Those who enjoyed listening to Sam Alberti’s excellent keynote address at the Connecting with Collections Symposium (posted on this blog last week) may be interested in another presentation from that day.
This is my paper on “King Arthur’s Table: Learning From a Replica Scientific Instrument“. I have added the slides I used to an audio recording from the day. I hope you enjoy watching it – please leave any feedback in the Comments section below. You can find the abstract below the video.
“King Arthur’s Table” is not a table, nor has it anything to do with King Arthur. It is a twentieth-century reconstruction of a fourteenth-century astronomical instrument: a planetary equatorium described in a manuscript attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. Conceived by historian of science Derek Price as a huge, tangible realisation of Chaucerian astronomy for Cambridge’s then-newly-opened Whipple Museum of the History of Science, it was displayed, discarded, stored, catalogued with that rather whimsical name, and finally rediscovered.
This paper will use the biography of King Arthur’s Table as a route to understanding the early, inchoate years of both a museum and the discipline of history of science. Its construction in the Cavendish Laboratory, under the patronage of Sir Lawrence Bragg, and its first display at the Royal Society allow it to tell us much about the significant scientific institutions and figures of that period. Intended both as a replica instrument and as an homage to the life and work of a great historical figure, its own life story has reflected changing research priorities and curatorial attitudes, especially concerning reconstructions.
In a previous post I introduced one of the main subjects of my research: the historian of science Derek de Solla Price. Price, you’ll recall, was studying for his second PhD here in Cambridge when he discovered the Equatorie of the Planetis manuscript in the library of Peterhouse. As part of his research, he had what we’re calling King Arthur’s Table built at the Cavendish Laboratory.
My research has raised lots of questions about Price. These are interesting not only from a biographical point of view, but also for anyone curious about the atmosphere in which the history of science was launched as a separate discipline in Cambridge in the 1940s and 1950s. The most obvious of these questions is: why did Price, at the age of 28, suddenly decide to become a historian of science?
This was a big decision. In 1950 he already had a PhD in metal physics, and was teaching applied mathematics at the then University of Malaya, in Singapore. He was aged 28, with a wife and baby daughter. His work was going well: his boss at the University described him as “a very stimulating and helpful teacher.” But something made him give up his job and move halfway across the world. He came to Cambridge with no prospect of a job and no real idea of what he was going to do. Why?
With the help of the archives of Cambridge University and the Royal Institution, I have been able to go some way towards answering this question. Fortunately, Cambridge’s Board of Research Studies kept a file for Price, which still exists in the University archives. In addition, Sir Lawrence Bragg, who was a mentor to Price (and about whom I’ve blogged previously), kept a good deal of correspondence relating to him; this is now at the Royal Institution.
When Price was considering coming to Cambridge, the historian C. Northcote Parkinson, who was a colleague of his at the University of Malaya but had previously been a fellow of Emmanuel College, wrote to the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield. (Parkinson is now best remembered as the inventor of Parkinson’s Law, familiar to all students: work expands to fill the time available.) Parkinson wrote:
A younger colleague of mine here, an applied mathematician with knowledge of physics, has been taking a great interest of late in the history of science… I think his career may have suffered a little from the breadth of his interests… His work latterly has been historical and he has been fortunate in having here a complete set of the Transactions of the Royal Society…
He tells me that he means to return to England in December on the general principle that if he does not return soon he will not return at all. And he wants, if possible, to find a post as a lecturer in the history of science… So I have taken the liberty of writing to you… to ask whether there is any opportunity going for Dr Price.
Sure enough, Price did return to England in December 1950. He found a small house in Cambridge and from there wrote to A.R. (Rupert) Hall, who was the University’s only lecturer in history of science, as well as part-time curator of the Whipple collection (which did not yet have a home). Hall told Bragg about Price’s letter:
I am not quite clear what he wants, but I shall be getting in touch with him immediately. I know that he would like either a Research Fellowship or University post, but it seems to me that there is no chance of either for him at the moment here…
He would also like to work in Cambridge on a research grant, and I should be very pleased to see him here, and give him all the help I can… But it does seem to depend rather on money from elsewhere.
