Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age by James A Secord - review by Jonathan Rose

Jonathan Rose

Diffusers of Useful Knowledge

Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age

By

Oxford University Press 306pp £18.99 order from our bookshop
 

For a moment in time, just before Victoria became queen, popular science seemed to offer answers to everything. Around 1830, revolutionary information technology – steam-powered presses and paper-making machines – made possible the dissemination of ‘useful knowledge’ to a mass public. At that point professional scientists scarcely existed as a class, but there were genteel amateur researchers who, with literary panache, wrote for a fascinated lay audience.

The term ‘scientist’ was invented only in 1833, by the polymath William Whewell, who gave it a faintly pejorative odour, drawing analogies to ‘journalist’, ‘sciolist’, ‘atheist’, and ‘tobacconist’. ‘Better die … than bestialise our tongue by such barbarisms,’ scowled the geologist Adam Sedgwick. ‘To anyone who respects the English language,’

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