Instruments and the practise of geography: the case of the Royal Geographical Society, c.1830-c.1930

Room F
Tuesday, 1 September 2015
17.15 – 19.00

Studies of the mutually constitutive relationships between geography and exploration focus either upon the biographical (“the who” - the explorer him or herself), the cognitive content of the exploration (“the what” - what was explored and when, with what effect), or upon the historiographical (“the so what” - how exploration contributed to the development of the geographical sciences, or how geography in the form of exploration was complicit in the construction of empires and of colonial domination by metropolitan powers). The instruments involved in the geographies of exploration (“the how” of geography's practical undertaking in the service of empire) are seldom examined. This paper offers an instrument-centred analysis of the connections between geography, technology and exploration with reference to the role of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in the century from 1830. Particular attention is paid to two manuscript sources in the RGS: “Instruments Lent to Travellers”, the associated “Catalogue of Instruments”, and to instructional rhetoric concerning the development of a technical facility amongst would-be explorers. The paper will show that the development of an instrumentally-based exploratory culture within the RGS was uneven in character and pace. Because instruments themselves failed in the field - ran slow, broke down, had to be re-calibrated - we must be wary (the paper argues) about the epistemological and authoritative claims made by the explorers themselves. If this is so, then we must be similarly cautious about the claims made by geographical societies to have developed geographical knowledge on behalf of empires.      

Charles Withers
Geography, University of Edinburgh
United Kingdom
c.w.j.withers [at]

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