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Title: 'Current' Events: Galvanism and the World of Scientific Information, 1790-1830
Authors: Watts, Iain P.
Advisors: Gordin, Michael D
Contributors: History of Science Department
Keywords: History of Electricity
History of the Book
Humphry Davy
Napoleonic Wars
Print Culture
Scientific Communication
Subjects: History
Science history
European history
Issue Date: 2015
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation uses a close study of the science of galvanism to reconstruct the movement of scientific information during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Galvanism—a science concerned with electricity, matter, and life—was one of the most dynamic and popular fields for both specialists and laypeople during 1790–1830. I argue that galvanism was a crucial sphere of activity driving a broader transformation in European scientific communications. Galvanism’s practitioners self-consciously envisioned their science as a fast-paced race for new experimental discoveries. This went hand in hand with a new role for “information” (in its early-nineteenth-century sense of up-to-date intelligence or news) in the making of scientific knowledge. By following information about galvanism across wartime frontiers—in newspapers, journals, letters, and the records of conversations—I demonstrate how the struggle to maintain a cross-border flow of experimental results during the disruptions and blockades of the Napoleonic era forced scientific practitioners to innovate in how they kept in touch across distance. Ranging across Western Europe and North America, and with a particular focus on Britain, I combine macro-level analysis of communication systems with close studies of how information on the move was woven into the social dynamics of individual scientific careers, and the technical content of laboratory work. The first chapter uses the spread of Alessandro Volta’s galvanic battery in 1800 to introduce the fluid and hybrid media world of scientific information at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and its distinctive practice: reprinting. Chapters two, three, and four each continue the story of galvanism while focusing on individual forms of communication. Chapter two examines the increasing presence of science in daily newspapers. Chapter three looks at the new monthly scientific journals that appeared around 1800, showing how they brought periodical print into the day-to-day practice of experimental investigation. Chapter four looks at letters, using the archive of Sir Charles Blagden at the Royal Society to reconstruct correspondence between London and Paris during Napoleon’s Continental System blockade. Chapter five discusses the end of the wars and surveys the landscape of scientific communication that emerged after the coming of peace in 1815.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:History of Science

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