An occasional discussion paper which perhaps merits web publication, if nothing more. It was delivered at a meeting on ‘What is the History of Scientific Instruments? Reflections on Maurice Daumas, Les Instruments scientifiques aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles’ at the Maison Française, Oxford on 4 December 1997.

Curators, historians and instruments

We have already heard something today about Daumas and his work, enough to place him and Les Instruments scientifiques in context. My comments this afternoon are not meant to provide a fuller account of Daumas’ instrument book and its contents; rather I want to use his text as a starting point for a short series of reflections on the enterprise of instrument history. These reflections are prompted by questions which Jim Bennett raised when the meeting was announced. In his occasional paper for Sphaera, Jim Bennett asked:

Did Daumas construct the foundational narrative for the subject as we understand it today? Is it from Daumas - directly or indirectly, and to a greater or lesser extent - that we have learned what constitutes our disciplinary world and how to operate within it?

It is clearly tempting to identify Daumas as a founding figure for the history of instruments, as a source and model for subsequent work. There is no earlier book of comparable scope and it is evident from reviews that Daumas’ text was immediately identified as both significant and authoritative, and moreover that it was quickly granted the status of a classic.

Nevertheless I want to question whether Daumas’ work can be seen as a foundational narrative. I have two different sources of doubt, one which queries its foundational nature, and the other which questions its role as narrative. The first doubt arises from asking whether Daumas’s vision encompasses the full range of engagement with instrumental concerns. We might quickly conclude - in a way which is neither profound nor surprising - that Daumas does not provide a general foundation for the diversity of current approaches to instruments. More interestingly, this diversity helps us to explore the limits of different approaches to instruments, a point I shall return to.

The second question is about narrative. Is narrative actually the crucial element in the creation of instrument history as a discipline? My sense is that ‘narrative’ does not really capture adequately the establishment and development of instrument studies or the way in which individuals have typically become historians of instruments.

I say this not to diminish or belittle Daumas’ work, or to displace him in favour of someone else. Rather, I suggest that we should be cautious in saying that the history of scientific instruments has been created around a specific and explicit narrative. To what extent has mainstream work on instruments relied, in practice, on exemplary narratives to found, sustain and reproduce itself? Think for example of the way in which Eva Taylor’s books on Mathematical Practitioners have been used: not for the accounts of their narrative chapters but - almost exclusively, I would judge - for their extensive biographical and bibliographical listings, which are used as a resource to be mined and quarried.

There is an obvious question here about what counts as narrative. Do we need to have a nice story with a specific set of conclusions or are we talking about narrative simply as organising framework, a grouping of particular kinds of questions, materials and terminology. Certainly, if we restrict ourselves to this second weaker sense then Daumas’s work will be an excellent candidate for the role of foundational narrative. But in using narrative in a relatively loose sense we undermine the distinctive character of his text as a synthetic account, and open the way to a more minute historical search for earlier sources which pose similar sorts of questions, even if they do not answer them in so substantial a form.

In any case, I have no problem or quarrel with the claim that there is much in common between Daumas’s text and subsequent work on instruments. Indeed, I would even say that most work on instruments is at the very least compatible with Daumas’ account even if not directly inspired by it. For example, among his themes, Daumas discussed particular types of instrument - both their specific development and their scientific context - as well as questions about the formation of cabinets. Such issues have constantly reappeared in the subsequent literature on instruments and collections.

Moreover, a particularly strong area of common concern is highlighted by the expanded title of the English translation of 1972: Scientific Instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries and their makers. The inclusion of ‘and their makers’ in the title is not just a bit of editorial interference but accurately reflects the character of the book, a substantial portion of which concerns the products of specific makers and the national traditions to which their workshops belonged. This focus on makers has been central to much of the subsequent literature.

To take only the example of Britain and Ireland, one can think of David Bryden’s work on Scottish makers from the early 1970s as well as the more recent Brass and Glass, which goes into considerably more depth on Scottish workshops, basing its selection of makers on the instruments in the Arthur Frank collection at the Royal Scottish Museum. Alison Morrison-Low and John Burnett’s ‘Vulgar and Mechanick’ on Irish makers and retailers provides another example of a national focus, which (at the least) parallels Daumas’s account of national workshop traditions.

