Dr Simon Werrett, UCL: Thrifty science: making the most of materials in the history of experiment

In this paper I introduce some of the key ideas of my new book Thrifty Science. I argue that “oeconomic” literature on household management provides a useful starting-point for making sense of the material practices of experimenters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Oeconomy encouraged thrift in managing a household, which meant a balance of expenditure on new things and making the most of what one already had. Focusing on the seventeenth century, I shall argue that householders experimenting in their homes brought thrifty attitudes to new forms of natural knowledge-making, and while historians have focused on the new and dedicated materials of this period they have overlooked how experimenters exploited what they already had. This “thrifty science” involved, in particular, “making use of things” – using everyday items as best as possible, a practice which met derision from some quarters, but which various experimenters claimed was a critical feature of the new science. I shall highlight different opinions on the nature of household practices as experimental knowledge. For some, domestic experiment was sufficient in itself as a new form of science, but others argued that it needed to be extracted from the home for testing and accreditation elsewhere. Many things might be “experiments” but only some could be “natural philosophy.”


I examine seventeenth and eighteenth-century English attitudes to material goods, and suggest that the literature of “oeconomy” or household management offers a means to better understand this. Householders encouraged thrift in the management of their homes, which did not simply equate with saving money but with finding a balance between excess and frugality, a contribution to the good order of the home and social harmony. Householders might buy new goods, but they should also make use of what they already possessed. This encouraged a view of materials as open-ended and adaptable, and I propose this was one route to the experimentation that flourished in the seventeenth century. Scholarly households such as the Bacons, Evelyns and Boyles viewed experiment as an important means to find out the many uses of things systematically. Such a desire for what Francis Bacon called “polychrests” or things of many uses, was not uncontested, however. Not everybody was thrifty, the rich were extravagant and the poor were forced to be frugal; and not everybody thought that making use of things was an appropriate way to make natural knowledge. The chapter concludes by considering ways that experimenters gave humble household knowledge credit and legitimacy.