Did you know that the phrase “amp it up” is a tribute to a 19th century French scientist? In this episode of Houghton75 we speak with Alex Csiszar, Associate Professor of the History of Science, about his research on Andre Marie Ampére’s electromagnetic experiments and his equally remarkable experiments in scientific publishing.
Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at http://houghton75.org/hist-75h
Dara O Shayda
Podcast Transcript and Music Notes
[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]
Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.
James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.
Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.
JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.
HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit houghton75.org for more information.
JC: Did you know that the phrase “amp it up” is a tribute to a 19th century French scientist? The term “amp” refers to André-Marie Ampère, a physicist who founded the study of electrodynamics, or electromagnetism. He also developed a technique for measuring electricity, leading to our name for a single unit of electric current: the ampere or amp.
HF: We spoke with Alex Csiszar, Associate Professor of the History of Science here at Harvard, about his research on Ampére’s electromagnetic experiments and received a bonus lesson about Ampère’s equally remarkable experiments in scientific publishing.
Alex Csiszar (AC): Ampère got going in the field of electricity in about 1820. Before that he was as much a philosopher and a jack-of-all intellectual trades as anything else. He was deeply interested in the unity of nature, as many philosophers and even natural philosophers at the time were. In about 1820 a scientist elsewhere, Hans Christian Ørsted, had realized there was some interesting connection between magnetic phenomena and electrical currents. And this got Ampère really excited because it suggested that these two forces in nature might actually be one. So he immediately started experimenting in a big way on electrical currents and magnets, and he immediately realized all sorts of interesting things. He realized that if he took two wires carrying currents, they could attract one another or deflect one another in complex ways suggesting that there was some sort of magnetic phenomenon going on. He realized he could create a bar magnet, or something that acted like a bar magnet, simply by taking the electrical current and winding it in a loop. So he created basically the first electromagnet. And this led him to even more complex experiments in which he attempted to come up with a general theory of electromagnetism, what he called “electrodynamics.”
HF: Naturally, Ampère wanted to formally announce and publish his discoveries. This was groundbreaking science! If Ampère didn’t make a claim quickly, someone else may beat him to it!
JC: But writing a book takes time….and then you have to find a publisher. Luckily for Ampère, the 19th century brought about a new publishing option for scholarly authors.
AC: He wanted to get this out there very quickly because everybody was doing experiments on this same topic. So he started publishing journal articles all over the place. This was just the moment where you could start doing this because a multiplicity of journals was actually a new thing at this time. There was a snag, however, in that publishing journal articles was great to get it out there that you had done something, but if you wanted a general literary reputation, which a lot of savants did, you would still want to publish a book to get things together into a totality, into a whole. And that’s sort of what led to this book.
Ampère would publish these journal articles, but he would ask the printers and publishers of the journals to produce hundreds and hundreds of extra copies. And he would ask them to do this in a very specific way. He asked them to use a very particular style of pagination where there would be parentheses centered at the top of the page with the number. He asked them to start at a particular page number, and to use generally a certain kind of format, certain size of the book. And this more or less worked. As he published each journal article he told the next editor what page number to use, and slowly over about three years he produced what looked very much like a book. And then he had another printer print a title page and table of contents, he assembled it all, and then he sent it out across Europe and he even put it on sale with various booksellers.
JC: Requesting extra copies, or offprints, of published journal articles was a very common practice. Authors wanted these offprints so that they could distribute them to their friends, colleagues, and rivals who were not subscribed to the journal.
HF: The type was already set so it wouldn’t have been difficult for the printer to make a few extras, and small edits such as pagination would not have been difficult to accommodate.
JC: But using offprints for a full volume must have required a great deal of organization for Ampère. Unsurprisingly, there is evidence of a few snags Ampère encountered along the way.
AC: The title of the book, which as you can see is actually kind of long, in English it’s “A collection of electrodynamic observations, containing diverse memoirs, notices, extracts of letters, periodical works, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…” It’s not entirely secret that this is a collection. What’s perhaps a little more hard to tell is that it’s not simply a sort of book of collected works, which is a common enough thing even at this time. It’s that it physically is a collection of different publications.
Even more interesting is the verso facing where it says that “this work can be found at the following booksellers,” and lists various booksellers in various European cities, which suggests that, indeed, it was available to be bought. It wasn’t simply something that Ampère sent around. And then there’s a very interesting note. It says, “People who have copies of this book that are incomplete can send it back to their bookseller and have them exchanged at no cost for complete versions.” Which is not something you usually see, and indeed, why does it exist? It’s because Ampère realizes that there’s going to be trouble in actually assembling this and making it work.
