Category Archives: Work in Progress

Cities and Science Summer School

Central European University, Budapest, Hungary

Central European University, Budapest, Hungary

School Report

By Erin Beeston

This summer, I escaped the drizzle of Manchester to attend a six day summer school on Cities and Science: Urban History and the History of Science in the Study of Early Modern and Modern Europe at the CEU in beautiful Budapest. Around twenty postgraduate students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds came from across Europe to participate in the programme. Here is my ‘school report’ on each day of the course.


The course began on 29 June with a discussion of key themes, using the ‘Science in the City’ edition of Osiris (vol. 18, 2003) as a starting point. We asked questions like: how can we think geographically about science? Why is there no scientific history of the city? We bore this discussion in mind throughout the week.

Next we had a seminar and lecture on the physical history of eighteenth and nineteenth century Paris the ‘Mineral Metropolis’ with Stephane Van Damme (European University Institute). In Van Damme’s class we analysed the approaches environmental historians have taken to science, nature and the city. We were encouraged to think about the longue durée and also to take a vertical approach to city history – what was underground and in the sky? This seminar made me think about my own research into Liverpool Road Railway Station, a new structure that affected the environment – from pollution to vibrations and excavation in Manchester in 1830.


Began with ‘Engineering the City and the Appliance of Science’ with Richard Rodger (University of Edinburgh). Rodger drew attention to the scientific knowledge and education systems that influenced networks of technologies in the city, which followed on nicely from the lateral physical history we considered with Van Damme.

Next we heard journal presentations, with information and advice for postgraduates wishing to publish. Every afternoon from Tuesday onwards, we were divided into two groups to present papers (prepared before the course) and workshopped the material with our peers and CEU Faculty members.

After group workshops, Richard Rodger gave a public lecture which built upon his morning seminar. Roger presented four ways of conceptualising science, technology and medicine in the city as: structural, natural, measurement and durable. I found the notion of durable technologies in the city especially interesting, as it is the durability of infrastructure which enabled the preservation of industrial sites like Liverpool Road Station in the later twentieth century.


The Hummusbar in Budapest was our favourite place for lunch!


Mid-week we soaked up some local history with a trip to the Hospital in the Rock museum, the site of an emergency hospital opened in 1944. The hospital was reused during the revolution of 1956 for casualties and for a period the rooms were maintained as a nuclear bunker. Displays in set-dressed rooms presented the different periods, many included original equipment from the hospital with some (slightly scary) illustrative mannequins!


The first class of the day was a seminar with Laszlo Kontler (CEU) on ‘Humanity on Display: Ethnographic Knowledge, Spectacle and Metropolitan Identity’ in the nineteenth century. Kontler introduced us to scientific and non-scientific agendas behind the public display of people of different races in European cities. We were encouraged to consider the variety of responses to the other in the city, particularly in countries that were not colonial powers.

In the afternoon workshop I presented a paper on ‘Liverpool Road Station and the Camp Field: At the Boundary of Industrial and Civic Space, 1840 to 1880’ based on material from my thesis. Feedback from my paper encouraged me to interrogate how I consider the space around the station, for example, can it be conceptualised as ‘contact zone’ as defined by Mary Louise Pratt?

Other papers presented in my group ranged from Animesh Chatterjee’s work on marketing electricity to India’s urban middle class to Ekaterina Rybkina’s ‘Radio in the City’ paper on the broadcasting of horse races in the streets of Leningrad. It was fascinating to hear papers on such a range of subjects, with the city as the anchor for research into the history of science, technology and medicine.

Later, Ulrike Spring (Sogn og Fjordane University College) gave a public lecture on ‘The Arctic in the City: reinventing Polar science in the public spaces of Vienna, Budapest and Prague in 1874’. Spring demonstrated that scientific knowledge of the expedition and the aurora was mediated by journalists and in scientific institutions influenced by local political, economic and social factors. Spring showed that the vagueness of knowledge of Arctic science facilitated the politicisation of Arctic discourse in different local and national contexts.


Ulrike Spring led our morning seminar in which we problematised ‘popular science’ and asked who ‘the public’ so often referred to by historians were. This followed on from Spring’s lecture and brought us up to date with contemporary historiography on historicising ‘popular science’. We were also encouraged to consider our own work in groups to see if we could ‘think geographically about science’. I particularly reflected upon the geography of Manchester and how this influenced the locations of institutions for learning.

In the afternoon we had a seminar and lecture with Mitchell G. Ash (University of Vienna). Here we considered the urban context of zoos and the relationship between the nineteenth century zoological garden and the use of this space for scientific investigation, in particular in the case of Carl Hagenbeck’s 1890s Panoramas.


