, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 501-503
Date: 09 Oct 2012

Popular science and profitable publishing in Victorian Edinburgh

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Steam-Powered Knowledge is about one of the success stories of publishing in Victorian Britain. The Chambers were a firm and a family working in Scotland who not only penetrated the London market, but also managed to distribute their books and periodicals extensively in the United States and Canada as well. The book also tells a story of the culture of popular science in Britain during a crucial period of four decades when new, attractive, often radical, sometimes dangerous ideas were in circulation. In the context of both narratives, Aileen Fyfe makes a subtle but powerful argument about how change happens: she does not endorse a theory of technological agency, or attribute the Chambers’ success story to steam engines alone; but nor does she downplay technology in favour of a purely cultural approach. She shows how people in business made use of new technologies to offer ‘instruction’ to people of the working classes.

Studies of this kind, which look at the whole network of a book cult