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Wooden Octant for David W. Laird of Leith, unknown probably English maker, c. 1840

Tools of Knowledge

Wooden Octant for David W. Laird of Leith, unknown probably English maker, c. 1840

Tools of Knowledge: Modelling the Creative Communities of the Scientific Instrument Trade, 1550-1914.

Tools of Knowledge is an AHRC-funded interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Cambridge, University of Sussex and National Museums Scotland (NMS), in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich and the Science Museum. Starting in January 2021 it runs until the end of December 2023.

What will the project do?

Scientific knowledge has helped shape the modern world, responding to and facilitating global exploration and commerce, the industrial revolution and medical understanding. While popular narratives celebrate famous discoveries and scientists, they usually overlook the makers of the technologies on which they relied. Scientific instruments embodied current knowledge and practice, both enabling and constraining our understanding of the world.

Quintant (sextant) in a fitted mahogany box, used on the Antarctic Expedition of 1901, signed and made by William Cary of London, c. 1900 (T.1911.35).

It is the stories of these artefacts, and of the men and women involved in the trade that produced them, during three and a half centuries, that the ‘Tools of Knowledge’ project will recover and share. ‘Tools of Knowledge’ will assemble a large volume of diverse data on scientific instruments and their makers, to which it will apply cutting-edge methods of digital analysis to produce new insights. The research is grounded in the existing Scientific Instrument Makers, Observations and Notes (SIMON) dataset, comprising more than 10,000 records on individual instrument makers and firms from Great Britain and Ireland.

To this will be added data from existing legacy databases, collections databases (including NMS and the Whipple Museum), metallurgical research, and material newly extracted from historical texts or generated using advanced digital methods. The aggregated data will be remodelled to create a knowledge graph that makes expert understanding of the meanings of this data explicit to users in a machine-readable form and enables linking across datasets. For the first time, information about people, places, practices, institutions, materials and objects will be accessible for study in combination and at scale.

Calculating instrument made in Scotland by Robert Davenport, Edinburgh, c. 1650 (T.1972.252).

Textual and visual interfaces, designed to allow the construction of complex and nuanced queries, will allow researchers to dynamically form and test new hypotheses about the relationship between different factors in the lives of the instruments themselves, and the development of the trade.

Professor Liba Taub (University of Cambridge): Principal Investigator, to end of June 2023
Dr Rebekah Higgitt (National Museums Scotland): Co-Investigator, and Principal Investigator from July 2023
Dr Alex Butterworth (University of Sussex): Co-Investigator
Dr Boris Jardine (University of Cambridge): Co-Investigator
Dr Josh Nall (University of Cambridge): Co-Investigator
Dr Sarah Middle (National Museums Scotland): Researcher
Dr Duncan Hay (University of Sussex): Research Fellow
Matt Beros (University of Cambridge): Research Assistant
Denise Penrose (University of Sussex): Administrative support

Project contact

Email icon Dr Rebekah Higgitt
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