UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies is an interdisciplinary centre for the integrated study of science's history, philosophy, sociology, communication and policy, located in the heart of London. Founded in 1921. Award winning for teaching and research, plus for our public engagement programme. Rated as outstanding by students at every level.

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Illari, Phyllis

HPSC3007

Topics in the History of the Physical Sciences



The William J. Hammer Historical Collection of Incandescent Electric Lamps

Projects available for inheritance



The following is a list of projects developed by students between 2007 and 2011. They are organized in three thematic groups. You may chose one of them for further development, or use them as a model for your narrative.

What is Electricity?

Charlotte Connelly, "Measuring Electric Current"

The ability to measure electric current is dependent on several factors; there must be suitable technology available to measure the current, and, perhaps more importantly, some theoretical understanding of what electric current is, is required.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth century the understanding of electricity was variously changeable, imaginative and in many cases incorrect according to today’s knowledge. However, by the start of the twentieth century most of the basic rules governing electricity were understood and were in use in the already well-established commercial applications of electricity. This essay discusses the state of electrical understanding at the start of the nineteenth century in order to place Oersted’s finding, that electricity and magnetism were linked, in a context. It goes on to describe advances in the galvanometer, a tool for measuring electrical current, through to the modern day ammeter. Finally there is a brief discussion of the philosophy of discovery and how it applies to measurement and quantification.

Layla Redway-Harris, "How did Presuppositions and Empiricism Play a Role in Oersted’s Discovery of Electromagnetism?"

The discovery by H.C Oersted that electricity and magnetism are both part of the same underlying phenomena, thus giving birth to the concept of electromagnetism could be considered as one of the most important developments of our age. The situation surrounding this discovery has been noted by scholars as a curious one, as by Oersted’s own admission, his main inspiration was not through the rational, logical calculation of contemporary information about the physical world but instead through adherence to a firm belief in a very particular metaphysical reality. In the main, scholars in the history of science have presented this occurrence as a strange quirk in scientific development, often invoking chance when attempting to explain how a personal philosophy can lead to a fundamental scientific discovery. R.S. Stauffer has argued that, far from by chance, it was Oersted’s combination of the metaphysical with the physical that led to his great discovery. T. Shanahan expands on this idea to claim that it was specifically Kant’s influence, both in terms of theory and scientific method, which enabled Oersted to make his discovery. This paper will attempt to investigate further the reasons why Kant’s influence was so important. A central focus will be on Oersted’s ability to balance speculation and belief with the empirical logic of scientific rationality. A suggestion that is gained from such investigations is the idea that Oersted’s awareness of the process of gaining knowledge was what allowed him to entertain firm convictions differing from the established scientific norm, yet remain within the confines of logical rationality. This then implies that Oersted’s consciousness in combining these factors could be the vital ingredient to his great discovery. 

Rory Jubber, "Immanuel Kant as the Primary Metaphysical Influence for Hans Christian Oersted's discovery of Electromagnetic Phenomena"

This paper will attempt to demonstrate that the discovery of electromagnetic phenomena by Hans Christian Oersted was the culmination of decades of personal adherence to the Kantian critical philosophy. Oersted is well known to have presupposed a unity of all nature, with a number of historians and philosophers of science attributing that belief to the critical influence of Naturphilosophie. I will assert rather that it is the seminal influence of Immanuel Kant that facilitated that belief in the fundamental need to unify knowledge. Kant’s influence on Oersted through his regulative use of reason in science and his dynamic theory of matter will be explained and related to the 1820 discovery. As well as this the critical disagreement between Kant and Oersted as to the status of chemistry will be discussed and a view expounded that this does not mean that Oersted made a major divergence away from the critical philosophy of Kant to save chemistry as a science.

