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Experiment

The Nineteenth Century

Experiment continued to be a significant driving force in the development of the physical sciences in the first half of the nineteenth century. The experimental discovery of novel phenomena (for example, electromagnetism) and the precise measurement of physical parameters (such as the mechanical equivalent of heat) were instrumental in the development of electromagnetic theory and thermodynamics. The articulation of these theories in the second half of the nineteenth century guided, in turn, the further experimental exploration of thermal and electromagnetic phenomena. In the process the mathematical and the experimental traditions of physical science merged.

By the end of the nineteenth century, precision in measurement had become almost an obsession among physicists, who believed that it held the key to the further development and eventual closure of their discipline. In the words of James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879),

This characteristic of modern experiments—that they consist principally of measurements,—is so prominent, that the opinion seems to have got abroad, that in a few years all the great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will then be left to men of science will be to carry on these measurements to another place of decimals. (Badash, p. 50)

Several experimental developments (such as X rays, radioactivity, the photoelectric effect, and blackbody radiation) at the end of the nineteenth century put off the end of physics. Under the weight of these and other experimentally probed phenomena, the edifice of classical physics would crumble.

The nineteenth century was also an important period for the establishment of a new physical and institutional space devoted to experimentation, the academic laboratory. With some exceptions, laboratories had previously been private places, usually located in the houses of wealthy experimentalists. In the 1870s and 1880s the founding of new university laboratories (including the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford, the Jefferson Laboratory at Harvard) and new institutes (for example, the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt near Berlin) devoted to experimental research marked a new era for experimentation, which became an essential element of both research and teaching in the physical sciences.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideExperiment - The Emergence Of Experiment, Two Experimental Traditions: Classical And Baconian, Galileo Galilei, The Baconian Program And Its Institutional Expression