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Series Convenors: Dr Alex Aylward, Professor Erica Charters, Professor Mark Harrison, Dr Catherine M Jackson, Dr Sloan Mahone
Seminars in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology
Dr Daniel Jon Mitchell (IEEE History Center)
Quantification, measurement and the rise of physics in Victorian Britain
Through the lens of quantification I propose a new big-picture perspective on the emergence and practice of physics during the long nineteenth century. Historians traditionally view the quantification of physics as a singular event that occurred during the period 1780–1830. During this time many quantitative physical concepts, such as latent heat or electrical capacity, were devised and made subject to some form of measurement. In contrast, I maintain that processes of quantification were ongoing and were in fact central to the emergence of physics as a discipline. I explain how these processes revolved around a new framework for measurement, which was developed mainly by William Thomson and James Clerk Maxwell and promoted vigorously by their followers from the 1860s onwards. I use this as a locus to draw together key conceptual, physico-mathematical and social aspects of quantification over the Victorian period, from the growing acceptance among mathematicians of symbolic modes of mathematical intelligibility, to the practical engagement of physics teachers, experimentalists, and telegraph engineers with physical measurement. The new picture indicates how quantification rapidly became the ultimate criterion of objective reality.