History of Science: 1700-1900

Course No. 1210
Professor Frederick Gregory, Ph.D.
University of Florida
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Course No. 1210
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Course Overview

In the period 1700-1900, kings and empires rose and fell, but science conquered all, taking the world by storm. Yet, as the 1700s began, the mysteries of the universe were pondered by "natural philosophers"—the term "scientist" didn't even exist until the mid 19th century—whose explanations couldn't help but be influenced by the religious thought and political and social contexts that shaped their world.

The radical ideas of the Enlightenment were especially important and influential. In this course you see how the work of these natural philosophers prepared the way for the more familiar world of science we recognize today.

Understand Two Centuries of Scientific Discoveries from an Unusually Qualified Professor

To navigate this complex a mix of social factors and scientific knowledge requires a teacher of very specialized background. Trained as both a mathematician and seminarian before receiving his doctorate as a scholar of scientific history, Professor Frederick Gregory brings an unusually apt perspective to the era covered by this course. It was a time when the Church's influences on science were often profound.

Dr. Gregory has organized the course around six main themes:

  • inquiries into the history of the cosmos
  • investigations into the realm of living things
  • the largely successful attempt to break away from occult explanations of chemical phenomena
  • the contrasting persistence of occult appeals in explaining natural phenomena
  • the proliferation of the number and kind of physical forces discovered and investigated, thereby opening up broad vistas for the future
  • the recurring theme of the relationship of God to nature.

In moving back and forth across two centuries, the lectures touch on many of the scientific disciplines we know today, including chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, paleontology, and others. And they often cover in detail famous experiments and discoveries in areas as divergent as electromagnetism, fossil analysis, and medicine.

Beyond Einstein: Familiar Names, and Some Surprises, Too

You will find names that leap out as familiar, like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, Max Planck, Antoine Lavoisier, and Albert Einstein.

And you'll meet some of the greatest names in the histories of non-scientific disciplines. These include thinkers as diverse as Immanuel Kant, Johann von Goethe, Herbert Spencer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Paine, to name but a few. All of them entered the fray to leave their mark on the annals of scientific inquiry.

But you'll also learn about others within this fledgling scientific community whom you may never have encountered before. Do you know about Nicolas Malebranche ... Jakob Moleschott ... Robert Chambers ... Abraham Werner ... William Whewell ... or a remarkable woman named Mary Somerville?

Though perhaps less familiar than the scientific minds with whom we have grown up, their roles in the developing history of science were equally important.

The Interaction of Science and Society

The discussions of scientific principles always show how science developed and how scientific inquiry influenced, and was influenced by, the culture of which it was a part. Any discussion of such influence, of course, must take into account the impact of religion.

The Church's precepts played a role in investigations in almost every area of natural science, from the mechanical laws that governed the behavior of the universe and the bodies within it to the debate over God's role in embryonic development.

You'll even learn about a ferocious debate over the possibility of extra-terrestrial life that had its roots in the 13th century.

The debate—which Professor Gregory dubs "The Extra-Terrestrial Life Fiasco"—ultimately involved Thomas Aquinas, the papacy (more than once), Thomas Paine, and the Master of Cambridge University's Trinity College.

Captivating Portraits of an Era and Its People

The debate is just one of many episodes that amplify the themes of the course and are simply fascinating in their own right, conveying a vivid portrait of an era and the people who helped shape it.

You'll learn how:

  • the already raging firestorm over the possibility of evolution led Darwin to delay publishing his own findings
  • the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was involved in coining the term, "scientist"
  • the self-educated daughter of a British naval officer became a major scientific authority in Victorian Britain.

This course will give you a multi-disciplined picture of science in its historical context as it explores the ideas that took the world by storm.

Beyond that obvious benefit, it will also allow you to enjoy a provocative and nuanced look into an era of excitement and exploration, as scientific thought changed and adapted to accommodate a radically changing world.

