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History of Science Program Overview

Our History of Science Research Program aims to understand early stage science by investigating the history of successful scientific fields. We conduct case studies of important advances, seeking to understand how scientists made their discoveries and enable a broader analysis of patterns in early scientific progress.

 

We study scientists like Alessandro Volta (electricity), Robert Koch (germ theory), and Antoine Lavosier (oxygen combustion), learning how they created new instruments, conducted new experiments, and developed new theories. We investigate how the scientists’ research was informed by past efforts, how their approaches differed from those of their contemporaries, and the surrounding contexts in which the discoveries were made.

Our Programs

Research Aims

Understanding the history of discovery.

An investigation into scientific methodology.

Through our History of Science program, we are conducting case studies on the major discoveries in the history of successful sciences in order to determine how those discoveries were made.

We estimate that there are between 200–400 important discoveries in the early histories of successful sciences. The eventual outcome of this program, if successful, will be the early history of science rendered accessible, with it now being easy to examine the data set of discoveries from the history of successful sciences and draw conclusions about the early scientific process. It is then our expectation that this will yield insights that improve how research is done today.

Featured Research Questions

→ How does early stage science differ from later stage science?

→ Why is research progress in some fields more reliable than in others?

→ How can one identify promising research in early fields?

→ What role do new instruments play in scientific progress?

→ When does the scientific community adopt new discoveries?

→ What led to the major discoveries in the history of science?

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Program Introduction

What research methodologies allow researchers to make progress during the earliest stages of scientific development in a field? Our Program Introduction describes an exemplative set of historical cases, states our original hypothesis about early stage science, and explains our expected research methodology.

History of Electricity

The early discoveries of the field.

Our efforts thus far have focused on the history of electricity. There appear to be approximately thirteen important discoveries in the early history of the field, from Gilbert’s isolation of static electric attraction in 1600 to Maxwell’s statement of the equations governing electromagnetism in 1865. We have conducted mid-depth case studies on nearly half of these discoveries, with encouraging results: in each case we have been able to reach a plausible account of how the discovery was made, and every case study so far has yielded new lessons.

History of Electricity Roadmap

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The following diagram represents our progress thus far and which studies in electricity remain to be done as of early 2022.

 

Case Studies

Our Research

Read our latest research.

Below you can find all of our case studies in the history of science. Each case study has its own dedicated webpage with an overview of the topic, link to the full case study (accessible to all), and a research highlights piece providing an overview of the key findings from our research.

Research Highlights Volta's Electrophoru

Volta's Electrophorus

An investigation of the distribution and impact of Volta's electrophorus. Our case study analyses why Volta’s electrophorus advanced consensus in the field despite similar phenomena having previously been demonstrated by two prominent scientists of the time. Key insights from this research are summarised in a supplementary research highlights document.

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Gilbert's Electricks

An analysis of William Gilbert’s discovery of static electric attraction and identification of the category of electricks. Our case study aims to understand how knowledge of static electric attraction developed prior to Gilbert and the causes and factors that enabled him to make his discovery.

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The Leyden Jar

The Leyden jar is widely recognized as among the most important discoveries in the history of electricity. While accounts often present the discovery as a mix of luck and crisis, our case study suggests a more complex picture. Included with the research are three unpublished letters by Kleist detailing his early studies, which are shared for others to study.

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Ørsted and Electromagnetism

An investigation of the discovery of electromagnetism in 1820. We demonstrate that electromagnetism was straightforwardly discoverable by 1802 and investigate why the discovery was overlooked. We also discuss the central role of philosophy in Ørsted’s discovery, especially the metaphysical ideas of Kant and Schelling.

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The Development and Spread of Franklinian Theory

Franklin’s fluid theory of electricity is widely seen as a pivotal development making him perhaps the most respected electrician in Europe. This rise is often attributed to the novelty and explanatory scope of his ideas. This case study argues instead for the centrality of three features: the relative simplicity and immediate applications of the theory, and Franklin's background and work with lightning for Enlightenment audiences.