Pure and Applied Science at the University of Birmingham, 1890-1919

By Di Drummond

My paper at the third workshop explored the role that Oliver Lodge had in forming a balance between pure and applied science subjects, and between the Sciences and the Arts and Humanities, and, as a result, in laying the foundations of the University of Birmingham. Birmingham was a new form of higher education, the first civic university in England. This was characterised by the Applied Sciences, but there was a concern on the part of Birmingham’s founders for the pure sciences and, in time, the Arts and Humanities, to be included in the portfolio of subjects.

Birmingham is often seen as a product of the political networks and liberal ethos of the University’s founder, the politician and statesman Joseph Chamberlain. Certainly, his campaign was key in raising the finances the University required from amongst the local industrial and commercial elite. Chamberlain was also instrumental in developing the governing structure of the new institution. In contrast, Lodge’s role as the first Principal of the University from 1900, until his retirement in 1919, has been neglected. This paper attempts to restore Lodge’s importance. As a pure scientist who developed practical outcomes from his research while he was Professor of Physics at Liverpool, Lodge argued for the reliance of applied on pure science from the 1880s. This was key to the nature of the new university. So too was Lodge’s belief in a ‘liberal’/’liberal arts’ university education, this being seen as important in preventing scientists and those in the applied sciences from becoming too narrow and utilitarian in their attitudes. Lodge’s wider political values also proved important in the shaping of the new university. While the history of Chamberlainite municipal liberalism in the city of Birmingham was key in forming the relationship between the University and the Midland region, Lodge’s Fabianism, with its ‘municipal socialism’, had some influence in ensuring that local political and professional interests were represented in the governing system of the University of Birmingham.

Di Drummond

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *