Howard’s Creation of Public Knowledge in 18th-Century England

face of a prisoner

John Howard’s early work on extreme temperatures illustrates that his relations with influential persons and authoritative institutions were central to his success in creating public knowledge. Howard, a non-conformist, studied at the Congregational Fund Academy at Moorfields for a year or two about 1740. The universities at Oxford and Cambridge at that time did not admit students who were not members of the Church of England. The Fund Academy at Moorfields was established to provide for non-conformists the equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge . The Fund Academy’s director during Howard’s time there was John Eames, a close friend of Isaac Newton and widely recognized for his erudition. Howard apparently had little academic success, but at the Academy he established life-long friendships with John Densham, a tutor; with Richard Price, a classmate; and with others among the academy’s intellectually influential circles.

Howard’s election to the Royal Society in 1756 seems to have come not from any scholarly merit, but from the influence of his friends. The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was the premier learned society in Britain. Howard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on May 13, 1756 at age twenty-nine. This was a relatively young age to become a Fellow. Howard’s nomination paper stated:

John Howard, Esqre, of Old Broad Street, London, having for some years pursued mathematical studies, and being desirous of the honour of being admitted into the Royal Society, we on our personal knowledge of him recommend him as a true lover of natural philosophy.
John Canton
John Ellicott^

A leading nineteenth-century scientific authority stated in 1873 in a celebratory history of Howard and his work:

In the year 1756 just twenty names were added to the list of {Royal Society} members. Of these nine were foreign, and eleven English. Three out of the eleven (Benjamin Franklin being one of them) had the signatures of George, Earl of Macclesfield (then the president of the Society), and of his son and successor to the title, Thomas, Lord Parker, at the head of their nomination papers. The papers themselves are not printed forms, but written documents setting forth distinctly and with discrimination the respective claims of the nominees; and in no instance are these claims other than real and respectable. And, lastly, it is well worthy of remark that no event, as far as I can ascertain, had yet occurred in the eventful life of Howard to give him such public prestige as might take the place of scientific merit;^

This authority then quite implausibly argued that Howard “had done something or other” in mathematics or natural philosophy to merit his election to the Royal Society. No evidence exists that Howard had aptitude for mathematics or that his years pursing mathematical studies produced any accomplishments. One of Howard’s friends remarked about 1794:

This honor {membership in the Royal Society} was not, I presume, conferred upon him in consequence of any extraordinary proficiency in science which he had manifested; but rather in conformity to the laudable practice of that society, of attaching gentlemen of fortune and leisure to the interests of knowledge, by incorporating them into their body.^

Many gentlemen “of fortune and leisure” did not become members of the Royal Society. Desiring the honor and having influential friends undoubtedly also mattered greatly. Most probably, Howard was elected to the Royal Society in 1756 because he desired that honor and his influential friends favored him with it.

Being a member of the Royal Society provided Howard with an important resource for making knowledge. Well before his work on prison conditions, Howard published three articles in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Howard’s first article was based on temperature measurements he made at his home. The article consisted of two sentences read to the Royal Society and published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1764. The first sentence provided the substance of the work:

I would beg leave to acquaint you of a degree of cold that I observed at Cardington {Howard’s residence}, in Bedfordshire, the 22d of November last: just before Sun rise Farenheit’s scale by one of Bird’s thermometers being so low as 10 and ½.^

Howard’s second article presented twenty-eight temperature readings he made in the baths and springs at Bath, England in 1765.^ Howard’s third publication provided temperature measurements in even more daring circumstances.^ While in Italy in 1770, Howard measured the heat of the ground at various points on Mount Vesuvius, a volcano. Howard explained in a letter to a close friend:

as I ascended I found it 114º, 134, 149, 167, 185, at the top 220. After I had got the better of the smoak {smoke} by standing in it a quarter of an hour, I descended into the Mouth when I again took it 2 or 3 times, where it rais’d my Thermor {thermometer} to 240º and fired some paper I put into some holes. I would fain have went lower but my guides said they durst not. As I have not heard of any person going down even the little part I did since the great eruption of Oct. 6, nor of any person taking the heat, I thought it would afford you a little entertainment.^

In all three publications, which spanned seven years, Howard presented the same type of observations. These observations were made with the same instrument, required no particular skill for measurement, and had little relevance to any general theoretical or empirical project. Howard’s thermometer work documented extremes and took science to places others dared not go. Howard’s thermometer work is knowledge because of its publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Howard’s thermometer work shows a pattern of knowledge creation similar to Howard’s work on prison conditions. In both cases, Howard recorded information in extreme circumstances not attractive for comfortable, leisurely pursuit of knowledge. Another person who dared venture into those circumstances could have easily recorded the same information that Howard recorded. Unlike other such persons, Howard’s social position allowed him to create relatively widely accessible, authoritative information — public knowledge.

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