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History of Science and Technology


Welcome to the History of Science and Technology LibGuide! This guide acts as an introduction to this interdisciplinary field and can direct you to key resources required to conduct your own research.

More history resources can be found at the History research guide as well as the Classics and Archaeology research guide.

Above: A flight spare of the Mariner 10 space probe (1973), on display at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Historiography of Science

"Despite the fact that science matters so much to our culture, we often treat it as if it were somehow beyond culture. Science is assumed to progress by its own momentum as discovery piles on discovery. From this point of view, science often looks like a force of nature rather than of culture (Morus, 2023)."

The history of science is more than just a recitation of names of important scientists and descriptions of their work. Historians of science examine the interplay of science and culture: how science has been shaped by its cultural context, how culture has been influenced by science, and how these relationships have changed over time in various contexts around the globe. Historiography is the study of how historians have practiced their craft and how approaches to historical research have changed over time. 

Works commenting on science have been around for as long as scientists have been at work. Segre (2023), for instance, discusses how early modern mathematicians such as Regiomontanus (1436-1476) and Peter Ramus (1515-1572) wrote historical essays that traced the origins of their field back to antiquity. This was done in an effort to advocate that their scholarship was as useful and respectable as scholarship in the humanities in an age where scholasticism placed a much heavier emphasis on the latter field. The consolidation of the history of science into a recognizable subfield of history, however, took place in the early 20th century.

Above: Frontispiece from Regiomontanus's Epitome of the Almagest (1496), depicting himself (right) sitting across from Ptolemy (left), showing the continuity of the study of astronomy from antiquity. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The first international conference on the history of science took place in Paris, alongside the Exposition Universelle, in 1900. This was followed by the first scholarly journal on the history of science: Isis in 1912, and the first international history of science association, the History of Science Society in 1924 (Karstens, 2014). One of the leading figures in the formation of the field: George Sarton (1884-1956), who was a co-founder of both Isis and the HSS. To Sarton, in the spirit of the modernist milieu in which he lived, believed, perhaps a bit naively, that the positive knowledge accumulated through the work of scientists was the only avenue of inquiry that led to the material improvement of people's lives. He also argued that science should be defined as "the reflection of nature (of everything that is) by the human mind" and that "perfect science could only be reflected by a perfect, godlike mind (Stimson, 1962, p. 16)." The history of science, therefore, was supposed to hold a mirror up to the work of scientists to guide them to do better work.

By the late 1960s, a postmodernist shift in the historiography of science began to take place, coinciding with the growing application of postmodernist thought throughout humanities research and a growing disillusionment among many in the West to the promises of modernism in the face of the continued prevalence of war, poverty, and inequality despite continual scientific discoveries and technological innovation.

Above: J. Robert Oppenheimer (third from left) and others involved in the American nuclear weapons program inspecting the site of the Trinity atomic test site near Socorro, New Mexico in 1945. The subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War contributed to a climate of doubt regarding the intrinsic positive nature of scientific innovation. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Some impacts on the writing of the history of science include a step away from the triumphalism of science: the idea that science is a uniquely useful cultural activity above all others. Another aspect of early science historiography that has gone by the wayside is the idea that histories of science should be written teleologically. Derived from the Greek word "telos," meaning "end," a teleological study of the history of science is one that portrays science as a unified field in which scientists build upon each other's work with an end goal of eventually reaching the more enlightened present. Finally, another aspect of early histories of science that was increasingly challenged by postmodern historians was the idea of internalism: that the pure, logical, and beneficial nature of science is only marred by the interference of factors such as cultural biases and prejudices that exist outside science.

Today, the history of science continues to be a vibrant field, with hundreds of new books and articles being published in the field yearly. Despite the aforementioned shift in methodology, the History of Science Society continues to be a very important organization in the dissemination of research, with its annual publication the Isis Current Bibliography being the premier directory of recently published scholarly works in various subfields of the history of science.

Above: Exhibition of a plesiosaurus fossil, a species first discovered in 1823 by Mary Anning (1799-1847), at the Natural History Museum, London, UK. Despite having been denied credit for much of her work during her lifetime due to the patriarchal society in which she lived, historians of science have since worked to rectify the historical record to include her contributions to science, along with other marginalized women, BIPOC, and 2SLGBTQ+ people (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For further reading:

Karstens, B. (2014). The peculiar maturation of the history of science. In R. Bod, J. Maat, T. Weststeijn (Eds.), The Making of the Humanities (vol. 3, pp. 183-203). Amsterdam University Press.

McEvoy, J.G. (2007). Modernism, postmodernism, and the historiography of science. Historical studies in the physical and biological sciences37(2), 383-408.

Morus, I.R. (2023). Introduction. In I.R. Morus (Ed.), The Oxford History of Science (pp. 1-8). Oxford University Press.

Segre, M. (2023). Early historiography of science. In M.L. Conde, M. Salomon (Eds.), Handbook for the Historiography of Science (pp. 339-354). Springer.

Stimson, D. (Ed.). (1962). Sarton on the history of science. Harvard University Press.

Crash Course: History of Science

Hosted by renowned science popularizer Hank Green, this 46-episode series serves as an excellent introduction to how scientific concepts have emerged in various contexts across the globe throughout human history.

History of Science Podcasts