UCL News


Photography prize: Connecting Threads

11 July 2007

Dr Joe Cain (UCL Science & Technology Studies) has won the British Society for the History of Science's OEC Image Prize for 2007 for his photograph 'Connecting Threads'.

Connecting threads The prize is awarded for an original image to be used for teaching/communicating the history of science.

Dr Cain explains: "The image shows Whitchurch Silk Mill, on the River Test in Hampshire, was built in 1800. These bobbins hold silk thread for weaving at the mill.

"I love this photograph's colour. And I adore its versatility. I use it as a recurring image in my survey course. From it, I can launch into topics far and wide. There are direct connections to industrialisation and the British shift to manufacture. Stretch a bit, and this photo connects to ideas of export economies and globalisation, competition between biological and chemical dye industries, shipping and telecommunications, the role of scientists and engineers in studies of efficiency, and shifting patterns of work. Today, it's an instance of heritage tourism and a more romantic vision of craftsmanship.

"As a photograph of silk threads, this image lets me talk about agriculture as an industry - one firmly intertwined with science. When I'm teaching, I can pivot from agriculture to transport of biological commodities and specimens - connecting to Alfred Crosby's 'Columbian Exchange' and its profound implications. Efforts to produce silk at home gets me to Joseph Banks and Kew Gardens, then a pivot again, this time to tea and tobacco. Then it's clear sailing through the rest of the course: exploration, empire, and the extraction.

"It's important to me that students learn to think analytically about the most commonplace items in their lives. They ought to notice when their beans come from Zambia, their lamb from New Zealand versus Wales, and their chocolate … where does chocolate come from? More importantly, why is it so hard to figure that out?

"A few colourful silk threads prove to be an ideal device for continuity along a line of otherwise disconnected themes. From so simple a beginning, a few threads can weave tapestries both rich and beautiful."

To find out more about Dr Cain, or to purchase a copy of the image, use the link at the bottom of the article.