Bragg suspected that there might be some pressing problem that made Price want to leave Singapore, and urged Hall to investigate. Both Hall and Butterfield met with Price, who decided to submit an application to study for a PhD in early 1951. Butterfield wrote to W. J. Sartain, the Secretary of the Board of Research Studies:
He definitely gave me the impression of a person moving to the History of Science as a result of a long-standing interest in the subject and a real internal urge. I have had many applications from people wanting to try something on in the History of Science, but on the whole I am quite prepared to believe that Mr. Price is a person we ought to observe and take care of.
Finally, it’s worth quoting Price’s own words, in his application statement:
The subject of the research that I desire to pursue is “The History of Scientific Instrument Making“… Recent developments in the History of Science have clearly indicated the important role of changes in accuracy and design of instruments in the advancement of scientific knowledge…
My professional work as a physicist and my teaching experience have given me a rather wide acquaintance with the use and construction of scientific instruments, and it is this knowledge that I propose to use in the assessment of accuracy and design of early instruments.
So, contrary to Bragg’s suspicions about professional problems, or fear about political upheavals in Malaya, it was a simple case of an unfulfilled passion. (Of course there’s certainly more to say about Price’s implicit assumption that scientific knowledge and experience were the most important attributes in charting the apparent linear progress of the sciences.) Price certainly showed his passion when he started his studies in Cambridge, wasting no time in making a name for himself. He was, of course, to go on to become a successful academic and celebrated analyst of the growth of science.
The smaller model is the one I built (see my blog for the full story). We’re displaying both models as an example of research in the Museum, and the work of the Connecting with Collections project. The glass panel will soon be replaced by a larger one, to allow room for updates on the progress of my research.
This is the second week of the Cambridge Science Festival. Last Saturday the Whipple Museum had a special opening for Science Saturday, and I gave three short talks about my research, and about medieval astronomy more generally. The visitors seemed to enjoy getting to grips with the astrolabes!
Why not go and check out King Arthur’s Table? You can even come back here and leave a comment! The Museum is open Monday to Friday, 12.30-4.30 p.m, and it’s completely free. There are special tours and object handling sessions this afternoon, and on Friday afternoon – just drop in.
As you may have noticed, we’re all posting on the theme of who? this month. In my last post I raised some biographical issues and introduced my main subject, Derek de Solla Price. So this time I’ll write about a significant supporting character: Sir Lawrence Bragg.
Bragg is justly famous in the history of science: he remains the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize (at the age of 25 he shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his father William Henry Bragg, for their work developing X-ray crystallography). The previous year he had been elected to a fellowship and lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge. During the First World War he developed techniques of sound ranging on the Western Front, and he succeeded Ernest Rutherford as Professor of Physics at Manchester University in 1919. In 1937 he was appointed Director of the National Physical Laboratory, but had not even left Manchester when Rutherford, who had moved to Cambridge, died. Against some misgivings from his father, Bragg replaced Rutherford again, this time as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.
It is as Cavendish Professor that he interests us. J. A. Ratcliffe, head of the radio ionosphere research group at the Cavendish and a trusted lieutenant of Bragg, had this to say about him:
A Cavendish Professor plays at least four parts. He must be a scientist, run the laboratory, uphold the interests of the department in the University, and act as an Elder Statesman of Science outside. Bragg was pre-eminently the active scientist, and he ran the laboratory extremely well. I do not think he played the part that some others have done in the University itself, and I am not sure that his part as Elder Statesman was quite as large as theirs would have been. I found him extremely helpful and kindly, and above all things a real gentleman in every way. He was quite open and straight-forward and ready to help anyone who had the good of the laboratory at heart. I think there was an extremely good feeling in the laboratory during his time and all liked him.