Niall Le Mage "Ritter, Romanticism, and Representation"

Johann Wilhelm Ritter is credited variously with discoveries in galvanism, electrochemistry and the spectrum of ultra violet light. It is the philosophical backdrop to these discoveries, particularly those in galvanism, which shall

become the focus of the first, and largest, portion of this essay. I will investigate the nature of Ritter’s influences and place his discoveries in the broader context of the scientific research of his time, and evaluate his influence - or lack thereof - on the course of scientific research since. Having examined and explained Ritter’s well documented philosophical influences and indeed the influence of his work on both science and philosophy, my aim is then to move on to a perhaps more neglected aspect of Ritter’s methodology: his diagrammatic representations. Ritter’s diagrams and representations were recognised for their importance by his colleagues, yet there is very little acknowledgment of their role or importance in historians’ accounts of Ritter’s work. I seek to argue that while undoubtedly influenced by the philosophies of those around him, these influences should not lead to him being defined as a ‘Romantic’ scientist - a somewhat derogatory term seemingly placing him in the defunct and “flawed” Romantic movement. Instead I will argue that his discoveries, furthered by his system of representations, should lead us to re-evaluate his central place within Romanticism and his relations with German Enlightenment.

Alexandra Sinclair, "Development of the ion in electrochemical theory"

The aim of this paper is to follow the development of understanding as to the relationship between chemical action and electrical conductance when a constant current is applied to a conducting liquid. How at various stages it was perceived that the electrical current travelled from one electrode to the other, depending on the current view of the agent of electricity and the technology available. Formative electrochemical theories where first postulated after the development of Volta’s pile and the chemical changes it caused. The subsequent period was one of scientific creativity, experimentally and theoretically that culminated in the identification of the key aspects of electrochemical theory that would subsequently be quantified by Faraday by the introduction of the ion.

Alexandra Sinclair "Beyond the Law(s): Michael Faraday's Experimental Researches, Series 8"

This is very much a work of two parts. The first aspect is a review of Faraday’s electrochemical theory and experimentation in the early 1830s. Partially those aspects which are still pertinent to modern science; namely the development of his laws of electrochemistry and terms of electrochemistry.

The second aspect of my work is to consider his work as explicated in Experimental Researches 8 in which Faraday argues for chemical interactions as the source of power with in Volta’s Pile. This research includes an account of the restaging of some of Faraday’s original experiments which where carried out to understand the role of amalgamated electrodes in the Voltaic apparatus.

(Note: As you can see, Alex has developed her work on electrochemistry over two consecutive years and turned it into her dissertation. She has done some amazing laboratory work along with developing her historical narrative. If you want to inherit her project, please discuss your plan with me first, as we will need to find a complementary angle to the work she has already done)

Matthew Paskins, "How Did William Thomson reform the study of Atmospheric Electricity?"

The Study of atmospheric electricity was placed on a new footing by William Thomson in the 1860s. This paper describes how he did this, as well as the instruments he designed and the context of his doing so, suggesting the continuities and discontinuities between his views and the eighteenth century atmospheric electricians and his contemporary meteorologists, drawing on Pancaldi’s work on ‘competitive imitation’ as a structuring principle for scientific development.

Charles Laine, "Discovering the electron and keeping the aether"

J. J. Thomson is generally recognized as having discovered the electron in 1897 at the age of 40. Given that he was at the forefront of experimental and theoretical research why was it that he continued to use the term “corpuscle” while others had adopted the term electron and developed theories which employed the aether which experiments had failed to detect? It has been argued, based in part on the little he wrote of his philosophical inclinations, that his belief in the aether was metaphysical and he considered the corpuscle or electron as a mere epiphenomenon of the aether. Based on this argument I attempt to show that his position is one in which he was a realist with regard to the aether, for which he had no proof, and an antirealist with regard to the electron, for which he had plenty of proof.

Kristina Hustwitt, "The development of aether theory to the present day: Is it still alive?"

Aether has had a confusing history as the word has been applied to a variety of different entities. This essay will discuss turning points in its history, enabling a comparison of the different theories through time, and to draw a conclusion, seeing what aspects are reflected in all the theories. Aether started with Aristotle; a word he used to describe the matter that made up the celestial realm. It was developed by scientists such as Descartes, mechanizing it, and making it a substance that was not unlike matter that explained how light propagated. Aether was eventually turned into a theory that was a regular part of science, and by the 1860’s it was given very precise properties by Maxwell. The null results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, followed by Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity, which showed that it was not possible to have an absolute reference frame, are thought to caused the death of the aether. Even after this time the aether did not go away, and even Einstein published further papers on it and introduced a ‘new’ aether; one that did not violate relativity. This ‘new’ aether turned into the physical properties of space. The aether theories will be discussed in three sections, The first aether; Aristotle’s, the second aether; from Descartes’ to Einstein in 1905, and the third aether, from 1905 to the present day. From the studies on these three aether’s it is easy to see that they are connected (especially aether two and three) by action at a distance, and the minds dislike of the idea of phenomena occurring out of a vacuum. The first aether has remained as a term used by science journalists and science writers to make the reader immediately understand the nature of a substance. The second and third eventually turned into physical space, or the vacuum, which has many physical properties, the only difference being it does not provide a frame of absolute reference.

