Call for more blue plaques to mark scientists’ connections to London buildings

Picture: English Heritage

Today English Heritage unveils a new blue plaque to the theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam (1926-1996), with an appeal for more nominations for scientists to increase their representation in the London scheme. As a historian of science sitting on their Blue Plaque panel, I am delighted to support this call.

Scientists and natural philosophers account for around 15% of the more than 950 blue plaques in London. Some of these will be found categorised under medicine or engineering but the scheme lists just 66 plaques online under the category of science, in contrast to 102 as fine arts, 171 politics and 213 literature. These numbers are a product of the scheme’s earlier history, under the Society of Arts, London County Council and Greater London Council, as well as of broader cultural assumptions about who and what should receive such marks of public esteem.

The contributors to science honoured by blue plaques include key figures of the 17th-century Royal Society, Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, as well as household names such as Charles Darwin and Alan Turing. But our understanding of science suffers if it encourages an assumption that its progress has been due only to a few geniuses, usually white and male, and often seen as working in isolation from society.

Happily, this scheme also recognises a whole range of other contributors and contributions. One plaque marks the Holborn site of the shop and workshop of the watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw, another the home of the Scottish plant collector and ‘tea thief’ Robert Fortune, and in Hackney we find a plaque to the zoologist Philip Gosse. The new plaque to Salam reminds us that not all eminent contributors to science in London were white or born in the west.

There are also, especially after recent calls for nominations, several plaques marking women scientists. These include the increasingly celebrated figures of Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin but also a number whose plaques should help them to be more widely recognised, such as the botanists Agnes Arber and Helen Gwyenne-Vaughan and the electrical engineer and physicist Hertha Ayrton.

One of the distinctive features of the scheme is that a building associated with a nominated figure should still survive. While this limits who can be put forward, it has the benefit of encouraging us to think about these individuals in context – not just as those who contributed ideas and information to their scientific field, but as people who lived and worked, loved, laughed and prayed, across London’s boroughs. Science is a human endeavour that is not, and never has been, isolated from place.

The biases of building survival, as well as the wealth and connections that are often prerequisites for success, mean that many blue plaques are found on substantial buildings in places like Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea. But we find that other locations and a wide variety of stories are revealed by these combined markers of place and people.

Abdus Salam’s plaque is on a red-brick Edwardian house in Putney, his London base from 1957 until his death in 1996. While the wording of the plaque tells of his international fame and role in championing science in developing countries, the location is residential, a home where he studied and wrote, and listened to music and Quranic verses on his record player.

The very first plaque to a scientific figure, unveiled by the Society of Arts in 1876, is in Marylebone. It celebrates Michael Faraday (1791-1867), known for his discoveries in electromagnetism at the Royal Institution. However, the plaque records that he was ‘Apprentice here’, for the building is where he worked not as a chemist but as a bookbinder. His apprenticeship moved him from Newington Butts in Surrey to a building from which he could attend scientific lectures.

In Hackney, though sadly not currently visible from the street, there is a plaque to Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). A chemist, best known for his discovery of gases, including Oxygen, Priestley was also a teacher and preacher. His plaque, calling him ‘Scientist, Philosopher and Theologian’, tells us that this was the site of the Gravel Pit Meeting, a nonconformist religious congregation to which Priestley was minster.

While Priestley’s is one of the wordier plaques, it is another man of science who has one of the most evocative. This is Luke Howard (1722-1864), described as ‘Namer of Clouds’. He was the amateur meteorologist who proposed the classification and Latin names for clouds. He was also a manufacturing chemist of means, whose plaque is at 7 Bruce Grove in Tottenham. Now owned by developers it is currently vacant and at risk, with campaigners hoping to save it from further deterioration. As the site of Tottenham’s only blue plaque, and a Grade II listed building, it would be a tragedy to lose Howard’s former home.

English Heritage, and the Blue Plaque panel, rely on the public to make proposals for plaques such as these. They particularly welcome those that help reveal the significant stories that link scientists and London’s buildings.

On longitude in BBC History Magazine

A piece that I wrote for BBC History Magazine, which appeared in 2014, has been made available by someone (Morgan High History Academy, anyone?) as a PDF online here. With some nice pictures, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, and some good editing, courtesy of the magazine’s editors, it’s perhaps worth a look.

