Tag Archives: Victorian

Past talk:
Co-sponsored with the UT Austin Physics Colloquium 
4:15 Wednesday, February 18                                                                               RLM 4.102

Slide1Matthew Stanley

 “The Pointsman or the Steam Whistle: Maxwell’s Demon, T. H. Huxley, and the Nature of Consciousness”

Two of the greatest achievements of Victorian science – energy conservation and atomic theory – also raised deeply unsettling issues regarding human consciousness.  Repeated success in explaining the human body as an engine running on thermodynamic principles seemed to question traditional notions of the soul, free will, and moral responsibility.  Thomas Henry Huxley (best known as Darwin’s bulldog) led the scientists who embraced this notion that humans were merely complicated machines, and that consciousness had no meaningful role in the world.  Many other scientists, however, defended the reality of free will and the soul.  This group included James Clerk Maxwell (known for his work in electromagnetism, optics, and thermodynamics) who deployed his technical skills in physics to defend his Christian beliefs.  Both sides in the argument built persuasive metaphors, usually drawn from Victorian industrial culture.  Maxwell’s central metaphor for free will (the “pointsman”) eventually took on a life of its own as his eponymous “demon.”

Dr. Stanley is Associate Professor at the New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His latest book is Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science (Chicago, 2014).


Past talk:
Hosted by the Institute for Historical Studies
12:00 Monday, February 16                                                                               GAR 4.100

Bruce Hunt

“The Bottom Line: Cables, Commerce, and Electrical Physics in the Victorian British Empire”

This talk is part of the Institute for Historical Research’s series of workshops, so please RSVP Courtney to receive the pre-circulated paper

The networks of telegraph lines that began to spread across Britain, the United States, and Continental Europe in the 1840s and early 1850s had far-reaching effects on the dissemination of news and the operation of markets. They also had deep effects on electrical science. In this paper, I will argue that what might at first appear to be a prime example of pure science—the development of electromagnetic field theory in Britain in the middle decades of the 19th century—was in fact driven in important ways by developments in the telegraph industry, particularly British scientists’ and engineers’ encounters with puzzling new phenomena that turned up on underground wires and undersea cables in the early 1850s.

Bruce J. Hunt completed his Ph.D. in the history of science at Johns Hopkins University in 1984 and has taught at The University of Texas since 1985. He is the author of The Maxwellians (1991) and Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein (2010) and numerous articles on the history of electrical science and technology. His current work focuses on the growth of the global telegraph network in the nineteenth century, and how work in that industry  shaped the development of electrical physics, particularly in Britain.