In the third meeting of Things we had a cracking session on the “telescope”. This seminar saw us move away from discussions of museology, display and broken-things, themes that dominated the past two sessions; instead both the talks and discussion this week were more concerned with the historical importance of telescopes in the long-eighteenth century.
Dr Alexi Baker, despite a terrible cold, gave an insightful and inspiring talk on the variety of uses and symbolic roles the telescope held for a cross-section of European Society in the eighteenth century. From teaching, navigating and surveying to display and spectacle, Alexi’s talk gave great insight into the quite unexpected level of penetration the telescope had in European society in that period. With stunning pictures of instrument manufacturers’ trade cards, Alexi used the range of items for sale and of interested cliental in optical items to demonstrate the popularity and importance of the pastime and research as well as make insightful comments on the ubiquity of the telescope as a non-specialised item. Alexi was also keen to highlight that, despite many preconceived ideas, the telescope demonstrates that there is no need to divorce utility from aesthetics in eighteenth century ‘things’.
The National Maritime Museum’s Dr Richard Dunn followed with a talk that contrasted Alexi’s perspectives effectively. Looking at the iconography, utility and technological development of the telescope and other optical devices, Richard gave insight into the eighteenth century concept of useful and moral knowledge and reminded us that in order to increase our historical understanding of the objects discussed by Alexi we must consider their contemporary interpretation and uses. One particularly interesting question was raised; to what extent did the increasing power of telescopes in the long eighteenth century factor in their consumption by society? Richard’s discussion of the iconography showed that the increasing enhancement of telescopic sight was certainly reflected in popular depictions of telescopes and would have therefore most likely factored in their consumption by gentlemen and men of science alike. Richard also simplified a lot of his specialised technical knowledge in order to highlight that an understanding of the technology behind telescopes is fundamental to our ability as historians to unpick the iconography and social importance of them and other lens-instruments in the long eighteenth century.
The discussion session was not dominated by any particular aspect of the talks, such was the diversity of the audience and their perspectives, but worked instead as an extension of the two talks. There was though some focus on the idea of morality and polite knowledge as contrasting with the production of scientific truth in the period. The concept of reading error and accuracy also entered into the debate with a reference to John Herschel’s warning to his fellow men of science that they should expect “masterpieces not miracles” form the instrument-makers workshop.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy listening for yourself at: http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1186872;jsessionid=1A69A09A4DC36F31AFC04DBD4708E718