Metropolitan science: places, objects and cultures of practice and knowledge in London, 1600–1800

Rebekah Higgitt aims to produce a new narrative of the development of a scientific culture within early modern London, as revealed through the city's geographies of knowledge and material culture; exploring the role of technical and scientific artefacts and understanding the institutional spaces in which they were made, used, traded and displayed

When Thomas Sprat wrote his defence of and manifesto for the recently founded Royal Society in 1667, he wrote of its location as the most advantageous possible for an institution such as theirs:

London alone … is the head of a mighty Empire, the greatest that ever commanded the Ocean: It is compos'd of Gentlemen, as well as Traders: It has a large intercourse with all the Earth: It is … a City, where all the Noises and Business in the World do meet... ”

He and others called the Society a Corporation or Company, and it is notable that it developed within a commercial city that lacked a university around which a scientific culture might otherwise have developed. My aim in this project is to take a long view of the ways in which relevant cultures and identities – formed around common interests, skills and tasks – developed in London before and alongside the well-studied Royal Society. In particular, we will work from surviving object collections to consider the growth of London’s scientific instrument trade as something co-created by those who made instruments and those who used them.

“accurately made according to the Best & latest Improvements”: eighteenth-century trade card for Benjamin Cole, mathematical instrument maker and freeman of the Merchant Taylor’s Company (Science Museum: 1934-122.10). © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

The project’s Co-Applicant, Alison Boyle, is Keeper of Science Collections at the Science Museum, and the research is timed to link into the development of a new gallery, London: Science City, opening in 2019. This will showcase the Museum’s collections of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century instruments and place them in historical, geographical and institutional context. As a former curator, I am well aware of the sometimes different but always complementary skills of academics and curators, and aim to bring these together to the mutual benefit of project and gallery. To situate the instruments, and explore the construction of the trade and associated identities, we will look particularly at London’s Livery Companies and Trading Companies. These were places within which skilled makers and users of instruments and natural knowledge were represented, disciplined, held office and found support. We will look for visual and material clues associated with these locations, as well as using the archives to explore individual experiences and institutional attitudes.

The project’s ambitious aims are to develop a new kind of narrative of the development of a scientific culture in early modern London, and to be a testing ground for ideas about the use of material culture as a source for the academic history of science. The focussed research on Livery and Trading Companies will be put in the context of studies of other London institutions, from the government-funded Royal Observatory in Greenwich and Board of Longitude (subjects of my earlier research) to the Royal Court as a patron and customer. Through such sites and objects, we will build a picture of how technical and natural knowledge developed and was perceived within the city’s practical and commercial settings.

Rebekah Higgitt
University of Kent
Research Project Grant