A Lamp in One Hand and a Measuring Tape in the Other

Guest blogger and ConSciCom intern Lea Beiermann recalls the highlights of her four-month stay at the University of Leicester.

When I arrived in Leicester in early September I only had a vague idea of what I would be doing during the upcoming months. I had read a number of publications by ConSciCom researchers over the summer (for example Gowan Dawson’s new book) and had a rough idea of what the project was about – but I did not know yet what I would be able to contribute. Shortly after I arrived, it was agreed that I would mainly assist Geoff Belknap in his research on illustrations in nineteenth-century science periodicals.

One of the first periodical articles I came across had been written by John Bellows, a Gloucester-based amateur archaeologist, printer and science populariser with a good sense of humour. In The Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists’ Field Club (Vol. 6) Bellows published an article on his discovery of the ancient city wall of Gloucester: “This examination of the track of the Roman wall of Gloucester required a sort of subterranean journey in many parts of the city: descents into little places filled with firewood and empty boxes; clambers over coal-heaps, with one’s back bent double, a lamp in one hand and the end of a measuring tape in the other; while in one of these interesting spots the snarling of an invisible dog suggested that the sooner we got back into daylight the better it might be for our ankles.” (p. 175)

bellowsThe map that accompanies Bellows’ article, showing the remains of the wall and one of the local cellars he visited

In retrospect, Bellows’ vivid description of his archaeological investigations came remarkably close to what I would experience during my internship. Although, luckily, there were no coal-heaps to clamber at Leicester’s library, my daily descent into its basement – where the science periodicals are stored – was, in fact, a kind of “subterranean journey” that never failed to surprise me. And during the following months I often wished for a “snarling . . . invisible dog” – not only to keep me company (standards for good company are generally low after a few weeks of archival research) but also as a gentle reminder that I was supposed to make use of my historical “measuring tape” and not just get lost in the periodicals I read. I had decided to look into rhetorical means of making scientific claims convincing and yet almost succumbed to the periodicals’ alluring articles and illustrations myself.

However, becoming immersed in these periodicals as I did also had its benefits. I noticed that I slowly gained what may be called a kind of nineteenth-century literacy. It became easier for me to classify illustrations as, say, lithographs or engravings, I got to know local authors and their interests, and learnt about the activities of their naturalists’ societies. It may be hard to imagine but I got to a point where I almost eagerly awaited the next part of a serialised article on the Bristol coalfield. Fortunately, I only had to turn a few pages of the bound volume, and not wait for a couple of months for the next issue to be published. Given my increasing immersion in nineteenth-century periodicals, it seemed rather apt when Geoff asked me if I would be willing to dress up in Victorian costume and be part of a magic lantern show. The show – entitled Science and the Victorian Public – A Magic Lantern Performance and part of both the Being Human and Literary Leicester festivals – was intended to introduce the Leicester public to nineteenth-century science and our own research activities.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHhaMqT6wcg&w=560&h=315]

The local costume hire provided me with a black dress, cape and feather hat and I was appointed slide changer by the rest of the Leicester-based ConSciCom group. While historians of science have argued that scientists tend to play down their technicians’ contributions to their own work, I made sure that I would not be such an “invisible technician” during our show. After the main talks had been given, I turned to face the audience and explained the technology of the magic lantern itself. This was, after all, something a technician would have had expert knowledge about. Thus, the performance not only nicely demonstrated the ConSciCom project’s twofold objective of both investigating nineteenth-century citizen science and engaging present-day citizen scientists in its research. The show also reminded me once more to watch out for contributions of technicians and technologies in my own research.

Looking back on the past four months, I can say that I have profited enormously from my ConSciCom internship. I have learnt a tremendous amount about nineteenth-century science, the periodical press and scientific illustrations. Also, I have not only learnt to tell a lithograph from an engraving, but I can also distinguish between different types of ammonite fossils and I sure know an Australian lungfish when I see one. So if anyone ever comes knocking on my door, asking me to join them in an expedition to, say, the East Indies, I’ll be prepared. And this is certainly more than most interns can say about themselves.