Thrifty Science: Making the Most of Materials in the History of Experiment by Simon Werrett
By Simon Werrett. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019. Pp. 304. Hardcover $45.
Thrifty Science takes the reader on a fascinating and novel tour of early modern science, wending its way through homes and gardens, auction houses, and instrument shops. In unpacking notions of thrift—in their many guises of maintenance, repair, repurposing, reuse, and exchange—Werrett asks how early modern scientific practitioners adopted and adapted the materials for their experiments. Here "thrift was as much moral as material" (p. 21) and reflected the way "experimenters were keen to explore a variety of uses of mundane material objects that were ready to hand in order to learn about nature" (p. 16). The book is foremost a contribution to the growing literature on the material culture and practice of science, with an analysis rooted in notions of circulation. At the same time, it speaks eloquently to recent work on the early modern home, convincingly locating many of the thrifty practices of science in ideas of oeconomy and the management of the household. Canonical figures like Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton thus naturally appear, but the focus on the home also opens up a more diverse cast of men and women, including family members and domestic servants, as participants in early modern science.
Werrett takes the classic question of "what is a scientific instrument" and reverses it, instead suggesting that it "might be more appropriate to ask what was not one" (p. 82). For the early modern English experimenters Thrifty Science traces, the answer seems to be very little. Indeed, while acknowledging the place of specific experimental apparatus (like the air pump) in this earlier period, Werrett argues that such devices were more the province of the nineteenth century. Instead, all manner of household items, including "kitchens, bedchambers, pokers, gun barrels, wineglasses, and stockings were 'made use of' or 'put into the service of' experiment" (p. 7). A particularly delightful example in this regard is Robert Symmer's use of his own silk stockings to develop a theory of electricity.
The book deals primarily with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though the final chapter extends into the nineteenth century. In this period, Werrett posits a transformation from "thrifty science" to "economic science," which entailed a greater focus on specialized, single-use instruments and "encouraged a different approach to material things, presenting them as complete rather than open-ended, as commodities to be consumed rather than continuously reworked" (p. 167). This was coupled with an increasingly rigid (and deliberately gendered) separation between the home and laboratory. Werrett concludes by deftly connecting these [End Page 1102] concerns to twentieth-century "Big Science," and reflecting on their implications for the present. Here "modern environmental practices" might be seen as "a re-recognition of thrifty practices that have been going on in one form or another for centuries," albeit with different motivations (p. 2). As such, re-engaging with oeconomic practices, and seeing material things as "incomplete" and "open-ended" may "offer ways to think about how we might be thrifty in the future" (p. 2).
Thrifty Science's geographical focus is firmly on England (with occasional forays into North America), a scope that is freely acknowledged as "rather narrow" (p. 11). Werrett nevertheless rightly takes the time to collapse the received notion that the metropole was always the center of "the new" and of innovation—in contrast to those in the colonies who had to "make do" and find substitutes—as "a (mostly Victorian) fiction" (p. 12). However, this insistence on England is at times limiting, especially given that new imperial histories have shown that metropoles like London cannot be so easily separated from their empires. More about the thrifty use of materials between say England, Asia, and the Caribbean would thus have been welcome. Ultimately though, this amounts less to criticism of the present work than it does an opportunity for expanding its central questions into new contexts.
The variety and depth of sources on display is prodigious, and the book is richly illustrated with judiciously chosen images (if with sometimes less of a material emphasis than one might expect). This is an excellent and thought-provoking book that will appeal especially to scholars of early modern science, historians of technology, and those with interests in oeconomy and the household. Thrifty Science nevertheless speaks lucidly to much broader questions around sustainability and the nature of our relationship with material things. Written in a lively and engaging manner, it thus can and should be read much more widely.
Lachlan Fleetwood is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, where his dissertation examines the role of global comparison in early scientific understandings of the Himalaya. Parts of this research have been published in History of Science and Itinerario.