Our final day began with a closing discussion in which the themes of the course were revisited and the class considered how we might consider using the Urban History/HSTM methodologies in our own work. Questions were raised about how approaches could be employed across disciplines, with some students wondering how the urban approach might work before the growth of urban centres or development of disciplinary boundaries in the modern period. I wondered how the reciprocal approach to urban development and scientific knowledge might play out after the events – in interpretation at heritage sites.


Class of 2015 in the courtyard of the Semmelweis Medical History Museum

Next we took a trip to the Semmelweis Medical History Museum, birthplace of Hungarian physician. Dr. Semmelweis (1818-1865). We had a guided tour of the collections which showed developments in Western medicine chronologically, including many nineteenth century obstetrical instruments from Dr. Semmelweis’ area of expertise. With a farewell lunch, the course was complete. It was time to part with the group, who I hope will all keep in touch!

I would like to thank the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, the University of Manchester’s Zochonis Special Enterprise Fund and the Science Museum Group for enabling me to attend Cities and Science.

If you are interesting in programme for 2016, please visit (from November 2015) for more details.

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Week the First: Canberra

Well the first of four weeks in Australia is over, and whilst I had amazing intentions of writing a blog every other day or so those have fallen by the wayside due to jet-lag and the distraction of it being a) nice weather for a walk, and b) a nice place for a walk, and c) a nice place for a walk to good eating (more on these below).

So, first things first, Canberra is a planned city. This is no bad thing. It’s nothing like Milton Keynes (not even those cool plans of it we read about in reading group), and nothing like Cumbernauld either. I suppose you could see it a little bit as an Australian Welwyn Garden City, but with different intentions.

The Parliament is a strange half grass covered building which (I’m reliable informed) has the largest aluminium structure in the Southern Hemisphere on it (though to be honest I’m not sure there’s much in the way of intentional competition); and the archives are based just round the corner in the Parliamentary Zone. If the Parliamentary Zone were in Britain (foregoing obvious reductions in scale) it would have a completely different feeling involving queues and checkpoints where you have to prove your water bottle has water in; here the whole place is open to the public, and whilst buses can’t stop outside Parliament House, there’s no really noticeable security anywhere.

Parliament House


The same thing goes for the Archive Reading Rooms. The whole thing is about the size of the seminar room, kitchen and photocopier room. No joke. There are no seat numbers, no security guards in the room, and you get given as many files as the document suppliers can carry – or if you’re lucky a precious trolley! Then you just get left to look at them, take them back and request more, and more and more.



People active on twitter at ridiculous hours of the night/morning, may have noticed some of the photos I’ve been posting of interesting documents, but today was an exceptionally good day for them, so thought I’d put some of them up here.

The first comes from a file about the European Launcher Development Organisation and its imminent demise. Someone in the Department of External Affairs (Australian version of the FCO) wondered whether this, and the UKs entry into the EEC might mean Australia had to take a more independent approach to relations with European nations. The hand written response is something I’ve never seen before (although have often assumed civil servants are too restrained), but today would probably amount to “WTF?”.



The second comes from an early file about ELDO, and is something which will definitely make its way into my thesis, for obvious reasons!



This final one comes from a general file entitled “Australian foreign relations with the UK”. I wish every nation’s diplomatic office had files like this. This one even contained an “Australian UK policy guide” sent to all departments letting them know the general approach to take and whether to promote or curtail collaborations (sensible, no?). Anyway, this document is from an awkward period where, to meet EEC regulations before entering the Community, Britain had to curtail the rights of Commonwealth citizens to hold a British passport without residency, or to enter Britain (and therefore the European Community) without any kind of visa. The action starts from Paragraph 3: Hurd is Douglas Hurd (later foreign secretary under Maggie and John Major), the “PMs” mentioned is a Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting, and Trudeau the then Prime Minister of Canada.




Now for the important bit.


Coffee and food in Australia

I had my first proper culture clash today when I asked some in the café for an Americano, and had to explain how to make one before being told that I was in Australia now and should ask for a “long black” so people understood. They then seemingly took pity on me and told me that I should try a “lamington”. There is nothing in the name to suggest what on earth that might be, but I was brave.
Imagine angel cake, then cover it with a chocolatey butter cream-ish icing, then cover THAT with desiccated coconut. They are amazing (and also large – knife included for scale).



Another thing which is amazing is the quality of food in the student area (and the quantity). The dinner below cost about £6 (including the drink) and was much larger than I expected when I ordered it.


