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"Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake" by Owen Stanley, in "The Pursuit of Science under adverse circumstances, Madeira" (Vol. I. f.6). Held at Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Five ways the British magnetic enterprise changed the concept of global science

The concept of global science was not new in the nineteenth century. Nor was that of government-sponsored science. But during the 1830s and 1840s, both of these concepts underwent a profound transformation: one that still has ramifications over today’s relationship between specialist knowledge and the modern nation state.

We are used to governments invoking scientific advice and technical expertise when making policy, be it in the handling of a global pandemic, or the formation of strategies for mitigating anthropogenic climate change. In the nineteenth century, however, the mobilization of the natural sciences for governance was embryonic. True, past governments had looked to scientific practitioners for solutions to technical challenges, most famously in the development of reliable methods for calculating longitude at sea throughout the eighteenth century. Yet the nineteenth-century problem of terrestrial magnetism would see the extent of such activity escalate both in financial and geographic scale.

Amid growing anxieties over the threat magnetic-induced compass error presented to oceanic navigation, and philosophical concerns over how the Earth’s magnetic phenomena operated, the British state provided the military, naval, and financial resources to transform the study of terrestrial magnetism into a world-wide study. The impact of this was to change the concept of “global” science in five ways.

1. To truly know how a global phenomenon operated, you had to be able to coordinate and synchronise experimental measurements over vast geographical space, even without modern communications technology.

The great challenge of charting the world’s magnetic phenomena is that you have to know how it changes over time and physical space. Edward Sabine, the magnetic fanatic leading Britain’s magnetic enterprise, was well aware of this problem: a successful survey would depend on the coordination and synchronization of magnetic experiments around the world, in an age before modern communications technologies.

Sabine was especially concerned with recording magnetic epochs, that is to say, single moments in which the Earth’s magnetism was measured at the exact same time, producing a snapshot of its magnetic properties. However, ensuring naval ships and observatories around the world performed such experiments in synchronization demanded a strict regime or, rather, a system of magnetic data collection.

Sabine was not the first to appreciate the global nature of examining magnetic phenomena: Alexander von Humboldt had promoted such an approach to the study of a series of natural phenomena, including terrestrial magnetism, during the 1800s. An Empire of Magnetism really is the story of the development of a system for realising such global ambitions. It demonstrates the crucial role of the state in delivering such a system.

2. The state could play a transformative role in the collection of data from around the world.

In the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy was the most powerful military organization in the world. Britain’s empire was the most expansive of all of Europe’s colonial powers. And the British Treasury was unrivalled in its capacity for expenditure. Put together, these resources were beyond what any individual, private or corporate, or voluntary organisation, could mobilize in the investigation of terrestrial magnetism or, indeed, any natural phenomenon. 

The allocation of money to sustain scientific activity was nothing new, but the extent and broadening range of material assets involved in the British magnetic enterprise was unprecedented, including ships, trained officers, overseas territories for observatories, building materials, the funding of instruments, and human calculators. Of particular value was the formation of a Magnetic Department at Woolwich Arsenal, which provided Sabine with a disciplined team to process incoming magnetic data and reduce it to the order of charts. This effectively made possible the rapid publication of the survey’s results, though this task would not be complete until 1877.

3. The military’s potential to deliver discipline for realizing a global scientific enterprise.

Naval and army officers were far from perfect experimentalists: they frequently made errors or damaged their magnetic instruments. However, they did provide a disciplined labour force with which to realise a global survey.

For a start, they were under orders, particularly those emanating from the immensely powerful Admiralty. When instructed to undertake experimental training, they obliged, and when told to be diligent in making measurements at fixed times, they performed these as directed. Sometimes, other duties or circumstances prevented officers from performing their magnetic work, but generally they followed their orders, be it from Sabine or the Admiralty. 

