Happy birthday Robinson Crusoe: the fictional author of a “History of Fact”

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Daniel Defoe’s book was published 295 years ago today [25 April], marking the birth of the author Robinson Crusoe and a seriously playful entanglement of fact and fiction.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Frontispiece and title page from original 1719 edition

I hope plans are afoot to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 2019. With five years to go, however, 2014 also seems an apt time to take a look at this famous book, not least because this year is a celebration of all things Georgian: marking the accession of George I, we have the BBC’s Georgian Season, and exhibitions at the British Library and Queen’s Gallery. Signed just before George’s arrival, was the 1714 Longitude Act, the tercentenary of which is being marked with a Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich.

Robinson Crusoe sits perfectly in the midst of this, highlighting new literary forms available to a growing reading public, and the interest in travel and the exotic at a time of expansion of maritime trade and empire.

While the book is seen today as an important precursor to the novel, as part of a new genre of realistic fiction, it was designed, at least in part, to confuse and to question. Robinson Crusoe was its purported author, not its title. The actual title of the first edition placed the book squarely in the realm of genuine (if sometimes embellished) travel narratives:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

Full of geographical detail, with the “author” clearly identified, there was nothing to distinguish this as fiction. The picturesque image on the frontispiece pointed to the remarkable experiences to be related, but would have reminded readers of images of peoples from other parts of the world, shown as “other” but rendered strangely familiar by European artists, used to depicting European faces, landscapes and dress.

Defoe’s title is worth comparing to those of other travel and adventure narratives. For example, that published in 1681, by a real sea captain: Robert Knox of the East India Company. Alongside the experiences ofAlexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an uninhabited island until being rescued in 1709, Knox’s adventures and narrative have been seen as one of Defoe’s inspirations:

An Historical Relation Of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: Together, With an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the Author’s Miraculous Escape. Illustrated with Figures, and a Map of the Island. By Robert Knox, Captive there near Twenty Years.

Knox’s book had been published by Richard Chiswell, identified on the title page as “Printer to the Royal Society”. As was typical of that Society’s tactics for underscoring the trustworthiness of new knowledge, emphasis was placed on the status of the author, the importance of eye-witness accounts and personal observation, told in plain writing and, as a bonus, supported by a map and illustrations.

Knox’s “Truth”, “Integrity” and “Credit” were attested to in statements from the very credit-worthy Christopher Wren and the Governor, Deputy-Governor and 24 named members of the Court of Committees of theEast India Company, who included a fair sprinkling of baronets and knights. A preface by Robert Hooke lauded Knox’s efforts, not least for doing what the Royal Society repeatedly asked of travellers by sharing potentially useful observations and experience of foreign lands with the public.

Defoe naturally also made use of such devices, playing with his readers’ understanding of truth and credibility in a way that alarmed some but was so popular with the public that the book went through several editions in its first year. In a preface the book’s “editor” commended it to the public as “a just History of Fact”, noting that “The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to which Wise Men always apply them”.

Rather than as simply a novel, then, Robinson Crusoe should also be read as a hoax or, perhaps more accurately, as a satire on travel narratives and other texts attempting to present reliable knowledge. Whether readers took his fiction as truth, or they doubted it effects, it raised questions about the acceptance of the words put down, however plain the language, by other travellers, experimenters and observers. This uncertainty was, as much as the adventure and exoticism, part of the book’s appeal.

Crusoe is our perfect guide to this year of Georgian exploration.

Science fictions and the history of science

Cross-posted from Science Comma blog.

For those who are fans of sci-fi, or interested in how sci-fi plays into the history of science, there are some things you might want to take a look at.

Firstly, this Friday there is a free lunchtime lecture at the Royal Society on “The Royal Society and science fiction”, being given by Professor Farah Mendlesohn, who is head of department for English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University. The blurb reads:

The lone (mad) scientist is a common trope in science fiction, but hidden away is a fascination with secret and semi-secret societies who work for the future of all mankind. This talk will look at the representation of the Royal Society in science fiction and fantasy as fact, fantasy and metaphor.