There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize #2

I am reposting part of this post from the Longitude Project blog, as a timely reminder, because there *is* now such a thing as the Longitude Prize. It is also on Twitter and much in the media as it heads toward official launch next week. The six potential challenges for the new £10 million prize will be explored on Horizon on 22 May, in a programme that will also look back at the original longitude story. I will appear briefly as a talking head in a film on challenge prizes on The One Show tonight, failing to make the points outlined below. [Update: just heard that my contribution has been cut from the brief film – boo!]

Despite having, back stage, had some impact on how Nesta have been thinking about their prize, the media focus remains on the story of a “prize” that was won by John Harrison. Having just done a talk last night pointing out that Newton was right to say longitude was “not to be found by Clock-work alone” – and that, in fact, the timekeeping method could never have taken off without the complementary lunar-distance method working in tandem with it – I turn back to this post. There was no prize. Harrison did not win it. He did not solve the longitude problem single handed. It made sense for the Board of Longitude to back both methods.


There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize. From the beginning, as well as using the term “reward” not “prize”, the Longitude Act offered a range of sums depending on the accuracy achieved. Later on, with subsequent acts, the possible rewards proliferated, initially with the realisation that Harrison needed to be supported with ‘grants’ of money while developing his clocks and, by the 1770s, with knowledge that a handful of sea watches was not a complete solution and that benefit would be gained by offering further rewards for improvements to techniques and hardware.

Derek Howse’s article on the Finances of the Board of Longitude reveals what was spent by the Commissioners. Between 1714 and 1828, rewards accounted for only 33% of spending, while overheads (23%), expeditions (15%) and publications (29%) made up the rest. The total spent on rewards was £52,534, of which £22,000 went to Harrison. This sum was made up of a number of payments between 1737 and 1764 to improve and test his timekeepers, £7500 paid in 1765 (a further sum being on offer to take this up to a £20,000 reward if two more sea watches could be made, one by Harrison and one by another maker) and £8750 was awarded by an act of parliament in 1773.

It’s a matter of interpretation as to whether this process constitutes receiving the maximum reward. A number of the payments to Harrison had required additional acts (in 1762, 1754 and 1765) and, ultimately, all the money came from government as a result of the original Act of Parliament. However, the final payment did not appear in the Board’s accounts, which confirms the fact that this final move took place outside the Commissioners’ decision-making process.

More interesting to me is who received the other £30,534. Happily, Howse’s article lists all the reward recipients in an appendix. The bulk of the rewards post-date 1765, when the Board played its hand and divided out rewards between the two successful methods, timekeeping and lunar distances. While Harrison received his £7500 in October 1765, in May:

  • Leonhard Euler was paid £300 “for Theorums furnished by him to assist Professor Mayer in the Construction of Lunar tables”
  • Maria Mayer was paid £3000 as a posthumous reward to her husband Tobias “for his having constructed a Set of Lunar Tables” and to her for making them property of the Commissioners
  • Catherine Price, Edmond Halley‘s daughter, was paid £100 for handing over several of Halley’s manuscripts, which the Commissioners believed “may lead to discoveries useful to navigation”.

While Harrison’s work was the cause of the Commissioners beginning to meet, keep minutes and spend money, there were other pre-1765 pay-outs. Christopher Irwin received £600 in 1762-3 for his marine chair (designed to allow observations of Jupiter’s satellites on board ship) and way back in 1741, William Whiston was paid £500 “For procuring a new Sett of Astronomical Instruments for finding out the Longitude on the Coasts of this Kingdom with the Variations of the Needle and for enabling him to make Observations with them”.

Harrison was certainly the biggest single beneficiary of the Longitude Acts, but balanced against that are the many involved in lunar distances. There are the rewards to Euler and Mayer, but 1765 also saw the beginning of investment in the computing work (£35,559 to 1828) and publication of the Nautical Almanac. There had already been expenditure on lunar-distance-related hardware, salaries for trials and expeditions and later sums were paid out for work on astronomical tables, for example £1537 between 1770-93 for Charles Mason‘s efforts and £1,200 to Josef de Mendoza y Rios for his longitude tables in 1814.

Post-1765 there were numerous rewards, mostly of tens or hundreds of pounds. The largest, after Harrison’s, was divvied up among the officers and crew of HMS Hecla and Griper in 1820, who received £5000 for reaching 110°W within the Article Circle, after discovery of the North West Passage became one of the Board’s interests in the 1818 Act. The Arctic voyages also led to Edward Sabine being given £1000 in 1826 for his pendulum experiments. Those who helped develop the chronometer as a commercial product, John ArnoldThomas Earnshaw and Thomas Mudge, were each rewarded with £3000.

