This blog post was written by Michael Townsend, Collections and Metadata Librarian at the Institute of Historical Research Library.

It is often surprising the breadth of subjects one can find in the Institute’s library. Previous surveys of the collections have produced material about fashion, migration and environmental history, while the most recent collections guides highlighted here focus on the histories of science, technology and medicine. These guides offer an overview of the material available in the collections such as published diaries and letters of scientists and medical professionals as well as institutional records. They also showcase how relevant material can be found in large bodies of primary sources such as newspapers and government records.

In creating these guides, I also found potential source material in several unexpected places. Since the theme of History Day 2022 is Experiencing Science, included here are overviews of some source material highlighting the everyday realities of science and technology in the home and in the classroom.

Technology at Home

Exploring the IHR library’s collections you can find a few titles specifically relevant to the history of technology in the home. Henry Jephson’s The Sanitary Evolution of London (1907), for example, charts the major engineering projects of the capital and how these affected housing, thankfully for the better, while Look! It Cooks: a Life in Microwaves is a memoir by Lewis Napleton who, from the 1950s, developed microwave technology for domestic use, working for companies such as Lyons, Philips and Litton.

However, experiences of technology can be found in sources which seemingly have little to do with its history. The library has large collections of published diaries and among these are several written during the Second World War. While technology and science impacted the lives of millions, often in the most terrible way, there are also glimpses of the everyday, and possibly even the familiar. For instance, while the citizens of London were battling bombs, rationing and anxiety for loved ones, Anthony Heap’s diary chronicles an additional battle with the wireless:

[19th Oct. 1941] I got up and prepared some breakfast and had just washed up and dressed when someone came to have a look at the radiogram. Said it would need three new valves. That is the cost of financing overhauling etc amounting to about £2.10.0. Will have to let Mrs Ellis know about this before proceeding further.

[13th Nov. 1941] The wireless repairers came again this evening and after spending four hours on the radiogram at last got it into perfect working order. The total cost including replacement of valves came to £2.10.0 which, considering the time and trouble they’ve expended, is very reasonable indeed. Mrs E[llis, the landlady] has agreed to pay half of this so we won’t be out of pocket.  

[23rd Dec. 1941] On getting home at 9.30 found M[arjorie] had brought a radio set home on trial. A second hand Echo, for which they ask £5.10.0 knocked down from £6.10.0 since M bargained for it. Sounds all right so I suppose we might as well buy it. We’ve got to get a set of our own sooner or later and the Ellis set appears to be a washout anyway, so why not now.

[29th Dec. 1941] M[arjorie] took the faulty radio set back to the shop today and left it to be brought back and fixed up later in the week. Before doing so, however, she’d tried to put it right herself and fused the electricity supply in the process. With the result that we are without electric light this evening, for despite repeated phone calls to the supply company, an engineer has failed to come along and repair it.

[5th Aug. 1942] The young scallywag who came and took the Ellis radiogram set away to be repaired over six months ago, at last brought it back this evening and fixed it up. It went perfectly by the time he’d finished, and all was forgiven.

Science in the Classroom

Just like the home, the school is the space where many people have some of their earliest memories of science and technology. Surveyed here are some of the sources within the library’s collections which reveal the gradual growth of science teaching in UK schools.

Initially the absence of science teaching is a conspicuous feature of the sources. Reading and scripture dominated in many schools, although even those that taught Latin and a little Greek sometimes overlooked scientific works from the classical period: from a 1707 set reading list from the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith, the emphasis is on works of history, drama and rhetoric with Aristotle and Pliny the Elder being noticeably absent. With this omission even in a comparatively elite school it is perhaps unsurprising that those serving rural and urban working-class communities strictly adhered to the three ‘Rs’ and Bible study, even though there does seem to have been a curiosity and a little regret in being taught so narrow a curriculum. In 1882 the Scottish publisher, William Chambers recalled:

I was not fated to receive more than a plain education in the place of my birth, a small country town in the south of Scotland. Matters there were still somewhat primitive. In schools I passed through, there was not a map, nor a book on geography, or history, or science. The only instruction consisted of the three Rs, finishing off with a dose of Latin.

The prevalence of science lessons mentioned in the sources does begin to increase, especially from the late nineteenth century, but this was not uniform. As universities were only just beginning to admit women during this period, girls were still excluded in some schools from science lessons and there was an anxiety that teaching some subjects would be dangerous to their mental wellbeing. The journalist, Laurie Magnus, in defending the creation of more high schools for girls, noted arguments against their creation:

Rather higher in scale of argument came the reasoned doubt as to the superior advantages of High Schools. Were they likely to turn out a generation of girls made to pattern, and haply, to the pattern of boys? Chemistry, mathematics and the humanities might prove perilous, defeminizing studies.

Thankfully these arguments were not heeded for too long and although subjects like scripture, reading and writing, as well as practical subjects like book-keeping still featured heavily in the sources from the twentieth century, science teaching in various forms slowly became more prominent. Sometimes it would be known under a different name such as ‘nature study’ or ‘object lessons’, as shown in the log book from the Weston School in Hertfordshire, where a random list of objects and animals formed the basis of regular lessons. These included items such as coal, iron or silk as well as broader lessons on basic botany and anatomy.

Image showing the object lesson curriculum from May 1900 of the Weston School, Hertfordshire.
Object Lesson Curriculum from May 1900 in Weston School Log Books 1876-1914

In contrast to the attitudes of the early twentieth century, one of the richest sources in the library at present is the Records of Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School from 1948 to 1972. Science teaching was a regular feature of the curriculum: during the period covered by this source the school employed a total of twenty-eight science teachers with the highest proportion teaching maths (8) and biology (9). The pupils throughout this time also had the opportunity to attend not only a science club, which was established in 1966, but also regular lectures on a range of subjects including atomic physics (May 1958), atomic energy (February 1963) and energy flow in ecosystems (May 1971).

These are just two of the case studies you can find in the collection guides, which also include overviews of different kinds of sources and listings of other relevant libraries and archives.