English engineer John Smeaton's experimental method(s): Optimisation, hypothesis testing and exploratory experimentation

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2 Citaten (Scopus)


In this paper I provide a detailed account of eighteenth-century engineer John Smeaton's experimental methods, with the aim of bringing our understanding of his work into line with recent research in the history and philosophy of science. Starting from his use of the technique of parameter variation, I identify three distinct methodological aims in the research he carried out on waterwheels, windmills and hydraulic mortars. These aims are: optimisation, hypothesis testing and maxim generation. The main claim of this paper is that Smeaton did more than merely improve engineering methods by systematising earlier artisanal approaches, which is the classic view of Smeaton's method developed by historians of technology in the 1990s. I argue instead that his approach bridged the divide between science and technology, by integrating both hypothesis testing and exploratory experimentation. This is borne out, in particular, by the way that Smeaton emphasised the exploratory side of the work he published in the Philosophical Transactions, in contrast to his account of the construction of the Eddystone lighthouse, which was aimed at a broader, non-specialist public. I contribute to recent research on exploratory experimentation by showing – in line with other work on this topic – that exploratory experimentation is not incompatible with hypothesis testing. This new perspective on Smeaton's method will hopefully lead to further research and new insights into the relation between science and technology at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Originele taal-2English
Pagina's (van-tot)283-294
Aantal pagina's12
TijdschriftStudies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part A
StatusPublished - okt 2021


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