Although there was in the 18th-century a sense of competitiveness and occasional reference to a longitude prize (of which more in a later post [since published here]), suggesting that there was a single pay-out that Harrison did or did not win misses both the richness of the history of the Board of Longitude and obscures the way that longitude solutions were developed and used.


Radio: Seven Ages of Science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Staircase inside the Monument to the Great Fire of London

Staircase in the Monument, London, designed by Robert Hooke. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Poised at my computer last night [6 August 2013], I listened to, and eagerly typed notes on the first episode of a new series on BBC Radio 4 that looks at the history of British science. Presented by Lisa Jardine, it will present Seven Ages of Science, kicking off with an Age of Ingenuity in Restoration England.

Much of the episode centred on Jardine’s “personal hero”, Robert Hooke, and argues that the ingenuity, interest and development of new explanations of the workings of nature that arose in the late 17th century came out of the thriving world of machines and instruments, centred on London’s west end.

Those who know Jardine’s work won’t be surprised that the episode opened at the Monument in London. It was Hooke and Christopher Wren’s memorial to the Great Fire of London, a statement of confidence that London would be rebuilt and thrive again and, as Jardine says, “a super-size scientific instrument”. It symbolised their belief that experimental science would lead to a renaissance of city and nation.

The Monument was to be a place for experiments with pendulums and a tube for a giant zenith telescope. While it wasn’t successful, Hooke spent a lifetime collaborating with makers and artisans to contrive instruments and experiments that would entertain the gentlemen of the Royal Society, pick apart the mechanisms of God’s creation and prove useful to mankind.

While Hooke and then Newton receive the main focus in this episode, the point is several times well-made that not only did artisans provide the tools and metaphors they adopted in the new experimental philosophy, but that they and a whole range of less well-known practical observers and mathematicians were vital collaborators. Newton’s faux-modest puff about “standing on the shoulders of giants” hid the fact that his work was absolutely dependent on a large network of other individuals.

There are, as Jardine says, no lone scientific heroes and eureka moments here. Newton’s apple story “could not be further from the truth”. The focus of the series is on weaving science back into the world rather than allowing it to be viewed apart from everyday life. The point is that scientists were/are “nurtured by the world in which they lived” and, rather than how science changed the world, the series will highlight how the world changed science.

This is history of science by (and I sincerely hope not just for) historians of science, featuring Simon SchafferFelicity HendersonPatricia Faraand Jim Bennett as well as Jardine. We have the clock-maker Thomas Tompion standing alongside Hooke, observation alongside theory, technology advancing science, entertainment of the wealthy as an essential element of the development of experiment, and politics shaping ideas.

All of this comes as a welcome relief – nay a deep draught of pure water from the deepest well – to this historian of science. In a guest post on my other blog today, John van Wyhe, an expert on Darwin and Wallace, explains what can happen to programmes on the history of science when delivered (and researched) by scientists and non-specialists. They all too often are. For every Schaffer Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, we have series on the history of science presented byphysicistsmathematicians and biologists.

This is not to say that they all do a rotten job, nor that they might not be interested in and sensitive to history as well as science, but it tends to shape the basic arc of the programme’s narrative. It becomes, almost inevitably, a looking back from present to past that picks out the route by which ideas arrived at those we have today.

While I appreciate that there may not be enough historians of science out there with the talent and charisma to present on TV (though we know Schaffer does and Henderson, Fara, Bennett and Jardine could all, I suspect, take on more than radio or TV talking head roles), the history in history of science programming should be taken seriously more often.

Rather than the narrative always being about someone who knows the science finding out about where it came from in the past, why not (if you really can’t find an historian of science) shape it around an historian who knows the period finding out about the science?

I hope that Seven Ages of Science will help change assumptions about how history of science can be made interesting and what narratives it encompasses. I’ll be interested to see how far the “Seven Ages” conform to or challenge expectations. So far it sticks to the expected by not, for example, including the medieval world. I also wondered about the statements of this “Age” being particularly ingenious or moving particularly fast: I suspect any age could seem like that to those who were there or those who study it more closely than others.

