The eye of the needle: magnetic survey and the compass of capital in the age of revolution and reform


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This thesis charts the globalising role of British geomagnetism in the age of revolution and reform. In the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, significant fiscal-military state resources were directed toward linking three momentous magnetic enterprises: Admiralty reform of practical magnetic navigation; novel electromagnetic research; and British engagement in an international campaign to survey the earth’s magnetism. From hardware to personnel, these resources were heavily invested with certain principles of labour organisation. In the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century industrial materials such as copper, paper, and glass, were remanufactured into new forms designed to depend upon extreme systems of labour extraction. Iron best embodies this transformation. In order to chart the globalising role of British geomagnetism this thesis follows the interests of magnetic administrators and military mathematicians whose situated concerns were navigated by a new kind of iron. Particularly pivotal are the researches of Woolwich Military Academy mathematics master Peter Barlow, who took lessons from timber and torsion to make iron twist and link the three magnetic enterprises in capital bonds. The ferrous focus dictates the compass of this thesis: from Cornish mines to West Indian docks and Greenland fisheries, and its combinations: from Newcastle Town Moor to the Martinique marina. Combination, resistance, and revolution prove critical. The protests of English commons are shown to have fuelled the launch of the magnetic campaign, just as the uprisings of the Black Atlantic formed its material and theoretical infrastructure. Legislation and materials were reformed to reveal apparently natural laws, while the realities of contingency, struggle, and newer subtler forms of exploitation were lauded as inevitable progress. British geomagnetism in the age of revolution and reform charted a particular kind of extreme labour extraction embodied in a new kind of iron: a global metal in globalisation’s reconstitution of the globe.

Schaffer, Simon
Dunn, Richard
history of physics, geomagnetism, nineteenth century, Magnetic Crusade, Dip Circle, Admiralty Standard Compass, globalisation
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (1517136)
Arts and Humanities Research Council; Burke's Peerage; Antiquarian Horological Society; Scientific Instrument Society; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Royal Observatory, Greenwich; Wolfson College, Cambridge; Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge; American Academy of Arts and Sciences.