Higgitt, R. (2019). Instruments and Relics: The History and Use of the Royal Society’s Object Collections c. 1850-1950. Journal of the History of Collections [Online] 31:469-485. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhy038.
Despite the age and prestige of the Royal Society of London, the history of its collections of scientific instruments and apparatus has largely been one of accidental accumulation and neglect. This article tracks their movements and the processes by which objects came to be recognised as possessing value beyond reuse or sale. From at least mid-century, the few surviving objects with links to the Society’s early history and its most illustrious Fellows came to be termed ‘relics’, were treated with suitable reverence, put on display and made part of the Society’s public self-presentation. If the more quotidian objects survived into the later 19th century, when their potential as objects for collection, research, display, reproduction and loan began to be appreciated, they are likely to have survived to the present day.
Bennett, J. and Higgitt, R. (2019). Introduction – London 1600-1800: Communities of Natural Knowledge and Artificial Practice. British Journal for the History of Science [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007087419000189.
This essay introduces a special issue of the BJHS on communities of natural knowledge and artificial practice in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London. In seeking to understand
the rise of a learned and technical culture within a growing and changing city, our approach has been inclusive in terms of the activities, people and places we consider worth exploring
but shaped by a sense of the importance of collective activity, training, storage of information and identity. London’s knowledge culture was formed by the public, pragmatic and
commercial spaces of the city rather than by the academy or the court. In this introduction, we outline the types of group and institution within our view and acknowledge the many
locations that might be explored further. Above all, we introduce a particular vision of London’s potential as a city of knowledge and practice, arising from its commercial and
mercantile activity and fostered within its range of corporations, institutions and associations. This was recognised and promoted by contemporary authors, including natural and
experimental philosophers, practical mathematicians, artisans and others, who sought to establish a place for and recognition of their individual and collective skills and knowledge
within the metropolis.
Higgitt, R. (2019). "In the Society’s Strong Box": A Visual and Material History of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, c.1736-1760. Nuncius: Journal of the Material and Visual History of Science [Online] 34:284-316. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1163/18253911-03402006.
It has become a commonplace that exceptional achievement, including within science, should
be rewarded with prizes and that these will often take the form of a medal. The ubiquity of
such awards today means that the circumstances behind their arrival tend to be overlooked,
but they were novelties when first suggested at the Royal Society in the 1730s. This article
traces the creation of the Copley Medal and explores the meaning of medals to the recipients,
the Society and the proposer of the scheme, Martin Folkes. Paying attention to the medal’s
iconography and material nature can shed light on how experimental philosophy and the role
of the Royal Society were conceived by key Fellows, demonstrating their links to
antiquarianism and Freemasonry. Rather than arriving as a fully formed reward system, the
medal concept required investment of time, money, thought and skill, and the development of
ritual, meaning and value.
Higgitt, R. (2019). ’Greenwich near London’: The Royal Observatory and its London networks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. British Journal for the History of Science [Online] 52:297-322. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007087419000244.
Built in Greenwich in 1675–1676, the Royal Observatory was situated outside the capital but was deeply enmeshed within its knowledge networks and communities of practice. Scholars have tended to focus on the links cultivated by the Astronomers Royal within scholarly communities in England and Europe but the observatory was also deeply reliant on and engaged with London's institutions and practical mathematical community. It was a royal foundation, situated within one government board, taking a leading role on another, and overseen by Visitors selected by the Royal Society of London. These links helped develop institutional continuity, while instrument-makers, assistants and other collaborators, who were often active in the city as mathematical authors and teachers, formed an extended community with interest in the observatory's continued existence. After outlining the often highly contingent institutional and personal connections that shaped and supported the observatory, this article considers the role of two early assistants, James Hodgson and Thomas Weston. By championing John Flamsteed's legacy and sharing observatory knowledge and practice beyond its walls, they ensured awareness of and potential users for its outputs. They and their successors helped to develop a particular, and ultimately influential, approach to astronomical and mathematical practice and teaching.
Higgitt, R. (2017). Framing the transit: expeditionary culture and identities in Lieutenant E.J.W. Noble’s caricatures of the 1874 transit of Venus expedition to Honolulu. Annals of Science [Online] 74:214-239. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00033790.2017.1328074.
