Spare a thought for us poor historians! In these interdisciplinary times, we rarely get invited to the really big parties. No, those are for our colleagues in the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. You know, the smart folks who invent or discover useful stuff and get the lion’s share of research funding.
And we understand why.
Scientific and technological innovation is incredibly important. Humankind faces many pressing problems right now – from climate change to antibiotic-resistant super bugs – and it’s no exaggeration to say that the work of STEM researchers might just help save the day.
But historians also have something to offer when it comes to using science and technology to address the problems of our age. And we’d love to be part of the conversation.
History raises important questions about scientific and technological development not always obvious in the present. Considering these can help STEM researchers innovate better. This is because incorporating historical insights into the design of projects inevitably encourages research teams to take broader and more critically aware approaches to formulating, implementing, and evaluating their goals than might otherwise be the case.
Many of the problems that we turn to science and engineering to find solutions for are not new. For example, previous generations and societies have also encountered pollution, disease, and problematic environmental change. Why not learn from their experiences, mistakes, and successes?
History also reminds us that technology can just as easily cause problems as solve them and that we must think carefully before developing and applying technological solutions to the ills of our day. Indeed, knowing some history forces us to reconsider what really constitutes a ‘solution’.
During the Industrial Revolution, Britons were very concerned about the increasing number of mining explosions that occurred as the coal sector expanded. As well as killing miners in shocking numbers, these also disrupted production and created additional costs for coal owners.
So what did they do?
They turned to science. And Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829), one of nineteenth-century Britain’s most famous scientists, came to their aid. His solution – the Davy lamp – captured the public imagination and has been much celebrated, both at the time and since. Safer than the candles miners traditionally used for light (which could ignite the flammable gases commonly found in mines), the Davy lamp, with its protected flame, undoubtedly reduced the likelihood of underground explosions when used correctly.
A modified version of Davy’s safety lamp based on his original design of c. 1815. Lamps like this were still widely used at British collieries in the 1860s and beyond. [Picture from W. W. Smyth, Coal and Coal-Mining (London, 1869)]
But Davy’s lamp wasn’t quite the bright idea many thought it was. Despite all the plaudits he received during and after his lifetime, Davy’s invention was actually very bad at doing the one thing mineworkers needed it for: illumination.
Nineteenth-century colliers repeatedly complained about the low levels of light Davy lamps emitted compared to candles or other devices and said that this made it harder for them to see what they were doing, thereby affecting their productivity and earnings. In such circumstances some miners were tempted to open the protective casing of their lamps to give off more light. This, of course, rendered the lamps useless as ‘safety’ lamps, as it fully exposed the flame inside to the potentially explosive atmosphere of the mine. Not surprisingly, terrible mining explosions continued to occur long into the nineteenth century despite the use of Davy lamps.
Davy’s invention caused other problems for miners too. Believing the new technology made work in gassy parts of mines far less dangerous, colliery managers began to insist miners worked in places previously considered unsafe due to the risk of explosions. These places were often exceedingly hot, stuffy, and prone to roof falls. Such conditions made mine work even more arduous, threatening the health and lives of miners in different, but arguably no less damaging, ways to explosions.
With hindsight it’s easy to see that Davy’s fix for explosions was no ‘solution’ at all – even if it was heralded as such at the time. By focusing too narrowly on the technical problem of how to stop a flame igniting dangerous mine gases, Davy lost sight of the bigger picture. And this ultimately undermined the benefits of his undeniable scientific achievement. If he had considered more fully the nature and economics of mining and the needs of the miners who would use his lamp, he probably could have done much better and significantly increased the impact of his inventiveness.
As this example suggests, there are lessons to be learned from the past that are relevant to science and technology today. But to learn them, first you need to know a little history.
If you’re working in STEM research, then, why not reach out and hug a historian? It could be the start of a beautiful relationship that might just make you a better scientist!
Daniel is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the History of Science and Ideas and is currently completing a book (with David M. Turner) on mining and occupational disease and disability in nineteenth-century Britain.
Last updated: 19.5.2017