Talking about the things we know is at once an everyday occurrence and an incredibly complicated process—the complexity of which, as historians of science have frequently demonstrated, can be a hindrance to the production and communication of knowledge. This essay frames this difficulty as a problem of translation. “Translation” here means two things: first, the interlinguistic process of moving ideas from one language to another; and, second, the intralinguistic question of whether knowledge can be turned into words at all, regardless of the languages in question. Paying attention to both dimensions of the translation problem, the essay explores various solutions proposed in and with the Swahili language during the colonial and postcolonial periods in Tanganyika/Tanzania. This context brings into stark relief the flows of power and authority that often determine which ways of speaking and knowing are accepted and which dismissed; it also brings to light translations that sometimes move against the expected current of power, as speakers and writers, both “expert” and “nonexpert,” simply went about the business of discussing the things they knew.
Historians of medicine and generation have long demonstrated how the female body was conceptualized as a site of secrecy in early modern Europe. This essay explores one oft-overlooked organ of the female body—the placenta, which was considered by early modern anatomists to be a particularly challenging secret to uncover. Anatomists who investigated this organ discovered that it was largely absent from the ancients’ accounts of their knowledge of generation, and their own studies of its structure and function revealed a complexity difficult to understand. Through an analysis of anatomical treatises and midwifery guides, this essay investigates how textual and visual knowledge about the placenta was produced and shared by anatomists, medical practitioners, and female midwives. It argues that the secrets of the placenta presented a lucrative opportunity for anatomists to expand their intellectual and financial riches. The study provides fresh insights for historians of science, medicine, and gender and new perspectives on the history of reproduction and embryology.
As NASA prepared to land astronauts on the Moon in the 1960s, scientists and federal officials came to fear that they could bring lunar microorganisms back to Earth, with potentially grave consequences for human, plant, and animal life. To prevent this “back contamination,” representatives from NASA and a network of federal departments and services developed a protocol to quarantine astronauts, equipment, samples, and spacecraft exposed to lunar dust. Yet although NASA assured policy makers and an anxious public that it had implemented impermeable safeguards against the escape of lunar microorganisms, it had in fact prioritized likely risks to astronauts over unlikely risks to American society. To a degree previously unknown, the Apollo quarantine protocol suffered from numerous containment breaches that would likely have exposed the terrestrial biosphere to contamination—had lunar microorganisms actually existed.
For Henry More, witchcraft served as an empirical confirmation of the existence of immaterial substances. Yet while he takes great care to make his reports as trustworthy as possible and argues against the claim that the effects of witchcraft are only the illusions of people suffering from melancholy, he almost completely ignores the possibility that such effects may be caused by natural magic. In More’s natural philosophical writings, discussions of magic are very much downplayed, as well. This may seem surprising, as a crucial component of More’s metaphysical system is his doctrine of the Spirit of Nature, a sort of world-soul whose action is nonmechanical, vital, and magical. The essay argues that this deeply ambivalent approach to natural magic is due to the fact that More uses traditional magical notions to supplement the shortcomings of mechanicism and at the same time tries to divorce these notions from the potentially problematic background from which they originated. In the end, the essay suggests, More’s ambivalence toward magic is only one manifestation of a much deeper problem wherein he adopts an immanentist position while trying to avoid its more problematic, potentially pantheistic, consequences.
Over the course of the Progressive Era, revised scientific accounts of the connections between dust, germs, and disease recast debates over public health. The American School of Home Economics and other institutions affiliated with the emerging subfield of household bacteriology regarded detecting and eliminating pathogens as necessary means to achieve safer homes and communities. Although several historians have attributed the rise of early twentieth-century technocracy and the decline of grassroots health activism to germ theory, household bacteriology complicates this standard narrative. Educators like Sophronia Maria Elliott (1854–1942) rejected the command-and-control tactics of the “new” public health and instead instructed women how to culture microorganisms and to measure the risks of infection within their surrounding environments using kitchen experiments. Household bacteriologists aspired to train “sanitary citizens” with the right and the duty to test for germs with everyday equipment, to prevent disease with effective housekeeping, and to advocate for policies and infrastructure to keep society well.
