A History of Science Spectacular in Manchester

By Laura Mitchell

People standing in a museum at a reception, with a dinosaur skeleton behind them.
The opening night reception at the Museum of Manchester. All photos by the author.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to present a paper at the 24th International Congress on History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM), which was held at the University of Manchester from July 21st to 28th. The congress operates under the auspices of the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS/DHST) and the 24th congress was organized by the British Society for the History of Science. Held every four years, this year’s congress had the theme of “Knowledge at Work”. Because this was such a large conference with such a broad range, I am going to divide up my post thematically: Social Media, Sessions and Public  Events.


Well before the start of the conference, the organisers of the iCHSTM were dedicated to giving it a strong presence in social media. This can only be a good thing with the way that social media and academia seem to be joining up, especially in the blogosphere and on Twitter. First, the iCHSTM organisers have had a conference blog running since May. This began with select presenters offering brief descriptions of the papers they were to present, and evolved to include a daily “Congress Transmission” that provided summaries of the previous day’s events and any updates to the day’s program.

There is a conference Flickr page, updated as the conference progressed, that will give readers a glimpse of everything that was going on (and if you look carefully you may see your intrepid reporter in there somewhere).

For those who missed the conference–or even conference attendees who want to catch something again–there is a iCHSTM Youtube page, which has videos of many public events, including some great comedy bits from the Bright Club night.

The iCHSTM has a very active Twitter page and dedicated hashtags for the conference (#iCHSTM #histsci #histech #histmed). These were great resources for finding out the latest news and changes, as well as for following the livetweeting of sessions throughout the conference.


Charles Burnett of the Warburg Institute presents on the works of Ptolemy in medieval Europe.

The number of sessions and presenters at the conference was impressive: nearly 1400 presenters in 411 sessions, according to the website. The topics ranged from ancient astrology to asbestos in 1940s Quebec. As a result, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth and variety of papers that were given in Manchester. Here is a sampling…

In a session that I chaired, “Spaces and Practical Knowledge”, Anita Guerrini of Oregon State University discussed “The Ghastly Kitchen”. The early modern kitchen, she argued, was a site of life science, namely, dissection. It was an ideal place for conducting scientific experiments, being where instruments for dissection were kept and the cooking of animal parts occured. As well, senses such as taste and smell were important in discovering the properties of objects. Audio of her paper can be found, along with that of other iCHSTM bloggers, here.

In a session on “Geology and Literature”, Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester) spoke on “Dickens, Dinosaurs and Design”, comparing the harmony of Charles Dickens’s serialised novels with the perceived harmony and order of dinosaur skeletons. Dawson looked at the language used by both Dickens and his friend Richard Owen, a comparative anatomist. Dawson suggested that Dickens drew on the procedure and terminology that Owen used for the preparation of skeletons for display. Although the work of these two men may seem miles apart, both men wanted to bring about a similar harmony in their work, or a “fusing together” of vertebrae and chapters.

In the same session, Stephen M. Rowland (University of Nevada Las Vegas) examined “Mark Twain and Historical Sciences”. Twain wrote about science throughout his career (such as Paleontology in 1871 and Life on the Mississippi in 1883), and also interjected scientific remarks into his fiction works like Tom Sawyer. Rowland presented a number of examples from Twain’s prolific career, arguing that Twain followed scientific developments. Although Twain’s early works poked fun at new ideas and reflected contemporary American skepticism, Twain later used the respectability of science to argue against religious fundamentalism and Biblical literalism.

Janine Rogers (Mount Allison University) combined two of my favourite things– codicology and museums–in “The Medieval Codex and Early Science Collections and Museums”. She argued that there is a connection between the medieval codex and its focus on ordinatio and compilatio and early collections and museums. Compilatio viewed the compiler of the medieval book as God’s editor; thus, the book was a mirror of the universe. It was tied to the idea of unio, a union of all knowledge. Similarly, ordinatio, the placement of texts and images on the page, was a theological activity. Even the grotesque marginal imagery served to discuss or critique the main text. Rogers contends there was a similar adherence in early science collections and museums to the idea of knowledge be all-encompassing. The ideal museum, particularly in Victorian architecture, mirrored the layout of the ideal manuscript page, enclosing all knowledge within its walls.

Constance Putnam delivered a fascinating paper on the practice of rural medicine in the mid-twentieth century and the acquisition of medical knowledge by those not formally trained (“Knowledge-making in a rural general practice in mid twentieth-century America). Putnam’s research drew on the archive of thousands of her mothers’ letters. Her mother was not formally trained in medicine, but worked for decades as a laboratory technician and medical assistant with her husband in rural New England. Putnam’s archive demonstrates that the role of wives working in unofficial capacities was necessary for a rural medical practice to succeed.


iCHSTM also included a number of excursions to introduce attendees to Manchester and its involvement in the history of science, and public events to engage the wider population. These events included a tour of the Old Trafford, historical tours of Manchester, an Alan Turing opera, a Victorian séance event, a beer festival, and several musical performances.

Mr. Selwyn (Tim Cockerill) demonstrates some explosive properties on an audience member.
Some of the authentic 19th-century equipment used in the Victorian Science Spectacular.

One of the most…explosive was the Victorian Science Spectacular. This was presented as a demonstration of Victorian science in the 1890s. Four presenters: Aileen Fyfe as Miss Ann Veronica Stanley, a learned scientific gentlewoman; Katy Price as Mr. George Wells, inventor and brother of H.G.; Iwan Rhys Morus as Professor Marmaduke Salt of the Royal Panopticon of Popular Science; and Tim Cockerill as Mr Selwyn, chemical conjuror and assistant to Professor Salt took turns to present their apparatus to the audience. The demonstration consisted of experiments involving electricity, such as telegraphy and Jacob’s ladders, and demonstrations of the latest magic lanterns and cinematographs. With a few exceptions they used authentic period pieces. This was a fascinating look into the kinds of experiments that were used in the public scientific demonstrations of the nineteenth century, and how they blended entertainment with education. The question period following brought up a number of questions about the reaction of contemporary audiences, the practicalities of transporting the apparatus, and how this presentation has been used to engage the public with the history of science.

James Sumner subjects an innocent pint of beer to suspicious looking chemicals.

One of the highlights of the conference was James Sumner’s talk “Chemists, brewers and beer-doctors”, given in the local pub on Wednesday night. Sumner, co-organiser of the Congress, gave a demonstration of the chemical changes that unscrupulous “beer-doctors” performed on beer in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the price of malt dependent on the harvest, it became difficult to make a profit during the years of bad harvests. Thus, brewers turned to chemicals and science to turn a watered down pint into something indistinguishable from its full-powered brethren. Sumner subjected a pint of beer to many of the same chemicals that were used by these brewers, including innocuous substances like caramel colouring and vinegar. However, he refrained from the more dangerous substances like the metals that were used to give the impression of drunkenness (and which could lead to death in the wrong amounts). If this topic interests you be sure to check out Sumner’s new book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880, which has just come out from Pickering & Chatto.

iCHSTM held a Bright Club comedy night following Sumner’s beer presentation, with five brave academics performing sets. This was a fun evening with a lot of great humour. Who knew that asbestos could be funny? All of the routines from the evening are online at the iCHSTM’s Youtube page so you don’t have to take my word for the quality, you can see for yourself.

The next congress will be held in the summer of 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, so keep an eye out if you want to catch this great conference the next time around.

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