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Jessica R. Ratcliff

Assistant Professor

Jessica R. Ratcliff

Morrill Hall, Room 310
jrr47@cornell.edu

Educational Background

  • D.Phil., History, University of Oxford
  • M.Sc., History of Science, University of Oxford
  • B.A., Cognitive Science, Vassar College

Overview

Jessica Ratcliff is Assistant Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies.  She works on the history of science and technology, specializing in Britain and its former empire. Her work so far has explored the historical relationship between forms of science and forms of state, in contexts ranging from technological invention and courtier culture in seventeenth-century England to patronage of physical sciences in nineteenth-century Travancore. She is particularly interested in studying the connections between science and the state by way of economics and material culture. Currently, she is working on a book about the East India Company’s library and museum in London. Recent publications include: "The East India Company, the Company's Museum, and the Political Economy of Natural History in the Early Nineteenth Century" in Isis (September 2016); "Travancore's Magnetic Crusade: geomagnetism and the geography of scientific production in a princely state" in British Journal for the History of Science (June 2016); and "The Great Data Divergence: Global History of Science within Global Economic History" in Global Scientific Practice during the Age of Revolutions (2016).

Departments/Programs

  • Science and Technology Studies
  • Society for the Humanities

Graduate Fields

  • Science and Technology Studies

Affiliations

  • South Asia Program

Research

Collecting Authority: The East India Company’s Museum and Library, London, 1801-33

This project investigates the material dimension of claims to authoritative knowledge. It is focused on the historical geography of the British East India Company’s collections:  books, manuscripts, records, specimens, curiosities, treasure, plants, etc. held within libraries, museums, gardens, menageries and other institutions of knowledge management found within the Company’s sprawling bureaucracy. While at the Society, I will focus on the first three decades of the Company’s “official” museum and library in London.  During this period, intense debates erupted between competing groups over who best knew the empire, and how.  My primary aim is to consider whether and how the Company’s collections shaped these debates by shifting the ways in which claims to authoritative knowledge were established. 

Scholars once took the growth of information collection by nineteenth-century states as evidence of, or even synonymous with, the extension of state authority. More recent work has begun to uncover a more complex historical relationship between state power and systems of knowledge. In line with this work, my research so far suggests that the growth of the London collections did not settle debates over authority, nor did it expand one particular kind of authority. Rather, the Company Museum became a new site for ongoing contests among competing interests. In my preliminary research, I have identified distinct, sometimes competing, ways in which the existence of the growing collections in London—although not necessarily the information held within it—was made use of in debates over claims to authoritative knowledge.

The great accumulation in London of materials about Asia by the East India Company was immensely consequential for both Asia and Europe. But the connection between the growth of imperial information repositories and claims to authoritative knowledge of the empire was neither straightforward nor predictable; it remains poorly understood and needs further study.

Publications

  • “Hand in Hand with the Survey: Surveying and the Accumulation of Knowledge Capital at India House during the Napoleonic Wars.” Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 0 (0) (December 2018)

  • "The East India Company, the Company's Museum, and the Political Economy of Natural History in the Early Nineteenth Century" Isis (September 2016)

  • "Travancore's Magnetic Crusade: geomagnetism and the geography of scientific production in a princely state" British Journal for the History of Science (June 2016) 

  • "The Great Data Divergence: Global History of Science within Global Economic History" in Global Scientific Practice during the Age of Revolutions (Patrick Manning and Dan Rood, eds., University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)

  • "'Art to Cheat the Common-Weale': Inventors, Projectors and Patentees in English Satire, c. 1630-80" Technology and Culture 53(2) (2012)

  • The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008)

  • "Models, Metaphors, and the Transit of Venus in Victorian Britain" Special issue: "The astronomical event of the century? Social history of the transits of Venus, 1874-1882" Cahiers François Viète 11—12 (2007)

  • "Samuel Morland and his Calculating Machines c. 1666: The Early Career of a Courtier-Inventor in Restoration London" British Journal for the History of Science 40(2) (2007)