Engines of Knowledge in the First Information Age: The Laboratory and the Experiment

by Hamish Robertson

This series of pieces has focused on the concept of exploring a number of ‘engines of knowledge’ that emerged in the first ‘big data’ information age of the 19th century, which have since gradually institutionalised themselves into the forms we recognise today. One of the consequences of the developments that emerged from 18th century experimentalism was the idea of the laboratory. I have already suggested that many engines of knowledge, such as the scientific garden, supported the development of the idea of ‘natural’ experimentation and that the loci for such experiments became increasingly seen as laboratories in their own right. From the pottery factories of Josiah Wedgwood, the slave plantations of the American South and on to Darwin and Mendel’s experimental gardens – the early laboratories of experimentation were numerous and varied.

One thing they had in common was the development of relatively closed systems or micro-systems within which experimentation became possible, usually involving some form of separation from the natural world and its totalising complexity. The documentation of the elements under observation and the ability to manipulate the ingredients or resources needed for experimental approaches all supported the production of new knowledge, its theorisation and testing. From this emerged much of what we now think of as modern scientific knowledge and its methods of production. In particular, the idea of experimentation as an epistemic virtue also gradually entered not only the practice of science but the broader culture of modernity. It has remained a virtuous form of knowledge production ever since. Esteemed to the point where some scientists will, even now, knowingly fake their own results in order to (appear to) meet their experimental goals in the approved manner.

This piece examines the laboratory and the experiment as one of modernity’s archetypal dualisms. Early laboratories often started as adjuncts to museums (discussed in a previous piece) and experimentalism had been gaining ground as a virtuous form of knowledge production since at least the 18th century. But in the 19th century the variety and scale of laboratories took on a much greater momentum, driven by the expansion of tertiary education and the mix of rise of chemistry and medical teaching laboratories, to be followed by physics and physiology laboratories. These were often paralleled by industrial laboratories associated with the development of modern manufacturing methods. Huge growth in the university systems of Europe and North America saw not only the rise of bourgeois values (formal education and qualifications, including the PhD, as a social differentiator) but a rapid growth in university-trained scientists of various kinds. The laboratory became a central part of the training aspect of universities, such that not only the social sciences copied it but that it has endured as a teaching format into the 21st century.

Calculable Spaces

The logic of experimentation, sacred or secular, requires a special location – some specific space set aside for its undertaking. Human beings have always invested in the design and construction of special places for the manufacture of particular kinds of knowledge. This series is essentially focused on a set of such places. Processes of calculation almost always require not only methods and technologies but dedicated sites for the collection of what we now think of as ‘primary data’. The astronomical monuments of the Middle East or the Americas were both symbolic and practical places for the collection of observational data, its recording, calculation and subsequent theorisation. The early laboratories of the alchemist or the apothecary were also built around the idea of locating specialist knowledge production in special places. Such places often took on an aura of their own, separating them from the mundane world of everyday life.

Early modem medical practitioners were highly likely to provide their patient’s with an astrology reading in conjunction with their diagnosis and treatment schedule. Isaac Newton was as interested in the occult as he was in what we now think of as science. The separation of ‘magic’ and science was as much an epistemic break as a practical or evidence-based one, with the break from organised religion taking even longer to achieve due, in part, to its much greater social authority. New concepts and explanations replaced old (consider phlogiston in chemistry, Galenic theory in medicine or miasmal theory in public health) in science, while many cultural residuals persisted. And we live with the consequences of the way in which these processes took place, with claims to truth still often hinging on the epistemic commitments of the claimant.

In the context of this discussion, the idea of calculable spaces took on a new and highly dynamic character in the 19th century in particular. There was a temporal geography to laboratory science, with the focus shifting from country to country (France, Britain, Germany etc.) as developments gained momentum and the sciences expanded. This idea emerged especially in the knowledge contexts of the chemist’s laboratory and the hospital (and its allied laboratories – anatomy, phlebotomy etc.). These became, and largely remain, places in which specific types of replicable experimentation could be conducted. The laboratory became its own kind of knowledge factory because it not only formalised processes of knowledge production but it, in effect, developed a culture around the related practices, processes and outcomes of experimentation. In both of these locations, the esteem in which experimentation was held has endured down to the present day. Laboratory experimentation is the fieldwork equivalent for disciplines that need to partition their slice of nature in order to better understand it.  

Geographer David Livingstone has identified that it is not only the process of sequestered space that defines many scientific undertakings but that this spatial manifestation extends even to the location of equipment, activities and staff within such spaces. The arrangement of such spaces and the activities within them also have their own consequences for the types of knowledge able to be produced. Ordering space, in this sense, helps to order both practice and process, and consequently, the boundaries of what is both possible and acceptable in such spaces. More recently still, geographers have begun to develop and extend a theoretical approach to information geographies. The fundamental concept being that information, analogue or digital, exhibits a variety of geographical characteristics. These include features such as particular points of origin, specific destinations, temporal and spatial degrees of mobility (diffusion, transmission etc.), networks by which such transmission occurs and so on. So, even here, we can see the concept of the laboratory as a space-place nexus for particular kinds of knowledge production and as points in a network for its distribution.

