Iain Watts

Iain Watts

Iain Watts

Edelstein Dissertation Fellow

I am a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University and the Edelstein Dissertation Fellow this year at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where I will be writing up my dissertation based on research conducted last year in archives and libraries in Britain and France.

My dissertation project uses a history of the intertwined sciences of galvanism and electrochemistry during the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and after (1790s–1820s) to map the transnational circulation of what contemporaries called “scientific news” in Britain, Continental Europe, and beyond. Galvanism was a novel area of experimental knowledge concerned with interconnections between electricity, matter, and life, and it and the field of electrochemistry to which it gave birth captured the attention of scientific practitioners and laypeople alike. It produced a succession of remarkable discoveries, spectacular experiments, and unorthodox medical therapies, and raised troubling questions about the material basis of life and death. Its history has the potential to illuminate wider shifts in relations between science and its public audiences in this period, and I aim to do this by uncovering the political, cultural, and intellectual forces that shaped how science was communicated, in forms ranging from new monthly specialist journals  to reports in popular media, such as the newspapers.

Galvanism developed amid the disruptions of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, when the European scientific world was riven with national and political fault lines. The flow of information between the two great centers of science, London and Paris, was particularly affected by war and blockade, with effects that are still not clear. I aim to understand the consequences of this wartime environment for the practice of science, for relations within the European scientific community, and for the system of international intellectual exchange. A key goal is to furnish an account that integrates the effects of European war and blockade on scientific communications into our understanding of the work produced in the rivalry between British and French chemists at this time, when Humphry Davy in London traded experiments and arguments with Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac and Louis Jacques Thénard in Paris in struggles over the elaboration and future direction of Lavoisierian chemistry. It was through this rivalry that electrochemistry was carved out of galvanism and consolidated as a new field of study.

Upcoming Events

Chemistry and Newspapers in Napoleonic Europe: A Brown Bag Lecture by Iain Watts

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