17th-Century Scientific Discovery
Historians attempting to explain how scientific work was done in the laboratory of the seventeenth century chemist and natural philosopher Robert Boyle must address a fundamental discrepancy between how such experimentation was actually performed and the seventeenth-century rhetoric describing it. Leaders of the new Royal Society of London in the 1660s insisted that authentic science depended upon actual experiments performed, observed, and recorded by the scientists themselves. Rejecting the traditional contempt for manual operations, these scientists, all members of the English upper class, were not to think themselves demeaned by the mucking about with chemicals, furnaces, and pumps; rather, the willingness of each of them to become, as Boyle himself said, a mere “drudge” and “under-builder” in the search for God’s truth in nature was taken as a sign of their nobility and Christian piety.
This rhetoric has been so effective that one modern historian assures us that Boyle himself actually performed all of the thousand or more experiments he reported. In fact, due to poor eyesight, fragile health, and frequent absences from his laboratory, Boyle turned over much of the labor of obtaining and recording experimental results to paid technicians, although published accounts of the experiments rarely, if ever, acknowledged the technicians’ contributions. Nor was Boyle unique in relying on technicians without publicly crediting their work.
Why were the contributions of these technicians not recognized by their employers? One reason is the historical tendency, which has persisted into the twentieth century, to view scientific discovery as resulting from momentary flashes of individual insight rather than from extended periods of cooperative work by individuals with varying levels of knowledge and skill. Moreover, despite the clamor of seventeenth-century scientific rhetoric commending a hands-on approach, science was still overwhelmingly an activity of the English upper class, and the traditional contempt that genteel society maintained for manual labor was pervasive and deeply rooted. Finally, all of Boyle’s technicians were “servants,” which in seventeenth-century usage meant anyone who worked for pay. To seventeenth-century sensibilities, the wage relationship was charged with political significance. Servants, meaning wage earners, were excluded from the franchise because they were perceived as ultimately dependent on their wages and thus controlled by the will of their employers. Technicians remained invisible in the political economy of science for the same reasons that underlay servants’ general political exclusion. The technicians’ contributions, their observations and judgment, if acknowledged, would not have been perceived in the larger scientific community as objective because the technicians were dependent on the wages paid to them by their employers. Servants might have made the apparatus work, but their contributions to the making of scientific knowledge were largely—and conveniently—ignored by their employers.