Roshan Panjwani, "Fresnel, Maxwell and Scientific Realism"

Since Larry Laudan’s forceful attack on scientific realism in ‘A Confutation of Convergent Realism’ there have been several attempts by prominent philosophers to defend some form of realism. Some of the most forceful ones have used the history of aether theories as a source for case studies. In this paper I look at three such attempts by John Worrall, Stathis Psillos and Alan Chalmers. I focus on the notion of scientific progress and the way these thee philosophers have applied it to theories of the aether from Fresnel’s luminiferous aether to Maxwell’s electromagnetic field and try to show that this confers to a branch of realism.

Ben Gilbert, "The New Anti-Electricity: The development of Dirac’s “Hole Model”

A fundamental reformulation of almost every single concept of physics took place during the early part of the 20th Century. Electricity, like everything else, did not escape this “earthquake”. This paper aims to trace one fundamental contribution to our notion of electricity and to trace the key protagonists and the difficulties in its inception. The contribution to be discussed will be P.A.M. Dirac’s “Hole Model” and, one important consequence of this, anti-matter. The aims of this paper will be; 1) To describe the development and progression of Dirac’s “Hole Model” and the problems in physics which it solved and, 2) To identify the key protagonists who accepted and rejected the theory at its different stages. The overarching scheme of the paper is to outline clearly one of the most interesting stories from the history of twentieth Century physics, and to shed some historical light on the reasons why this new theory was revolutionary and trace its gradual progression from “nonsense” to an accepted physical theory.

Jake Higgins, "QED: Dirac's Hole Theory is not the Whole Theory"

The development of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) from Dirac to Feynman is a long and arduous tale if told in full. In this paper I will trace this story starting from the development of their more famous contributions, and explore the intersections where their work meets. Where I may succeed in explaining the development and complexities of the mathematical ‘tools’ involved in this story, I may fail to avoid that most bothersome charge of whiggism. This could have been avoided if this was a complete study of the history of QED. However, the necessity of narrowing down my subject matter leads me to pick only the episodes of the history that are relevant for me to be able to tell a story at all. The real picture is one of diversity and magnitude, of climbing up the wrong ladder only to see the right ladder in the distance, and of a plethora of contributions from different physicists. In this paper, I will aim to describe science, or more specifically mathematics, as a language that describes the natural world. I will argue that moments of ‘equivalence’ between different mathematical interpretations in the development of QED render the ‘choice of grammar’ (if you will) as sociologically and philosophically driven, rather than a direct falsifiable manifestation of the reality of nature. I will also attempt to push the further conclusion that there is a normative advantage to the physicist to treat moments of ‘mathematical equivalence’ and even ‘theory conflict’ with a pluralistic flavour, and I believe this will be substantiated by my historical treatment of QED. Furthermore, this pluralistic flavour that enters the work of theoretical physicists is inspired and fuelled by their allegiance to prioritising a certain mathematical world-view as a way of translating the words of nature. In this way, I aim to show that there is often a disregard for representation or ontology, that has been so prevalent in the history of science.

Electricity, Technology and Economy

Andrea Marchesetti, "Why didn’t Swan become the English Edison?"

