Empires of knowledge

Networks, ideas, and infrastructures of science in a changing world

Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 322



During what has been termed the long nineteenth century the practices of scientific research have been affected by radical changes in scope and scale that have led to talk about a second scientific revolution. Modernity has, in fact, brought with it a transformation of the Earth into a world of lines, definitions, criteria, data, and taxonomies. This process, characterized by the globalization of knowledge, a drive towards an increased rationalisation and standardisation of data and metrics, and the professionalisation of scientific endeavours, was informed by a new wave in explorations, the crystallization of new institutional frameworks, and the nature of imperial power relations. Economic and political reasons alike stood behind the imperial and colonial endeavours of the time and consequently influenced the development of science.

New scholarly networks and infrastructures, encompassing an increasing number of nation-states, regions, and colonies were, indeed, needed to make it possible to collect data and specimens on the scale required to finally illustrate the whole world scientifically, while also helping states and colonial administrations to make it more legible and manageable. How this new system of scientific data production was deployed depended however, quite naturally, on existing political, economic, and social conditions, in particular in respect to the role of existing and developing transnational and global tensions. This panel aims to look specifically at the role of empires, world politics, and the revolutionarily global dimensions of nineteenth century science in determining how new frameworks of data and specimen collection for different disciplines were planned, built, and managed. Moreover, it explores the role of international cooperation and competition in their historical development.

To achieve all this the case studies will look at the role of ideas, networks, and infrastructures in the deployment of this second scientific revolution from the perspective of very diverse disciplines. Martin Mahony will look at the global scale of meteorology’s infrastructures within the British Empire and their role in the development of modern climatology. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg will discuss the cooperative and international nature of debates about the level of the sea and the growth of a global network of measuring stations. Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll will address the idea of classification in nineteenth century science and the practical dimensions of mapping and collecting data. Talip Törün, finally, will link science and the economic imperial infrastructures and networks exploring how existing shipping and trading routes influenced the collection of museum specimens.


Wilko Graf von Hardenberg (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Berlin)


Martin Mahony (University of Nottingham)

Wilko Graf von Hardenberg (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Berlin)

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (University of Leeds)

Talip Törün (German Maritime Museum / University of Bremen)



Martin Mahony: The skies above: Meteorology and atmospheric imperialism

European empires were never solely about the horizontal projection of power across geopolitical space. They also had a distinctive verticality – a deep-rooted interest in the skies above – articulated through a concern for the effects of tropical climates on human health, of climatic extremes on colonial political economy, or through an engagement with the atmosphere as a space of imperial connectivity and military power. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these concerns were refracted through the practice of scientific meteorology and climatology.

Taking the British Empire as an example, this paper examines how atmospheric knowledge was pursued, standardized, circulated and put to work in colonial settings as the science of meteorology underwent a transition from the ad hoc compilation of ‘amateur’ observations to an institutionalized and professionalized science of colonial government.

To date, the historiography of the atmospheric sciences has focused on epistemic or theoretical revolutions. This paper contends that a fuller picture of meteorology’s co-production with shifting forms of political power demands attention to the quiet revolutions through which the science expanded spatially through, and as, new forms of infrastructure, creating in turn new epistemic and material cultures of knowledge production. The rise of imperial aviation during the early 20th century provides a particularly apt setting in which to explore this intersection of networks, ideas and infrastructures in the making of a new empire of atmospheric knowledge.

Wilko Graf von Hardenberg: Measuring the Sea: Ideas and Infrastructures

The level of the sea has become a trope of environmental discourse, used to symbolise current and future changes to the natural framework that surrounds us. These modifications are inherently global and promise to have revolutionary impacts. The scientific and technological means used to measure and interpret these changes have a history that spans however a much longer period than that covered by the actual awareness of the role of humans in environmental change. Both are in fact part of a complex history that is rooted in nineteenth century globalisation of science.

As has been argued elsewhere, for example, for cable telegraphy and meteorology, the commercial, military, and practical demands of empires greatly influenced the development of the technology behind the measurement of the level of the sea and the determination of its mean, both for the aims of navigation and the geodetic assessment of the colonies.

In this talk I address specifically the history of the infrastructures and forms of cooperation set up during the long nineteenth century to measure the level of the sea. In particular I pay attention to the development of the necessary technical means (e.g. the self-registering tide gauge), the deployment of measurement stations beyond Europe and North America, and the setting up of intergovernmental scientific committees. I argue that crucially relevant was a combination of what has been termed ‘governmental internationalism’ and of imperial economic and political interests. International power relationships and the peculiar local colonial contexts were, indeed, both central in determining the conditions for the standardization processes that led to the definition (and constant re-definition) of the mean sea level, the selection of where to build local measurement stations, and the long term reliability of collected data.

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll: Indigenous knowledge in the network of colonial science

The nineteenth century saw a tremendous expansion of colonial science. In regions such as southern Africa, Australia and the South Pacific, investigations that were ostensibly zoological or botanical frequently had a strong anthropological and environmental dimension too. Local guides and informants were commonly used as part of budding local research infrastructures and came thus in contact with the networks of metropolitan science. These were the people who obtained specimens and provided identifications and details of habitat. Indigenous environmental knowledge and indigenous cultural classifications thus frequently found expression in the field records of natural historians and of the artists they employed. These ideas remain present in their drawings, but were generally excluded from the overall interpretation as the information was incorporated into metropolitan systems.

New forms of knowledge were thus produced on the boundary between the local and the global dimension by colonial research practices. The research frameworks of scientists and collectors on the field were subjected to the competing influences of Western science and indigenous knowledge forcing them to act as mediators and brokers among different networks and sets of ideas.

In this paper I specifically analyse the role of international networks and colonial infrastructures in the retrieval and interpretation of knowledge, from ethnographic and natural historical collections gathered in southeastern Australia in the nineteenth century. I do so by placing individual collectors in comparative and metropolitan, as well as local, contexts. One exemplary case among many is provided by German-born Wilhelm von Blandowski, the first government zoologist in the colony of Victoria, whose career failed, I argue, precisely because he tried to foreground Aboriginal methods of classification.

Talip Törün: On the genesis of natural history collections in the context of maritime infrastructures in the 19th century

Many aspects of entangled history in a global perspective have been discussed in recent research papers: connectivity of markets, development of the consumption economy, technical progress, and migration. The fast-paced development of scientific disciplines is an integral part of these complex changes. In the nineteenth century zoology, botany, geology, and anthropology were growing disciplines that required ways to materially represent discoveries. The global exchange of knowledge, ideas, and discoveries needed explicit material proof: objects and collections became necessary as reference. By delivering epistemic evidence new knowledge was generated and old knowledge supplemented (or even overturned).

Before the twentieth century global networks relied on ship. In fact, the ship was the only existing means of intercontinental mass transportation. To that effect, it played a vital role in the genesis of transoceanic collections. Embedding the ship into the historic genesis of natural history collections allows me to research an understudied field.

In my paper I analyse which interdependencies between merchant shipping and the genesis of knowledge- and collection-systems emerged. I identify and document the maritime traces on the basis of some exemplary collections of natural history. Following the ship, I study trading routes and connect them with particular objects from these collections.

Undoubtedly, modern scientific explorations by ship had a pioneering role in discovering remote places and brought back a huge number of objects to European and North American collections. However, these scientific expeditions were carried out as self-contained „projects“. In contrast, merchant ships offered continuity. Especially in the long nineteenth century, when secure and economically profitable trade routes were established, markets were delivered with all kinds of products. But also museum collections were supplied with oversea objects.

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