They also had obedient crews or non-commissioned officers from the Royal Artillery or Royal Engineers to assist in the practicalities of magnetic experiments: dipping needles, the primary instruments for measuring magnetic phenomena, tended to be heavy, while constructing temporary magnetic observatories was physically demanding and required teamwork. Naval officers like Sir John Franklin and James Clark Ross needed little persuading to be industrious in their collection of magnetic data and it was not uncommon for magnetic practitioners to become committed to their study of magnetic phenomena, but military order and discipline was crucial to a systematic surveying of the globe.

Fox’s Falmouth-built dipping needle as portrayed in Annals of Electricity in 1839.
(Author’s image, 2020)

4. The rising significance of standardization for producing consistent results, despite a diversity of contributors of varying experimental skill.

The key to transforming the Royal Nay into an organ of scientific investigation was standardisation. Sabine, along with Cornish natural philosopher Robert Were Fox, were constantly engaged in developing and refining a network of instruments training, instrument manuals, and experimental procedures that could allow naval and military officers to collect and return reliable magnetic data, be they performing experiments in Cape Town or Hobart, or on a ship in the middle of an ocean. The effort that this involved is well exhibited by the immense volume of surviving correspondence on the subject of dipping-needle design, especially between Fox and Sabine, but also with naval officers like John Franklin and James Clark Ross.

But it is also evident from the number of revised instrumental manuals produced during the 1830s that the promoters of the enterprise were eager to produce written instructions of greater clarity that could shape the actions of experimentalists, regardless of their location or distance from Sabine’s immediate direction. Likewise, Fox regularly invited naval officers to his home in Falmouth, where he could guide them on the use of his instruments. Achieving standardization was both crucial to the operation of Sabine’s system of magnetic data collection, as well as a source of constant labour for those at the centre of global survey work.

5. Public accountability would take on a growing urgency in global scientific enterprises that relied on state support.

Traditionally, if a nation state sponsored scientific activity, the question of public accountability was of low concern. Given that most pre-nineteenth-century forms of governance were essentially autocratic, usually being the business of unelected monarchs, this is hardly surprising. The eighteenth-century British state had invested into the resolution of the longitude problem, but Parliament was representative of a very narrow socio-political elite. With the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, which extended the vote to the middle classes for the first time and increased the franchise from around 400,000 to about 650,000, Parliament was faced with questions of accountability to a broader electorate. 

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the impact of the Reform Act, given that voters still had to be small landowners, tenant farmers, shopkeepers, or in a household with an annual rent of £10, and also be male. Mid-nineteenth-century Britain was very far from a representative democracy as we would know it now. Yet, undoubtedly, the problem of public accountability escalated after 1832. Along with the repealing of a host of taxes, most famously the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846, Parliament found itself under increasing scrutiny, especially over perceived financial extravagances.

The 1830s and 1840s saw a series of economizing measures, with both Whig and Tory administrations cutting government expenditure, particularly on the armed forces. During this period, we see the rolling back of what historian John Brewer has described as the “fiscal-military state”; that is to say, the disintegration of the system of high-taxation and high-military expenditure which had been crucial to Britain’s victory over the Revolutionary and Napoleonic French states during the 1790s and 1800s, but was largely redundant after Britain’s victory over Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815. In this context, promoters of the British magnetic enterprise were under constant pressure to justify themselves with increasingly broad public audiences.

Changing the face of scientific study

It is important to note that “global science,” in the sense that we use it today, was not an actor category in the mid-nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the magnetic enterprise’s promoters were keen to stress the project’s global ambitions and world-wide extent. Britain’s magnetic enterprise was central to a broader trend in nineteenth-century science. Increasingly, scientific practitioners were looking at the world as a complex network of interconnected natural phenomena. The global study of terrestrial magnetism concurred with the world-wide collection of data and observations, including astronomical, geological, botanical, anthropological, and tidal. Yet it was the performance of magnetic measurements that required the greatest organization in terms of coordination and synchronization. The examination of terrestrial magnetism’s protean nature, both in terms of time and physical space, required a system that could operate on a global scale.

Feature image: Owen Stanley – Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake : Vol. I. f.6 The Pursuit of Science under adverse circumstances, Madeira. Image out of copyright, original held at Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

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  1. Kamal

    This post just blew up my mind

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