Brown Bag Lecture: Chemistry and Newspapers in Napoleonic Europe

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Date: December 10, 2013
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Iain Watts

The Napoleonic years of 1800 to 1815 saw a sustained rivalry between British and French chemistry that often seemed to mirror the large-scale geopolitical struggles between the two warring powers. The main adversaries were the rising British chemist Humphry Davy, who challenged French chemical preeminence with his strides into the nascent field of electrochemistry, and the young French disciples of Berthollet, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac and Louis Jacques Thénard. Their self-conscious race for new discoveries—eight new chemical elements were isolated between 1807 and 1813—was keenly followed by public audiences on both sides of the English Channel. It formed an important part of a broader rise in the public image of chemistry as a noble intellectual endeavor uniquely positioned to open up the secrets of matter through—in Davy’s phrase—the “interrogation of Nature with power.” This talk uses some episodes from this well-known and very public chemical rivalry to uncover the history of the relationship between science and the newspapers during the Napoleonic wars. Looking at developments in both London and Paris, the talk will show how the newspaper—arguably the preeminent information technology of this period—not only became a vehicle for furnishing ordinary readers with details of the latest dramatic chemical discoveries, but actually functioned as a powerful tool for rapidly disseminating information among the European scientific community, which was riven by communication problems imposed by the ongoing wars. At a time before modern conventions of scientific publication had stabilized, newspapers formed an integrated part of a complicated ecosystem of print and manuscript by which new and often controversial results were disseminated and argued over, helping create the conditions for the productive chemical rivalry of these years.

Iain Watts is the Edelstein Dissertation Fellow in the Beckman Center, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. He works on the history of modern science and European (especially British) history in the 18th and 19th centuries. His Ph.D. dissertation project explores the multifaceted phenomenon of “scientific news” during the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and after (1790s to 1820s), using a history of the intertwined sciences of galvanism and electrochemistry to explore connections between developing forms of communication and broader shifts in the structure of the scientific world and the public image of science at this time.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

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