For those who can’t make it to London, the talk should be available, like the Society’s other events, as a video afterwards.

Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon
Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon

The original story is about an artificial satellite, the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Meridian and possible solutions to the problem of finding longitude at sea. It is a perfect accompaniment to the Longitude Season, just getting underway in Greenwich.Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Finally, as well as a major exhibition on the longitude story (opening in July), this season also includes an art and fiction response. Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, an intervention in, or takeover of, the pre-existing longitude galleries. Author Robert Rankin and other artists and makers have come up with a whole range of more or less ludicrous or plausible ideas about solving longitude or alternative realities in which clock maker John Arnold made himself clockwork legs and Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne built an airship and hoped to contact parallel universes – just in case they knew his longitude. Read more from the curator here.

Gulliver’s travels in science and satire

Cross posted from The H Word blog.

Jonathan Swift

For historians of science, Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels is well known both as a work of what we might call proto-science fiction and as a satire on the experimental philosophy that was being promoted by the Royal Society at the time of its publication – two years before the death of Isaac Newton.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk at the very same Society that Swift had mocked as wasting time on projects such as the extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers. It was given by Dr Greg Lynall, a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He is author of Swift and Science: The Satire, Politics, and Theology of Natural Knowledge, which looks well-worth a read from the review posted on the website of the British Society for Literature and Science.

Swift was a High Church Anglican and Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Knowing this, some might leap to the conclusion that here was someone who did not and could not understand the important work being done by Fellows of the Royal Society, that here was a clash of world views and evidence of a natural hostility between science and religion. This, of course, is completely off track. It ignores the complexity of Swift’s views, the validity of some of his targets and the fact that, while sectarianism might be rife, the importance of religion per se was not in question.

In many ways the whole of Gulliver’s Travels is a satire on the scientific approach of the Royal Society. It is presented as a travel narrative, reporting on extraordinary sights and experiences in foreign lands in a calm, detached and, whenever possible, quantitative fashion. The Royal Society had often encouraged travellers to make such records and reported on information collected in circumstances that ranged across formal experiment, mathematical proof, astronomical observation, field work, library work, happenstance and even hearsay. Curiosities and natural monstrosities took their place alongside Newton’s crucial experiment.

Title page of Swift's Gulliver's TravelsThe most significant section of the book from the history of science point of view is Gulliver’s visit to the floating island, Laputa, where the inhabitants are enamoured of mathematics, measuring, quantifying, experimenting and astronomical predictions. The island floats by magnetic levitation, in what seems to be one of the only ‘practical’ applications of their knowledge – their obsession with accurate measurement has led them to apply the use of quadrants to the art of tailoring, resulting only in badly-fitting clothes. Their heads literally in the clouds, they have to be woken up from their speculations to communicate with Gulliver.

Swift was satirising the ubiquity of Newtonian philosophy in polite society of 1720s London, but he was not being ‘anti-experimental philosophy’, just as no one today is ‘anti-science’. Yes, there was fun to be poked at some of the extravagances and plain oddness of the new philosophy and some its followers, just as in Thomas Shadwell’s play The Virtuoso, which targeted Robert Hooke. However, it works as satire because of genuine concerns lurking beneath – and some of those concerns remain legitimate today.

Most obviously, in Laputa, Swift criticises a world of mathematical and philosophical endeavour that does little or nothing to better people’s lives, especially those of their subjects in the colony Balnibarbi, located beneath the floating Laputa. In fact, satirising the power relations of Britain and Swift’s native Ireland or, more broadly, the rich and poor, we find that Laputa is used to subdue Balnibarbi by threats to block the sun or rain, by throwing down rocks, or even crushing rebel cities by lowering Laputa onto them.

While, in the real world, there was much rhetoric around the beneficial usefulness of new knowledge and, indeed, much focus on practical problems like navigation, mining and agriculture, Swift was surely right that useful applications of the new knowledge either seemed a long time coming, or were clearly in the interests of King, government, military and landowners (who, after all, are much more useful patrons of science than the poor).

