University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Barnum, Bache and Poe: the forging of science in the Antebellum US

Barnum, Bache and Poe: the forging of science in the Antebellum US

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Two opposed tendencies characterised US public culture around 1840: first, a sharp increase of printed matter in which the sites, audiences, styles and speakers for matters of public concern exploded in number and diversity; second, an elite movement to unify knowledge through centralised institutions. In the domain of science, Barnum’s ‘American Museum’ typified the first, while the US Coast Survey, directed by patrician polymath and West Point graduate Alexander Dallas Bache, exemplified the second. The life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe – who trained at West Point, and wrote constantly about the sciences, even as he struggled to survive as an editor, poet and storyteller – pushed in both directions at once. Poe ‘forged’ American science and letters in two senses: by crafting believable fakes which fed the uncertainty about authority over knowledge, and by lending aid to projects to restrict the flow of information and establish a unified intellectual infrastructure. His work thus offers uniquely astute, if dramatically conflicted commentary on the relations of science and public in a key phase of national consciousness and industrialisation.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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