Dissertation

I completed my Ph.D. in Princeton’s History of Science Program in August 2015, where my advisor was Michael D. Gordin. Below is an abstract of the dissertation, which I’m currently turning into a book.

Entitled “‘Current’ Events: Galvanism and the World of Scientific Information, 1790-1830,” my dissertation investigates how techniques and media of communication shaped the development of modern science during and immediately after the disruptive period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The project is an in-depth history of one of the most active and fast-moving fields around 1800: galvanism, the science of electricity, matter, and life. By following galvanism across wartime frontiers – in newspapers, journals, letters, and the records of conversations – I map the circulation of information about science back and forth between Britain and Continental Europe, and among both experts and laypeople. Drawing together print and manuscript sources in English, French, German, and Italian, I use close analyses of how acts of communication were interwoven with the details of experimental practice to track scientific texts as they were copied, excerpted, and recycled across different media.

During a period when war persistently disrupted scientific communications, I examine how the tension between national loyalty and the need to maintain a cross-border flow of experimental results forced scientific practitioners to innovate in their techniques of communication, with results ranging from the rise of new specialist journals for sharing experiments, to a greater presence for science in the daily press. Amidst the fragmentation of the broader Enlightenment Republic of Letters, it was through these wartime exchanges, I argue, that the natural sciences came to be imagined as the archetypal international common endeavor. Precisely because it so disrupted scientific exchanges, war pushed scientific practitioners to think of themselves much more consciously as communicators, with long-term consequences.

In my first chapter, I use the spread of Alessandro Volta’s galvanic battery in 1800 to reveal the distinctive culture of reprinting that mediated science before conventions of publication hardened later in the nineteenth century. Beginning with the first printed description of the battery in a London newspaper, I trace information about the device backwards to Volta’s first letters penned in northern Italy to President of the Royal Society Joseph Banks, and forward as it spread across Europe in a mixed cascade of journals, magazines, newspapers, and letters, investigating how it was taken up by individuals like Humphry Davy in Bristol, Johann Ritter in Jena, and Jean-Baptiste Biot in Paris. By tracking how particular scientific texts were copied, excerpted, and recycled across different media, I reconstruct a distinctive “periodical commons” communication culture that elevated the borrowing and sharing of useful information and downplayed absolute originality.

Chapter 2 focuses on newspapers, whose level of scientific content was increasing at this time. Using the story of the sensational and controversial experiments of Giovanni Aldini (a source of inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), I show how public information about science in the newspapers was shaped by broader cultures of news and political life in Britain and Napoleonic France. Chapter 3 takes a close look at the new fast-paced scientific journals (like the Philosophical Magazine) that appeared around the end of the eighteenth century. I demonstrate the ways these still rather low-status publications, closely related to the newspapers, brought practices of periodical print into the day-to-day pursuit of experimental discovery.

Chapter 4 reconstructs the private side of international scientific exchanges in galvanism. Using the exceptionally rich archive of Sir Charles Blagden at the Royal Society of London, I reveal how men of science worked to keep information flowing: they harnessed connections with neutral American diplomats, merchants and bankers, and even government ministers, to move information back and forth between London and Paris. Chapter 5 surveys galvanism after the coming of peace in 1815, demonstrating how the end of war, by removing the greatest barrier to international exchanges, also prompted new questions and problems concerning the future of scientific communication in an increasingly interconnected Europe.