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Iron holds the whale

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Just past noon, on 30 January 1839, a fight broke out in the Admiralty Library. On the one side, an official committee of savants in magnetic surveying, appointed to reform the Navy’s dangerously defective compasses; on the other, the Reverend William Scoresby, a whaler turned clergyman who ministered to his congregation of mariners from a floating pulpit. While the committee and the former captain shared a common evangelism, they differed in its expression; a conflict that erupted over knowledge of iron.

A household name for his whaling journals and Arctic natural histories, in 1836 Scoresby caused a stir among the magnetic community for his remarkable mastery of the properties of iron. In particular, his ‘compound needle’ drew envious eyes, so light, and so powerful it would surpass the finest variation compass. In spring 1838, the committee solicited Scoresby’s help; a year later they pulled him, and his compound needle, apart in a heated contest of disputed ownership. Through the early nineteenth century, revolutionary changes in the means of production transformed the nature of iron, rendering its properties in flux and uncertain. The right to make, manipulate, and assess iron became the stuff of ferocious contest for savants of the survey sciences, as it was for combinations protesting the depreciation of their work under the changing labour economy. Scoresby staked his claim to knowledge of the metal by drawing on the labour law of the whale-boats, a culture peculiarly preoccupied with the properties of certain materials, ink and skin, parchment and iron. Extant collections of Scoresby’s iron in Greenwich and Whitby are the traces of a battle between ways of knowing this protean metal; ‘not down in any map; true places never are’.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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