Making use of a source previously unknown to historians, this article sheds new light on the British expedition to the Sandwich Islands to observe the 1874 transit of Venus. This source, a series of caricature drawings that follow the expedition from departure to return, gives insight into expeditionary culture and the experience of a previously unremarked member of this astronomical expedition, Evelyn J.W. Noble, a career officer of the Royal Marine Artillery. They also reveal overlapping military, scientific and masculine identities, developed in dialogue with, and often deliberately subverting, more public accounts. The article explores this unique source as a product of naval, imperial and expeditionary cultures; as a contribution to the wide textual and visual culture that surrounded the transit expeditions; and as a series of drawings that united the expedition members through the use of humour and irony, by differentiating the group from others they encountered, and by reflecting or rejecting ideas about the nature of scientific work and personae. The artist represented himself not as a serving officer but as part of a (mostly) united group, dedicated to but humorously self-deprecating about their contribution to the scientific effort
Higgitt, R. (2017). Challenging Tropes: Genius, Heroic Invention, and the Longitude Problem in the Museum. Isis [Online] 108:371-380. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1086/692691.
This essay explores how concerns relevant to academic historians of science do and do not translate to the museum setting. It takes as a case study a 2014 exhibition on the story of longitude, with which the author was involved. This theme presented opportunities and challenges for sharing nuanced accounts of science, technology, and innovation. Audience expectation, available objects, the requirements of display, and economic constraints were all factors that could impede effective communication of the preferred version of the story, developed in part through an associated research project. Careful choices regarding objects and design, together with the use of theatrical and multimedia spaces and digital displays, helped to shift visitor interest from the well-known version of the story and toward a longer and more peopled account. However, the persistence of heroic and genius narratives meant that this could not always be achieved and that effective engagement must include direct conversation.
Higgitt, R. (2014). A British national Observatory: The Building of the New Physical Observatory at Greenwich, 1890-99. British Journal for the History of Science [Online] 47:1-27. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007087413000678.
Over its long history, the buildings of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich were enlarged and altered many times, reflecting changing needs and expectations of astronomers and funders, but also the constraints of a limited site and small budgets. The most significant expansion took place in the late nineteenth century, overseen by the eighth Astronomer Royal, William Christie, a programme that is put in the context of changing attitudes toward scientific funding, Christie's ambitious plans for the work and staffing of the Observatory and his desire to develop a national institution that could stand with more recently founded European and American rivals. Examination of the archives reveals the range of strategies Christie was required to use to acquire consent and financial backing from the Admiralty, as well as his opportunistic approach. While hindsight might lead to criticism of his decisions, Christie eventually succeeded in completing a large building – the New Physical Observatory – that, in its decoration, celebrated Greenwich's past while, in its name, style, structure and contents, it was intended to signal the institution's modernization and future promise.
Higgitt, R. (2014). "The famous zenith sector" at Greenwich. Endeavour [Online] 38:154-156. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2014.09.007.
Higgitt, R. and Dolan, G. (2010). Greenwich, Time and the Line. Endeavour [Online] 34:35-39. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2009.11.004.
Ask most visitors to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, why they have come and they will tell you that they want to stand on ‘the line’. Press them further and they might add something about standing astride longitude zero, one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one in the west. Few know how the Prime Meridian of the world comes to pass through Greenwich, or even realise that the line is there because of the observatory, rather than vice versa. But the line, of course, has a history, as does the public's response to it.
Withers, C., Higgitt, R. and Finnegan, D. (2008). Historical Geographies of Provincial Science: Themes in the Setting and Reception of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Britain and Ireland, 1831– c.1939. British Journal for the History of Science [Online] 41:385-415. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007087408000848.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science sought to promote the understanding of science in various ways, principally by having annual meetings in different towns and cities throughout Britain and Ireland (and, from 1884, in Canada, South Africa and Australia). This paper considers how far the location of its meetings in different urban settings influenced the nature and reception of the association's activities in promoting science, from its foundation in 1831 to the later 1930s. Several themes concerning the production and reception of science – promoting, practising, writing and receiving – are examined in different urban contexts. We consider the ways in which towns were promoted as venues for and centres of science. We consider the role of local field sites, leading local practitioners and provincial institutions for science in attracting the association to different urban locations. The paper pays attention to excursions and to the evolution and content of the BAAS meeting handbook as a ‘geographical’ guide to the significance of the regional setting and to appropriate scientific venues. The paper considers the reception of BAAS meetings and explores how far the association's intentions for the promotion of science varied by location and by section within the BAAS. In examining these themes – the geographical setting of the association's meetings, the reception of association science in local civic and intellectual context and the importance of place to an understanding of what the BAAS did and how it was received – the paper extends existing knowledge of the association and contributes to recent work within the history of science which has emphasized the ‘local’ nature of science's making and reception and the mobility of scientific knowledge.
Higgitt, R. and Wither, C. (2008). Science and Sociability: Women as Audience at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–1901. Isis [Online] 99:1-27. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/587538.
