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Journal Article

Public Science for a Global Empire: The British Quest for the South Magnetic Pole

Edward J. Larson
Isis
Vol. 102, No. 1 (March 2011), pp. 34-59
DOI: 10.1086/658656
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/658656
Page Count: 26
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Public Science for a Global Empire: The British Quest
for the South Magnetic Pole
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Abstract

ABSTRACT It is well known to historians of science that, early in the nineteenth century, terrestrial magnetism became both a popular science and a significant research enterprise in Europe. For Britain, as a maritime power, it offered benefits for navigation. Theoretical physicists claimed that, with enough observations of magnetic variation, intensity, and dip taken throughout the world over time, they could deduce regular mathematical laws to explain the phenomena. Because of the lack of data from the region, particular attention focused on field research in deep southern latitudes. Finding the precise location of the South Magnetic Pole became a prime goal for some enthusiasts. With burgeoning colonies in Africa and the Antipodes, Britain assumed a leading role in this effort. British scientists looked to their government for funding and called on the Admiralty to dispatch expeditions. It is less well known that both popular and scientific interest in terrestrial magnetism continued throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. The H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror (1839–1843), H.M.S. Challenger (1872–1876), and R.Y. Discovery (1901–1904) sailed to the Antarctic as part of Britain's extended “Magnetic Crusade,” which culminated with Royal Society geologist T. W. Edgeworth David of the Nimrod expedition reaching the South Magnetic Pole in 1909.

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