That’s a pretty glowing report for a boss to receive, and it is clear that Bragg excelled as a manager. As soon as he came to the Cavendish he was thinking strategically about how it needed to change, and he explained his ideas in 1942 in Physicists After the War: Britain produced just one good physicist per million population and the demand for physicists exceeded supply. In future, scientists would need to pay more attention to the technical applications of their research. His ideas in this field influenced Derek Price, who would go on to develop the field of scientometrics – the statistical study of science.
He felt his role as a manager was to create the conditions for discoveries to take place. The best conditions for “brain-waves”, he felt, involved collaboration, discussion, and cross-fertilisation of ideas. They did not arise in large, amorphous organisations, or come to isolated individuals. So he restructured the Cavendish into research units, of 6-12 scientists, with a few assistants, one or two mechanics, and a workshop. (It was apparently very important that the workshop be well supplied with junk, so that new ideas could be tried out quickly and at low cost.) The rapid expansion of the Cavendish (from about 40 researchers before WWII to 160 by 1948) meant that some research groups had to be sub-divided. Nevertheless, he promoted contact between groups, and encouraged senior researchers to continue teaching undergraduates, hoping that this would stimulate the flow of ideas.
The fact that each group had its own workshop (as well as a central workshop for the largest and most specialised tasks) meant that there was some duplication of functions. Bragg felt that it was better to have extra machines and occasional underemployment of technicians, than to delay research because the workshops were too busy.
It was in one of these workshops that King Arthur’s Table was built. Derek Price had come to the Cavendish to put the archives in order and catalogue the Laboratory’s collection of antique scientific instruments. Bragg supported Price’s application for an ICI Fellowship to fund his PhD studies on medieval astronomical instruments, and it seems likely that Bragg took advantage of the workshops’ flexibility to commission them to produce a six-foot wood and brass equatorium – rather different from their usual work in cutting-edge physics!
These kinds of jobs were done without paperwork, so I am unlikely to be able to discover the precise circumstances of the equatorium’s production. But I am glad to have discovered more about a major contributor to the success of the Cavendish Laboratory, and a key figure in twentieth-century science.
My project is about King Arthur’s Table. I described this in a previous post. As I’ve explained on my own blog, it stems from my PhD research into a 14th-century manuscript, The Equatorie of the Planetis.
Yesterday I was in London, looking in the archives of the Royal Institution for information about how and why King Arthur’s Table was built according to the instructions in the manuscript. I didn’t find any direct evidence, but I discovered plenty about its creator, Derek Price, and his relationship with Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory where KAT was made.
I was struck by how many of my research projects have included a strong biographical element. Maybe it’s just the way my research interests push me, or perhaps there’s always a biographical aspect to every history. Either way, I do think personal stories add some human interest.
Price’s story is an intriguing one. I haven’t got to the bottom of it, but it seems that for him, coming to Cambridge was a new beginning. His background was far from prosperous: his father was a tailor and his mother a singer, and he studied for his first degree and doctorate at South West Essex Technical College (part of the University of London). After taking his doctorate in physics he moved to teach applied mathemetics at the then University of Malaya in Singapore. This was in 1947, the same year he got married. But in 1950 something changed. He decided to change subjects from mathematics and physics to the history of science, and began to make enquiries about studying or working at Cambridge. This was to lead to his second PhD, for which he researched the Equatorie manuscript he had discovered in the library at Peterhouse.
The archives show that several people in Cambridge were curious, even suspicious, about his reasons for leaving Malaya. There are hints that he did not fit easily into life in Cambridge. It’s tempting to suppose that this may have had something to do with his social or racial (Jewish) background, but there is no clear evidence on that point. Either way, it is fascinating to see how, when he decided to make a new start in his career, he was prepared to work incredibly hard to make it happen.
As I’ve also come to Cambridge a little later in life, it’s something I can identify with. And of course it’s been said that a biographer must be able to identify with their subject to some extent. Is this the beginning of a beautiful biographical relationship? We’ll see.