Skip to main content
Kent Academic Repository

Precision measurement and the genesis of physics teaching laboratories in Victorian Britain

Gooday, Graeme J. N (1989) Precision measurement and the genesis of physics teaching laboratories in Victorian Britain. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.85948) (KAR id:85948)


This thesis examines the ascendance of Victorian acidnic physics laboratories as institutions primarily devoted the undergraduate

instruction in the techniques of precision measurement. The genesis of these teaching laboratories in established centres of higher education is shown to be specific to the period 1866-1874. This temporal specificityis analysed in terms of the confluence of an industrially-generated "demand" for practical scientific education and an independent research generated "supply" of academic expertise in precision measurement. Case stixiles assess the variation of pedagogical practices according to local institutional factors and the biographical characteristics of incumbent professors of experimental physics in seven English and Scottish laboratories • Three sub-groups of British nRd'ini c physicists are thereby identified: i) non-analytical experimentalists in London and Oxfords who supplied comprehensive and regimented courses of training in the techniques of exact measurement; ii) Scottish natural philosophers in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester who characteristically enlisted undergraduate assistance in professorial measurement researches; and iii) Cambridge analysts who allowed at most only an elite of the indigenous mathematics graduates to pursue independent investigations in their laboratories. The tensions between traditions i) and iii) are illustrated in the divergence of the Cambridge analyst James Clerk Maxwell from the

pedagogical interests and practices of the majority of academic laboratory physicists as represented by the Physical Society founded in 1873-74. Maxwell's dissidence is demonstrated in a brief account of his management of the Cavendish Laboratory as a generically unique centre of postgraduate research from 1874-79. Nevertheless, it is shown that laboratory precision measurement, as the universally recognized vehicle for progress in physics between the 1860's and 1890's, was practised in common by Maxwell and the distinct community of academic experimentalists which existed "before and beyond" the Cavendish Laboratory

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.85948
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 09 February 2021 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Uncontrolled keywords: Teaching physics; Victorian era
Subjects: C Auxiliary Sciences of History > C Auxiliary sciences of history (General)
L Education > LA History of education
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of History
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 29 Oct 2019 16:22 UTC
Last Modified: 14 Feb 2022 12:58 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

  • Depositors only (login required):

Total unique views for this document in KAR since July 2020. For more details click on the image.