Thomas Edison (1847-1831) is commonly considered the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. However, many other inventors claim to have played a role in its invention. One in particular, the English chemist Joseph Swan (1828-1914), managed with some success to defend his priority while alive and further attempts to set the record straight have been made by family members or historians close to the family.In this paper I assess the cogency of Swan’s claim of priority by reconstructing the timeline of Edison’s and Swan’s inventions and the relation between the two. Besides, I shall try to understand the reasons for the oblivion into which Swan’s memory has fallen and for Edison’s success in establishing himself as the inventor of the incandescent lamp. In reconstructing the buildup to Edison’s success, I’ll first use a naïve social constructivist approach resorting to broad social explanations; by showing its limits, I aim to indicate how a the better explanation might provided by an alternative, more sophisticated kind of social explanation.

(Note: Andrea has developed his narrative over two years and his work is at a relatively advanced stage. If you want to inherit his project, please discuss your plan with me first, as we will need to find a complementary angle to the work he has already done)

David Kinahan, "Struggling to Take Root: The Work of the Electro-culture Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries between 1918 and 1936 and its Fight for Acceptance"

Although it sounds odd today, many scientists and entrepreneurs have explored the idea of using electricity to make plants grow faster since the 18 th century. In 1918, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries were so enticed by the idea that they set up a committee to investigate. Here, the work of this committee is discussed in some detail using the eighteen Interim Reports that they published between 1918 and 1936, the year that they were disbanded. Furthermore, reasons why the committee was axed despite some considerable successes are considered. It is concluded that the electro-culture effect is a real one, and that the Committee was axed as a result of economic pressures, not because the idea was wrong.

Olivier Grubestedt, "How did gas companies survived the advent of electric lighting?"

This essay examines how gas companies survived the advent of electric lighting. When reports of Edison’s first incandescent electric light were announced the price of British gas shares began deteriorating rapidly. Instead of an expected decline in the gas industry, the number of customers actually trebled and the gas sales doubled. This outcome was due to the response of gas companies who created a new market of gas appliances. In addition to the gas appliances there were other beneficial economic factors such as a significant fall in the prices of the gas industry’s two main inputs. The emergence of two technological innovations became crucial for the gas industry’s survival. The pre-payment meter made a mass market possible and the Welsbach mantle improved the illuminating power of gas lighting to a great extent. The gas industry had the advantage of having secured itself both economically and legislatively. The electrical industry was hampered by its infancy as there was a lack of technology and expertise. It faced a considerable cost disadvantage which was caused to some extent by judicial factors and that they could not achieve economies of scale. It would thus be fair to conclude that the gas companies survived the advent of electrical lighting through a number of interlinked factors.

Zofia Magrian, "The Life and Discoveries of Nikola Tesla"

In this essay I attempt to give a historical reconstruction of the career of Nikola Tesla. From humble beginnings and early disapointments, which had led him to part with the employment at the enterprises of Thomas A. Edison, my analysis progresses towards the recognition of the potential that lay in his inventions, especially in the newly developed polyphase current generating system, and the induction motor. I attempt to convey the unique aspects of the personality of this puzzling individual, around whom so many myths have arisen. Those myths I try to dispell through a careful review of primary and secondary sources. I place emphasis on the fact that Tesla’s own eccentricities were often the source of most misunderstandings, and require to be placed in a historical perspective. Ever so often, authors have come to disagree upon various aspects of Tesla’s life and discoveries. It is only now, with the increased availablity of reliable sources, that we are coming to gain accurate historical knowledge about Nikola Tesla – a man of many eccentricities and great aspirations, but also a man of his own longings and desires.

Gareth Wright, "Who were the figures in the invention of the integrated circuit and how important were their contributions?"

The integrated circuit (IC) is one of the most important inventions of the last 150 years. Its creation facilitated the necessary advances in electronic technology that have led to the computer age in which we now live, with it being the key component that allows us to have mobile telephones and computers that fit in an office. Indeed, the IC was essential in sending a manned spacecraft to the moon. However, unlike Marconi’s radio, Baird’s television or Bell’s telephone, the inventor of this revolutionary product is not widely known at all. This began to change in 2000 when Jack Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for its discovery. However, as is often the case in such matters, the story is not as simple as that. Most people in the semiconductor industry would consider Kilby to be the co-inventor of the IC along with Robert Noyce, and that Noyce would have shared the prize with Kilby, had he not died in 1990. While it is true that both of these men filed patents for a monolithic semiconductor IC within 6 months of each other, and that both of them had their patents granted, they were not the only people who were involved in the design and discovery, and they were certainly not the only people who made the IC a practically working device. I will assess the importance of their work in terms of how critical the work was in the story of the invention, and whether or not the invention could have taken place without their influence. In so doing I hope to ultimately show that with a modern invention, such as the integrated circuit, the invention itself is the culmination of a series of technological advances as opposed to an individual piece of inspiration.

