This proposal aims to fill a conspicuous gap in our knowledge of nineteenth-century Dutch science. It concerns the sizeable Dutch participation in attempts to create global Humboldtian scientific networks in the period 1820-1880. In spite of the scope and importance of these scientific investigations, historians of science have so far tended to focus their attention on the rise of laboratory science culminating in the so-called Second Golden Age, thereby creating a one-sided view of nineteenth-century Dutch science and of its international dimension.
Named after its initiator Alexander von Humboldt, this type of research involved the systematic recording of measurements of natural phenomena across extensive areas, often through international collaboration. Its ultimate objective was to find the natural laws that governed the phenomena under investigation. Dutch representatives of Humboldtian research included Gerrit Moll, contributing to the study of tides by William Whewell in Britain; Richard van Rees, cooperating with Adolphe Quetelet in Belgium on meteorological research; Willem Wenckebach, cooperating in geomagnetic projects by Carl Friedrich Gauss in Germany; M.H. Jansen, collaborating on ocean currents with Matthew Fontaine Maury in the USA; F.J. Stamkart, triangulating The Netherlands as part of the Europäische Gradmessung; and C.H.D. Buys Ballot, engaged in multiple international meteorological networks. These Dutch participants often acted as nodes connecting local and national networks to the international networks. The significance of the Dutch activities within this period can be illustrated by the database of meteorological measurements compiled through the ‘Universal Abstract Log’ initiated by Jansen and Buys Ballot. Between 1854 and 1880 Dutch contributions comprised the bulk of the global meteorological data acquisitioning effort at sea, resulting in vast records that are used up to the present day. The graph bellow illustrates this:
b. Research question(s)
The large-scale participation of Dutch scientists in international Humboldtian networks in the nineteenth century will be submitted to an historical analysis aimed at finding an answer to the following question:
What were the critical technological, social, political and cultural parameters that led to successful international networks of production and circulation of knowledge?
In order to answer this question the research project will address the following three issues. However, it must be stressed that these issues are closely interrelated. Therefore, they cannot be dealt with separately in the execution of the project.
1. The social, political and cultural background
This study will investigate the Dutch cultivation of Humboldtian science in the nineteenth century. In order to do so, the scientific fields in which Humboldtian research was executed will be mapped out. Through a survey of the Dutch scientific community of the period the participants in this type of research will be identified. The main factors in the surge of enthusiasm among Dutch men of science with regard to the Humboldtian study of earthly phenomena will be analysed. Which values did Humboldtian science represent for them and how did these values resonate with contemporaneous cultural shifts? How and where did they obtain the skills to perform precision measurements? To what extent did these measurements serve the interests of centralizing states and expanding commercial enterprises? Here, in short, the political, social and cultural factors in the development and growth of Humboldtian research in the Dutch scientific community will be analysed.
This study will also pay attention to the related issue of the funding of these extensive and often costly Humboldtian projects. This requires an analysis of correspondences between scientists, learned societies, and government officials. The role played by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences in the funding of projects will be explored. Although most of these Humboldtian projects were state funded, this usually required extensive negotiating. Throughout the nineteenth century the Dutch state proved notoriously unresponsive to pleas for support of scientific research. The case of Buys Ballot’s meteorological enterprises may serve to illustrate a spectre of possibilities. He invested part of his own considerable means, borrowed instruments from the university cabinet, solicited financial support from learned societies and a state subsidy before the government finally adopted his enterprise. In his contacts with the government Buys Ballot played two cards. Firstly, he stressed the practical benefits for seaborne trade by promising shorter and safer journeys. Secondly, he pointed to the international prestige the Dutch would gain by taking the initiative in international meteorology.
2. Establishing local networks
The second issue this research project will tackle concerns the implementation of Humboldtian scientific undertakings. The nature of these sciences typically required the assistance of large numbers of observers in order to systematically take simultaneous measurements and to gather observational data across extensive areas. It appears that scientists used different, often creative, means to recruit observers. In Britain for instance, the meteorologist Glaisher placed announcements in the press to invite volunteer observers in taking measurements. Buys Ballot likewise used the popular press, but he also called upon colleagues and local societies. Moreover, he appealed to seafaring communities to obtain meteorological data at sea.
This study will explore the ways in which various groups of observers were recruited. Typical partners in these Humboldtian projects were university professors, civil engineers, members of learned societies, shipping companies, and navy and army officers. If the state acted as patron, which it often did, either paid experts or military men would be commissioned to execute the project. The extensive and pervasive role of the military in Humboldtian projects of all sorts is a topic that has as yet been hardly explored, a neglect that this study aims to remedy.
Besides the recruitment of observers, this research project aims to investigate how participants were disciplined through the use of common standards and units, the gauging and comparing of instruments, and the reliance on detailed protocols for observation and recording. As Buys Ballot was acutely aware, overly high demands in this regard might scare off possible participants, whereas low demands could result in worthless data.
Data in themselves mean little. A subsequent question, therefore, concerns the way these data were assembled and processed so as to result in diverse products such as books, articles, maps, tables, instruments and warning systems. Without a steady output of useful results the networks would probably be short-lived. This study will also look at the circulation of these products and the context of their use. Who were the intended consumers of the products and how were they approached? Where they given a say in the data collecting or in the making of the finished products? Did they provide any feedback?