This history of science series beginning in the 18th century works very well on its own, and is also designed to follow chronologically from Professor Lawrence M. Principe's 36-lecture course on the history of the foundations of science, The History of Science: Antiquity to 1700.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Science in the 18th and 19th Centuries
    Professor Frederick Gregory begins the course by considering the special challenges facing anyone wishing to understand and learn from the natural sciences of the past, and introducing the major subjects and themes of the course. x
  • 2
    Consolidating Newton's Achievement
    This lecture explains how Newton's theories were received by leading thinkers in France and Germany and describes the events that led to the eventual creation of a worldview that claimed Newton as its hero. x
  • 3
    Theories of the Earth
    Just as natural philosophers subjected the heavens to the rule of natural law over the course of the 18th century, so too did they scrutinize the Earth and its past with the same intent. x
  • 4
    Grappling with Rock Formations
    In the 18th century, the scope of German mineralogy expanded to include more than merely the mineral content of the Earth's crust. x
  • 5
    Alchemy under Pressure
    The alchemical understanding concerning the interactions among various material substances was challenged in an attempt to define a rational approach to chemistry. x
  • 6
    Lavoisier and the New French Chemistry
    Investigators in Britain, Germany, and France sought to identify the properties of "airs" (gases) and to explore how they interact. x
  • 7
    The Classification of Living Things
    The view of living things that 18th-century natural philosophers inherited from their predecessors was challenged in this era. x
  • 8
    How the Embryo Develops
    How do embryos of different organisms, which seem in their earliest stages to resemble each other, know how and when to follow different paths to produce different adult forms? We examine the debate over embryonic development. x
  • 9
    Medical Healers and Their Roles
    This lecture examines the general understanding of health and disease of the 18th century as well as the bewildering array of medical healers that graced the countryside. x
  • 10
    Mesmerism, Science, and the French Revolution
    This lecture introduces the theories of Franz Anton Mesmer and details his sensational successes and failures and the reactions to his work, illustrating how natural science is not pursued in a political vacuum. x
  • 11
    Explaining Electricity
    Natural philosophers began to make real headway in explaining the bewildering phenomena associated with static electricity, with the mysterious force eventually capturing the attention not only of kings but of an astute American named Benjamin Franklin. x
  • 12
    The Amazing Achievements of Galvani and Volta
    This lecture examines—and clarifies—the work of the two famous Italian natural philosophers of the late Enlightenment as we look at their debate over the phenomenon of "animal electricity." x
  • 13
    Biology is Born
    In the closing years of the 18th century, a fundamentally new view of life arises among natural philosophers, sharply differing with the conception of natural history that had come before. x
  • 14
    Alternative Visions of Natural Science
    The new outlook reflected in the science of biology was one marker of the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of a new era, and we look at the differing visions offered by thinkers as diverse as Kant, Schelling, and Goethe. x
  • 15
    A World of Prehistoric Beasts
    By comparing the anatomical features of fossil remains, French natural philosopher Georges Cuvier was able to determine the structures and habits of prehistoric beasts and even formulate an important new system of classification. x
  • 16
    Evolution French Style
    During the first two decades of the 19th century, Cuvier's position on natural history did not go unchallenged. Professor Gregory examines the objections raised by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, 25 years Cuvier's senior, including their impact on his own career. x
  • 17
    The Catastrophist Synthesis
    This lecture examines the unique route taken by the British to arrive at the controversy over life and its past that was already front and center on the continent. x
  • 18
    Exploring the World
    This lecture introduces the explorations of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin and analyzes the significance of their journeys for the travelers themselves and for the natural science they influenced. x
  • 19
    A Victorian Sensation
