150 years of British science history from the scientists’ perspective
Founded in 1831, The British Association for the Advancement of Science embodied the organized, and successful, efforts of the British scientific community to transform science from a self-funded endeavor of the wealthy into a government-funded professional activity at the center of social and economic development.
The organization held an annual meeting in a different city every year, at which scientists pioneered on the practice of peer review—presenting new ideas and discoveries, debating them and their theories and publicizing their work—while attracting every significant UK-based scientist of the 19th and 20th century.
In 2009, BAAS became the British Science Association (BSA). The new association has expanded on the original mission of putting science at the center of society, culture and education, and is focused on increasing the number, range and diversity of people actively engaged with scientific studies, activities and developments. This archive, which goes from the foundation of BAAS until the 1970s, pre-dates BSA.
The rise of British science in the 19th and 20th centuries
The British Association for the Advancement of Science—Collections on the History of Science (1830s-1970s) is the ultimate interdisciplinary and interinstitutional archive, comprised of the previously uncatalogued BAAS materials and collections from prestigious British universities, selected by a team of leading History of Science scholars.
This is the only archive connecting the works, thoughts and interactions of the most influential scientists of the time, from Darwin to Ramsay, and documenting the history of British science from the 1830s through the 1970s across disciplines and universities.
Over ninety percent of the content within this unique archive has never been cataloged or available digitally until now. The materials within document 150 years of scientific discovery, Britain’s emergence as a center for science, and provide an insider’s perspective that researchers can’t get anywhere else.
- History of Science
- Industrial Design
Primary Source Materials
- Administrative records
- Press clippings
- Invitations to annual BAAS meetings
- Gray Literature
- Data Fieldwork
- Personal Papers
The Brilliant Mind of Charles Wheatstone
Sir Charles Wheatstone, a scientific polymath, was an entrepreneur and inventor, a teacher and a showman, with a brilliant mind that continually asked, “what if?”
His family had a music business on the Strand in London, where his father taught and made flutes, and his older brother ran the manufacturing part of the operation. So, it follows that Wheatstone’s early inventions were focused on music and sound.
He invented the concertina, and the magic lyre—a sound box, disguised as a lyre, connected by wire to transmit the soundboards of instruments that were playing upstairs. Although he had no formal science training, he was made Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s College in London, where he conducted pioneering experiments in electricity.
He went on to co-invent the first electric telegraph, the first communication device of its type in London; the stereoscope, a clock that told time by polarized light and submarine cables, among others.
The Multi-faceted Career of Herbert Chatley
Herbert Chatley was civil engineer with a brilliant mind and remarkable appetite for knowledge. In 1906, at the age of 21, he wrote The Problems of Flight, a Textbook of Aerial Engineering. After two years as a lecturer at the Municipal College in Portsmouth, and just two years after he married, Chatley was hired as a professor of civil engineering at Tongshan Engineering College in North China, and stayed in the country for the next 25 years.
He moved to Shanghai and served on the Whangpoo Conservancy Board, studying the mud and silt of the Whangpoo and Yangtze estuaries and supervising the construction of a locally built dredging plant. He also became fascinated with Chinese astronomy, Egyptian astronomy and Chinese occult, and published numerous articles on the topics.
Back in London when World War II broke out, Chatley joined the Admiralty to work on Mulberry Harbors, the floating artificial harbors used to protect supply ships anchored off the coast of Normandy during the Allied invasion. He was made an officer of the Legion of Honor by the French government for his contribution.
William Ramsay and the Nobel Prize
In 1887, William Ramsay became the chair of Chemistry at the University College London (UCL), and began researching nitrogen oxides and other non-reactive gases. It was there he with John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh), with whom he would win a Nobel prize.
Both scientists believed that there was a heavier gas in atmospheric nitrogen, based on the observation that nitrogen in chemical compounds weighed less than atmospheric nitrogen. This observation, lead to the discovery of argon, which they named for the Greek word for “lazy,” due to its inert nature.
Just one year later, Ramsay isolated helium, which, for the past 12 years since its discovery, was thought only to exist in the atmosphere. In subsequent years, he discovered xenon, neon, krypton and radon, now known as the noble gases comprising group 18 of the periodic table.
The Discovery of Helium
Although Joseph Norman Lockyer started his career as a civil servant in the War Office in his 20s, he always had his eye on the sky—quickly moving from amateur astronomer to a pioneering astrophysicist.
By fitting a spectrograph on a telescope, he was able to study the solar atmosphere in broad daylight, without having to wait for a solar eclipse—a revolutionary advancement in itself. This capability enabled him to identify an unknown element in the sun’s spectrum, which lead to the discovery of helium. Five thousand miles away, Pierre Janssen made that same observation while viewing a solar eclipse during an expedition to India.
Because both scientists papers detailing their observations arrived at the French Academy of Sciences the same day, both received credit for the discovery.
Emeritus Professor of the History of Science
University of Oxford
Department of Theology and Religion Research Fellow
University of Birmingham
Professor for the History of Science
Assistant Professor in the History of Science and Technology
University of Warwick
Professor of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Leeds