Discovering Water : James Watt, Henry Cavendish and the Nineteenth-Century 'Water Controversy' book cover
1st Edition

Discovering Water
James Watt, Henry Cavendish and the Nineteenth-Century 'Water Controversy'

ISBN 9781138258457
Published March 5, 2017 by Routledge
330 Pages

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Book Description

The 'water controversy' concerns one of the central discoveries of modern science, that water is not an element but rather a compound. The allocation of priority in this discovery was contentious in the 1780s and has occupied a number of 20th century historians. The matter is tied up with the larger issues of the so-called chemical revolution of the late eighteenth century. A case can be made for James Watt or Henry Cavendish or Antoine Lavoisier as having priority in the discovery depending upon precisely what the discovery is taken to consist of, however, neither the protagonists themselves in the 1780s nor modern historians qualify as those most fervently interested in the affair. In fact, the controversy attracted most attention in early Victorian Britain some fifty to seventy years after the actual work of Watt, Cavendish and Lavoisier. The central historical question to which the book addresses itself is why the priority claims of long dead natural philosophers so preoccupied a wide range of people in the later period. The answer to the question lies in understanding the enormous symbolic importance of James Watt and Henry Cavendish in nineteenth-century science and society. More than credit for a particular discovery was at stake here. When we examine the various agenda of the participants in the Victorian phase of the water controversy we find it driven by filial loyalty and nationalism but also, most importantly, by ideological struggles about the nature of science and its relation to technological invention and innovation in British society. At a more general, theoretical, level, this study also provides important insights into conceptions of the nature of discovery as they are debated by modern historians, philosophers and sociologists of science.

Table of Contents

Contents: Preface; Introduction; The nature of discovery: the attributional model; The beginnings of a dispute and its interpretation; Attributional survey: phase one, 1784-1830; Keeping account: James Watts Jr and the filial project; The French connection: Arago re-opens the controversy; Managing the symbols of Victorian science: 'gentlemen of science' and the water controversy; The advocates of Watt: Brougham, Jeffrey and Muirhead; The defence of Cavendish: character, precision and discipline; The controversy joined, 1840-60; Still waters: attributional survey, 1830-1900; Conclusions; Appendix; Bibliography; Index.

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David Philip Miller is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales, Australia.


'... a highly nuanced, richly textured, and densely documented account... This interesting and enlightening study provides plenty of food for thought and further historical inquiry... another measure of this stimulating study, [is] that while dealing with an important issue in the history of chemistry, it raises significant questions about its historiography.' Annals of Science '... a helpful contextualisation that provides plausible categories that can be used by historians and scientists to understand the motives, ideas, institutions, and sources that shaped Victorian notions of who 'discovered' water.' Ambix '... this is a fascinating addition to the literature on the nature of discovery. Miller brings great clarity to the water debate and provides an impressive sweep of private correspondence that reveals the hidden negotiations, animosities and fears that drove the controversy.' British Journal for the History of Science ’Discovering Water offers many new insights into early Victorian science and the concept of science at the time, as well as stimulating ideas on scientific controversies...’ Isis