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Measuring Nature in the Early Modern Age: Time, the ‹Arts of Fire› and Technological Control

The well-worn cliché representing modern science as eager to control the natural world (‹scientia potentia est›) does contain – as many well-worn clichés – an ounce of truth. As a matter of fact, early modern experimenters analysed natural phenomena not only to acquire new knowledge, but also to take control over them by means of innovative technological devices.

One of the keys to early-modern accumulation of scientific knowledge, and to the elaboration of strategies to manipulate natural elements, is measurement. The relevance of measurement in the evolution of early modern science and technology is widely accepted, as is the idea of the emergence of a ‹quantifying spirit› in the early modernity. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have in fact witnessed a transition from approximation to precision – namely, from a science of qualities to a science of quantities – fostered by a systematic appeal to measurement. The act of measuring allows indeed to take control over natural phenomena by reproducing or processing them.

While the impact of measuring length, weight, pressure and temperature has been largely studied, the role of time measurement in the evolution of scientific and technological practices has been less considered. Measuring time, however, was essential to the advancement of the knowledge of nature, as well as to the possibility of manipulating it.

This panel aims to investigate the epistemic and practical role of measuring time in the so-called ‹arts of fire›, namely disciplines – such as practical chemistry and cooking – that operated on material bodies through the action of heat. The ‹arts of fire› are highly relevant to the question of controlling nature through time measurement for a twofold reason. On the one hand, the accurate determination of time was crucial to understand the behaviour of heated natural bodies, especially in cooking or practical chemistry operations. On the other hand, time measurement was also essential in guiding a safe and effective management of fire, particularly when the ‹arts of fire› became manufacturing activities – it is the case of chemical manufacturing (e.g., dyeing factories), the preparation of collective meals or the emerging food industry.

Ultimately, the role of time measurement in the ‹arts of fire› brings to light the importance of measurement in changing the relationship between human actors and the natural world in the early modern age, not only in epistemic terms but also for the establishment of a technological control over nature.

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