For England, London has usually been the focus of attention, particularly in studies such as Joyce Brown on the Grocer’s Company and Michael Crawforth on makers in other London guild companies. Much of this research has been directed towards the recovery of the structure of the instrument-making trade and its craft succession: establishing who was apprenticed to who as a basis for considering the transfer of techniques. And of course most recently, Gloria Clifton has published the Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers which brings together and extends much previous work to attempt as comprehensive a listing of makers as possible.

What is the relation of such works to Daumas? I don’t think it could be said that he serves as direct inspiration, or that he provides a specific narrative which they follow. But even if we can discern differences in motivation and presentation, even if we do not think that Daumas provides the direct model on which such work is founded, it is clear that they operate on the same terrain. The elements of these various accounts are similar, framed in terms of instruments, makers, businesses, trade structures, manufacture, and so on. We might indeed say that Daumas’ questions and explanatory resources are what remain common to much subsequent literature.

This similarity is made more evident by considering studies which cannot be said to fall within the realm demarcated by Daumas. Daumas’s account is inevitably limited and instruments have been studied under other guises and from different perspectives. History of science has been allied with a range of topics, including both philosophy and social studies of science, and instruments appear, though not always prominently, in these domains.

Take for example Paul Feyerabend’s account of Galileo and the telescope in his Against Method. This tackles the telescope historically, not to uncover its manufacture or development, but for the sake of investigating the extent to which Galileo’s practice conforms with modern views on scientific method. Or, for another philosophical example, think of someone like Ian Hacking who, in considering topics such as observation and experiment, has been led to write on themes such as microscopical vision. Instruments as a site for the philosopher’s epistemological or methodological concerns do not figure within Daumas’s vision. Daumas exemplified an approach in which instruments were more appropriately allied with the history of technology than with philosophy and where space was given rather to the materials and manufacture of instruments, and the business of their makers.

Interest in manufacture and the economics of production did not of course readily square with idealist accounts of science. Ironically, the positive response of someone like George Sarton to Daumas’s text may have contributed to its neglect. Sarton remarked in his Isis review of Les Instruments scientifiques that ‘The history of instruments is an essential part of the history of science, whose progress is determined by practical inventions as much as by theories, and by manual skill as well as by cogitations’. For someone committed to the history of ideas, the terms of Sarton’s endorsement may have ruled out further engagement, with the study of instruments being dismissively identified as a comparatively pedestrian element of a positivist programme.

Yet Daumas’s work does not overlap with one response to the kind of idealism represented by Alexandre Koyré. The efforts of first Tom Settle and later Stillman Drake to replicate some of Galileo’s experiments were meant to promote the significance and status of experiment not just in Galileo’s work but within the history of science more generally. It might seem that the necessarily artefactual character of work on experimental replication would form a strong point of contact with instrument studies. Yet Daumas’s text pointed in a different direction and when subsequent work on instruments has actually studied and used the objects, it has most often been in order to measure their performance rather than to reconstruct the procedures and results of historical researchers.

This gap between experimental replication and instrument studies might be attributed partly to the character of surviving instruments, which are so often collectible museum pieces rather than research devices. But the divergence goes deeper. Recent concerns in the history of science with notions of experiment and practice have led to many expressions of principled interest in the material culture of science, an interest which gives a newly heightened significance to instruments. This significance is frequently framed in terms of questions about the constitution and establishment of knowledge claims and matters of fact, and around the micro-politics and moral economy of the scientific enterprise.

Here we again find ourselves in land foreign to the majority of instrument studies; in part because the inspiration is often from studies of contemporary artefacts - one thinks particularly of Harry Collins on lasers and gravity wave detectors - and in part because the language and problematic is quite different. But it is certainly not only a question of period coverage. Despite being centred on the air pump and the 17th century origins of the experimental life, Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump does not fit comfortably with the majority of instrument studies. Even though - or perhaps because - it very deliberately tackles messy and material questions such as the sealing of glass vessels it does not make contact with that mainstream of instrument studies which can be grouped together with Daumas.

