This book explores the appropriation of science in French society and the development of an urban scientific culture. Science underwent a process of commodification and popularization during the eighteenth century as more and more individuals sought to acquire some knowledge of scientific activities and as more and more people entered public debates on science. Popular science took many forms in the eighteenth century. While books, periodicals, universities, and academies all provided a breadth of scientific popularization at different levels and for different audiences, this book focuses on popular science within urban culture more generally. More than ever before, public lectures and demonstrations, clubs, and other activities arose in the eighteenth century as new opportunities for the general population to gain access to and appropriate science. These arenas for popular science were not restricted to people of a certain education. In fact, popular science, and public lecture courses in particular, was often set at a level that could be understood by pretty much anyone. This was a bone of contention between popularizers and their critics who felt that in some cases popular science lacked any sort of real scientific content. In reality, some popularizers had specific theoretical content in mind for their courses while others were admittedly more interested in theatrics. Identifying the audience, cost, and location of popular science helps reveal its place in urban culture. The book looks at the audience, identified through advertisements and course descriptions, as well as the economics of courses.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book explores the appropriation of science in French society and the development of an urban scientific culture. It looks at the audience, identified through advertisements and course descriptions, as well as the economics of courses. The book describes that organizations like the Musée de Monsieur drew in members with a variety of motivations. The spread of popular science in urban culture encouraged people to speak about science and participate in scientific debates, whether or not they really were qualified to do so. The book examines hot air and hydrogen balloons, first invented in France in 1783. The discovery of balloons spawned reams of poetry, plays, and scientific treatises, as well as much admiration.
The practice of popularization formed an integral part of eighteenth-century urban culture and illustrates one instance of how individuals could gain access to science. The growth of popular science also drew inspiration from the more general development of a culture of scientific practice. The period from 1650 to 1750 saw the creation of numerous state-sponsored professional organizations, both in France and around Europe, and the establishment of various publications, which encouraged the consumption of science by the general public. Popularizers put forward a broad spectrum of ideas within their courses. Some disseminators dealt strictly with Newtonianism or Cartesianism. Disseminators marketed popular science on the basis of its theoretical importance, entertainment value, and utility. The perceived utility of science ensured that even producers and disseminators of scientific knowledge who worked outside the state system would be valued.
Popular science gripped the imagination of people all over Europe in the eighteenth century and individuals peppered their conversations with facts, allusions, references, and analogies to scientific discoveries and debates. Many people in general, and women in particular, actively enrolled in popular science courses. Illustrations of the complex set of attitudes towards women attending popular science courses appear within the plethora of comments popularizers make regarding their presence in the audience. The geography of popular science changed and shifted alongside the growing public interest in appropriating natural philosophy. Public lecture courses emerged as a commodity in eighteenth-century France. These courses provided a great number of people with a broad access to science. Examining the locations for the dissemination of enlightened science within the emerging public sphere allows us to trace the changing topography of scientific appropriation over the course of the eighteenth century.
Studies of Enlightenment culture have made explicit reference to the importance of the musées. Musées should be placed within the larger context of the emerging public sphere and popular science. Musées gained notoriety by fusing the best aspects of other institutions together in one social space and then adding lecture courses into the resulting mixture. Musée members gained access to the Republic of Letters in all its many manifestations as well as the opportunity to attend classes given by respected thinkers. The Musée de Paris wanted to become a place where "young authors tried out their talents, and where the best known authors presented, for the taste of the public, a manuscript that they were going to have published." There were many people who were upset with the interior squabbles of the Musée de Paris and quickly jumped ship for the relative harmony of the Musée de Monsieur.
Jacques Aymar's spectacular feat of detection made him an instant celebrity; and it immediately sparked a huge controversy. The reason for the dispute centered around the fact that Aymar had tracked down the killers with a divining rod, a forked stick usually used in the dowsing trade to find underground springs and ores. The discussion sparked by Aymar's solution to the double murder provides a unique perspective on the creation of public opinion during the early stages of the age of Enlightenment. Several dowsers appeared during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, allowing some continuity to the debate over its validity. During the 1770s, the debate picked up steam again with the appearance of Dauphiné's other famed dowser, Barthelemy Bléton. Bléton received his most active individual support from a minor savant named Pierre Thouvenel.
This chapter focuses on the manner in which balloons underwent popularization and commodification. In the 1780s, ballooning "fixed the attention of all the savants, and became the unique object of conversation in all assemblies." Ballooning clearly dominated the headlines of popular science. Many balloonists depended on support from a larger public. While aeronauts and merchants commercialized balloons in new ways, they also integrated them into the existing superstructure of popularized science. Balloons drew the attention of the general public, savants, the press, the court, and the police. It is possible, however, that the very ubiquity of balloons also served to bring their utility into question. While balloons were undoubtedly entertaining and marketable, many commentators doubted their usefulness to society. Balloons had great potential for commerce as a means of transporting goods.
In many ways, popular science fit in quite well with the revolutionary spirit. Beginning in the 1730s and lasting well into the 1780s and 1790s, science formed a mainstay of French popular culture. The invention of ballooning in 1783 reinforced the belief that science could produce nearly miraculous discoveries. In addition to the controversy over divining rods, numerous other scientific debates filled the popular press and the cultural imagination of the French at this time. The revolutionary period saw an emphasis on the potential of science to serve the new, rational state; science education became a significant focus of political attention, as did the ability of savants to provide useful services to the nation. Many people appropriated science through public lecture courses and expressed considerable interest in scientific work through their membership in clubs and their participation in the funding of balloons and the debate over divining rods.