Alexi Baker, Ph.D.

Alexi Baker's picture
Collections Manager, HSI
Address: 
Division of Historical Scientific Instruments, Yale Peabody Museum, P.O. Box 208118, New Haven, CT 06520-8118
Phone number: 
(203) 737-3084
Research Areas: 
History of science and technology; Early modern history (HST, socioeconomic, cultural); Material and visual culture; Digital humanities; Historical geography; Museum studies

 

As Collections Manager of Historical Scientific Instruments at the Peabody Museum, I oversee, enrich and interpret a collection of thousands of extraordinary objects from the history of science and technology stretching from the 1500’s to today. I originally trained and worked as a science journalist, which included earning an M.A. in Science & Environmental Reporting from New York, and then transitioned to history of science out of a desire to work with museums. I completed an M.Sc. in “History of Science: Instruments, Museums, Science, Technology” at the University of Oxford in 2004 and a D.Phil. in History of Science at Oxford in 2010.

My doctoral dissertation dealt with the socioeconomics and geography of the trade in optical, mathematical and philosophical instruments in early modern London - as well as with the purchase, use, perception and representation of instruments. This research included quantitative analyses of hundreds of trade members’ lives as well as studies of individuals’ biographies, in-depth use of archival holdings of all kinds and of historical publications including newspapers and trade cards, reference to surviving instruments, and extensive digital mapping. It revealed that the London instrument trade was more extensive, diversified and successful in every sense than had previously been understood – spilling far beyond the bounds of modern conceptions of “science”. It was strengthened by myriad interconnections with other crafts and retail specialties, by the participation of women and of members of specific immigrant and religious communities, and by diverse other socioeconomic networks. In addition, I discovered and analyzed the only set of instrument shop accounts so far known to have survived from the British instrument trade before at least the late 1700’s.

In 2010-2013, I was a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge on the AHRC-funded project “The Board of Longitude 1714–1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World” (http://www.rmg.co.uk/work-services/what-we-do/learning-partnerships/partnerships-outreach/board-of-longitude), helmed by Professor Simon Schaffer at Cambridge and by Drs. Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. I also wrote numerous contextual essays and volume summaries for the JISC-funded digitization project at the Cambridge University Library, “Navigating 18th Century Science and Technology: the Board of Longitude” (http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/longitude). My research for these two projects mainly focused on the search for the longitude before the British Longitude Act of 1714, the early history of the Board, and the socioeconomic networks and media through which longitude was communicated and business conducted. This led me to dramatically reinterpret the nature of the Commissioners - not as a standing Board of Longitude which failed to do its duty for more than twenty years, but as independent authorities who had been established as such and were largely perceived as such and who only gradually transformed into a communal body for a variety of reasons, mainly from the 1760s onward. I also extensively studied the only public female longitude projector (Jane Squire) and discovered a second female longitude author who remained anonymous (Elizabeth Johnson - a sister of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds). In 2013-2015, I was a Mellon-Newton Postdoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities [CRASSH] at Cambridge. This included my convening and organizing an international interdisciplinary conference “Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition” at CRASSH on 18-20 June 2015 (https://objects2015.wordpress.com/about/).

Selected publications:

Four chapters in Simon Schaffer & Richard Dunn (eds.), The Board of Longitude 1714–1828: Science, Innovation and Empire, in preparation for Palgrave MacMillan.

“‘Scientific’ instruments and networks of craft and commerce in early modern London” in Justin Colson and Arie van Steensel (eds.), Cities and Solidarities: Urban Communities in Pre-Modern Europe (Routledge, 2017), 245-268.

“Symbiosis and style: the production, sale and purchase of instruments in the luxury markets of eighteenth-century London” in A.D. Morrison-Low, Sara J. Schechner & Paolo Brenni (eds.) How Scientific Instruments Have Changed Hands (Brill, 2016), 1-20.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on the London optician George Willdey (bap. 1676, d. 1737), published online on 17 September 2015.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on the longitude author Jane Squire (1686-1743), published online on 17 September 2015.

“‘Humble servants’, ‘loving friends’, and Nevil Maskelyne’s invention of the Board of Longitude” in Rebekah Higgitt (ed.), Nevil Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal (Hale Books, 2014), 203-228.

“Vernacular GIS: mapping early modern geography and socio-economics”, in Alexander von Lünen and Charles Travis (eds.), History and GIS: Epistemologies, Considerations and Reflections (Springer, 2013), 89-110.

“‘Precision’, ‘perfection’ and the reality of British scientific instruments on the move during the 18th Century” in Material Culture Review 74-75, 2012, 14-29.

“The business of life: the socioeconomics of the “scientific” instrument trade in early modern London” in F-E. Eliassen & K. Szende (eds.), Generations in Towns: Succession and Success in Pre-Industrial Urban Societies (Cambridge Scholars, 2009), 175-180.

“Reading between the lines: the instrument trade in the newspapers of 18th century London” in the Scientific Instrument Society Bulletin 102, 2009, 12-17.

“The London instrument trade, from Culpeper to Cole” in Bart Grob and Hans Hooijmaijers (eds.), Who Needs Scientific Instruments: Conference on scientific instruments and their users 20-22 October 2005 (Museum Boerhaave, 2006), 99-105.