In recounting such differences, and indicating the discrepant ways in which instruments are now addressed, I am not setting myself up here as judge and jury. I am not trying to claim that one approach is evidently superior in all circumstances. I’m more interested in how these different perspectives and questions have been created and sustained, and in the consequences of these differences.

One important point is that, despite these differences, there is very little sense of active combat. The divergences do not translate into struggles for territory. Despite the range of participants interested in instruments, there is only one group who actively adopt the title of instrument historians. The core of that group is formed of curators based either in science museums or museums of the history of science - like myself - , and whose work can most readily be assimilated to Daumas’s enterprise. The other interested parties leave the field open by claiming primary allegiance to history of science, sociology of science, philosophy of science, history of technology, and so on.

If we are to identify a discipline of instrument history it presumably maps onto the work of this curatorial community even though, as we have seen, this is far from exhausting the possibilities of instrument research. With that limitation in mind, let’s return to one of my initial points. I said at the beginning that I thought that narrative - in a strong sense of the term - had not been the primary vehicle for creating the discipline of instrument history. The curatorial cast of the enterprise makes it clear why this should be so: while there is no necessary opposition between curators and historians, it is clear that curators do have a range of responsibilities which go beyond that of the traditional historian. Not just through the primary contact with instruments as objects of research, but through the range of other curatorial activities such as acquisition, exhibition, cataloguing and even public enquiries.

Most of such specifically curatorial work requires highly focused attention on individual objects, for which such basic information as name, purpose, origin, maker, date, place and material might typically be required. When working on such concrete and specific inquiries a master narrative will only rarely provide the necessary help. In such contexts the curator turns to texts for reference not narrative.

Narrative and reference represent two different ways in which a text can be approached and used. My last set of comments explores this difference, appropriately enough in relation to Daumas’s instrument book. I want to highlight an ambivalence in the curatorial response to Daumas’s work and, from there, to conclude with a question on the character and direction of instrument history.

Let me stress that I am not talking about ambivalent responses to the first edition, which seems - from the small number of reviews that I have seen - to have been uniformly well-received. Rather it is the English translation of 1972 that’s at issue. The reviews of the translation exhibit some major differences, with the most strikingly distant evaluations that I have seen separating the comments of a historian of ornithology from those of several museum curators.

The historian of birds warmly recommends the text and the increased accessibility which the English version brings. His only reservation is that the book is not more synthetic, that it does not offer an even more systematic view of the subject, and his only regret is that more historians have not used it in the 20 years since its publication.

On the other hand, several curatorial reviews were more critical, noting the age of the book and its obsolescence in the light of subsequent studies. Moreover, the original edition was still available 20 years after publication - maybe it still is! In the sharpest formulation, there was therefore a question about the value of an English version and its possible audience, with the answer: ‘It is difficult to imagine what useful purpose this English edition can serve …’

Again, I don’t highlight these disparate responses so as to adjudicate between them. The point is that we have on the one hand a historian of science - presumably without a special interest in instruments - who finds the text highly useful but not quite general enough for his purposes - purposes which presumably include background reading not just for himself but as a teaching resource for students.

We also have a curator for whom there is little point in publishing an out-of-date book which should have been replaced by a new and improved account. Here the value or otherwise of the book lies in its role as an accurate and reliable reference source; certainly, it is readily acknowledged that this was once a pioneering text, but by the early 1970s it was 20 years out of date. It is less a question here of foundational narratives, which will orient and shape research, than of reference works for regular use.

A major part of this difference in perception comes from attitudes to texts as teaching resources, in which coherence and scale of narrative have an important role to play. Compared to their role for the traditional academic historian, teaching texts typically have less immediate value and relevance for the curator. Curators have usually learnt much of their métier on the job, through specific instances and individual investigations, often by chance occurrences and events rather than through a deliberately chosen programme. Curatorial ‘training’ has therefore often been closer to a craft model of learning than an academic one, and entry to the ‘mystery’ has generally come not through taught courses or systematic programmes of study. The question I leave you with is therefore a simple one, but a significant one in light of what I have been saying: What will be the consequences for the history of instruments in offering this subject as a course of academic study? Involved as I am in just such a course, I will leave that question open; any thoughts welcome.