Finally, a very important note for other PhDs. Hummus in Australia seems to come in two kinds – pretty darn amazing, and awful. There is no such thing as “OK” hummus (like the majority of UK hummus), so when buying here be careful!

Stuck for search terms?

When you’ve typed in all the major words from you research into a journal database (e.g. JStor) and got precisely no hits, or into an archive search engine (e.g. The National Archives) and got only three records from the wrong century (and usually referring to hat-making), it can be quite depressing.

Even if there are some results, you will eventually reach the day where the only thing left is that paper about Wilson’s “white heat” speech and the Girl Guides which has been search-optimised really well. (No, I’m not joking – it’s a real paper).

Recently, I found myself searching around a topic similar to my undergraduate dissertation, and to my horror, found an annoyingly good paper which I really should have noticed at the time. To avoid embarrassment I won’t say what it is, but given the search terms I was using, it’s not surprising that it’s located on page 79 of a JStor search (between two articles about secondary education in the Cold War), and not entirely surprising that I missed it.

But it got me thinking. The search terms I used were rather particular and topic focused, whereas the paper I’ve only recently found is about vague concepts (of power and identity).  However, if I were to think about the things I actually write about (apart from specific rockets and stuff) it’s normally pretty vague too. It’s often quite hard, to come up with ideas about who your main actors really are (whether you spend more time slating one Minister of Defence or another) and what terms you use to discuss vague concepts.

Until today I thought the only way that I could do that was to sit in a darkened room in tortured silence, but as finding that article has proved, it’s clearly not 100% effective.

Sitting at my desk, reading this annoyingly good paper my eyes fell on the cover of my undergraduate dissertation, and I realised, I had been a tremendous fool.

There, in very large bold letters, is the one word of overlap between my standard search terms and the annoyingly good paper.

word cloud

In my undergraduate days making a Word Cloud went through a brief vogue, and because I could never be bothered to learn how to correctly attribute pictures, I used to make one at the end of my project to stick on the front cover and look smart.

For those of you who weren’t as much of a geek as I was, Word Clouds take all the words in any text, and re-size them in proportion to the number of times they are used. (Nowadays, things have moved on a bit with sites like Text is Beautiful, giving you Word Clouds, text webs and correlation wheels).

Realising that I might have missed things during my Masters which might be useful now, I turned to the cover of that (which due to laziness also had a Word Cloud), and began searching. This time, not one, but FOUR annoyingly good papers. How embarrassing.

Lesson learnt I now exhort you – spend an hour playing with a pretty Word Cloud, before it’s too late!

Post by Stuart Butler 

You can get more out of Oral History than just an interview

pic for oral hist

There are many methodological issues associated with the tricky business of oral history. Foremost amongst those problems are the prejudices and reinvented narratives established over the intervening period of time that your subjects carry into the interview.

Basically, you’re not talking to the younger version of them.

That is not to say that oral history doesn’t have its merits. The British Library is in the middle of an excellent project (among many others) looking at the ‘Oral History of British Science’ <>   . In the course of my thesis I have conducted many interviews with some prominent (and not so prominent) scientists and politicians involved in the science and politics of climate change; with one participant expressing the hope that I could contribute to the ‘real’ story of the IPCC (particularly in the context of continuing controversy in the blogosphere). Clearly my job as a historian is to try and get beyond the re-hashed narratives that my subjects want to tell me, and to do this I had to conduct a significant amount of research in advance of the interview. Indeed pitting one interviewee against another is just one interesting way of snapping your subjects out of their “presentist” stories.

But much of this goes without saying. What I want to explore here is, what else you can get out of oral history –other than just an audio file and (eventually) a transcript! I was prompted to think about this a little more by a comment at the HPST Reading Group last night. Tom Lean, one of the BL’s Oral History of British Science interviewers, was recounting the interesting and often unique photos he has been provided with by his interview subjects. Scientists and engineers stood next their gadgets and gizmos and their planes, trains and automobiles. Now I haven’t been provided with any photos by my interview subjects, but I have been given a selection of papers that I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed, let alone been able to get my hands on. This has helped me overcome some of the issues of studying an institution younger the 30 years old (the ‘thirty year rule’ states that yearly Cabinet papers of a government will be released publicly thirty years after they were created: ). But what I want to argue here is that you can get even more than some extra documents –incredibly useful as they may be. You get to know your main protagonists in a way which compliments the archival record. For example I didn’t know, nor would I have found out, about various friendships that crossed borders and transcended disciplines. These extra personal details can lift your understanding of a character. After all there’s a reason we have a fantasy dinner party guest list.

So go on and enjoy yourself; send that letter or email to your central actor. In all likelihood they’ll be very happy to tell you their story.

Post by David Hirst