This paper offers personal reflections on the fashioning of the history of science in Europe. It presents the history of science as a discipline emerging in the twentieth century from an intellectual and political context of great complexity, and concludes with a plea for tolerance and pluralism in historiographical methods and approaches.
The years immediately after the final downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte could easily have been years of anti-climax in French science. In 1815, after two decades of undoubted greatness, the time, I feel, was ripe for decline. And decline might well have occurred if the traditions and the style of science as practised in France in the period of Napoleon's rule had been carried on unchanged by the disciples of the two great men who had dominated work in the physical sciences (...) for so many years. These men, of course, were the chemist Claude Louis Berthollet and the mathematician and physicist Pierre Simon Laplace. (shrink)
There is a story, which historians of modern France often tell, of the ministerial official in Paris who had only to glance at his clock in order to know the exact passage of Vergil being construed and the law of physics being expounded in every school throughout the country. Invariably, the story is told for a purpose. It is used to demonstrate the high degree of centralization and the attendant rigidity of the French educational system, usually with special reference to (...) the nineteenth century. The story, which has its roots in the rich corpus of Napoleonic legend, serves this purpose very well, but unfortunately it is both apocryphal and misleading. For while it is true that most nineteenth-century ministers with responsibility for education aspired to the ideal of total control, not one of them came close to it in reality. (shrink)
Thomas Edison's incandescent lamp was one of four that were displayed at the first international exhibition of electricity in Paris in 1881. By the end of the exhibition, most observers believed that Edison had taken a clear lead over his rivals: Maxim, Swan, and Lane-Fox. In reality, his victory was a narrow one that owed much to the skilful management of public opinion by his aides in Paris. Nevertheless, it reinforced Edison's view of Paris as the natural starting point for (...) the implantation of his system in continental Europe. Almost immediately, however, the three companies that he established for the purpose in Paris were in difficulties as the financial crash of January 1882 hardened into sustained recession. Quickly Edison's favour turned to Milan and, more particularly, Berlin, leaving the once central Parisian venture to become a minor element in his European strategy. (shrink)