Tools of Knowledge

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

Tools of Knowledge is an AHRC-funded interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Cambridge, University of Sussex and National Museums Scotland, in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich and the Science Museum. Starting in January 2021 it runs until the end of June 2023.

Research Questions

Scientific instruments are multi-faceted objects: they are the practical tools of scientists; material objects with complex histories; products of a trade that serves expert and popular interests. To understand the history of scientific instruments, therefore, is to understand the history of science as cultural phenomenon, technical achievement and economic process. Tools of Knowledge will employ powerful semantic graph technology to link and integrate the disparate sources of information involved in these areas of study, over an extended historical period and at a range of spatial scales, applying digital methods of analysis to transform scholarship in the field.

At the core of the project is the database of Scientific Instrument Makers, Observations and Notes (SIMON), which contains data on more than 10,000 instrument makers (individuals and firms), from the 16th to early 20th centuries. This extraordinary resource, meticulously curated for many years by Dr Gloria Clifton while at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, part of the National Maritime Museum (NMM), contains cross-referenced information on the biography and commercial activity of each instrument maker (partially published in Clifton, 1995). This database will be rigorously remodelled in a semantic form, migrated from an aging Access format to the open source ‘Timbuctoo’ infrastructure, and enriched with data from multiple museum collections together with newly generated data from computational analysis of text and image sources and metallurgical analysis of materials. This ‘SEMSIM’ (augmented, semantic SIMON) database will map to an established cultural heritage ontology and vocabularies, offering interoperability with other resources.

A custom front end will be developed to allow the database to be queried, amended, enriched and analysed in response to the developing research agenda. Interactive data visualisation interfaces will be designed and implemented, to support new intellectual approaches that require richly contextualised investigation, dynamic data exploration and hypothesis formation. Instances of the database will be hosted at the National Maritime Museum (canonical, with editorial updates), and the Sussex University Library (data visualisation interface and newly aggregated datasets). The value of SEMSIM in enabling new paths of scholarly enquiry, and of the project in creating new digital tools for the production of historical knowledge, will be exemplified and refined through the investigation of four themes:

1. Instrumental Ways of Knowing
George Adams, ‘Instructions to the Illustrator’ of the mechanics manuscript, fol. 6, fig. 24. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Scientific instruments both embody craft knowledge and technical expertise, and facilitate the generation of new knowledge. By tracing the circulation of instruments of pedagogy (e.g. globes and teaching sets), experimentation and discovery (e.g. airpumps, microscopes) and standardisation (e.g. thermometers and gauges), digital models can reveal how certain kinds of knowledge and expertise developed and circulated, at a range of scales (micro, meso, macro). How were ideas of pedagogy and experimentation defined in relation to scientific instrumentation, and how were they related: which led, which followed, and how quickly? Did the spread of standardised precision measures contribute more to the developing trade in scientific instruments than progress in experimental practice?

2. Geographies of Expertise
Trade card: N Hill, opposite Serjeant’s [sic] Inn, Chancery Lane, London. Globe-maker. ‘The Globe or Sphere in its Three Different Positions’. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Many issues relating to the idea of instruments-as-knowledge are entangled with questions of national and imperial geography, and the oceanic and overseas movement of labour and objects. When and how did instrument-making change from being a metropolitan to a national and imperial concern? Which instruments were predominantly produced in regional centres? What were the relationships that connected provincial makers and those in the capital? What visibility and prominence did scientific instruments have in urban life? Which kinds of instruments circulated in global networks of empire?

3. Craft networks
1806 Mogg Pocket or Case Map of London, England (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The geographical focus in turn raises questions about the exact structure of the trade itself. How were individuals connected to firms and to each other: as master apprentice, journeyman-employer; through kinship and inheritance, over time and by gender? How did these relationships vary by the specialisations of people or companies? What were the employment structures within the trade and how was it financed and protected? How did supply chains operate, and when and how did makers sub-contract aspects of their business? How were the pace, direction and meaning of the complex transformations in the trade determined by innovation in the use of raw materials?

4. Materials of the trade
Preparing a brass instrument for XRF metallurgical analysis at the Whipple Museum, Cambridge.

Surviving instruments and evidence from collections, catalogues and trade literature are the bedrock of historical analyses of the instrument trade. Here we focus on establishing a stable and accurate register that links existing data about objects and makers, augmented by new data produced by metallurgical analysis of instruments in the course of the project. New avenues of enquiry into the material composition of instruments, both as unitary and assembled objects, will both clarify and complicate the questions posed elsewhere: around provenance, individual innovation, trade structures, supply chains (including for raw materials), and standards of measurement.

Each theme will inform its neighbour, with influence cascading in both directions, while the analysis-based research will be organised around seven case studies.