Belteki on MacDonald, 'Kew Observatory and the Evolution of Victorian Science, 1840-1910'

Lee T. MacDonald
Daniel Belteki

Lee T. MacDonald. Kew Observatory and the Evolution of Victorian Science, 1840-1910. Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. Illustrations. xii + 308 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4526-0.

Reviewed by Daniel Belteki (University of Kent) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 2018) Commissioned by Dominic J. Berry (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Printable Version:

Kew Observatory was a vibrant site for Victorian science, but it has received very little attention from historians. Prior to Lee T. Macdonald’s new book, the last published history of the observatory was written in 1969, and focused almost exclusively on its contributions to meteorology. Macdonald’s work fills this gap by providing a critical analysis of the observatory’s history from its founding in 1840 until its reorganization during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The main challenge that historians face when writing about Kew is bringing together the many avenues of science that the site engaged in: magnetic observations, meteorology, solar photography, standardization, and the testing of instruments. This has also been a general problem for other historians of astronomy and observatories. Simon Schaffer reimagined observatories as factories, Allan Chapman considered Greenwich Observatory as a bureau of clerks, while David Aubin viewed observatories as laboratories and centers of calculation. However, within such approaches, historians often risked losing sight of the observatory itself. To counter this problem, the term “observatory sciences” was made popular by Aubin, Charlotte Bigg, and Otto Sibum in their Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture (2010) to make sense of the diverse range of practices and techniques that were carried out within observatories. It is this approach within which Macdonald frames Kew Observatory to bring together the various fields of science under the history of a single institution.

The book tells the story of the observatory by breaking it down into six different time periods. Each one of these sections discusses the specific observatory science that defined the institution during the given time period. The first one, focusing on the foundation of the observatory, describes the debates about what research areas were going to be incorporated under the term “physical observatory.” Even though it was seen as a meteorological observatory, observations of atmospheric electricity and research on terrestrial magnetism were also carried out. Macdonald describes this period as a clash between major figures of Victorian science (John Herschel, Edward Sabine, and George Airy), with each one of them preferring different research programs: tidal research, magnetic observations, and standardization work.

The second section focuses on the expansion of the standardization work between 1845 and 1859. It describes the beginning of the commercialization of the observatory through the testing of instruments, which in later years served as the main source of revenue for the institution. The chapter introduces the other main question of the book about the sources of funding for observatory sciences. Historians during the 1970s (such as Roy Macleod and D. S. L. Cardwell) considered the final quarter of the nineteenth century as an advent of government-funded Victorian science, especially with the publication of the final report of the Devonshire Commission. While previously Kew was placed within this framework, Macdonald demonstrates that it was an outlier, since it continued functioning on laissez-faire principles until its incorporation into the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) at the very end of the nineteenth century.

The book also focuses on the recurring clashes between Sabine and Airy over the Magnetic Crusades and the central role of the Greenwich Observatory in the organization of observatory sciences around the British Empire. As Macdonald demonstrates in chapters 3 and 4, while Kew did not become an official part of the Magnetic Crusades, Sabine’s political talents managed to establish there the same practices as in other participating observatories. By solidifying Sabine’s crucial role in the expansion of British research on terrestrial magnetism, the book adds a detailed personal dimension to previous analysis of the Magnetic Crusades by John Cawood, Edward J. Larson, and Jessica Ratcliff. Sabine’s idea of turning Kew Observatory into the central node of magnetic and meteorological observations also threatened the central power of Greenwich Observatory, which brought him into direct conflict with the Astronomer Royal, Airy. Just two weeks after Airy had become the president of the Royal Society, he unsuccessfully tried to relocate the meteorological work from Kew to Greenwich. Eventually, Airy’s only successful coup was the relocation of the work relating to solar physics and photography (which he achieved through borrowing the Kew photoheliograph instrument, but never returning it). Macdonald’s close analysis provides a convincing argument for showcasing Airy’s attempts at centralizing control over observatory science at Greenwich, and makes us wonder why these two men of science have not yet been given their own biographies.

The Airy-Sabine clashes also call attention to the centrality of Greenwich in the approaches that historians take to understand British observatories. Roger Hutchins’s monumental British University Observatories 1772-1939 (2008) is a good example of this, as it approaches smaller observatories through the connections of their staff to Greenwich. Yet, as Macdonald’s book shows, observatories were not seen as institutions dependent on Greenwich. Instead, they were constantly trying to counteract any power imposed upon them by the Astronomer Royals.

The final two chapters tell the story of the observatory’s gradual downfall. They interweave Kew’s continued operations with the founding of NPL. The book shows how NPL did not spring into existence in isolation, but rather as an institution entirely reliant on Kew’s reputation. In fact, the initial proposals for the buildings of NPL were going to be literal extensions attached to the Kew Observatory. The final chapter then discusses the continued expansion of NPL and the decreasing role of Kew within the reorganized system. Since Kew was only able to retain the meteorological work from the observatory sciences, Macdonald argues that it lost its Victorian characteristic of a multifunctional institution.

The term “institution” is crucial here, as the book is a good example of an institutional history that brings together network analysis with spatial and material studies within the historical context of Victorian Britain. The instruments, individuals, and practices are framed within the constantly changing physical space of the observatory. At the same time, the work widely reflects on the administrative, legal, and organizational aspects of its history. This approach connects the observatory space with the wider network of scientific institutions and men of science. In turn, the book demonstrates how Kew’s organizational connections (to the Royal Society, British Association for the Advancement of Science, Meteorological Office, and NPL) shaped the types of observatory sciences practiced on site.

Macdonald finishes the book by calling for more histories of scientific institutions, and a closer investigation of the continuation of institutions from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. A large part of the book centers around the circulation of material items, but the presence of instrument makers is somewhat lacking in the book. This shortcoming is acknowledged by the author, and points us toward another possible avenue for further research.

Citation: Daniel Belteki. Review of MacDonald, Lee T., Kew Observatory and the Evolution of Victorian Science, 1840-1910. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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