The virtue of simplicity

A week or so ago I was fortunate enough to be included in the annual Research Day at UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies, where staff, students and Honorary Fellows get together to hear what everyone is up to. I presented a brief overview of some of the themes of our project (rather less adequately than Richard did at the Joseph Banks conference) but, more importantly, was inspired by some of the papers I heard.

One of these was from Matthew Paskins, who is a doctoral student working on ‘The Society of Arts and cultures of invention and experiment’. His paper was called ‘Simple machines’, and highlighted the frequency with which machines and tools considered by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (f. 1754) were praised for their simplicity.  [Read more]

John Who? The sixth Astronomer Royal

Over on the Longitude Project blog, the last few posts have focused heavily Nevil Maskelyne, 5th Astronomer Royal and a key player in the Board of Longitude, the bicentenary of whose death was marked last week. However, 2011 also inevitably marks 200 years since the appointment of Maskelyne’s successor, a fact which perhaps also deserves mention, especially since he too was inevitably involved with the Board of Longitude.

This successor was John Pond (bap. 1767- d. 1836). He is not, it has to be said, one of the better-known tenants of Flamsteed House, being generally considered as the filling between the tenures of Maskelyne and George Airy. However, follow the link to find out more about his life and interesting times.

Longitude ups and downs

The Longitude Project blog is now taking off nicely and, even at this early stage, it is demonstrating how the, possibly stale-sounding, topic of the history of the Board of Longitude reaches into all sorts of interesting areas in Georgian history of science, and beyond. In recent posts Alexi Baker has looked at the frequent connection made between longitude projectors and madness, in Longitude and Lunacy, and the danger of leaping to conclusions about historical terminology, in Dangerous Definitions; Nicky Reeves has considered what may be a parallel case of government rewards for technical and scientific innovation, in Mrs Stephen’s Cure for the Stone; Katy Barrett wins top post title with Cucumbers in the History of Science; I took the opportunity to post a great picture of Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne‘s observing suit in Maskelyne, anniversaries and the observing suit; and Simon Schaffer has added a nice post, Reaching for the Moon, with typically colourful language from Reuben Burrow, about the difficulties faced by those who attempted to use lunar distances when the methods, instruments and tables were still novelties aboard ship.

However, all is not yet bliss. We are currently being frustrated by various glitches with the software and, as Will Thomas found out recently, commenting is currently impossible for people outside the NMM network. I hate to think of good comments going to waste, so I have put up Will’s on his behalf and would encouarge anyone who has anything to say about any of these posts to either contact me directly or to add it as a comment to this post. If you want me to put it up on the Longitude site just let me know (and add on which post it should appear). Our sincere apologies to anyone who has wasted time trying to comment so far. It is likely that we will be migrating the blog elsewhere in the near future (probably WordPress) and I do my best to keep everyone updated.

The Royal Soc and British Ass

Next week I will be speaking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham in a session celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. I will be talking about the Society in the 19th century, which gives me the chance to compare and contrast its role with that of the many other scientific institutions that first saw light in the 1800s. These include the Geological Society (1807), Royal Astronomical Society (1820), Royal Geographical Society (1830), many provincial societies and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) – organisers of the annual science festival and recently renamed as the British Science Association. The tradition of the annual meeting of the BAAS (or BSA), usually held in September, goes back to the very beginning. I have never been before, but I am interested to see how recognisable today’s festival would be to those who enjoyed the original “Philosophers’ Picnic”. Read More »