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Philosophical Intelligence: Letters, Print, and Experiment during Napoleon’s Continental Blockade

This essay investigates scientific exchanges between Britain and France from 1806 to 1814, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. It argues for a picture of scientific communication that sees letters and printed texts not as separate media worlds, but as interconnected bearers of time-critical information within a single system of intelligence gathering and experimental practice. During this period, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Continental System blockade severed most links between Britain and continental Europe, yet scientific communications continued—particularly on electrochemistry, a subject of fierce rivalry between Britain and France. The essay traces these exchanges using the archive of a key go-between, the English man of science Sir Charles Blagden. The first two sections look at Blagden’s letter-writing operation, reconstructing how he harnessed connections with neutral American diplomats, merchants, and the State to get scientific intelligence between London and Paris. The third section, following Blagden’s words from Britain to France to America, looks at how information in letters cross-fertilized with information in print. The final section considers how letters and print were used together to solve the difficult practical problem of replicating experiments across the blockade.