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The “Scientist” 178 Years Old Today

Exactly 178 years ago today, on June 24, 1833, the word “scientist” was uttered in public for the first time. At the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Cambridge, the poet S.T. Coleridge stood up and demanded a new name for the members, saying they could no longer be considered “natural philosophers”—and Trinity College don William Whewell stood up and suggested the word “scientist” instead.

I tell that story in the prologue of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, and in a guest blog post here. But today I would like to explore the reason that Whewell had a new word at the ready when Coleridge made his demand.

Part of the reason is that Whewell and his friends John Herschel, Charles Babbage and Richard Jones had already been working on trying to modernize and professionalize the “man of science” for twenty years, ever since they met and held their “philosophical breakfasts” at Cambridge. Over this period, the men had already brought about many changes. They had publicly called for government funding for scientific innovation. They had insisted on the importance of exquisitely precise measurements and calculations—so precise, in fact, that it was humanly impossible to attain it, necessitating Babbage’s calculating engine. They had brought the issue of scientific method to the attention of the public in a series of widely-read and much-talked about books and articles. They had been involved in the formation of new scientific societies, ones that required members to be active workers in the natural sciences. And they were transforming scientific education, by arguing that professors in the natural sciences should be paid enough to afford their experiments and research, and should have adequate laboratories for this work. It was fitting that one of those trying to invent the modern scientist, in effect, was the one who named him as well.

But, more specifically, Whewell believed strongly that new discoveries required new terminology to denote those new entities or properties. As Whewell put it, “Such a coinage [of new terms] has always taken place at the great epochs of discovery; like the medals that are struck at the beginning of a new reign.” A new definition of the natural philosopher’s role and methods required a new term to name him.

Whewell did not stop with the word “scientist.” In a series of letters to Michael Faraday in 1834, Whewell invented the terms anode, cathode, ion and others. Faraday had sought Whewell’s help while in the midst of working on his new theory of electromagnetism—and Whewell was happy to oblige. As Whewell told Faraday, “novelties” in language were being “forced upon [Faraday] by the novelty of extent and the new relations of your views. In cases where such causes operate, new terms inevitably arise.” The important thing, Whewell cautioned, is that those who invent the new terms must pay attention “to the general bearing and future prospects of the subject.”

As Faraday himself had realized, terms carry their own meanings, and to maintain the old terms to describe completely new theories would be misleading. In particular, Faraday found himself struggling to express his experimental results without using terms which involved the old theory of electricity. As Faraday told Whewell, “it is essential to me to have the power of referring to the two surfaces of a decomposable body by which the current enters into and passes out of it, without at the same time referring to the electrodes [a word which he had already substituted for “poles”].”

Whewell suggested “anode” and “cathode,” explaining that these were good terms because they “indicate opposition of direction without assuming any hypothesis which may hereafter turn out to be false”—such as terms that would assume the flow was from east to west, or top to bottom. At the same time, it was important, Whewell believed, to indicate “opposition,” rather than merely “difference.” As Faraday put it in a paper introducing the new terms,

. . . whatever changes may take place in our views of the nature of electricity and electrical action . . . there seems no reason to expect that [these terms] will lead to confusion, or tend in any way to support false views. The anode is therefore that surface at which the electric current according to our present expression, enters: it is the negative extremity of the decomposing body. . . . The cathode is that surface at which the current leaves the decomposing body, and is its positive extremity. . . .

Faraday told Whewell after using these terms during a talk at the Royal Institution, “I had some hot objections made to them here . . . but when I held up the shield of your authority it was wonderful to observe how the tone of objection melted away!” Interestingly, it would take decades more before the term “scientist” was accepted in the same spirit.

[For more on this topic, see S. Ross, “Faraday Consults the Scholars,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society (1961) 16:187–220.]