Centaurus, Europeans, and Immaterial Devices

There is a new (or at least renewed) journal dedicated to the history of science. It is called Centaurus: An International Journal of the History of Science and Its Cultural Aspects. Centaurus has been in existence intermittently for over half a century (with a variety of subtitles, under a number of auspices), but it was “relaunched” last year by Blackwell Synergy, and this year Hanne Andersenbecame the official journal of the European Society for the History of Science. The new editor is Hanne Andersen, an associate professor in the Department for Studies of Science and Science Education at Aarhus University in Denmark.

One article that I found particular interesting in the most recent issue (May, 2007) is entitled “Immaterial Devices.” The author, Jan Frercks, argues that certain scientific research programs are held together neither by common theoretical foundations nor by the common use of particular scientific instruments, but rather by conceptual “devices” or (as I am inclined to see it) techniques of exploring diverse topics. For instance, scientists of the 19th century used the “continuous perception of a rapid sequence of pulses” to investigate a number of distinct physcial phenomena. Frercks’ focus is on the physcial sciences — in particular on the work of French physicist Hippolyte Fizeau (1819-1896).

kymographThe idea of using a continuous sequence of pulses was obviously used to effect in early experimental physiology and psychology as well, particularly in the form of the kymograph — a rotating cylinder covered with paper on which a line was continuously drawn by a pen (or scratched by a stylus in soot covering the paper). The pen could be deflected from a straight path by impulses brought to it by various kinds of apparatus that were attached to experimental subjects of various kinds. The kymograph was classically used to record the movements of animals, but it was also one of the first devices that could accurately record the reaction times of humans. Because the speed of the drum’s rotation was known, one could easily convert a certain length of line drawn by the pen into the length of time that it took to be drawn. By having the onset of a stimulus and the subject’s response each deflect the pen from its normal straight path, one could measure very precisely the time interval between the two. Indeed, the late historian of psychology Ed Haupt once argued that measuring reaction time in this way (as was done by Franz Donders and G. E. Mueller) delivered more accurate timings than did the more famous (and much more expensive) Hipp Chronoscope (which was used by Wundt).

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.