When things do wrong: instruments, failure and geographical knowledge

Maximum and minimum thermometers used by Joseph Thomson on the Royal Geographical Society expedition through Masailand in 1883.

By Charles W.J. Withers, The University of Edinburgh

Instruments are vital in geographical exploration. But because they do not always work as they should, we need to ask two important questions, of historical accounts in particular: how were instruments used? How did explorer-authors write about their use and the results?

We’ve all been there, that moment when a device we have come to rely upon – watch, mobile ‘phone, GPS, recording device, or specialist item of field equipment – doesn’t work as it should. But what do we do about it? Carry on regardless, knowing that there is error in the readings, and that later claims to accuracy have to be explained? Fix the thing, and trust that, now, it will function as it should?

And how do we report failure, the breakdown of instruments, in writing about our work? If we don’t acknowledge it, we’re not being honest about the doing of geography. If we come clean about instruments’ failure, their ‘going slow’ or ‘running down’, we risk credibility: the truth of what we say is compromised by admissions of failure concerning the instruments used to produce that truth claim.

These are questions of instrument epistemology, ‘thing knowledge’. They are also questions about the relationship between thing knowledge and word knowledge – how the work done by instruments is hidden, perhaps not written about at all, in the words produced as the result of our work. Measurement (how we use instruments to do work) and inscription (how we write about that work), and the relationships between them become matters of moral significance: do I trust the instrument is working as it should? Do I, the reader, trust what I am told or read about in the final printed account?

‘Geography and “thing knowledge”’ examines these questions as pressing problems facing geographical exploration in the past – and with implications for thinking about failure in all geographical work.

As part of initiatives in the 1870s towards a more ‘scientific’ geography, the Royal Geographical Society promoted instruction in instrument use and lent instruments to would-be explorers. For a brief period between c.1877 and 1883, officers of the Society kept a register – what is now manuscript AP 52 – of where in the world explorers and instruments went and what happened to them (both the person and the devices). Many did not return (either the person or the instruments, sometimes both). More usually, both came back, but ‘damaged’ in one way or another.

Some explorer-authors admitted that they could not use the instruments provided – despite training in their use. Others took a good stock of instruments – compasses, sextants, barometers – and, in one way and place or another, broke them in undertaking fieldwork. In several instances, when an instrument returned to the RGS, later inspection revealed it to be in a state of disrepair. If mended – and many were since instruments of exploration then as now are expensive things – the instrument could be sent out on later expeditions, a potentially flawed device for making claims about topographical accuracy, longitude, latitude, and so on.

The narratives later produced by these explorers admitted to these circumstances in different ways. In East Africa, the Reverend T. J. Comber admitted that his longitude readings could not be corroborated as he had allowed his half-chronometer ‘to run down’ (He later died undertaking exploration in Africa, but his instruments remained there, distributed to other explorers). In Central Asia, Delmar Morgan had to stop recording temperature because he had broken all his thermometers. Writing about Celebes (Sulawesi today), Henry Forbes’s article submitted to the RGS was downgraded to a brief research note because he admitted to preparing the map of his explorations without using the several instruments he had borrowed (one of which had broken in a thunderstorm).

In most cases, where a map was the intended final product of the exploration, RGS officers in London would check measurements, often correcting them before the work proceeded to publication. On numerous occasions, explorer-authors would admit to the failure of the instruments used and write of their ‘tolerance’ of the results.

There were, in short, complex connections between instrument use, exploratory activity and authorial credibility. These connections are evident in the present day. Because they are, the paper argues, we need to be attentive to three broad questions. What work do instruments do? How is instrument use written about by their users or, later, by the author (if they are not the same person) in presenting the results? If acknowledged at all, how is failure understood – in ‘the field’, in the device, in the text? ‘Thing knowledge’ matters in geography.

About the author: Professor Charles Withers is Ogilvie Chair of Geography within the School of Geosciences at The University of Edinburgh.

Withers, CWJ. (2019). Geography and “thing knowledge”: Instrument epistemology, failure, and narratives of 19th‐century exploration. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12318

Lead image credit: Maximum and minimum thermometers used by Joseph Thomson on the Royal Geographical Society expedition through Masailand in 1883.

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