Richard Noakes is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter where he specialises in the history of the sciences in the period c. 1750-1920.
Richard Noakes has chosen Frank A. J. L. James’s paper, ‘Of ‘Medals and Muddles’: The Context of the Discovery of Thallium: William Crookes’s Early Spectro-Chemical Work’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 39 (1984), pp. 65-90 (1903–71)
By the 1980s scientific ‘discovery’ had become a major preoccupation among historians, philosophers and sociologists of the sciences. Building on the pioneering insights of Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn and others, scholars explored the fraught processes whereby specific practitioners making particular observations in specific places and at particular moments came to be associated with and celebrated as scientific discoveries. Critical historical analyses showed that discoveries revealed at least as much about political and social orders of the sciences as the natural order and illustrated the late David Gooding’s point that scientists’ success depends ‘as much on their mastery of culture as upon their study of nature'*. For specialists in nineteenth century sciences, revisionist perspectives on scientific discovery were particularly stimulating because, in the wake of studies by Bill Brock, Roy Macleod and others, they were keen to develop more nuanced accounts of way credit for scientific research was formally apportioned by such august institutions as the Royal Society. Indeed, one such study, Roy Macleod’s ‘Of Medals and Men: A Reward System in Victorian Science’, was published by Notes and Records in 1971.
With a title implicitly alluding to Macleod’s work, Frank James’s article represents a superb attempt to apply the insights of this literature to a specific case. It focused on the ambitious young nineteenth century British analytical chemist and science journalist William Crookes. In the early 1860s Crookes sought to secure status as the discoverer of the chemical element ‘thallium’ and thus give his scientific reputation a much-needed boost. By analysing hitherto unknown Crookes letters that he had tracked down only a few years earlier, and a wealth of other sources, James shows precisely and persuasively that Crookes needed a variety of technical and non-technical skills to fulfil his objective.
When, in 1859, Robert Bunsen and Gustav Robert Kirchhoff announced the discovery of new chemical elements by their novel technique of spectro-chemical analysis (later christened spectroscopy), few chemists were equipped to follow up their sensational claims. One such person, however, was Crookes, but this was still a risky road to scientific fame: in this period, the mere observation of a bright, transient and unattributed line in the spectrum of a material substance did not count as decisive evidence of a new element, and much painstaking analytical work was needed to strengthen the case that the line was not due to a known element, or was the result of some instrumental defect or visual hallucination. Crookes certainly boasted sufficient chemical expertise to produce powerful spectro-chemical and ‘traditional’ evidence for thallium but, as James shows so well, made effective use of other forms of expertise: Crookes exploited his position as editor of the Chemical News to publicise his research and cleverly mobilised allies among Royal Society Fellows to challenge his rival Claude Auguste Lamy — the French chemist who claimed stronger grounds for being the first to discover thallium. Like so many priority disputes, the thallium episode brought out the fierce patriotism of scientists and scientific commentators and how this could materially change the trajectory of otherwise fragile scientific careers. Fortunately, the dispute worked to the advantage of both Crookes and Lamy and they were happy to bury the hatchet once their new statuses as ‘discoverers’ had propelled them to higher scientific positions.
James’s article certainly showed what an ‘intensely social process’ thallium’s discovery was, but it also demonstrated to generations of scholars how such important insights could be teased out from the close study of even the most abstruse technical source materials.
*David Gooding quoted in Roger Cooter et al, ‘What is the History of Science’, History Today, vol. 32 (1985), pp. 32-40, p. 37;
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