Lynall’s talk made it clear how political much of Swift’s satire was, even when the focus might appear to be science. While often associated with the Tories, Swift was suspicious of party politics and the patronage and jobbing that went along with them. Newton became one of the targets of his attacks not because of his science, but because of his influential and very well remunerated position as Master of the Mint, bestowed on him by the Whigs.

Swift once claimed that he had a “perfect hatred of tyranny and oppression”. Lynall showed that if the knowledge or authority of experimental philosophy were used in backing it, that too should be called out. A key episode was where Newton presented evidence to back William Wood’s application for a valuable contract to make new coinage for Ireland. Corruption and bribery – including involvement ofthe King’s mistress – were widely rumoured, as was the claim that the coins were of inferior quality. Swift took Newton, and what he viewed as his fraudulent use of technical evidence in the assays he carried out in Wood’s favour, as legitimate targets for denunciation in his Drapier’s Letters and vicious satire.

Swifts targets were political and often very personal. But, where he smelt corruption, it would seem that the sins of blinding people with ‘the science’ or impressive credentials only made a bad job worse. Meanwhile, the folly of being satisfied simply with the wonder of astronomical prediction, experimental apparatus and exact measurement, while outside people continue to starve, is one we should always be reminded of by the best critics and satirists.


Why women fade into the background on Wikipedia

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Wikipedia front page, 19 October 2012

On Friday afternoon, the Royal Society hosts a group edit-a-thon aimed at improving Wikipedia articles about women in science. It is timed to link with Ada Lovelace Day earlier this week, an event that seeks to share stories about inspirational women in science.

Admitting that Wikipedia is a first port of call for most people looking for basic, and sometimes not so basic, biographical information, the event is an attempt to improve the quality of entries and raise the profile of women in science and engineering, both past and present. Not simply relying on other online resources, participants will be able to make use of the Royal Society’s unique collections, as well as its library staff and representatives of Wikipedia UK.

The society’s library is enjoying its 350th anniversary this year, although it is only for the past 67 years that women have been admitted as fellows. Despite increasing efforts to ensure a level playing field, female fellows are still a tiny minority, being only 5% of the total. Awareness of this disparity undoubtedly makes the Royal Society keen to focus on celebrating successful women in science and on inspiring the next generation.

The event itself raises some interesting themes and ideas. The most obvious is the fact that the contribution of women to science, and elsewhere, can be made more visible. Our view of what counts in thehistory of science is very much influenced by older assumptions and past prejudices. Prizes, publications, professional positions and fellowships are key markers, and automatically lead to commemoration of achievements in obituaries, which are the first drafts of future biographies. Women were, of course, generally barred from such recognition until all too recently.

Other markers, therefore, need to be sought and added into our accounts, and Wikipedia is the kind of cumulative and fluid environment in which this can be done.

When looking for the women, and for those other markers of eminence, researchers find themselves beginning to think about what counts as an important contribution to science in a slightly different way. There is, necessarily, less emphasis on the traditional roll call of theoretical advances (of the Copernicus-Kepler-Newton-Einstein variety) and an appreciation of the essential contribution that collectors, experimentalists, technicians, writers, translators, teachers and calculators have made.

This, by rights, should lead to the widening of the net of scientific biography to include a whole load of underappreciated men as well. Some, such as top instrument makers, were seen as being hugely skilful, knowledgeable and important in their day but are often poorly represented on Wikipedia. Others were not given the opportunities to be recognised or remembered, with lower class or non-European men being, like women, essentially disenfranchised.

This may appear to work against the spirit of the day, but is equally important in terms of appreciating the way science has really operated in history and how it generates knowledge, meaning, agreement and conflict across diverse societies today. For British women, however, it is possible that the most important aspect of the event will not be the making available of a little extra information about women scientists, but the focus on women as Wikipedia editors.

The dominance of men in the Wikipedia online community is well-documented and something that the company is attempting to address through its Gender Gap project. While coming in somewhat ahead of the proportion of female fellows of the Royal Society, in 2009 female Wikipedians were only around 13% of the active community.

Research suggests that this matters for a number of reasons, principally that male and female editors tend to focus on different content areas, that the coverage of topics more likely to be of interest to female users of Wikipedia is seen as inferior, and that Wikipedia is missing out on the successful development of its social and community areas.