3. International cooperation: the establishment of international Humboldtian networks
On a higher level this proposal aims to analyse the cooperation between scientists across the world. It will study the ways Dutch scientists came in contact with international colleagues and worked together in global Humboldtian projects. Starting in 1835, for instance, the Dutch astronomer Gerrit Moll participated in an international scientific project which involved the measurement of the water level at specific times in a large number of locations along the coast of Western Europe with the double purpose of developing both a mathematical theory of tidal movements and guidelines for the improvement of harbours. Analysis of Moll’s correspondence with his colleagues, William Whewell and David Brewster, as well as the ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Naval ministries, will provide answers as to how this European joint venture was established. In the same manner other Dutch contributions to international Humboldtian endeavours will be described. The motives of Dutch scientists to both initiate and join Humboldtian research projects and exchange scientific knowledge across the border will be analysed.
These international endeavours will be analysed in the light of broader contexts such as the politics of imperialism and the economics of worldwide trade. Moreover, the proposed project will address questions as to how the growth of international scientific cooperation related to the rise of nationalism in the new nation states. By exploring the Dutch involvement in Humboldtian projects this study will demonstrate the extent to which national interests and sentiments induced or impeded international cooperation.
International negotiations over common units, standards and protocols posed new and additional problems. One of the driving forces behind the 1875 Metric Convention was the need of the Europäische Gradmessung for common and accurate standards. Berlin was willing to accept the French meter as the basis for the new international standard, but insisted on supervision by an international bureau. One result was the withdrawal of Britain and The Netherlands from the international committee of weights and measures; another was the sabotage of the project by the offended French commissioners who were responsible for the construction of the new standards. Charting and understanding the growth of international standardisation is one of the tasks of this project. Here also, industrial and trade interests interacted with scientific interests.
This study will also explore the role of new communication and transport technologies such as the telegraph and the railways in the exchange of data and people. One of the reasons that Buys Ballot took up meteorology as a field of research was his conviction that new technologies, such as telegraphy, would boost the discipline and turn it into a mature science. Finally, this project will look at the factors that promoted the stability and endurance of the international networks. Some proved to be rather short-lived, whereas others evolved into still existing international unions, such as the International Union for Geodesy and Geophysics.
The proposed historical study of the international Humboldtian scientific networks in the nineteenth century will use recent insights into “the circulation of knowledge and practices”. The central issue is that locally produced knowledge and practices are not of themselves valid or applicable or even understandable outside the context of their production. Circulation is not a process of diffusion, but of translation: to become communicable and transferable, a continuous process of decontextualisation, recontextualisation and appropriation is required. Focussing on the dynamics of this process automatically draws attention to, for instance, means of representation (databases, tables, and graphs), processes of standardisation, of infrastructure (means of communication, locally and between locations), of participation (the different social groups involved and the nature of their relations, i.e. hierarchical, colonial etc.), and to obstacles and mediating factors.
The central question of this proposal directly addresses such issues that concern the circulation of knowledge and practices. The new insights that the growing interest in this theme has begun to generate can thus be fruitfully applied to this study.
Both archival sources and primary and secondary literature will be investigated. The open access to the archives housing valuable historical material from the period 1820-1880 makes this project highly feasible. The Dutch National Archive offers entry to the existing documents from the Department of the Arts and Sciences under the Ministry of the Interior. These documents are a lead in investigating the political and financial support that was asked and given to Humboldtian projects. Some of these sources provide information on the political negotiations with foreign countries such as Belgium and France on cooperation in meteorological, geodetic and other projects.
In ‘Het Noord-Hollands Archief’, which houses the archives of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, nineteenth-century minutes and reports of the physical sciences departments are available. The archive contains dossiers of scholarly correspondences ordered in the fields of meteorology, geodesy, earth magnetism, and other earth sciences. It also offers access to the reports of international earth sciences congresses of the period. Other material from the period such as publications, articles, treatises and lectures in these fields are available.
Foreign archives in London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Göttingen and Washington will be searched for sources on Dutch connections with Humboldtian networks. At Trinity College Library in Cambridge, for instance, which houses documents concerning the British Association for the Advancement of Science, archival material is available on scholarly correspondences between Dutch scientists with their British colleagues, such as Moll’s exchanges with Whewell. Publications and reports of other learned societies such as the American AAS and the German Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte will also be studied.
The Dutch contributions to Humboldtian science have remained largely unexplored until now, resulting in an under-appreciation of the significance of Dutch nineteenth-century science. The project will investigate this inattention that may have been caused by the historical impact of the Dutch Nobel laureates of the ‘Second Golden Age’, which possibly overshadowed and obscured the scientific ambitions and achievements of their predecessors. The Nobel laureates were famous individual men working mostly on their own (laboratory based) projects. The great deal of attention they have (rightly) been given may inadvertently contribute to an image of science as an individualistic enterprise of great men working in isolation. The study of Humboldtian networks will draw attention to an aspect of science that is at least as important, yet has received much less attention. Moreover, this study can contribute to the recent historical interest in the circulation of knowledge and practices which aims to analyse the dynamics of knowledge production within a long term perspective in order to discover patterns and structures in these processes.
e. Relevance for science, technology or society
The analysis of nineteenth-century global Humboldtian networks can bring to light the multifarious factors involved in bringing about enduring international scientific cooperation. Furthermore, this study will shed light on the relationships between scientific developments and processes of internationalisation and globalisation, each of them generating and transforming the other. Thus it investigates a phenomenon that can be said to have been at the roots of the development of a knowledge society in the twentieth century, which is predicated, not only on the production of knowledge and know-how as such, but also on its circulation, from the local to the global level. The study of Humboldtian networks can contribute to obtaining a long-term perspective on the role of science in society, which is indispensable for decisions concerning its present and future role.
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 For further information on this research programme: http://www.gewina.nl/werkgroep/