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Reviewed by:
  • Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution
  • John Singleton
A. D. Morrison-Low. Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007. xvi + 408 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-5758-3, $99.95 (cloth).

This volume by A. D. Morrison-Low, Principal Curator in the Science Section of the National Museums of Scotland, seeks to connect instrument and technological history with economic and business history. Morrison-Low laments the antiquarianism of many instrument historians and their reluctance to engage with other types of historian. By the same token, it might be said that many economic and business historians have only a moderate grasp of technical matters. Unusually in a work of economic history, Morrison-Low makes substantial use of physical as well as written evidence. Her book contains numerous photographs of instruments and trade cards. These are not mere decorations. The instruments have much to say about the skills of the workforce and help the historian to identity the most [End Page 868] prominent firms. Some businesses even numbered individual pieces of work. Following the text, there is a directory, running to almost 50 pages, of instrument makers known to have been active in the English provinces in 1851. The emphasis here is on the provinces, and there are chapters on Bristol and Liverpool, York and Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, and smaller centers. London, the undisputed heart of the industry, has been examined by previous scholars, but the provinces have been overlooked. Even so, Morrison-Low does not neglect London. She discusses movements of personnel between the capital and the provinces, the use of provincial firms as suppliers, and the growing competition faced by firms in the metropolis by the early Victorian era.

Relatively few scientific instruments were used directly in the production of industrial machinery. Morrison-Low is not telling a story about the causes of the Industrial Revolution, although she notes that spectacles, which were among the most common scientific instruments, could extend the working lives of skilled workers, including those in engineering, for many years. Scientific instruments were employed in surveying, navigation, education, and the home. They were vital to the shipping industry and railway construction, and made a contribution to the spread of the British Empire. Scientific instruments also had a snob value. Many were works of art and not intended for practical use. Possession of an elaborate telescope was supposed to say something about the intelligence and urbanity of the owner. Middle class families could participate in the world of science, however peripherally, by purchasing a cheap microscope or barometer. Some of the items on sale were toys or novelties. The kaleidoscope fell into this category, being immensely popular for a few years. The authorities were large buyers of scientific instruments, needing them for the navy, the customs service, and the survey of India. In the world of education, medical schools, literary and philosophical societies, and their working-class equivalent, the mechanics institutes, were important customers. Morrison-Low shows that the scientific instrument industry was complex. No clear distinction existed between retailers and manufacturers. There was a considerable amount of subcontracting, with less well known provincial firms making instruments for sale under the name of larger metropolitan firms. Brass and glass, two of the key materials used in the industry, became cheaper during the period covered by Morrison-Low, but there is no reliable evidence of either an upward or downward trend in the prices of the instruments themselves. She shows that there were many connections between firms, often on the basis of kinship; that immigrant instrument makers were common in some areas, such as Italians around Manchester; [End Page 869] and that women ran some businesses after the death of their husbands. No doubt these traits were common in other small trades at the time.

This is a sophisticated book, which stands at the intersection of business and economic history on the one hand, and instrument and technological history on the other hand. The scientific instrument industry is one of many trades routinely neglected in macro histories of British industrialization. Small in size and rich in the variety of items produced, such industries frustrate the efforts of those anxious...


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