Personalities, publics and places in 19th century science popularisation

Personalities, publics and places in 19th century science popularisation

Author: Brian Trench – Dublin City University, Ireland

The long version of the history of science communication reaches back to pre-industrial times. Through the 19th century, as the figure of ‘scientist’ takes shape, the role of populariser is integrated into it. In the development of this role for the scientist many of the considerations about how popularisation can be, or should be, done prefigure the concerns of our own time. More than that, awareness of this early history offers insights into present practices; the attention that early popularisers paid to speaking style may illuminate performance aspects of current science communication.

This paper examines what it meant to do popular science through the stories of four leading exponents spanning the 19th century: Humphry Davy (and his cousin Edmund Davy), Dionysius Lardner, John Tyndall and Agnes Mary Clerke. Through their own reflections and through newspaper reports and scientific society records we can view the growing publics for science and these popularisers’ understanding of their popular role.

In the early 19th century Humphry Davy was a celebrity lecturer whose public talks in Dublin in 1810-11 were the hottest tickets in town. Davy had a notably strong following among women, who were largely excluded from the practice of science.

From being a theme of fashionable social gatherings popular science evolves into a profitable practice. In the 1850s Lardner and in the 1870s Tyndall presented US lecture tours over several months and both they and Clerke had outstanding publishing records, with some of their books appearing in multiple sell-out editions. Clerke was a pioneer among women popularisers, though exclusively as a writer.

With regard to place, the four personalities are linked through being born in or active in Ireland. All four had a significant presence in London. Two of them broke into the US market. Tyndall was published in several European languages.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Time