Portrait of Dr Rebekah Higgitt

Dr Rebekah Higgitt

Senior Lecturer
Social, cultural and material histories of science and technology in the 17th-19th centuries

About

Dr Rebekah Higgitt received her BA and MA from the University of Durham and undertook her PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London. In 2005-7 she did postdoctoral research at the Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh. 

From 2008 to 2013 she was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, before arriving at Kent in 2013. 

Research interests

Rebekah's research and publications have focused broadly on the relationship between science and society in Britain between the 17th and 19th centuries. This has included work on scientific biography, the material culture of science and its display in museums, the relationship between science and government, and the many roles of scientific institutions. Between 2010-15 she was a Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project on the history of the Board of Longitude, 1714-1828, in partnership with the University of Cambridge and National Maritime Museum. 

Rebekah is currently leading a Leverhulme Trust research project, Metropolitan Science: Places, Objects and Cultures of Practice and Knowledge in London, 1600-1800, in partnership with the Science Museum.

Teaching

Rebekah teaches modules that explore the history of science and technology, and their wider communication, from the 17th century to the 20th century, and also welcomes research supervision in this area. 

Professional

As well as working on how science has been communicated to the public in the past, Rebekah has focused on communicating the history of science, through museum exhibitions, broadcast and social media, public talks, and by blogging for the Guardian.

She is a member of the English Heritage Blue Plaque Panel, Treasurer of the British Society for the History of Science, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Historical Society.

Publications

Article

  • Higgitt, R. (2018). Instruments and Relics: The History and Use of the Royal Society's Object Collections c. 1850-1950. Journal of the History of Collections [Online]. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/jhc/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jhc/fhy038/5144837?guestAccessKey=be3ab520-4699-4a51-a3e6-ca8522ed4832.
    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.
  • 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. (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. (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.
  • 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.
  • 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. (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. (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. (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.

Book

  • 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. 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.

Book section

  • Higgitt, R. and Dunn, R. (2017). The Bureau and the Board: change and collaboration in the final decades of the British Board of Longitude. in: Schiavon, M. and Rollet, L. eds. Pour une histoire du Bureau des longitudes (1795-1932). Nancy: Presses universitaires de Lorraine.
  • Higgitt, R. (2015). Equipping Expeditionary Astronomers: Nevil Maskelyne and the Development of ‘Precision Exploration. in: MacDonald, F. and Withers, C. W. J. eds. Geography, Technology and Instruments of Exploration. Basingstoke: Ashgate, pp. 15-36.
  • Higgitt, R. (2014). Revisiting and Revising Maskelyne’s reputation. in: Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal. Hale Books. Available at: http://halebooks.com/shop/robert-hale-publishing/rh8/maskelyne/.
  • Higgitt, R. (2012). The "Epitome of Intellectual Sagacity": Biographical Treatments of Newton as a Mathematician. in: Wardhaugh, B. ed. The History of the History of Mathematics: Case Studies for the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries. Peter Lang.
  • Higgitt, R. (2010). The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and its Publics; Past and Present. in: Pigatto, L. and Zanini, V. eds. Astronomy and its Instruments Before and After Galileo. International Astronomical Association.
  • Higgitt, R. (2007). Discriminating Days? Partiality and Impartiality in Nineteenth-Century Biographies of Newton. in: The Poetics of Biography in Science, Technology and Medicine. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 155-172.

Edited book

  • Higgitt, R. and Dunn, R. (2015). Navigational Enterprises in Europe and its Empires, c. 1730-1880. Higgitt, R. F. and Dunn, R. eds. Palgrave Macmillan.
    Navigational Enterprises in Europe and its Empires, 1730-1850 brings together the work of international authors to explore European experiences in the development of new navigational techniques and instruments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is the period in which the 'longitude problem' has been presented as being solved in an unproblematic way. Challenging this narrative, the book looks beyond just the British story to examine the role of governments, institutions, men of science, practitioners and navigators across Europe, and the use of the new and old techniques and instruments in practice. As the different chapters show, the methods available, including long-established navigational techniques such as dead reckoning and the newer astronomical and timekeeping methods of longitude determination, were complementary rather than exclusive. When and how they were used depended on local, national and other circumstances, although their development must be seen as the result of international and transnational exchanges.
  • Higgitt, R. (2014). Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal. Ramsbury, Wiltshire: Robert Hale.
    Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811) was a hugely significant figure in the worlds of British science and maritime exploration. His high international standing and wide influence have in many ways been unfairly overlooked as his story has come to be dominated by his role in the campaign waged by John Harrison, the clockmaker, for a larger reward for his pioneering marine timekeepers.

    Maskelyne was, however, involved in all the key projects of eighteenth-century astronomy. These included ambitious expeditions to observe the transits of Venus, experiments designed to establish the shape and ‘weight’ of the Earth, the remaking of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and the survey of new lands on voyages of scientific exploration. The essays in this volume allow us to appreciate Maskelyne’s role in these projects and to gain a new perspective on the decisions he made with the Board of Longitude. They reveal a conscientious individual, close to friends and family, with a deep sense of commitment to his work and those who depended on him for a living.

    These essays are written by experts in the history of science and the collections of the National Maritime Museum, which, along with the Royal Observatory, is now part of Royal Museums Greenwich. They give new insight into Maskelyne’s world, looking at his interactions with colleagues, rivals and employees, and exploring the buildings in which he lived and worked.
  • Higgitt, R. (2005). Nineteenth-Century Biography of Isaac Newton: Public Debate and Private Controversy. Higgitt, R. F. ed. London: Routledge (Pickering and Chatto).

Show / exhibition

  • Higgitt, R. and Dunn, R. (2014). Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude. [Museum exhibition]. Available at: http://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/exhibitions-events/past/ships-clocks-stars.
    The National Maritime Museum’s 2014 Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition told the extraordinary story of the race to determine longitude at sea.

    Marking the 300th anniversary of the passing of the Longitude Act in July 1714, Ships, Clocks & Stars - which ran from 11 July 2014 to 4 January 2015 - told the extraordinary story of the race to determine longitude (east-west position) at sea, helping to save seafarers from terrible fates including shipwreck and starvation.

    The exhibition drew on the latest research to shed new light on the history of longitude – one of the great achievements of the Georgian age.

Monograph

  • Higgitt, R. and Wilsdon, J. (2013). The Benefits of Hindsight: How History can Contribute to Science Policy. Alliance for Useful Evidence & Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy. Available at: http://www.csap.cam.ac.uk/media/uploads/files/1/fdsaw.pdf.
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