Electricity, the Human Body and Society

Kwab’na Agyeman-Mensah "At the heartbeat of electrocardiography: Does the development of the electrocardiograph fit Kuhn’s theory of scientific discovery?"

The electrocardiograph is one the most significant examples of the adaptation of electricity and its properties to medicine. It is the most commonly used procedure in the field of cardiology. It is advantageous as it is non-invasive, the results are easy to comprehend and it is cheap. It could be said that it is one of the most influential medical invention as it is used across the globe. It has remained a top procedure irrespective of advancements in the field of cardiology for over one hundred years. This essay evaluates the development of the electrocardiography and the different contributors to its establishment as a medical field. Kuhn’s theory of scientific discovery is also applied and analysed as it applies to electrocardiography. This article also illustrates why the establishment of the field of electrocardiography does not fit a Kuhnian model, as well as depicting the similarities and differences between the history and the philosophy.

Thomas Dalziel, "A heartfelt discovery: Electrocardiography's elusive logic"

In this essay, I will argue that the logic of discovery is often difficult to find. I will illustrate this with the troublesome case of electrocardiography. No respectable cardiology textbook could fail to mention Willem Einthoven's name, and no historian of science could ignore him in a history of medicine. However, the concept of him as the founder of electrocardiography is ill-founded. In "The History" I will explore the roles of many characters in the discovery of ECG and will show that this account leads to philosophical difficulties. In "The Philosophy" I will explore the various theories of how these discoveries can occur and will confront such problems. I will show that electrocardiography provides many counter-examples to philosophies of discovery, but it does not deny a basic logic. Finally, I will conclude - at Einthoven's expense - that Waller deserves more credit for helping develop the ECG. 

May Lim Li, "How do You Mend a Broken Heart: A Study in the History of Fibrillation and Defibrillators"

This essay explores the historiographical challenges posed by the fascinating, and yet little known, history of defibrillators. Starting from the work on fibrillation carried out by Jean Louis Prevost and Frederico Battelli at the end of the 19th century, I discuss standard historical accounts that credit Claude Beck at Western Reserve University and William Kouwenhoven at the John Hopkins University as pioneering figures in the development of the defibrillator. This essay, however, will focus on the work of a much neglected figure in the history of the defibrillator: Naum L. Gurvich. Gurvich’s work in Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s has received only a marginal treatment in historical studies of the development of defibrillator. His exclusion will be used as a case-study to explore the role of contingencies in science and technology and the problems that they raise in historiographical practice.

Marie-Claire Hawthorne "A Shocking Question: why use electricity to induce convulsions in the treatment of mental illness?"

I will show in this essay the steps that led to the discovery of electroconvulsive therapy. I will show that electricity has been part of western culture since the Greeks and became part of social culture from the eighteenth century with gadgets for everyday life but also in medical practice. I will show the evolution from the discovery that convulsions can be curative with Wagner-Jauregg to Meduna’s work to find safe and efficient convulsive agents to finally Cerletti’s innovation of using electrically provoked convulsions as a somatic treatment for mental disorders. I will assess the rapid rise of its popularity and global uptake and I will argue that the reasons for this were mainly economic. The prompt recoveries from ECT treatments led to a fast turnover. Its simplicity meant reduced need for expert staff that were in short supply during the second World War.

Tahera Begum, "Electrocution: A modern and humane method of execution?"

The human body has long been known to be a conductor of electricity. This biological predisposition to such electrical conduction has resulted in electricity being used in unique and innovative ways on the human body, electroconvulsive therapy and electrocardiograms being a couple of examples. In the late nineteenth century various events in New York triggered the invention of a new method of execution – electrocution. The story of how electricity was appropriated for capital punishment is a stunning historical case study on how different elements of society ranging from economic, social, medical and legal aspects interact over one commonality in order to achieve and forward their respective self-interests. The story and the issues associated with the electric chair is essentially a human-interest story, close analysis of this episode can provide insights and illumination into various aspects about capital punishment in existence today. My paper is divided into two sections. The first provides a background on the topic by giving a history of the electric chair. The second will then tackle the question of whether electrocution was a modern and humane method of execution as it was claimed to be by its advocates.

