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Science Museum Group

The meaning of applied science

What was meant by ‘applied science’ at different times and what did those using the term hope to achieve by citing it? This project explores the meaning and use of the category from its emergence at the time of the Napoleonic wars to its fading in the face of technology at the end of the Cold War.

Aim

This project explores the meaning and use of the category of applied science, from its emergence at the time of the Napoleonic wars to its fading in the face of technology at the end of the Cold War.

It is being conducted by Research Keeper Dr Robert Bud, who has been involved in studying and curating aspects of the history of applied science such as the development of biotechnology, British military research, and instrumentation for over 30 years.

Context

The collections of the Science Museum have been developed over a century and a half on the assumption of the coherence of objects from teapots to trains to telescopes. This coherence was dependent on the category of ‘applied science’ which spanned the gap between the artefacts of pure science and those of the everyday. Thus the Science Museum has justifiably claimed to be the Museum of Pure and Applied Science.

More generally, the category was used to characterise the training needs of engineers and even the modern age as a whole. Writers, artists and politicians cited it in support of their own agendas.

Outcomes

Publications that have so far emerged from the project include:

  • Robert Bud, ‘“Applied Science”: A Phrase in Search of a Meaning’, Isis 103, no. 3 (1 September 2012): 537–45
  • Robert Bud, ‘Framed In The Public Sphere: Tools for the Conceptual History of “Applied Science”–A Review Paper’, History of Science 51, no. 4 (2013): 413–33.
  • Robert Bud, ‘Embodied Odysseys: Relics of Stories about Journeys through Past, Present, and Future’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44, no. 4 (2013): 639–42.
  • Robert Bud, ‘Biological Warfare Warriors, Secrecy and Pure Science in the Cold War: How to Understand Dialogue and the Classifications of Science.’, Medicina Nei Secoli 26, no. 2 (2013): 451–68.
  • Robert Bud, ‘“Applied Science” in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Public Discourse and the Creation of Meaning, 1817–1876’, History and Technology 30 (2014): 3–36.

Support from the AHRC also made the following possible:

  • “Being Modern: Science and Culture in the early 20th century”, a major conference at the Institute of Historical Research in April 2015.
  • “British Industrial Research to 1939”, a workshop held at the Science Museum in November 2015.

Project partners

In recent years, the work has been supported by two fellowships for Dr Bud from the Arts and Humanities Research Council:

  • Leadership Fellowship, 2014-2016, 'Science in the public sphere: Understanding the meanings of ‘applied science’ in the era of war, industrial research and modernism, 1900–1939′.
  • 'Narratives of science and practice in mid-nineteenth century Britain: applied science, stories and story-telling', 2011–2012