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Cornish science, mine experiments and Robert Were Fox's Penjerrick letters

Gillin, EJ; (2021) Cornish science, mine experiments and Robert Were Fox's Penjerrick letters. Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 10.1098/rsnr.2020.0030. (In press). Green open access

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Abstract

In 2019 a collection of letters from the nineteenth-century natural philosopher Robert Were Fox was discovered in his home at Penjerrick in Cornwall. Fox came to the attention of scientific audiences for experimentally establishing that temperature increases with depth beneath the Earth's surface, and later secured fame for his magnetic dipping needle, developed to measure terrestrial magnetic phenomena. The newly uncovered Penjerrick letters constitute a valuable archival discovery with important historical ramifications for our understanding of Fox's work and its place within nineteenth-century science. As well as highlighting the central role of networking in promoting provincial science, the letters reveal the prominence of the Cornish mine as a site of experiment within British scientific culture. These venues presented Fox with unique spaces in which to scrutinize nature, but such philosophical investigations were unverifiable within a laboratory and appeared susceptible to inaccuracies arising from the working conditions of this uncontrollable environment. Nevertheless, the Cornish mine was crucial to the development of Fox's dipping needle, which became the premier device for making magnetic observations at sea in the 1840s. In this article, I demonstrate the epistemologically problematic nature of the mine as an experimental space that was to take on a central role in the worldwide magnetic survey that historians have described as the ‘Magnetic Crusade’. Just outside Falmouth in Cornwall, surrounded by dense tropical growth, is Penjerrick (Figure 1). Since the present house's construction in 1935, this has been home to the descendants of the nineteenth-century natural philosopher Robert Were Fox (1789–1877). In 2019 his great-granddaughter, Rachel Morin, and her gardener, Hilary Watson, discovered a mysterious package at Penjerrick, containing five letters from Fox to the local MPs Charles Lemon (1784–1868) and Davies Gilbert (1767–1839), as well as a stereogram of the Cornishman himself (Figure 2). A specialist in geology and terrestrial magnetism, Fox first came to the attention of European scientific audiences for experimentally establishing that temperature increases with depth beneath the Earth's surface, using Cornwall's deep mines to measure differences in subterranean heat.1 In the 1820s, he surmised that the Earth's interior was a place of high temperature, appearing to confirm the French mathematician Joseph Fourier's assertions that the Earth's present stability was the result of gradual cooling and that its interior was a place of great heat. However, it was for his magnetic dipping needle, developed to measure the dip and intensity of the Earth's magnetic field, that Fox secured his greatest reputation. This was to play a leading role in the British Magnetic Scheme or what, in 1979, the historian John Cawood termed the ‘Magnetic Crusade’.

Type: Article
Title: Cornish science, mine experiments and Robert Were Fox's Penjerrick letters
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2020.0030
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2020.0030
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the author accepted manuscript. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of the Built Environment
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10142319
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