Choices have to be made, of course, and this is a history of British science from the 17th century. It is the bread and butter of our discipline, and I am delighted that a wider audience is getting a chance to taste this wholesome fare.

Alas, poor Wallace

This guest post by John van Wyhe is the result of my asking him to expand on a point raised on Facebook…

This year is the centenary of the death of Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. This has sparked an unprecedented amount of media attention. (Compare with the 2009 Darwin bicentenary) The Wallace “experts” most often interviewed, however, are usually not historians of science, but scientists or enthusiasts. This would be unacceptable for physics, economics or even sports. So why is it so routinely the case for history of science? It is a small field, but there are many departments and scholars in our universities who conduct sophisticated research on science past. If we want to tell the public about Victorian science, surely historians of science should be in the conversation?

In the hands of admiring amateurs, Wallace has evolved into a heroic but forgotten genius – wrongfully obscured by a privileged elite. Conspiracy theorist Roy Davies and comedian Bill Bailey identify with a working-class Wallace who defiantly strove against the obstacles thrown in his path by a snobby Victorian elite. But Wallace – a gentleman’s son who attended a public school – was not working class nor did he suffer from discrimination.

The title of Bailey’s recent BBC2 series – Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero – says it all. And it is a very inaccurate picture of Wallace, Darwin and the science of their time.

For Bailey it seems unfair that Wallace is “forgotten” since evolution by natural selection was “known as a joint theory for decades.” But the theory was associated with Darwin from 1859 when the Origin of Species was published. It was this book, and not the brief 1858 joint papers by Darwin and Wallace, that convinced the international scientific community that evolution was a fact. Wallace suffered no “ethically reprehensible cover-up” and he was not “robbed” of any ideas or credit. Elsewhere Bailey claimed: “Darwin’s paper was read first and he is the one we now remember…Wallace should have got priority, but it was Darwin, the man with the connections, who got the glory.” These accusations are based on hearsay and are not based on the standards of the time.

On the other hand Wallace’s admirers festoon him with unsubstantiated superlatives: “The most prolific collector of the 19th century”, “the greatest naturalist of his era”, “the father of biogeography” and so forth. This mighty but forgotten hero figure is then set against a caricature of mid-19th century science. Bailey claims that “Victorian scientists believed that all creatures were created by God.” No, many if not most believed that natural laws were responsible, just as they did for astronomy and geology. Richard Dawkins tells BBC viewers that before Darwin’s Origin of species was published, scientists believed that all species were created in 6 days and that the world was only 6000 years old. No. Geologists and naturalists had long since abandoned these traditional stories.

Bailey’s series even includes some fabrications such as “an ingenious bamboo cup” supposedly devised by Wallace. More serious is a nicely illustrated sequence in which Wallace’s flying frog is described as inspiring his theory of evolution. But the entire story is invented. Wallace only mentioned the frog in his Malay Archipelago in 1869. Other errors include:

– Wallace published the first description of Orangutan behaviour in the wild.

– Wallace was not afraid to publish his belief in evolution, whereas Darwin was too afraid.

– Wallace’s Sarawak Paper proclaimed a clear theory of evolution.

– Wallace discovered that Australian animal types reached Lombok.

Dawkins and geneticist Steve Jones say that Wallace coined the term ‘Darwinism’. But this was first applied to Darwin’s work by reviewers from 1859 onwards. (See here.) Wallace used it from the 1870s and most prominently as the title of his book Darwinism in 1889.

Jones recently added his own list of errors on the 22 July episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage:

– Wallace proposed that the continents move around.

– Darwin proposed land bridges to explain related species on different lands. (In fact Darwin bitterly opposed land bridge theories!)

– “Someone” has shown that Wallace’s letter and Ternate essay outlining natural selection “got to Darwin as much as two months earlier, before he claimed to receive it. And if you look at his notebook … he outlines the theory which Wallace had sent him as if it’s his own.”

In fact it has recently been demonstrated how Darwin received the letter exactly when he said he did (see here). There are no passages in any of Darwin’s manuscripts which are copied from or based on Wallace’s Ternate essay.

It’s fine to admire scientists from the past, and laudable to try to generate greater interest in their writings, but it is not good enough to repeat myths and legends. At its worst, the result is not a popular history of science but fairy tales.
 John van Wyhe’s book Dispelling the darkness: voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the discovery of evolution by Wallace and Darwin  is published this month.