Nature’s Working Worlds: Science, Industry, and Environment in the Time of Alexander von Humboldt, ca. 1770–ca. 1860
This dissertation studies the relationship between working and knowing over the course of the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries. It reinterprets the science of Prussian savant Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) as a collective enterprise with deep roots in economies of labor and resource management. And it takes an expansive approach to the “working worlds” of Humboldt’s time as sites of political and environmental as well as scientific imagination. The dissertation’s focus is the hard rock mining industry of central Europe, especially Freiberg in Saxony’s Ore Mountains and Prussia’s Franconian possessions in the Fichtel Mountains, where Humboldt trained and served as a mining official from 1791 to 1797, prior to his travels through the Americas from 1799 to 1804. Yet this study also makes forays into Thuringian textile schools, Rhenish cloth manufactories, the British dye economy, and the Mining Academy of Mexico City. In these worlds it is possible to pursue a history of Humboldt’s science alive to the confluence of natural knowledge, social governance, and resource management that underpinned it. The social organization of that science adapted to existing labor regimes in cameralist, colonial, and capitalist contexts. Practicing science within cultures of “useful knowledge” that spanned the Atlantic around 1800, Humboldt often emphasized his proximity to, not distance from, men of practical experience. This was an age in which territorial administration and resource use were constitutive of natural inquiry and early environmental thought. Franconian mine foremen and Creole surveyors played an especially vital role in Humboldt’s early geographic projects. Gradually, though, Humboldt’s appeals to the practical utility of his science, and the visibility of laborers within it, tended to diminish, keeping pace with the separation of workers from the means of production in the factories that sprang up around him in mid-century Berlin. Ways of working were abstracted into ways of knowing.