John Tresch: "Barnum, Bache and Poe"

  • Date: –15:00
  • Location: Engelska parken - The Rausing Room
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: H. Otto Sibum
  • Seminarium

Office for History of Science Seminar

John Tresch, Warburg Institute, University of London: "Barnum, Bache and Poe: Forging Modern Science in a Media Revolution"

The founder of modern horror writing, Edgar Allan Poe, was a science reporter as well as a shrewd analyst of technical media. Then as now, new communications systems make it hard to know who or what to believe. This talk explores the relations between science and its publics in the early 19th century US, the era of Andrew Jackson, P.T. Barnum, and a revolution in print, transport, photography, and telegraphy. Two opposed tendencies characterized the age: an explosion of new periodicals, audiences, lecture halls, and authors; and elite strategies to control knowledge through central institutions. Barnum’s “American Museum” typified the first; the U.S. Coast Survey, directed by Franklin’s great grandson, polymath Alexander Dallas Bache, exemplified the second. Like Bache, Poe trained at West Point Military Academy and evaluated the sciences; yet he also invented new forms of literary sensationalism and publicity aligned with Barnum. American science was being “forged” in two senses: in projects to establish a unified intellectual infrastructure, and in the production of believable fakes. In a decisive moment of industrial modernity, Poe’s diverse works offer prophetic, incisive, and dramatically conflicted commentary on science, its publics, and the stories it tells.