This essay recovers the experiences of women at the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) from its founding in 1831 to the end of the Victorian era. It aims to add to research on women in science by reconsidering the traditional role of women as consumers rather than producers of knowledge and to that on science popularization by focusing on audience experience rather than on the aims and strategies of popularizers. The essay argues that, in various ways, the ubiquitous and visible female audience came to define the BAAS audience and 'the public' for science more generally. The women who swelled the BAAS audiences were accepted as a social element within the meetings even as they were regarded critically as scientific elites to distance themselves from their audiences. Arguing from diary and other evidence, we present examples that complicate exciting notions of audiences for science as necessarily active.
Higgitt, R. (2006). Geography’s other Histories? Geography and Science in the British Association for the Advancement of Knowledge, 1831-c. 1933. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers [Online] 31:433-451. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2006.00231.x.
Higgitt, R. (2006). Why I Do Not FRS my Tail: Augustus De Morgan and The Royal Society. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London [Online] 60:253-259. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2006.0150.
The mathematician Augustus De Morgan chose not to become a Fellow of the Royal Society. This short article examines the reasons behind this choice and a sketch that he drew representing a satirical ‘Coat of Arms’ for the Society. Despite recent reform, De Morgan felt that the Society still represented aristocratic privilege rather than scientific attainment. In addition, his research into the history of the Society revealed past unfairness done in its name, for which it was yet to atone. De Morgan, who opposed and hoped to expose the presence of vested interests in the realm of science, was never to be convinced that the Royal Society represented and facilitated independent scientific endeavour.
Higgitt, R. (2004). Astronomers against Newton? Francis Baily’s Account of the First Astronomer Royal. Endeavour [Online] 28:20-24. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2004.01.012.
Francis Baily's publication of the manuscripts of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, provoked a furious response. Flamsteed had quarrelled with Isaac Newton, and described him in terms unforgivable to those who claimed him as a paragon of all virtues, both moral and scientific. Baily was condemned for putting Flamsteed's complaints in the public sphere. However, his supporters saw his work as a critique of the excessive hero-worship accorded to Newton. Written when the word 'scientist' had been newly coined, this work and the debates it provoked gives us an insight into contemporary views of the role of the man of science and of the use of science to back political, religious and moral positions.
Higgitt, R. (2004). “Newton Dépossédé!” The British Response to the Pascal Forgeries of 1867. British Journal for the History of Science [Online] 36:437-453. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007087403005144.
Between 1867 and 1869 Michel Chasles presented a series of manuscripts to the Académie des sciences, which suggested that Isaac Newton's claims to original discovery were unfounded. It quickly became apparent to the majority of the academicians that the manuscripts were forgeries, but Chasles was repeatedly allowed to state his case. This essay focuses on the responses to the affair from four British men of science: David Brewster, Augustus De Morgan, Robert Grant and Thomas Archer Hirst. It asks why they felt it necessary to add their voices to this debate and examines their various strategies for refuting Chasles's evidence.
Higgitt, R. and Dunn, R. (2014). Finding Longitude: How Ships, Clocks and Stars Helped Solve the Longitude Problem. Glasgow: Collins.
A tale of eighteenth-century invention and competition, commerce and conflict, this is a lively, illustrated, and accurate chronicle of the search to solve “the longitude problem,” the question of how to determine a ship’s position at sea—and one that changed the history of mankind.
Ships, Clocks, and Stars brings into focus one of our greatest scientific stories: the search to accurately measure a ship’s position at sea. The incredible, illustrated volume reveals why longitude mattered to seafaring nations, illuminates the various solutions that were proposed and tested, and explores the invention that revolutionized human history and the man behind it, John Harrison. Here, too, are the voyages of Captain Cook that put these revolutionary navigational methods to the test.
Filled with astronomers, inventors, politicians, seamen, and satirists, Ships, Clocks, and Stars explores the scientific, political, and commercial battles of the age, as well as the sailors, ships, and voyages that made it legend—from Matthew Flinders and George Vancouver to the voyages of the Bounty and the Beagle.
Featuring more than 150 photographs specially commissioned from Britain’s National Maritime Museum, this evocative, detailed, and thoroughly fascinating history brings this age of exploration and enlightenment vividly to life.
Higgitt, R. (2011). Royal Observatory Greenwich Souvenir Guide. National Maritime Museum.
The Royal Observatory Greenwich Souvenir Guide contains a wealth of information about the origins of the observatory, the people involved as well as the world changing discoveries they made, including the vital contribution to the longitude problem.
Higgitt, R. (2007). Recreating Newton: Newtonian Biography and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science. Vol. 2. London: Routledge (Pickering and Chatto).
This book examines Isaac Newton's changing legacy during the nineteenth century. It focuses on 1820-70, a period that saw the creation of the specialized and secularized role of the 'scientist'. It shows how debates about Newton's character stimulated historical scholarship and led to the development of a new expertise in the history of science.