SIS lecture by Frank James, 6 November 2020

8th Gerard Turner Memorial Lecture 2020, to be held online via Zoom at 6pm GMT on Friday 6th November 2020

Instruments from Scratch? Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday and the Construction of Knowledge

Professor Frank James, Professor of History of Science,Science and Technology Studies Department, UCL

Statue of Michael Faraday (with induction ring) outside IET headquarters. Photograph © Frank James

‘A few wires and some old bits of wood and iron seem to serve him for the greatest discoveries’. Thus Herman Helmholtz writing to his wife in 1853 after being shown by Faraday some of the apparatus he had used during the previous few decades in the Royal Institution’s basement laboratory. At one level this can be read as part of that heroic ‘sealing wax and string’ story of scientific development extolled by John Tyndall in a letter to Lord Rayleigh, a myth that contributed to informing outside perceptions of British science until well into the twentieth century. However, Helmholtz’s use of the word ‘seem’ betrays a sense of doubt and this talk will discuss the basis for that scepticism.

Undoubtedly, some apparatus used by Davy and Faraday was made in the Royal Institution, but they also used the products made by scientific instrument makers, most notably John Newman who had his shop in nearby Regent Street. He made some of Davy’s early miners’ safety lamps in 1815/16 and much of Faraday’s electrochemical apparatus that he used in the early 1830s. Furthermore, the Royal Institution had to fundraise to allow Davy to acquire some large batteries which included components made by Wedgwood, while one of Faraday’s most important discoveries, of the magneto-optical effect, was made using a powerful commercially made Argand lamp. Taken overall these examples illustrate that knowledge is not constructed by individual lone geniuses working away in their laboratories, but is the outcome of complex, highly contingent social interactions.

Frank James is a Professor of History of Science in UCL’s Science and Technology Studies Department. He is currently researching Humphry Davy and his various contexts, having previously worked on Michael Faraday, whose correspondence he edited in six volumes. He has been President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology, the British Society for the History of Science and the History of Science Section of the British Science Association. He is a Member of the Academia Europaea and a Membre Effectif of the Académie internationale d’histoire des sciences.


The lecture is free and open to the public, please do share and circulate among your contacts. Please register your expression of interest by email to the Executive Office, Sarah Cavalier, at: by Thursday 5th November so we can send you the Zoom links when available.

Shopping Cart