is that they are held within universities or specialist conference venues. Back in 19th century, BAAS meetings in Manchester took over a whole range of public and private buildings. Organising such a range of people, dignitaries and institutions was a logistical nightmare, but it was clear that no one could fail to notice when the British Ass rolled into town.

The local organisers of next week’s International Congress are to be congratulated for bringing some of this festival spirit back to a Manchester conference.

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