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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Science and the classic industrial city

By the 1830s Manchester was attracting tourists who came to see the future. They visited the mills and the Infirmary to see production and its victims. They noted the cultural monuments which a newly assertive middle class had provided since the 1820s. Most of them were around Mosley Street and St Peter's Fields, the site of Peterloo - the political demonstration of 1819 which became a massacre. The Natural History Society was for botanists and for lovers of country sports; the Royal Manchester Institution (now the Manchester Art Gallery) concentrated on the Arts; the Athenaeum (the Gallery extension) catered for the younger gentlemen, many of whom found natural philosophy rather heavy. The Mechanics' Institute was established to provide science for the working classes, but some of the most devoted students proved to be clerks learning languages and accountancy. The Literary and Philosophical Society persisted for those of the middle classes sufficiently devoted to science as not to mind Dr Dalton talking yet again about meteorology. The keener members were often the engineers and chemists.

In this foul yet exciting city, political economy and religion were the major topics of debate. But younger professionals and industrialists worried about the moral and physical condition of the working classes; their pamphlets argued for reform, for more information, for more middle-class involvement, lest unrest and disease came to seriously damage the new industrial system. Hence the Manchester Statistical Society and the tradition of sanitary reform; hence the missions and the savings banks; hence the mechanics' institutes where workers might come to understand the laws of nature. Chemists and medical men, geologists and 'statisticians' collaborated in sanitary science.

By the 1840s there was more scientific expertise to draw on. Some of the local manufacturers employed chemists who had trained in the new German university laboratories. Chemists were useful to analyse ingredients and products, so improving efficiency. Engineers too in the larger local companies could use mathematical and experimental expertise. William Fairbarn asked Eaton Hodgkinson to help measure the strength of iron structures, and Hodgkinson went on to teach engineers in the new University of London. J F Bateman, a major civil engineer, learned his science around the Lit and Phil, as most importantly did James Prescott Joule, a pupil of Dalton and son of a local brewer. Amidst the mechanical and electrical enthusiasm of the early Victorian years, Joule's careful, conservative spirit sought security in measurement. He wrecked wild hopes of indefinite power from electricity, but he established the mechanical equivalent of heat. Joule brought to physics the engineer's concepts of duty and efficiency. William Thomson, in Glasgow, took up his experiments and helped establish the principle of conservation of energy.

The statues of Dalton and Joule now face each other in the porch of the Gothic Town Hall - fine monuments to a largely amateur scientific culture, in which intellect was directed not only to the regularities of nature, but to the operations of men upon it.

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