“Direct Observation”: A Controversy About Ernst Mach’s and Peter Salcher’s Ballistic-Photographic Experiments
In spring 1888, an anonymous critic raised severe doubts about Ernst Mach’s and Peter Salcher’s studies, published 1 year before, on the processes in the air caused by very rapid projectiles. Paraphrasing the experiments for the French popular science magazine La Nature, the critic insinuated that the photographs upon which Mach and Salcher’s argument were ostensibly based must have been of such low quality that they did not allow any well-founded conclusion. The critic did not deny the phenomena Mach and Salcher had presented in their article; he denied that the photographs taken in the course of the experiments could permit any observation of the phenomena. I take the resulting quarrel as a window into the actors’ ideas on the requirements of “good observations” and the role of technical devices in this case. In particular I enquire how the various arguments relate to Lorraine Daston’s and Peter Galison’s framing of photography as an emblem of “mechanical objectivity.” We will see that in the case under debate, actors considered naked-eye observation, observation by telescope and photography mainly with regard to the challenges of the particular research object.