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Week 5: Quality

Tutor: Dr Michael Bycroft

Science and technology are not just about material production but also about material evaluation. They don’t just make things; they also make judgments about how good things are. The use of new techniques to determine the quality of materials was a major theme of science and technology in the European Enlightenment. These techniques were tied to state-formation, slavery, global trade, and changing patterns of consumption. The readings cover a range of materials including gold, coffee, textiles, and alcohol.

Seminar Questions

  • Why did scientists become arbiters of quality in the Enlightenment?
  • Who else was involved in these judgments, apart from scientists?
  • What was at stake in these judgments?
  • What became of the ‘science of quality’ after 1800? What does it meant to do the science of quality today?

Essential Readings

Ashworth, William J. “Quality and the Roots of Manufacturing ‘Expertise’ in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Osiris, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 231–54 [Warwick e-article]

Schaffer, Simon. “Golden Means: Assay Instruments and the Geography of Precision in the Guinea Trade.” Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, edited by H. Otto Sibum et al., Routledge, 2003 [Warwick e-book]

Spary, Emma. “Chap. 2: From Curiosi to Consumers.” In Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Paris. University of Chicago Press, 2012 [Warwick e-book]


Further Readings

Ashworth, William J. “‘Between the Trader and the Public’: British Alcohol Standards and the Proof of Good Governance.” Technology and Culture, no. 1, 2001, p. 27.

Ashworth, William J. Customs and Excise: Trade, Production, and Consumption in England, 1640-1845. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Fors, Hjalmar. “Elements in the Melting Pot: Merging Chemistry, Assaying and Natural History, c. 1730-1760.” Osiris, vol. 29, 2014, pp. 230–44.

Lane, Kris. “Gone Platinum: Contraband and Chemistry in Eighteenth-Century Colombia.” Colonial Latin American Review, vol. 20, no. 1, 2011, pp. 61–79.

Pickstone, John V. “Thinking Over Wine and Blood: Craft-Products, Foucault, and the Reconstruction of Enlightenment Knowledges.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, vol. 41, no. 1, 1997, pp. 97–105.

Salomon, Charlotte A. Abney. “The Pocket Laboratory: The Blowpipe in Eighteenth-Century Swedish Chemistry.” Ambix, vol. 66, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 1–22.

Schaffer, Simon. “Measuring Virtue: Eudiometry, Enlightenment, and Pheumatic Medicine.” The Medical Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Andrew Cunningham and Roger Kenneth French, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 281–318.

Shapin, Steven. “The Sciences of Subjectivity.” Social Studies of Science, vol. 42, no. 2, 2012, pp. 170–84.