Thesis ID: CBB479958430

A Barometer of Scientific Culture: The Debated Role of American Science at the 1850’s Smithsonian Institution (2023)


During the initial decade of the Smithsonian Institution’s existence, its first secretary, Joseph Henry, sought to establish an institution for the advancement of science that defied popular understandings of scientific work in the United States. From the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, American science was infused with republican ideology and was widely expected to prioritize practical results that would directly benefit society at large. At the Smithsonian, Henry sought to establish a boundary between professional, theoretical science, conducted and distributed more selectively among experts, and wider public influence and demand for utilitarian scientific work. Examination of discourse in popular publications reveals that Henry’s plan created an ongoing public debate in the 1850s regarding the Smithsonian’s legitimate scientific mission. This included criticism of the Smithsonian publications program’s inaccessibility and lack of utility to the public as well as many alternative proposals for how the institution might be of better scientific use to Americans. Such expectations that Smithsonian research and resources would serve the general American population were also expressed throughout the correspondence of the Smithsonian Meteorology Project—the Institution’s first major scientific research initiative. Although Henry sought to create a boundary between the Institution’s work and the public, the utilitarian demands of many of the project’s volunteer observers ensured that the practical goals of the public remained intertwined with Henry’s own goals to promote theoretical science in the development of the Smithsonian. The influential work of this extended scientific community was often made possible through the contributions of additional members of households. Close reading of the meteorological project correspondence reveals an extensive, although often officially unacknowledged, contribution from women and other individuals whose labor was often more fixed to the household. While the public volunteers of the project shaped the trajectory of the Smithsonian, the devalued labor of peripheral contributors to the Institution’s large-scale data work set important precedent for professional scientific frameworks at the end of the century. Overall, the relationship between the early Smithsonian and the public in the 1850s demonstrates that the process of establishing borders defining a professional/amateur dichotomy in American science was uneven. The Institution contended with republican expectations of the scientific public and its projects continued to rely upon contributors without formal or elite credentials who in turn demanded accessible and practical research and shaped scientific institutions. Despite Joseph Henry's contribution to the professionalization and specialization of science, the boundaries of science and who could participate in scientific research remained fluid through the mid-nineteenth century.

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Authors & Contributors
Rothenberg, Marc
Dorman, Kathleen W.
Henry, Joseph
Millikan, Frank R.
Bud, Robert
DeVorkin, David H.
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Earth Sciences History: Journal of the History of the Earth Sciences Society
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
IEEE Communications Magazine
Journal of Historical Studies
Smithsonian Institution
Florida State University
Science History Publications
The Smithsonian Institute
University of Pittsburgh Press
Codice Edizioni
Controversies and disputes
Collected works
Pure science as a concept
Public understanding of science
Applied science
Henry, Joseph
Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe
Baird, Spencer Fullerton
Boscovich, Ruggiero Giuseppe
Cope, Edward Drinker
Dana, James Dwight
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, late
20th century
United States
Great Britain
Smithsonian Institution
Princeton University
Institute for the History of Electricity
National Science Foundation (U.S.)

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