David Kordahl at Inference Review:
THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, the historian Bruce Hunt has been one of the key scholars to revivify nineteenth-century physics. Any physicist can name a few giants from that period—just from equations and units, we all know James Clerk Maxwell for his electrodynamics, and Lord Kelvin for introducing an absolute temperature scale. But the routes these giants took often go unexplored.
In textbook physics, technologies provide specific examples of general principles. But from Hunt’s books, one can see how these principles were often codified by individuals whose views differed dramatically from our own, and who often viewed their contemporary technologies as scientific mysteries. Hunt’s first book, The Maxwellians, shows how Maxwell’s disciples altered the form of his theory of electromagnetism so significantly after his death that the Maxwell’s equations taught today were unknown to Maxwell himself.1 In his second book, Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein, Hunt examines nineteenth-century physics in the glow of nineteenth-century technology.2 He shows that, just as Maxwell—and, later, his disciples—pioneered electromagnetic field theory only after telegraph wires already lined the countryside, the science of thermodynamics was developed only after steam engines were already widespread.
Hunt has now published a third volume, Imperial Science: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in the Victorian British Empire. It marries the electrical history of The Maxwellians to the underlying thesis of Pursuing Power—that science is pushed along by technology just as often as it pulls technology ahead.