Press clipping: Research
Is scientific innovation best fostered by the state or by private enterprise? Dr Stephen Pumfrey (History, Lancaster) has begun supervision of an AHRC-funded research project with Joseph Payne of the Royal Mint, Llantrisant, who is also supervised by Graham Dyer. It will examine the capacity of the eighteenth-century government office of the Mint, and specifically of its Assay Master Stanesby Alchorne (1727-1800), to respond to challenges such as those posed by the private entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. Boulton’s steam-powered Soho Mint in Birmingham eventually won government contracts to mint coins for the U.K. Very similar questions are being investigated by the project, also AHRC-funded, “The Board of Longitude, 1714-1828”, run jointly by Cambridge University and the National Maritime Museum (NMM).
Members of both projects met in May 2012, at Cambridge University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, to exchange ideas and to explore common research questions. One outcome was that Payne and Pumfrey would contribute to the conference and associated exhibition in 2014 at the NMM, which will mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Board of Longitude.
In her popular book Longitude, Dava Sobel presented the case of the entrepreneurial Yorkshire clockmaker Joseph Harrison in his fight for recognition against the Board of Longitude and the conservative methods that it favoured for determining longitude at sea. Likewise Matthew Boulton has been presented by historians as far-sighted compared with the traditional methods defended by the Royal Mint.
Events in 2014 will offer up-to-date interpretations of the longitude debate, and they may contain some surprises for those who see private support of science as better than public or state sponsorship. Lancaster’s research on the eighteenth-century Mint may or may not support that view. We will wait with open minds. The conclusions have the capacity to shape debates about how to foster today’s innovations in science and technology.