Mihwa Han, "Why is electrotorture categorized as ‘clean’ torture?"

Torture is supposedly banned and unaccepted worldwide. There are various legislations that exist to protect potential victims against the acts of torture. The effectiveness of such legislations can be questioned, as torture still exists to this day. Torture does not seem to be something that can ‘disappear’: the existence of torture is embedded within centuries of history. However, as more and more legislations are drawn up to prevent the acts of torture, there is an increasing need to use methods that leave minimal scars and marks. Electrotorture is one of many forms of torture which is identified as a clean torture technique. When used carelessly, electrotorture can leave the victim with devastating scars, but when used carefully, it can leave almost no signs of its use. However, although electrotorture may not leave any visible scars, it still leaves the victim with scars that are not visible to the eye, such as memory loss. I discuss whether electrotorture should be understood as a form of clean torture.

Looking for a topic?

• Ancient discovery of static electricity
• The Leyden Jar
• Franklin, kites, churches, and lightning-rod design
• Electricity for polite amusement (ref. Patricia Fara)
• Coulomb, Cavendish and the law of electrostatics
• The torpedo (fish)
• Galvanism: Galvani vs. Volta (ref. Marcello Pera)
• The Voltaic pile: easy diffusion and hard understanding
• The "dry pile" of De Luc
• The discovery and defence of Ohm’s Law
• Electrolysis for chemistry and industry
• Electricity in German Romanticism (ref. Walter Wetzels)
• Self-experimentation and genius: Volta, Ritter, Tesla (ref. Simon Schaffer)
• Berzelius’s dualistic theory of chemistry (ref. Evan Melhado)
• Who figured out nerve signals were electrical? From Lamarck to Eccles
• Oersted’s discovery of electromagnetism
• Faraday’s visual process of discovery (ref. David Gooding)
• Did telegraphy really spring from empire? (ref. Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise)
• Maxwell and mechanical models of the aether
• Discovery by unification? Light and electromagnetism
• Edison and the light bulb: invention by trial-and-error?
• The “battle of systems” (ref. Thomas Hughes)
• The selling of electricity (ref. Graeme Gooday)
• “Forging the scientist-engineer”, e.g. Ambrose Fleming (ref. Sungook Hong)
• The confirmation of superconductivity
• The photoelectric effect and automatic doors
• Discovery by error? Dirac on holes and positrons
• The meaning of “semiconductor” and its discovery

Identifying the topic and the question

Whether you inherit an existing topic or forge a new path, you will need to define your own project carefully. In defining your project, it is not enough to choose a discovery or innovation to look into. It is crucial to define a question which your work is going to attempt to answer. It is best if the question is an initial puzzle, which your work can resolve. There are various types of research questions you can ask:

• Why did this innovation take so long to be accepted?
• Why did this innovation not take root?
• How were viable alternatives eliminated?
• How was this innovation disseminated?
• Did this discovery result in the formation of a new community or field of study?
• Did this discovery result in a new way of life?
• What were the resources and contexts required for this innovation?
• Why was it this particular person or group of people who was/were able to make this innovation?
• How closely linked were abstract theory and concrete practice?
• What was the causal relation between the scientific discovery and the practical application?
• Was there incommensurability created by this innovation?
• Why have historians paid little attention to this important innovation?
• How have historians distorted this particular aspect of this innovation?
• What can this discovery teach us about the “logic of scientific discovery”?

Identifying the topic and the question may actually take a good deal of work, but you should try to get that done in the first two weeks of the course, given the time constraint we have. Often, valuable questions spring up in the form of your own disagreement with the interpretation of events given in secondary sources. Then your question will have the added dimension of "Was so-and-so correct in arguing that..."

...now here is a suggestion!!

Page last modified on 16 sep 11 18:11 by Chiara Ambrosio


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