There is also, particularly around more controversial topics, a tendency to macho behaviour among editors. Women, it turns out, are much less likely to edit articles in these areas and, if they do, their edits are more likely to be rejected. These rejections are often not to do with factual content, but differences in tone and approach.

This experience means that these women are very likely to back away from the whole project. In other words, women’s voices and views are seriously underrepresented, even when they might consider themselves experts in a particular area.

The Royal Society’s edit-a-thon will include a range of well-qualified and motivated women with an interest in making themselves, as well as women in the history of science, heard. Wikipedia will certainly benefit from developing an atmosphere that is more welcoming to women like these.

Fraud and the decline of science

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Engraving of Edward Sabine, 1865
Edward Sabine was accused of fixing his results. Photograph: National Maritime Museum.

Today on this site Alok Jha published a fascinating article on fraud and misconduct in scientific research, suggesting that “bad practice … is rife” and that its scale is becoming ever-more apparent through the use of software and statistical analyses that flag up suspicious results.

These bad practices, which vary in seriousness, are itemised. They include fraud, massaged results, plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, sloppiness, selective publishing, incorrect attribution of work and nondisclosure of conflicts of interest. Jha suggests that “Increasing competition for shrinking government budgets for research and the disproportionately large rewards for publishing in the best journals have exacerbated the temptation to fudge results or ignore inconvenient data”.

While things may feel pressured today, it made me consider the extent to which, in the past, opportunities and livelihoods might depend on producing good or believable results. Before there was any kind of obvious career path for the sciences, coming up with the goods at the right moment for the right patrons was critically important.

Jha’s list of scientific sins brought to mind another such list, from a famously forthright and rancorous diatribe by Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and designer of the Difference Engine. Although the book was ostensibly about science, its organisation and funding in England – it was called Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes – its chief targets were personal.

Above all, Babbage picked out the career of Edward Sabine for criticism. Sabine, unlike Babbage, had received patronage from the elite that dominated the Royal Society in the late 18th and early 19th century and, crucially, controlled its connections with the chief source of government patronage for science, the Admiralty and its Board of Longitude.

Babbage was out to show that not only was the system closed, with a small group controlling access to the purse strings and the same individuals being selected over and again for the few scientific honours or paid positions that existed, but also that one of the chief beneficiaries, Sabine, was undeserving.

In one of the most remarkable sections of this remarkable text, Babbage picked on the pendulum observations that Sabine had made on Arctic voyages led by John Ross and William Parry in 1818-20, for which he had received £1000 from the Board of Longitude and was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. Babbage wrote of the “extraordinary nature” of Sabine’s observations, which had a “remarkable agreement with each other … unexpected by those most conversant with the respective processes”.

He devotes a whole section to ‘the frauds of observers’, writing that “Scientific inquiries are more exposed than most others to the inroads of pretenders”, because only the “initiated’ are in a position to spot them. The first listed is HOAXING, which is only excusable inasmuch as it reveals the gullibility of those who should know better. The next is FORGING, which fortunately is rare. Then come TRIMMING and COOKING, which Babbage intimates were Sabine’s sins.

The Trimmer “[clips] off little bits here and there”, while adding on elsewhere, to make his results more agreeable. “His object is to gain a reputation for extreme accuracy” and it can be difficult to detect. The Cook’s art is, likewise, “to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy”. But instead of keeping close to the actual average reached, it can involve radical selectivity in results or the use of different formulae to create a false agreement.

Babbage was confident that future philosophers (men of science) would be able to discover the Cooks, if not the Trimmers:

it would most probably happen that the cook would procure a temporary reputation for unrivalled accuracy at the expense of his permanent fame. It might also have the effect of rendering even all his crude observations of no value; for that part of the scientific world whose opinion is of most weight, is generally so unreasonable, as to neglect altogether the observations of those in whom they have, on any occasion, discovered traces of the artist.

In a bit of casual 19th century sexism, he added that, thus, “the character of an observer, as of a woman, if doubted is destroyed”.

