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'Imitable Thunder': the role of gunpowder in seventeenth-century experimental science

Robertson, Haileigh Elouise (2015) 'Imitable Thunder': the role of gunpowder in seventeenth-century experimental science. PhD thesis, University of York.

Available under License Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales.

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The role of gunpowder as a military propellant has been widely studied. Less well understood, however, is its important role in seventeenth-century experimental science. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) called it ‘imitable thunder’, a designation indicative of its manifestation of nature’s occult powers. In the subsequent promotion of an experimental philosophy grounded on Bacon’s demands for a union of theory and practice, gunpowder appears frequently in experiments, discussions and controversies among Bacon’s followers. This thesis focuses on the transference of gunpowder from the battlefield to the laboratory. The Baconians re-valued and redefined it as an inquisitional material. To get to grips with the complex nature of this transition, the approach taken here fuses intellectual history, materials history, and the reworking of historical experiments. This integration reflects the Baconian call for a union of theorising and experiment. It also highlights how common substances could be reconfigured as scientific materials. Furthermore, this thesis demonstrates the diversity of Baconian endeavours to transfer gunpowder from the battlefield to the laboratory. There was little coherence among putative Baconians. While Bacon and Boyle saw gunpowder as a means to understand and appropriate the occult powers of matter, many fellows of the early Royal Society were more concerned to exploit gunpowder’s explosive energies for more immediate fruits. For them, harnessing the power of gunpowder symbolised the usefulness of natural inquiry and hence a valued role for the nascent Royal Society itself. Thus, locating gunpowder’s role in early modern science illustrates the programmatic, inquisitional, and symbolic roles of an everyday, but hugely powerful material. Moreover, this focus on gunpowder offers further exploration of early modern Baconian cultures of experiment, as well as valuable insights into efforts to implement Bacon’s project. Last but by no means least, gunpowder illustrates the benefits for historians of science of reworking historical processes and experiments.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, History of Science, Experimental Science, Natural Philosophy
Academic Units: The University of York > History (York)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.680618
Depositing User: Miss Haileigh Elouise Robertson
Date Deposited: 29 Feb 2016 12:01
Last Modified: 24 Jul 2018 15:21
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/11919

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