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Visions of Science

Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age

The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary transformation in British political, literary, and intellectual life. There was widespread social unrest, and debates raged regarding education, the lives of the working class, and the new industrial, machine-governed world. At the same time, modern science emerged in Europe in more or less its current form, as new disciplines and revolutionary concepts, including evolution and the vastness of geologic time, began to take shape.        
In Visions of Science, James A. Secord offers a new way to capture this unique moment of change. He explores seven key books—among them Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science, Charles Lyell’s Principles ofGeology, Mary Somerville’s Connexion of the Physical Sciences, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus—and shows how literature that reflects on the wider meaning of science can be revelatory when granted the kind of close reading usually reserved for fiction and poetry. These books considered the meanings of science and its place in modern life, looking to the future, coordinating and connecting the sciences, and forging knowledge that would be appropriate for the new age. Their aim was often philosophical, but Secord shows it was just as often imaginative, projective, and practical: to suggest not only how to think about the natural world but also to indicate modes of action and potential consequences in an era of unparalleled change.            
Visions of Science opens our eyes to how genteel ladies, working men, and the literary elite responded to these remarkable works. It reveals the importance of understanding the physical qualities of books and the key role of printers and publishers, from factories pouring out cheap compendia to fashionable publishing houses in London’s West End. Secord’s vivid account takes us to the heart of an information revolution that was to have profound consequences for the making of the modern world.

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256 pages | 8 color plates, 23 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Library Science and Publishing: Publishing

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


Visions of Science is a wonderfully lucid account of a complex and often misunderstood era that poses important questions about the way we understand both science and history.”

Rosemary Hill | Guardian

“Elegantly written, Secord’s Visions of Science provides its readers with fresh insights into the turbulent decade around 1830, when science was changing from a ‘relatively esoteric pursuit’ into one that would have a huge impact on ‘the everyday life of all men and women.’”

Bernard Lightman | Science

"Secord highlights seven powerful books from the 1830s that altered their age. . . . Taken together, the books Mr. Secord features tell a fascinating story."

Laura J. Snyder | Wall Street Journal

“One of the hardest things for historians is to know how books were actually read when they were first published. A book may have a clear case to make, but did contemporary readers find it credible? Perhaps the ideas that seem important to us now were not those that caught readers’ imaginations, indignations or approval at the time of publication. Secord succeeds brilliantly in tackling this challenge. Through a combination of facts about the publishing industry and contemporary reviews, he demonstrates how, and to what extent, these books were influential. They did nothing less, as he writes, than ‘fire the imagination of a generation that believed science was on the verge of transforming the human condition.’”

Charlotte Sleigh | BBC History Magazine

"Both deeply enlightening and a pleasure to read. . . . A fascinating exploration of books and their readers during a moment of intense transformation in British society. Secord brings us into a period of the nineteenth century when transformations in publishing and an expanded reading public helped create a wide-ranging conversation about science and its possible futures."

Carla Nappi | New Books in Science, Technology, and Society

"A remarkable achievement. . . . Visions of Science shows how the history of science can profit from conversation with the history of the book. It should be read by anyone interested in science and literature, reading practices, or Victorian intellectual culture."

Matthew Stanley, New York University | Journal of British Studies

"Weaves together strands from the history of science, literary criticism, and book history, in a work which is highly accessible but which does not compromise on academic rigour. By focusing on select but significant texts, Visions of Science achieves an expansive view of early nineteenth-century print culture through a series of acute and suggestive readings."

Oxonian Review

"This book will appeal not only to historians, but to literary scholars keen to move beyond the familiar canon of poetry and prose. And for many other readers, the book will be a fascinating introduction to the first generation to believe that the modern disciplinary sciences could transform the human condition."

Chemistry World

"An accomplished overview of early Victorian science and culture."

Journal of Historical Geography

“Visions of Science provides readers with a better understanding of science texts and societal change during the early Victorian Age. This fascinating volume brings together those interested in the history and philosophy of science with scholars wishing to deepen their study of book history.”

Canadian Journal of History

Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Plates


1. Fantastic Voyages: Humphry Davy’s Consolations in Travel
2. The Economy of Intelligence: Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England
3. The Conduct of Everyday Life: John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy
4. Mathematics for the Million? Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences
5. A Philosophy for a New Science: Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology
6. The Problem of Mind: George Combe’s Constitution of Man
7. The Torch of Science: Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus


Further Reading
Bibliography of Works Published after 1900

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