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Tides of History

Ocean Science and Her Majesty’s Navy

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the British sought to master the physical properties of the oceans; in the second half, they lorded over large portions of the oceans’ outer rim. The dominance of Her Majesty’s navy was due in no small part to collaboration between the British Admiralty, the maritime community, and the scientific elite. Together, they transformed the vast emptiness of the ocean into an ordered and bounded grid.  In the process, the modern scientist emerged. Science itself expanded from a limited and local undertaking receiving parsimonious state support to worldwide and relatively well financed research involving a hierarchy of practitioners.
Analyzing the economic, political, social, and scientific changes on which the British sailed to power, Tides of History shows how the British Admiralty collaborated closely not only with scholars, such as William Whewell, but also with the maritime community  —sailors, local tide table makers, dockyard officials, and harbormasters—in order to systematize knowledge of the world’s oceans, coasts, ports, and estuaries.  As Michael S. Reidy points out, Britain’s security and prosperity as a maritime nation depended on its ability to maneuver through the oceans and dominate coasts and channels. The practice of science and the rise of the scientist became inextricably linked to the process of European expansion.

392 pages | 61 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Earth Sciences: Oceanography and Hydrology

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: British and Irish History

History of Science


"Reidy’s writing brings his actors, their story, and this time period to life. The volume itself is beautifully made, with over 60 figures that do much more than illustrate. Photographs and drawings of imperiled and wrecked ships remind modern readers of the overarching importance of tides to a sea-borne economy and society. Tide tables and self-registering tidegauge tracings help explain the origins and power of co-tidal maps. The press is to be commended for the high-quality illustrations, the brief but helpful glossary, and the useful bibliography."

Helen Rozwadowski | Oceanography

"Tides of History provides a splendid prism through which we may view the wider world of Victorian science. . . . Historians of science will have cause to heap praise on this book, but so too will the non-specialists. The author’s splendid writing style, at times appropriately Puckish, makes this work an accessible and enjoyable read."

William M. Fowler | Canadian Journal of History

"[The] work is thorough and scholarly. . . . A notable contribution to our understanding of the development of modern science."

N.A.M. Rodger | American Historical Review

"Tidal prediction is only a small part of science overall, yet this book is essential reading for historians of science and (maritime) administration."

Paul Hughes | Mariner's Mirror

"Reidy has made an important contribution to a little known aspect of the history of science. The tides now stand out as they should in the history of nineteenth century science."

Eric L. Mills | History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

"The book is well written and produced, making a valuable addition to the history of geophysics, to the biography of William Whewell, and to the story of collective scientific endeavor in the nineteenth century."

David Philip Miller | Isis

"Reidy’s account is particularly valuable as a window into British empirical science. He explores its philosophical justification; its vision of the relationship of theory and observation and computation; its layers of participants; its arguments over funding, collaboration and the exact connection between art and science."

Katharine Anderson | British Journal for the History of Science

"[A] fascinating, significant and clearly presented story of the steps by which the early Victorians came to develop a scientific understanding of one of the many remarkable natural phenomena . .. the tides."

Randolph Cook | Journal of Maritime History

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Littoral In Science and History
1 Philosophers, Mariners, Tides
2 The Bounded Thames
3 Dessiou’s Claim
4 "Tidology"
5 The Tide Crusade
6 Calculated Collaborations
7 Creating Space for the "Scientist"
Conclusion: The Tides of Empire

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