Was Sabine guilty? The jury would seem to be out – he was certainly a diligent observer, but the young officer, unused to his borrowed instruments and on his mettle, no doubt desperate to bring home impressive results in the hope of future commissions, may well have been tempted to a little trimming.

Did Babbage’s doubts destroy his character or career? Emphatically not. Sabine proved himself to be a willing aid to the Admiralty and was evidently both plausible and an excellent networker, successfully bringing together a disparate range of individuals and interests in support of what has become known as the Magnetic Crusade in the 1830s and 40s. He lived to a ripe age, was president of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society and was knighted in 1869.

In the short term at least, it would seem that the accuser’s reputation suffered more than the accused.

My Royal Society talk: Maskleyne’s reputation

[Cross-posted from the Longitude Project blog]

Readers of this blog may be interested to listen to a talk I gave at the Royal Society last week. Audio and slideshow versions are available here. The talk was entitled “Hero or villain? Nevil Maskelyne’s posthumous reputation” and, while pointing out that ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are hardly historiographically useful categories I discussed how Maskelyne has come to be most commonly known as the villain of the story of longitude.

I began by briefly introducing the man and his life, before discussing the two early and influential accounts of his life, which demonstrate the range of Maskleyne work and his high international reputation. These were a 1812 article inRees’s Cyclopaedia by Patrick Kelly, who was master of Finsbury Square Academy and an author on nautical astronomy, and the Eloge produced for the French Institute in 1813 by Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, permanent secretary for mathematical sciences, director of the Paris Observatory.

Kelly was one of Maskelyne’s close acquaintances and Delambre, according to Lalande in a letter to Maskelyne held in the NMM’s Caird Library, once considered Nevil “le dieu de l’astronomie”. It’s unsurprising that Maskelyne comes out well of these accounts, but it is typical that early 19th-century biography should be sympathetic to its subject and that it should be produced by friends, family or colleagues. They are the sources that were taken up, and thus my talk explored why and at what point the image of this significant figure of British science, who was acclaimed for his dedicated hard work and for making the Royal Observatory useful to the public, became one of elitism and obstructiveness.

As I hope I show, it can’t all be blamed on Sobel’s Longitude but, rather, dates back to earlier rediscoveries of John Harrison, and to horological histories that have tended to ignore significant aspects of the contemporary context.

My talk also dwells a little on my dual response to this. On the one hand there is an academic one that seeks to avoid historical goodies and baddies, to explore fully contexts and motivations and to replace simplistic accounts with more nuanced ones. On the other, there is a sense of injustice which, of course, must mirror that felt by those championing Harrison. There seems to be ample evidence that Maskelyne was a pretty nice, and fair, man but it’s difficult to know what to do with this knowledge! I hope, at least, that future displays at the Royal Observatory – Maskelyne’s home – can take advantage of the objects, manuscripts and accounts that the Museum has to reflect something of Maskelyne’s significance in his own time and his life with friends, colleagues and family as well as antagonists.

While over at the Royal Society’s list of history of science podcasts, do take a look at some of the others on offer. 18th-century enthusiasts will enjoy James Sumner’s “‘How should a chemist understand brewing?’ Beer and theory around 1800”; material culture/materials folk should listen to Susan Mossman on plastics; more on someone closely connected to the history of the Royal Observatory can be found in Frances Willmoth’s talk on Jonas Moore; early 17th-century instruments and clocks are discussed by Rebecca Pohancenik. And much, much more. Many thanks to Felicity Henderson at the Royal Society for inviting me to join them.

Sympathetic vibrations

Over at PACHSmörgåsbord, brought to us by the Philadelphia Area Centre for History of Science, Darin Hayton has been catching the longitude vibe while investigating the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia. He describes an anonymous 1688 pamphlet that, famously for those who have looked into the history of longitude, suggests an intruiging solution to the problem. Visit his post to find out more about the pamphlet and its context.

The story is a good one – and a nice satire – but it has often been taken at face value. I’ve taken a quick overview and suggest some reasons why it has become a favourite in popular accounts. 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.

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 »