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From King's Instrument Repository to National Physical Laboratory: Kew Observatory, physics and the Victorian world, 1840-1900

Macdonald, Lee Todd (2015) From King's Instrument Repository to National Physical Laboratory: Kew Observatory, physics and the Victorian world, 1840-1900. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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This thesis attempts to fill a notable gap in the literature on nineteenth-century science, by writing the history of Kew Observatory between 1840 and 1900 as an institution. I frame this institutional history within three overall questions:- 1) What can the history of Kew Observatory tell us about how the physical sciences were organised in the Victorian era? 2) How did the ‘observatory sciences’ (defined by historian David Aubin as sciences practised within the observatory, of which astronomy is just one) at Kew develop over the course of the nineteenth century? 3) How did standardisation develop at Kew in the context of the culture of the physical sciences between 1840 and 1900? I demonstrate that throughout the period 1840-1900, the organisation of science at Kew was thoroughly a part of Victorian laissez-faire ideology. Indeed, laissez-faire dictated the emphasis of the work at Kew later in the century, as the observatory was forced to concentrate on lucrative standardisation services. I show that until the 1871 transfer of Kew from the British Association for the Advancement of Science to the Royal Society, the work at Kew expanded to include several observatory sciences, but that after 1871 Kew became a specialist organisation that concentrated principally on just one of these: standardisation. I show that Kew did not simply reflect contemporary trends in the observatory sciences but that it actually helped to set these trends. Finally, I show that as early as the 1850s, the standardisation work at Kew was an essential service to the London instrument trade, private individuals and government departments. I use this, plus archival evidence, to argue that the National Physical Laboratory evolved as an extension of Kew Observatory. I thus argue that the origins of the NPL in Kew Observatory represent one of the last triumphs of laissez-faire.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Kew Observatory; history of science; observatories; astronomy; solar physics; meteorology; geomagnetism; instruments; standardisation; National Physical Laboratory; laissez-faire
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures (Leeds) > School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.675030
Depositing User: Mr Lee T Macdonald
Date Deposited: 03 Dec 2015 16:02
Last Modified: 25 Jul 2018 09:51
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/11346

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