POSTPONED: English engineer John Smeaton’s experimental method: Optimisation, hypothesis-testing and practical maxims in the early Industrial Revolution.

Date: 
29-10-2020 from 14:00 to 16:00
Presenter: 
Andrew Morris (VUB)

Due to the current corona guidelines, the seminar is postponed to a yet unknown date. More information will follow as soon as possible.

 

Sarton Seminar talk with Andrew Morris (VUB)

Title: English engineer John Smeaton’s experimental method: Optimisation, hypothesis-testing and practical maxims in the early Industrial Revolution.

Abstract:

In this talk I provide an account of eighteenth-century English engineer John Smeaton’s experimental method. First, I introduce Smeaton and provide some historical context. Then, starting from Smeaton’s use of the technique of parameter variation, I identify three distinct methodological aims in the research he carried out on waterwheels, watermills and hydraulic mortars. These aims are: optimisation, theory-testing and maxim generation. By means of this analysis I hope to take the first step towards a modest reappraisal of Smeaton’s legacy, demonstrating that Smeaton did more than merely develop a method of systematic parameter variation using scale models – which is the current view, dating from research carried out in the 1990s. This view tends to see the development of engineering in the eighteenth century as a process of systematisation and codification, with little relation to ‘science’.

The central role of parameter variation in Smeaton’s method also suggests a connection with the method of exploratory experimentation. I argue that Smeaton carried out exploratory experimentation in the phase of research devoted to generating maxims for use in engineering and, building on a central theme in recent secondary literature on exploratory experimentation, I defend the claim that exploratory experimentation can be carried out in conjunction with other, non-exploratory approaches such as theory-testing.

I conclude that Smeaton’s methodology combined a specifically technological, engineering approach, with a more broadly ‘scientific’ outlook. This conclusion will hopefully provide some insight into the relation between ‘science’ and ‘technology’ at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.