    In 1844, the anonymous publication of The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation took Britain by storm, sparking debate that contributed to the tumultuous 1840s and helping establish the context in which the subject of evolution entered the British scene. x
  • 20
    The Making of The Origin of Species
    This lecture follows the path Darwin followed in creating and developing his theory in the years after his voyage, and in producing the hurried compendium we know as The Origin of Species. x
  • 21
    Troubles with Darwin's Theory
    During the first decade after the appearance of Darwin's Origin, a number of scientific difficulties were raised by members of Britain's now organized scientific community. x
  • 22
    Science, Life, and Disease
    As Darwin's Origin appeared in England, another controversy—with religious and political implications—was brewing in France over the origin of life itself, with famous French chemist Louis Pasteur at its center. x
  • 23
    Human Society and the Struggle for Existence
    After the addition of Darwin's Origin to the ongoing debate over evolution, the claim that humans should draw lessons about their own society from this new knowledge of the natural world was inevitable. But it was possible to derive very different ideas about what form that society should take. x
  • 24
    Whither God?
    This lecture examines the theological responses to the flourishing of evolutionary theory during the second half of the 19th century, which ranges from outright rejection to warm embrace. x
  • 25
    Forces, Forces Everywhere
    This lecture reviews the heritage of 17th- and early 18th-century treatments of motive force, primarily gravitation and the force created by collisions, and goes on to view the impact as natural philosophers uncovered new phenomena associated with heat, electricity, chemical change, magnetism, and light. x
  • 26
    Electromagnetism Changes Everything
    Danish natural philosopher Hans Christian Oersted uncovered the manner in which a magnet is affected by the flow of electric current, paving the way for later discoveries by Ampère and Faraday and the eventual creation of electrical machines that would directly affect society. x
  • 27
    French Insights About Heat
    Of all the forces of nature, it is the motive force of heat that proved to be one of the most intriguing during the early decades of the 19th century. x
  • 28
    New Institutions of Natural Science
    The emergence of a middle class public sphere and an increasingly significant role for something called "public opinion" paved the way for the emergence of the "scientist," along with a wider concern for distinguishing natural science's methodology. x
  • 29
    The Conservation of What?
    In the 1840s the continuing investigation of the interrelationships among nature's forces leads to inquiries not only about the conversion of one kind of force into another but also about the possible creation and destruction of force. x
  • 30
    Culture Wars and Thermodynamics
    Continuing research into the back and forth interconversions between tensive and motive forces, especially when they involve heat, forced science and religion to seek a delicate balance. x
  • 31
    Scientific Materialism at Mid-Century
    This lecture examines a tumultuous period of conflict to which the addition of The Origin of Species in 1859 represented only more fuel to be added to an already raging fire. x
  • 32
    The Mechanics of Molecules
    This lecture returns to a survey of the knowledge of matter, picking up from discussions of the work of Lavoisier in Lecture 6. x
  • 33
    Astronomical Achievement
    This lecture examines the development of our views of the cosmos, including the nebular hypothesis of Pierre Simon Laplace and the role of a remarkable woman named Mary Somerville in translating and making his work accessible in Victorian Britain. x
  • 34
    The Extra-Terrestrial Life Fiasco
    The 1793 appearance of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason ignited a raging debate over the compatibility of life on other worlds with the theology of Christianity. x
  • 35
    Catching Up With Light
    By the beginning of the 19th century, no consensus had yet emerged about what light might be, a situation that was changed by the establishment of a new wave theory and the work of Thomas Young in 1801 and James Maxwell at mid-century. x
  • 36
    The End of Science?
    This lecture examines the growth of the confident, and often overconfident, attitude that appeared among some scientists in the late 19th century, and concludes with two key developments that would challenge this confidence at its very core. x

