Material Mathematics: Engineering, instruments and the material culture of mathematics, 1850-1920

US Census Planimeters

If you are interested in applying for this studentship opportunity please contact the lead supervisor in the first instance.

Supervisory team: Professor June Barrow-Green (Open University) and Dr Stephen Johnston  (Museum of the History of Science, Oxford)

Since the 19th century, mathematics has been commonly seen as the “purest” and most abstract of the sciences. Recent research has focused on the surprising extent to which this drive towards abstraction was paralleled by a concrete concern with devices to solve mathematical problems in practice. In fields from tide prediction and naval architecture to early aviation and electrical engineering, sophisticated precision instruments such as planimeters, integrators and differential analysers were offered as both elegant solutions and reliable tools for demanding areas of engineering and technical practice.

The project will address the role of these instruments in a range of scientific and engineering disciplines and the extent to which they also served a didactic function in the new institution of the mathematical laboratory. It will investigate the networks connecting designers, makers and users to analyse how success and failure were judged by different audiences. The intent is to bring fresh materials into an already developing historiography, and make a significant contribution to shaping further work.

Focusing on the later 19th and early 20th centuries, this project will open up material culture perspectives to complement recent research using documentary sources. Collaboration with the Museum of the History of Science will provide both working space and privileged access to its own collection: not just its artefacts but also the accompanying grey literature of trade catalogues and ephemera that do not survive well elsewhere. The Museum will also act as a point of entry and introduction to other collections. In addition to these research benefits, the successful student will be able to connect with Oxford’s community in the history of mathematics and science, providing additional intellectual and practical support.

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