This contribution demonstrates the benefits of a transatlantic history of early modern mining that encompasses both a cross-pollination of approaches and a critical reexamination of the field’s underlying assumptions. It applies to Álvaro Alonso Barba’s 1640 El arte de los metales conceptual frameworks developed by historians of early modern European mining, by scholars of labor and science in the colonial Andes, and by theorists of reader reception and scholarly practice. This analysis offers a revised understanding of Pamela Long’s model of the “trading zone” as a vision of knowledge production promoted by elite Europeans and shaped by the dialogic model of knowledge production taught at European universities. Parallels between Barba and the German humanist and metallurgical author Georg Agricola (1494–1555) underscore the applicability of these findings with respect to Barba for early modern mining more generally.
This introduction to the Focus section “Supplied Knowledge: Resource Regimes, Materials, and Epistemic Tools” provides a framework to analyze critically the ways in which knowledge depends on material supplies. It claims that most scientific technologies of the early modern and modern periods were made possible only by the steady supply of a large variety of so-called natural resources and that the practices necessary to exploit, process, and provide these resources in the quality and quantity required were closely linked with the scientific and humanistic agendas of their time. The essays assembled here examine select epistemic tools and key materials from which these were made. This introduction shows how the essays apply different scales to reveal the local and global values, epistemic concepts, aesthetic ideals, social systems, (geo)political constellations, and economic frameworks that have co-constituted the making of scientific instruments, artifacts, and knowledge in and beyond the Global North.
A great variety of tuning forks survive in collections around the world, from departments of physics, phonetics, and psychology to medical settings, conservatories, and museum collections. Their ubiquity speaks to their iconic status, while their diversity points to the multifaceted cultures of materiality that shaped and formed around these objects. This essay traces the complex supply chains of nineteenth-century tuning forks, from the gathering and processing of iron ore and crucible steel, to their sites of manufacture, to their various uses. By probing further into these nodes of supply and use, the essay uncovers a chain of values and contingencies that reveal the interdependencies between extracting, commercial, scientific, and artistic practices of the past.
This essay focuses on the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, established in 1900, and its subsequent commitment to collecting music, voices, and sonic evidence from all over the world. But members of the archive managed to embrace the world as a resource in another respect as well: the daily production of cylinder records required large quantities of wax and various other materials that depended on a global system of supply and considerable exploitation of nature. The essay shows that the manufacture of the cylinders resonated with the research agendas developed at the Phonogramm-Archiv during the eras of the German Empire, World War I, German colonialism, and the Weimar Republic.
This essay explores the material imperatives of nineteenth-century statistical ambition, at a time when the nature of paper itself underwent rapid change. It expands the concept of paper technologies to include knowledge about the materials themselves, as well as the infrastructures, techniques, and agreements that made it possible for the right kind of paper to be made available for particular purposes. Taking the production of the forms for the Prussian census as a case in point, it argues that the enumeration effort of Prussian census statisticians went far beyond designing a form, collecting information, noting and compiling figures, or creating tables. Paper knowledge to define and control the material substance of the forms mattered as much as political impetus and statistical methods in getting the census right.
From the spread of silver as commodity money in the early modern world to mass-produced national currency in the nineteenth century, coins had a dual nature. They supplied facts about the past when they were investigated by antiquarians, and they required knowledge of materials and their supply when used as currency. This essay explores a little-researched borderland between economic history and history of science: the work of assayers and mint officials, where antiquarian and commercial interests merged.
Scientific instruments such as telescopes and distillation columns have played a prominent role in the history of science, but the key material of which these instruments were made has received scant attention. Focusing on the glass used to make scientific instruments and on the supply chains on which its production relied—allows us to see that “glass” covers a variety of materials and that the nature of glass depends on the material knowledge and environmental expertise invested in its manufacture. Between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, glassware moved back and forth between a dependence on processing locally sourced materials and reusing household items and a reliance on intraregional supply chains of specialty materials.
How did European attempts to imitate the beauty of East Asian porcelain generate competitions to find marketable forms of whiteness? This essay describes the adoption of aluminum-rich kaolin clay for the making of “gallantry wares” for courtly elites—and then the process of seeking ever-cheaper substitutes as more and more consumers set their hearts on acquiring their own porcelain trinkets and tableware. It shows how, in the search for cost savings and aided especially by professional chemists, the porcelain industry helped to democratize whiteness and to reinforce its associations with cleanliness, purity, and timeless beauty.
Narratives of supply chains and raw materials are a poor fit for early modern Europeans’ “thrifty” habit of reusing and reworking goods into new forms. This essay stresses the importance of such habits for early modern work using the example of paper, as a medium, instrument, and epistemic resource in various domestic and scientific spheres. Thrifty perspectives challenge not only linear supply narratives but also enduring accounts of the identities of materials themselves.