Science and the Imperial Military System

The Irish scientific establishment had always a strong link with the Empire. Their 'core' status was exemplified in the role of the Grubb optical works in Rathmines, which supplied the British Navy with gunsights up to 1920, when it was moved to St Albans for strategic reasons.

The Grubb enterprise was a spin-off from the famous Birr telescope of the Earl of Rosse. The Parsons steam turbine (an English- based spin-off from the Birr Castle workshops) broke into the Royal Navy market with the famous Spithead demonstration in 1899, when the Parsons boat 'Turbinia' ran rings round the assembled British Navy. Sir Howard Grubb FRS played a leading role in the RDS all during this period.

This process has been studied comparatively by Pyenson(26), who after a devastating introduction in which he quotes Levi-Strauss '...coming on the shadows of the remnants of Eden, Western man set out to destroy them...' goes on to classify the role of the scientist in the empire as:

  • the functionary role; 'gather results, do as you are told, we will analyse them at the centre in the imperial interest...';

  • the implanted research role; participate in a research centre implanted in the colonies in the hopes that it will help in the civilising mission;

  • the merchantilist role; skilled expatriate applied-scientists in support of a colonial industrial technology.
The functionary role is typical of the French in North Africa; this has been written up by de Martonne(27). The research role is exemplified by the Gottingen scientists who argued in 1908 for the setting up of an astrophysical observatory in Windhoek, in German SW Africa (now Namibia). The merchantilist role is perhaps the contemporary norm.

In the Irish context, this first role is perhaps exemplified by the Irish Lights, or the Geological Survey, or the Ordnance Survey, when run from Britain. Post 1921, of these three the first was left untouched (under a Treaty clause which sought to prevent the Free State developing a maritime interest), while the second and third were taken over, without proper understanding of their significance, by the Dublin Civil Service, and neglected for decades; the philosophy of their original imperial mission was not replaced by a substitute philosophy of national development.

The implanted research-centre role was never high on the agenda in the epoch of British rule; any research centre developed in Ireland pre 1914 (eg the Albert College for agriculture) had to be fought for (in this case by Horace Plunkett and the co-operative movement).

The merchantilist role was on the whole irrelevant, as Ireland was not top of the imperial agenda as a source of extractive raw-materials. The Belfast industrialists had their own sources of expertise, and indeed were world-leaders in their niche.

So on the whole Ireland does not fit cleanly into any of the Pyenson categories, being too close to the core.

On the other had, a look at the RDS and RIA proceedings of the period suggests that Ireland was participating in the analysis of data brought back from the Empire by itinerant functionaries, and profiting by it.

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