King's College London
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Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

Scientific exploration

Wood-engraving depicting apparatus secured to the top of a table.Apparatus for collecting the atmospheric gases from sea-water.Under the direction of chief scientist C Wyville Thomson (1830-82), HMS Challenger, a former Royal Navy warship, undertook an exploratory scientific investigation of the oceans and their depths in the years 1872-6.

The Challenger was stripped of most of her guns and furnished with scientific equipment in preparation for the voyage and in this account of the Atlantic crossings the author records the varied technology on board ship in a sizeable chapter entitled the ‘Equipment of the ship’.

The chapter details equipment including the hydraulic pressure gauge, the chemical laboratory and, in the opening shown, the apparatus for collecting the atmospheric gases from sea-water.

The expedition recorded both the physical geography of the oceans and the natural life and marine biology that they supported, and helped to lay the foundations of the scientific discipline today known as oceanography. The work shown here details the findings of the voyage in a variety of ways: in illustrations of sea-life, in meteorological tables and in charts recording, for example, the gravitational properties of the ocean depths.

Scientific voyages of the 19th century, on land and sea, and famously including Darwin’s aboard HMS Beagle, contributed to the growing knowledge of the world’s natural resources, how they could be harnessed and what they taught mankind about the earth’s formation.

As the technical specifications of the equipment used in these expeditions developed, more detailed evidence could be gathered and stored. This parallel development served to quicken future scientific and technological discovery.

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