In addition to this, many early laboratories were established in quite mundane environments such as people’s homes, businesses or even local pubs. Wealthy or middle class researchers, professional or amateur, male or female (often couples), could build on to or convert part of their properties to become laboratories. Many did just this, making the laboratory a far more varied space than the ‘cathedrals’ of science model that gradually infused the culture as the 19th century segued into the 20th and the large university and industrial laboratories became the dominant form. Even Marie Curie’s laboratory annex was housed in a perfectly ordinary domestic building in Arcueil to the south of Paris where many of her possessions remain radioactive. And radium was promoted as a medical cure-all (science and medicine continued a secular version of the Christian miracle tradition) before its potential effects were fully understood. It also needs to be remembered that active self-promotion and fund-seeking from governments and sponsors are not unique to modern research institutes, with many Victorian researchers, including the likes of Charles Babbage, actively engaged in these processes as advocates for their research programmes. The rise of the laboratory was not simply a ‘natural’ consequence of the success of the science being practiced but directly connected to the active promotion of those sciences by emerging science professionals and their supporters.

Abstracting Nature

One of the successes and limitations of the experimental approach championed in the laboratory has involved a need to abstract from the inherent complexity of nature. This involved segmenting out the biological or chemical experiments from their natural contexts and the attempt to isolate their processes and results in laboratory environments. Chemistry in particular was the first science to take this to the levels we typically associated with the experimental laboratory science. This changed not only the European university education systems but also the definition of the laboratory itself. In close association with rapid industrial developments, it became increasingly common for industrial plants and complexes to set aside spaces for experimentation. Edison did this, for example, by differentiating between paying and non-paying research activities, with some projects part of the immediate commerce of applied science and others done for their own sake or with the potential of future reward.

Measurement and quantification proved to be essential aspects of the new laboratory science. In order to create replicable experiments, much more precise levels of measurement were required for not only the elements that went into chemical and related experiments but also in quantifying the results. And if other laboratories were to copy or replicate such activities, then they too needed to share the same approach to the experimental processes and protocols. Being able to abstract from nature and to, in effect, isolate various complex naturally occurring processes (as well as to attempt new or novel ones) provided a basis for a new and expanding approach to scientific knowledge production as the 19th century progressed. At the same time, the sciences of measurement themselves, including mathematics, statistics and engineering all grew rapidly too. Measurement precision, quantification and replicability became mutually reinforcing touchstones of modern science and technology.

Of Facts and Fetishes

The currency of laboratories and a variety of other sites of scientific inquiry rapidly emerged as ‘facts’. In the English language in particular, the ‘fact’ and its emergence as a virtuous epistemic base point has a long and somewhat convoluted history. Mary Poovey, for example, has written on the development of the fact as the common currency of an increasingly inductive knowledge system. While Barbara Shapiro points to the legal tradition as a source for the conceptual origins and growing social authority of the ‘fact’ as modernity progressed. The sciences, in separating themselves form more traditional forms of knowledge and its production, began to use the ‘fact’ as an authorising currency of knowledge. To do this, measurement became an increasingly important concern. If the fact was to be a bedrock concept, then it had to rest on verifiable evidence and this called for the rise of and in precision measurement. This in its turn led to the production of many new and improved measuring instruments in science and technology, with a growing concern over standardisation. Hasok Chang has written extensively about the effort involved, sometimes even required, in attempting to replicate the processes and results of a number of classic 19th century scientific experiments. His work indicates that some scientific certainties were manufactured out of complexity rather than fully resolving the problems they examined.

Laboratory Facts and Fictions

The trope of the laboratory entered the literature very early in the 19th century including, amongst others, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886 and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. The genre only continued to grow and diversify as science itself gained momentum. This was partly because the image of the laboratory was already long familiar from the early modern period alchemists and apothecaries but also because 18th century industry had given rise to a variety of applied laboratory contexts, such as those mentioned earlier. Many representations were negative, railing against the unnaturalness of the laboratory and what was perceived to take place within its confines. Others, such as H. G. Wells loathed the laboratory teaching model that gained ascendancy by the latter part of the 19th century.

Older constructs, such as the monster, found new forms in what we now think of as the science fiction genre, shifting from the social to the scientific domains for their inspiration. Wells’ morlocks in The Time Machine are a later example of this intersection of the monster with science and emerging anthropology. Science fiction became a social and literary parallel of techno-science in a time of phenomenal change and development with its many associated human costs. The Enlightenment and ‘age of reason’ were paralleled by the rococo, romanticism and Victorian gothic with corresponding new ideas about ‘nature’ and the natural. The traditional laboratory has remained a powerful image in this domain while science and industry have moved on into more varied and digital environments. The sociological study of laboratories flourished in the 1970’s and 1980’s with Latour and the Scottish STS programme but this initial interest has since waned somewhat.


Obviously there is neither laboratory nor experiment without the scientists themselves. Their commitments to the laboratory and its processes are a key part of the continuing validity of the knowledge produced in such places. Deviations from this formalised script are quite naturally seen as undermining science itself since all scientists cannot personally witness every experiment – the early modern ‘gentleman’s agreement’ endures in the sciences. Success, however, is so greatly valued that forging results is sometimes seen as better than experimental ‘failure’, potentially compromising the reliability of the knowledge produced in the laboratory. This is a problem for science that Ioannidis has commented on in a paper that was almost as contentious as McKeown’s assessment of medicine’s role in rising life expectancies. The culture of science produces its forms of logic and its own epistemic values but popular versions and historiographies emerge which cannot always be entirely validated. In this piece, the focus has been on the varied development of what has become an iconic ‘factory’ of scientific knowledge production, the laboratory. It remains a remarkably enduring, if malleable, institution.

Hamish Robertson is a geographer at the University of New South Wales with experience in healthcare including a decade in ageing research. He has worked in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and he has presented and published on a variety of topics ranging from ageing, diversity, health informatics, Aboriginal health, patient safety and spatial science to cultural heritage research. Hamish is currently completing his PhD on the geography of Alzheimer’s disease and recently finished editing a book on museums and older people.

Categories: Rethinking The World

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *