, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 501–503

Popular science and profitable publishing in Victorian Edinburgh

Aileen Fyfe: Steam-powered knowledge: William Chambers and the business of publishing, 1820–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, xvi+313pp, $50.00


    • Department of HistoryUniversity of Windsor
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-012-9744-4

Cite this article as:
Howsam, L. Metascience (2013) 22: 501. doi:10.1007/s11016-012-9744-4

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 culture––the readers and writers, the publishers, printers and booksellers who made and used and circulated a defined set of texts––, are only possible when scholars can draw upon a rich archive of records. Fortunately, the Chambers’ business papers and correspondence do survive and are housed in the National Library of Scotland. They are the foundation for a remarkable work of history that captures both the circulation of scientific information and the commercial aspect of publishing. It shows how some shrewd business people assessed their markets in the light of how they might appropriate innovative technology, while simultaneously sizing up the new machines in terms of how they could contribute to the firm’s penetration of a specific market. That market was the appetite for ‘popular instruction’ or ‘useful knowledge’ which proved, in turn, to be the engine by which scientific information was appropriated by the reading public.

Aileen Fyfe is a historian of science, and while her study focuses on the business of publishing––and hence makes a dramatic and very welcome contribution to the history of the book––, its structure focuses attention on the way in which a commercial publisher nurtured the circulation of knowledge about the natural world. William Chambers (with his brothers) was the publisher of many books and periodicals, of which the best known was Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal. This was a weekly repository of what the Victorians unselfconsciously referred to as ‘improving information’. It offered a miscellany of natural history, world history, industry, travels and anecdotes of all kinds. Biographical sketches were a characteristic genre. Chambers set his journal up in competition with a number of similarly miscellaneous philanthropic and religious periodicals, notably the Penny Magazine published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. But Chambers did not subsidise his readers’ purchase for the good of their souls. He approached the project of popular instruction as a matter of business, and he was profoundly interested in furnishing their minds. He wanted to circulate knowledge and information at a price cheap enough for working people, but he also expected to make a profit. How could his firm succeed while producing and distributing informative print at affordable prices? Beginning in Edinburgh and the Scottish market in 1820, he experimented with the new technologies of reproduction that were making possible a whole new range of reading material—cheap bibles, serialised novels, inexpensive newspapers, school books at manageable prices, even ‘penny dreadfuls’. These technologies included stereotype, steam-powered papermaking and printing machines, steam trains for shipping within Britain, and steamships for reaching the lucrative trans-Atlantic market. The title Steam-Powered Knowledge captures the preoccupations of these decades.

Fyfe acknowledges that the expansion of the nineteenth-century marketplace for print was related to changes in literacy and education, as well as to changes in the processes of producing and distributing printed materials. But she points out that scholars have asked a good many more questions, and more probing questions, about the social elements than they have about the technological ones. Fyfe corrects that by focusing directly on steam technology and on related inventions such as stereotype and machine-made paper. However, like other historians of science, Fyfe insists upon interrogating the way that a new invention or process was put to use, rather than merely taking its utility for granted. How did human minds engaged with the various machines they were encountering for the first time? One example will demonstrate her methodology: it might seem obvious that trains pulled by steam engines would revolutionise the business of a Scottish publisher seeking to distribute periodical publications in London. In fact, they did so, but not because the trains could be used cost-effectively to ship printed papers. And nor was the experiment of shipping stereotype plates to be printed off in the metropolis fully successful. What was good for business was railway reading. The newly speedy passenger trains created a huge market for light literature, as cheap disposable reading material for the train became a part of everyday life. Routledge’s Railway Library series of novels was, admittedly, more popular than the sort of serious non-fiction in which the Chambers’ brothers specialised. But the latter carved out a substantial segment of the market and demonstrated that steam-powered reading would make it possible to operate what William Chambers called “a proper system of publishing” (27).

Chambers invested in the steam presses necessary to print their periodicals in sufficient quantities for their national market. Having done so, they realised that the equipment had an unused capacity. This could be filled by publishing and printing inexpensive tracts, and later books, then marketing those works through the same channels already developed for periodicals. The razor-thin margins at which William Chambers operated did not allow for them to pay big-name writers like Dickens and Thackeray, but he could afford much more modest copyright fees to compensate his own brother Robert and other writers. And he found customers in the school book market as well as in the railway book stalls. ‘Knowledge’ and ‘information’ as defined by this Edinburgh entrepreneur were the sources of a serious, steady and profitable business.

When a London-based publisher set out to sell books or periodicals to New York or Toronto, it was his first effort at reaching beyond his natural market. But William Chambers had already extended himself outside lowland Scotland in order to sell his journal, tracts and books in London. He used that experience to take the further step into the North American market. There were endless complications, times when technology let the men of business down, and the times when they found it very difficult to communicate with their colleagues on the other side of the ocean. The contemporary culture of piracy, which allowed American publishers routinely to reprint British works without either penalty or compensation, was a further challenge. Patiently and cleverly, Chambers found ways to circumvent the difficulties and to reach the lucrative market he had identified.

This is a complex story, and one that required extensive archival and library research before its present coherence could be revealed. Fyfe shows her deep knowledge of the material, and she writes with grace and elegance. Her publishers, the University of Chicago Press, have cooperated by producing a good-looking book, well-illustrated with reproductions from the Chambers’ publications.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012