And, indeed, when you look at different copies of this book, they’re almost never exactly the same. They’re always a little weird or different. Even the ones like this one here that we’re looking at which seem to be complete and regular, there are still some strange things. For instance, if you go to the back of the book, here’s the Table of Contents. It ends with this last little thing here on page 354: Observation additionnelle par M. Ampère. We can go to that, 354, and there it is, but then when you get to the end of it, you find that the end is page 364 and there’s another article at page 365! That’s not in the Table of Contents, which suggests that he published something else through the same scheme but he’d already sent the Table of Contents to the printer and couldn’t change it.
JC: Although brilliant, this scheme does seem a little unsavory.
HF: But Ampère wasn’t the only famous scientist publishing his works as offprints. Apparently, this was a common practice!
AC: There are some other examples I’ve found, but they aren’t quite like this. The most famous one that I know of is another famous French naturalist, Georges Cuvier, a famous comparative anatomist, probably the most powerful savant in France when Ampère was doing this. Cuvier did something very similar, in the 1810s. He put together offprints, and then sold and distributed the resulting book. It was a book about the fossil bones of quadrupeds. However, if you look at that book it looks very different from this. Cuvier made no attempt to get the page numbers right. He made no attempt to make the pages really line up. He did, however, print a preface and a title page and a table of contents. But if you look at it, it looks like what it is. It’s a collection of offprints put together in a pretty ragtag way and then distributed.
That particular technique isn’t so uncommon. Again, because there was this urge to publish large, unified treatments of things, many naturalists published articles in series. They would be called “Experimental Researches 1,” “Experimental Researches 2,” “Experimental Researches 3,” and they would come out in various periodicals and readers themselves would often put them together. Again, offprints being sent around were very, very common. You might argue that distributing your work through offprints that you got from a journal was one of the main reasons that you would publish something in a journal. Because who actually subscribed to all of these journals that were showing up? Very few people. And you wanted to make sure the right people got them. You would ask for a lot of offprints in order to distribute them to your friends, and to mentors, and to competitors in the form of these little pamphlets. Ampère did that as well, but he went one step further by putting them all together and distributing them himself in this way. Publishing by parts was very common in the sciences, again because it was very risky to publish a whole book. It would’ve been very difficult, or could’ve been difficult for Ampère to convince a publisher to publish a whole book and send it out. This way he could do it himself, he could do it cheaply, and with basically no risk.
HF: This book is an artifact of a transitional time in publishing history. Scholarly journals, so familiar to us today, were just starting to gain popularity.
JC: Books of course, were and remained important, but their role was shifting. According to Professor Csiszar, the shifting publishing landscape led to a major change in the sharing of scientific information.
AC: This book, in many ways, encapsulates one of the main ideas I’ve been trying to put forward in my own work. It encapsulates a major transition in the way in which savants thought about how to put their work out there, and indeed what was worth putting out into the world as a scientific finding. When Ampère wrote this book and when Ampère came of age as a savant, what often mattered was a big discovery claim of some kind. Some sort of theory of the world. And that’s very much what Ampère, this dedicated Romantic philosopher, wanted to produce. He wanted to produce a theory of the world, a unified theory of nature in some ways. And books are much better for that than little articles. On the other hand, all these journals, these commercial scientific journals, had begun to proliferate everywhere and they were great if you wanted to stake your claim to some sort of small discovery claim. And so Ampère used them all the time in order to say “I’ve done this. Pay attention. This is something that I deserve credit for.” This was in sort of tension with this urge to publish books. So, this book, in many ways, represents the awkward coming together of these two movements where Ampère wanted to in some sense do both of these things at the same time: create a unified theory of the world and get his work out there as fast as possible.
In my own work I take this for granted, but it’s not obvious that looking at the actual material objects in the case of the history of science would tell you anything. When we do literary history, there’s a lot of people who focus on the books themselves because it’s supposed to be all about books. But history of science is supposed to be about knowledge, abstract ideas, equations, formulas. But actually you learn a lot about how people thought about knowledge and science by looking very closely at the books themselves. And this book by Ampère is a really, really amazing example of this.
JC: We’d like to thank Professor Alex Csiszar for joining us and sharing his detailed knowledge of Ampère and scientific publishing with us today. We are now so accustomed to scholarly journals and articles, it’s fascinating to think of a time when these vital publications were just starting to circulate.
HF: The music you’ve heard throughout the podcast was a selection of science inspired electronic and experimental pieces by Dara O Shayda. They can all be found on Soundcloud, and are used here through creative commons licenses.
JC: If you would like to take a closer look at Ampère’s book of offprints or any of the other exciting items on display in HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library, check out our online exhibition at houghton75.org. Although the physical exhibition is now closed, you are always welcome to visit the library and request to view Ampère’s book or other collection material in our reading room.
HF: If you would like to view podcast transcripts or detailed musical notes, please visit houghton75.org/podcast.
JC: Thanks, as always, for listening, and whether you are tuning in from near or far, we hope you’ll join us again for next week’s episode of Houghton75.
[music continues to end]