Go back to article: Threading through history: the vertical transmission of Davy, Faraday and Tyndall’s lecture demonstration practices

Vertical transmission at the RI: Davy, Faraday and Tyndall

Notions of the artifice of performance are not new to readings of scientific lecture-demonstration, and descriptions of them that utilise theatrical metaphor are plentiful.[7] Commending the application of performance theory for the ‘new, nontextual strategies’ (Morus, 2010, p 775) it can offer to understanding scientific practice, Iwan Rhys Morus observes that ‘[i]f knowledge is embodied, then we need to pay attention to its bodies’ (Morus, 2010, p 776). Here, my own exploration of the relationships between Davy, Faraday and Tyndall focuses on the physical, embodied practices apparent in their lecture-demonstrations and suggests a new interpretation of those relationships. Sophie Forgan’s study of the history of the RI maintains that it offers a ‘striking example of an institution where professorial lineages, research tutelage and personal influence on careers’ (Forgan, 2002, p 27) can be found in abundance, pointing out that the relationship between Davy and Faraday has been analysed as one of (surrogate) father and son.[8] This is certainly one plausible description of their association, not least because of the tensions and jealousies that sometimes arose between them (Morus, 1998, p 25) especially as the younger man, Faraday, began to carve his own successful career, ultimately establishing himself as the leading light at the RI. Here though, I suggest that their relationship, and later, Faraday’s relationship with John Tyndall, can equally profitably be examined within the framework of embodied knowledge transmission, and, specifically, through the lens of vertical transmission. In so doing, I propose that there was both a conscious and subconscious process of repetition and emulation of the presentation methods and techniques from one scientist-lecturer to the next. Although such a reading incorporates ideas of inheritance and transfer, it suggests a more deliberate influence than might be found within the father-son bond, emphasising an active intention to perpetuate existing physical practices and behaviours. Particularly emphasised in this process is the value of ‘imitation’ as has been said (Schechner, 1985, p 22; Watson, 2001, p 3), as well as the ‘master-disciple’ status relationship, in which the ‘master’ has significant experience as a practitioner in his or her own right.

The process of vertical transmission as an intergenerational embodied training practice naturally established itself amongst the three subjects (Davy, Faraday and Tyndall).[9] In this model each of the scientist-lecturers is an expert practitioner themselves – both in the laboratory and the lecture theatre – as well as a source of inspiration for the next generation. Compelling evidence of Faraday’s adoption of a model of imitation comes from his own writing. In the first of a sequence of four letters to his friend Benjamin Abbott, written between 1 June and 18 June 1813, Faraday reflects on his own journey towards becoming a lecturer and his experiences of watching others, particularly Davy at work, noting that ‘’tis evident that I have yet to learn and how to learn better than by the observation of others’ (James, 1991, p 55). Faraday’s instinct, then, was for a process that enabled him to cultivate his own practice through the close scrutiny of others.

It would, of course, be misleading to suggest that such deep and intentional vertical transmission occurred from Davy to Faraday to Tyndall as that described by Watson in relation to East Asian forms of performance. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that Faraday was inspired by Davy, and in turn, that Tyndall was greatly influenced by Faraday’s performance in the lecture theatre as well as benefitting from a form of mentoring by him in his own early lecturing career at the RI (De Young, 2011, p 78; Eve and Creasey, 1945, p 44). In her study of Tyndall and the role of the scientist in Victorian culture, Ursula de Young cites Tyndall’s own journal entry from 29 December 1853 in which he describes the possibility of inheritance from Faraday:

Once he turned his face towards me with kindness and at the same time chastened by something higher. Tyndall, he said, I should like you to love this Institution, to identify yourself with it. In the course of nature I shall soon pass away – and he said something else which seemed to indicate that he wished me to fill his place.

(De Young, 2011, p 80)

This insight into Faraday’s presumed intentions bears all the hallmarks of a master passing down his legacy to a chosen apprentice, in the same way that Faraday himself ultimately succeeded his mentor Davy as the ‘most popular scientific lecturer in London’ (James, 2007, p xv). This opportunity for direct vertical transmission was naturally established and fostered amongst them. Indeed, the RI lecture theatre itself can be viewed as a kind of training ground for future scientist-lecturers, where they could test out practices and approaches inspired by what they witnessed in the performances of others, selecting from those performances the methods and physical tropes that they wished to recreate for themselves.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/005