Tools of Knowledge

Modelling the Creative Communities of the Scientific Instrument Trade, 1550-1914

Scientific knowledge has helped shape the modern world. It has responded to and facilitated global exploration and commerce, the industrial revolution and medical understanding. While popular narratives celebrate famous discoveries and scientists, they usually overlook the makers of the technologies on which they relied. Scientific instruments embodied current knowledge and practice, both enabling and constraining our understanding of the world. It is the stories of these artefacts, and of the men and women involved in the trade that produced them, during three and a half centuries, that the ‘Tools of Knowledge’ project will recover and share.

‘Tools of Knowledge’ will assemble a large volume of diverse data to which it will apply cutting-edge methods of digital analysis. The research will be grounded in the existing Scientific Instrument Makers, Observations and Notes (SIMON) dataset, comprising more than 10,000 records on individual instrument makers and firms from Great Britain and Ireland. To this will be added data from existing legacy databases, collections catalogues and new metallurgical research, as well as material newly extracted from historical texts or generated using advanced digital methods. The aggregated data will be remodelled using semantic knowledge representation, to encode expert understanding of the meaning of this data in a machine-readable form and enable linking across datasets.

For the first time, information about people, places, practices, institutions, materials and objects will be accessible for study in combination and at scale. Textual and graphical interfaces, designed to allow the construction of complex and nuanced queries, will allow researchers to dynamically form and test new hypotheses about the relationship between different factors in the lives of the instruments themselves, and the development of the trade.

New Southgate Works Instrument Shop, Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company.

Image © Whipple Museum

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