Role of instruments in exploration: a study of the Royal Geographical Society 1830-1930
Wess, Jane Amanda
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The thesis presents the first in-depth study of the role of measuring instruments in a leading scientific society concerned with field science. It draws upon a substantial literature in the history of science, geography, and exploration and makes use of actor network theory. The thesis considers the instruments to have been assimilated into an iterative cyclical process. By studying each aspect of the cycle, a comprehensive understanding of the integration of instruments into the working practices of the Society, the process of exploration, and ultimately the British imperialist endeavour, has been achieved. The start date is that of the founding of the Society. The end date approximates to the retirement of the map curator Edward Reeves, when recording practices at the Society changed. The century has coherence as the instruments remained essentially similar. The thesis therefore draws on a range of archival material: the journal articles, the medal awards, and the maps in addition to the paper archives, minute books and instruments themselves. The empirical findings have been enriched by reference to a substantial literature from historians of science, historical geographers and instrument historians. The thesis documents instrumental activity on behalf of the Society from acquisition to disposal or loss, regarding activity on behalf of the Society as ‘added resource’. The thesis argues that the ambitions of the Society were slow to be enacted, and that a collection of instruments for lending was not formed until 1850. The preparation of travellers has been discussed as a complementary activity; systematic provision is likewise found to have been slow. Having studied fifty expeditions with respect to instrument mobilisation, from which excerpts are presented, a number of factors are identified which affected success, and the fallibility of instruments is confirmed. The itineraries of over a thousand individual items have been charted and made available in a database which will assist future research. The agencies of the instruments have been considered to be knowledge creation, individual reputation, empire, and social relations. The RGS developed strategies for militating against the fallibility of instruments in the field to provide credible outcomes. The instrumental data was manipulated by a growing body of professionals which served to moderate results. The instruments conferred social and epistemological authority to some groups more than others, but not necessarily in the manner predicted by existing theories. The geographical endeavour could be subsumed into imperialist demands. The instruments reflected and strengthened existing social hierarchies. The conclusions drawn indicate that historians of science and geography need to look at the role of instruments in more detail than extant models of knowledge creation, including ANT, suggest.