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Your professor

Frederick Gregory

About Your Professor

Frederick Gregory, Ph.D.
University of Florida
Dr. Frederick Gregory is Professor of History of Science at the University of Florida, where he has taught for 30 years. He holds a B.S. in Mathematics from Wheaton College in Illinois, a B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an M.A. in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard University. Professor Gregory has received...
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History of Science: 1700-1900 is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 31.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific course This course and "Science and Religion" are a great combination. They provide wonderful perspective on how human understanding of the universe has progressed over the millennia while illuminating that scientific journey with the spiritual one.
Date published: 2020-05-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Plodding and tedious; misses forest for the trees Most everyone on here seems to love this course. I don't see it. I'm sure a lot of that has to do with my interests. The questions I was most interested in were the following. How did natural philosophy evolve into the science found at the turn of the century? How did early scientists or late natural philosophers think about questions that were eventually given more definitive answers by, say, 20th century scientists? I wanted Professor Gregory to put their thinking in context and explain it so that we could understand what their questions and assumptions were and how they led to the answers they gave. And if any of that is unfamiliar to us in the 21st century, as much of it will be, then please help us understand it. So I had more of an intellectual history interest. Alas, I was disappointed. (I shut the course off 1/3 of the way through--which I think I've only done with one other lecturer in maybe 40-50 courses--so take that into consideration in reading this.) Two main complaints. First, his lectures tend to be blow by blow accounts of how some person or group of people came to some discovery with very little connecting the events to larger developments before or after. A good example is the lecture on electricity that talked about Ben Franklin. He must have spent 5-10 minutes explaining an experiment where the experimenter is touching a glass bottle that's been charged and this produces some kind of effect. Then others try to reproduce the experiment and fail because the first experimenter made some error (given a widely-held assumption at the time) but failed to mention this in his experimental setup--all those tedious details but no simple explanation in 21st century physics terms of what was going on and nothing about why this was significant. (When he does connect something with a larger context, it's very brief.) He talks about the theory that was developed as well. Basically, electricity was thought to be some kind of "imponderable fluid". Some thought there were two types. Ben Franklin thought there was one. All that, which I remember the day after listening, but nothing about how this leads to later theory. My second complaint is about his lecture style. (I suppose this is largely subjective, but I mention it for others like me.) This is tough to articulate, but I'll give it a shot. There are two lecture styles on opposite ends of a spectrum. One I'd call the "affected" style and the other "conversational". (Allen Guelzo and Robert Greenberg are supreme examples of the first. Both really pull it off! Mark Muesse is the worst example, IMO, and Robert Sapolsky is an excellent conversational lecture.) Professor Gregory is the affected style, and I find him unbearable. If you're lecturing like this then you're not speaking like you would in a conversation with someone. You're self-consciously speaking to a group of people rather than speaking like you would to one person. Both can be effective, but the affected style relies more on verbal cadence as well as tension and anticipation, deliberately constructed with the voice. I guess when Gregory is doing this I just find it unmoving and unconvincing. I kept thinking, "Yeah, ok, just get to the point!" This is probably related to my first complaint, though, in that he's just talking about important events in detail that seems unimportant. I had high expectations for this course after finishing Professor Lawrence Principe's course on history of science from antiquity to 1700, which I thought was excellent. So I'm disappointed, and disappointed to be disappointed.
Date published: 2019-01-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A great presentation of a limited range of topics I thought i knew too much about the history of science to get much from this course when i went in, but i learned a lot about how theories and science itself developed over this period. Sadly, there are a lot of important areas that get overlooked (the rise of cell and germ theory and most 19th century chemistry). I can't really fault the course since the subject area is so wide it had to be picky with what it covered, and it chose to go very in depth on a few topics (like evolution) rather than be a broader overview. Still, i feel it would've been better if it had spent less time on some topics (perhaps by having 1 lecture on the social and religious impact of darwin, rather than 3?) to make room for these other topics. If you know what you're getting going in (mostly newton and darwin) this wont be an issue.
Date published: 2018-08-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from History of Science I would like to rate this much higher than a 3. Professor Gregory is the most engaging lecturer of the 25 + courses that I have listened to. It is only because he is so interesting to listen to that I listened to most of the lectures. But the course was a disappointment. It should be titled the History of the Philosophy of Science. It's long on philosophy, short on science. Further, it ends with the beginning of the 20th century and never resolves a question that the 19th century scientists were debating namely, the nature of the "ether" through which light and magnetism travel.
Date published: 2018-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Follow-Up to Antiquity to 1700 This is the second of three very separate, but related courses on the history of science. The first given by Professor Lawrence Principe covered antiquity to 1700, this one spans the two hundred years between 1700 and 1900 and the third examines science in the twentieth century. Three different lecturers, each taking very different approaches and with slightly differing style, but all equally effective in presentation. This is my first course with Professor Gregory, but it will not be my last. He takes a much more factual approach to the material covered in his two centuries than the course covering antiquity to 1700, which was much more philosophical. This is likely due to the state of science during the later period, as “Natural Philosophy” transitions to science. And Dr. Gregory fashions his course to cover this transition, with roughly the first half of the course devoted to the 18th century, still not really science, moving to the 19th century in the second half of the course, when disciplines became science and those pursing them became known as scientists. As with the earlier course, there is much more than just moving from one scientific advance to another. Professor Gregory spends time discussing how events like the French Revolution impacted not only on society, but science as well. In this transitional period, I particularly loved the discussion of alchemy moving to chemistry and the early discoveries and experiments with electricity. This period was so rich with the beginnings of so many disciplines (earth sciences and biology to mention but two), that even with 36 lectures there seemed not enough time to cover everything. Naturally we get Darwin (and his predecessors) and the move from the early ideas about electricity to the more sophisticated ideas about electromagnetism. In this second half, we also get more than pure science, especially as the new discoveries challenge conventional ideas about God and the nature of the universe. A diverse set of lectures indeed. Highly recommended for those with an interest.
Date published: 2017-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good lecturer This course covers a good deal of material and I found the lecturer engaging. He knows the material well and knows how to balance explanation of theories and experiments with biographical and historical information and anecdotes. My only complaint is that it would have been worthwhile to explain what was happening in some of the experiments (especially those dealing with electricity) *also* in terms of today's scientific understanding instead of just describing the various ways they were understood in terms of the theories available when they were first performed.
Date published: 2016-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Very Good Course I would have paid much more for Lecture 28 alone because it has so much great science history. Then there's the historical material roughly relating to the development of science within the social and cultural changes in Britain and Europe between 1700 and 1900. Here I learned more about Van Humbolt and his part in helping to shape modern science studies as well as what we might consider the first "science journal." I rank this course very high and with good reason. It's well presented, great content, and leaves me wanting to know more. I wish I had this course 40 years ago.
Date published: 2016-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Acceleration of Science I find this course quite enjoyable, having listened to it at least twice. It is designed as the successor to Lawrence Principe’s History of Science: Antiquity to 1700. To my ear, Professor Gregory’s voice even sounds like Principe’s. It is unfortunate that the course is available now only as an audio download, so we miss what might have been helpful illustrations, but it is still well worth buying. The course is a tale of two centuries, one slow and one very fast. The eighteenth century saw mostly gradual advances rather than world-changing breakthroughs like of Newton’s Principia. Chemistry began to diverge from alchemy as self-described chemists insisted on separating themselves as serious, noble-minded nature philosophers from the money-grubbers and schemers they took alchemists to be. Combustion was of particular interest. Chemists argued that burning represented an object’s loss of an imponderable substance they called “phlogiston.” When the object stopped burning, it had lost all of its phlogiston. Only towards the end of the century did Joseph Priestley and Anton Lavoisier suggest the role of oxygen. Some sciences found their origin in the 18th century, including cosmology, biology, geology and the study of electricity. Immanuel Kant developed the “nebular theory,” in which the solar system formed out of a condensing cloud of gas and dust. It remains (with modifications) in use today. Linnaeus originated the modern taxonomic system for classifying life forms. The first geologists argued that the Earth was subject to long-running gradual processes, such as the slow evaporation of oceans, rather than remaining just the same as God created it a few thousand years ago. As all Americans know, Benjamin Franklin proved with his dangerous kite experiment that lightning was the same force as electricity, something people had been playing parlor tricks with for decades. The nineteenth century saw rapid breakthroughs in several fields, at a time when the broader reading public was becoming more interested in science. In biology the discovery, reconstruction and classification of growing numbers of extinct fossilized life forms strongly suggested that the Earth was ancient, at least millions of years old. Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection, which rested upon the uniformitarian geology of Charles Lyell. In physics James Maxwell created equations describing the relationships between electricity, magnetism and light, based upon the earlier work of Hans Christian Oersted, Andrè-Marie Ampére and Michael Faraday. Yet there were also ironies. According to Gregory, Darwin’s theory had much more success promoting evolution in general than natural selection; for decades the Lamarck’s theory of evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics remained more popular. Maxwell embedded his theory of electromagnetism in the notion of another imponderable substance that wasn’t there—the ether. In his view, electromagnetic waves had to have some medium to pass through, just like sound waves in the air or ocean waves in the water. The ultimate irony was that a new appreciation of thermodynamics led to Lord Kelvin’s vision of the eventual heat death of the universe, an end to all life and science. In addition to specific scientific advances, Gregory addresses certain long-term themes. Ideas that we regard today as wrong, like phlogiston or the ether, made sense at the time and provided convincing explanations. Perhaps “dark matter” and “dark energy” in astrophysics will one day meet a similar fate. Sometimes what looks like a promising line of inquiry turns into a cul-de-sac leading nowhere, yet may not have been so far-fetched after all. Take “animal magnetism,” also known as mesmerism; its originator Anton Mesmer believed that an invisible force moved through human bodies that he could manipulate to heal patients. Silly, right? Yet the equally silly-sounding “animal electricity” claimed by Luigi Galvani is today accepted as fact—our flesh does indeed conduct electricity. Finally, science and religion have sometimes been in tension or conflict, but often not. On the one side are those who claim the primacy of observation and natural laws (scientific materialism), and on the other side are those who claim the primacy of sacred scripture and godly design. In between are those who view natural laws as the expression of godly design (the deists, for example) and those who allow both claims by setting them into separate mental compartments. I have only one grumble: the absence of any discussion of the germ theory of disease and of Gregor Mendel’s genetics, both well within the nineteenth century. Removing the marginal and rather dull lectures on “Alternative Visions of Natural Science” (#14) and “Forces, Forces Everywhere” (#25) would have made room for them. Only for this reason have I given the course content a 4 rather than a 5, though if possible I would give it a 4.5. If you buy this course and find it interesting, you ought to see Steven Goldman’s Science in the Twentieth Century, which unlike this one IS available on DVD.
Date published: 2016-07-08
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