Obituary: Professor Donald Cardwell

John Pickstone
Tuesday 26 May 1998 00:02 BST

BEFORE the Second World War, few scholars knew how to incorporate science, technology and medicine within social, political or economic history. Nowadays many historians know the methods: university courses, books and (some) museums manifest their skills. For the greats of science, and for many lesser figures and groups, we are able to relate scientific works to lives, contexts and audiences, with an analytical sophistication matching the best of current intellectual and cultural history.

This progress in historiography owes much to the intellectual and institutional bases built in the 1950s and 1960s, not least in the universities of northern England. Among these pioneers, Donald Cardwell was a perspicacious and persistent innovator, especially in Manchester, where he helped develop both a school of historians and a marvellous museum of science and industry.

From 1964, Cardwell made his academic home at the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology (Umist). He was at his best in the History of Science common room, holding forth on science, technology and the industrial revolution, mixing acute analysis with the whimsical excursions which also revealed his deep sense of period and place. He adopted Manchester, though he was born in Gibraltar, the son of a civil servant from Croydon, in Surrey, and was educated at Plymouth College and at King's College London, where he gained a First in Physics in 1939.

Shortly afterwards he joined the Admiralty Signals Establishment, serving in Scotland, West Africa and the Middle East during the Second World War. Back at King's from 1946, he applied his knowledge of radar in a PhD on detecting distant thunderstorms. He worked with Bill Seeds, John Randall and Maurice Wilkins in a physics department then moving from war-time concerns to biophysics; Cardwell moved further - into historical and social studies.

He attended history of science courses at University College London, and Morris Ginsberg's sociology seminars at the London School of Economics, where he met his future wife, Olive. And he gained a Nuffield grant for the historical research that became his first book - The Organisation of Science in England (1957).

For two years, c1955-56, he worked at Keele University with the economist Bruce Williams. After almost a decade of short-term employment he was rescued by the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who invited him to join the History and Philosophy of Science group at Leeds University. There he met Jerry Ravetz, who shared his interest in science-technology relations, and began the work on the history of "energy" that he would continue at Umist.

In 1963 he was invited to Umist by the Principal, Vivian Bowden. The technological universities were expanding, and in Manchester, as at Imperial College, London, history of science was to provide a "liberal" element in the education of engineers. But Bowden wanted more - the classic industrial city needed a Museum of Science and Industry.

At Umist, Cardwell surrounded himself with scientists who had turned to history - Arnold Pacey and the chemist Wilfred Farrar were already on the staff of the Institute. Like Cardwell, they were unassuming but learned and original; they scoffed at fashions in historiography, but they already understood the principles that dominate the profession now - that history of science must be concerned with practice as well as theory, that local studies are enormously useful in exploring the interplay of content and context, and that we do well not to divide the histories of science, technology and medicine from each other, or from economic and social history.

These were key themes in the Northern seminar which in the late 1960s linked Umist with Leeds, Lancaster and Bradford and also included Charles Webster, Charles Schmitt, Piyo Rattansi, Ted McGuire, Maurice Crossland, Jack Morrell and Robert Fox. The lessons spread - not through manifestos, but by example and through a tradition of warm encouragement to younger scholars.

Cardwell was shy of conferences, and in later years he rarely lectured outside Manchester. His international influence came mainly through his books - his insightful general works (most recently The Fontana History of Technology, published in 1994), his edited volumes on John Dalton and on the history of Umist, John Dalton and the Progress of Science (1968) and Artisan to Graduate (1974), and James Joule: a biography (1989), about the Manchester brewer who measured the mechanical equivalent of heat.

Cardwell's books were used by the Open University and did much to advance the history of science in Britain, but his literary achievements were perhaps best recognised in the United States, where history of technology had also become a professional discipline.

Like the Mancunians he studied, Cardwell concerned himself with the life of the city. He helped maintain the traditions of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, but his best institutional legacy is the Museum of Science and Industry, opened in 1969, for which he laid the groundwork and recruited Richard Hills, first as a research student and then as museum director. Together they put together a very fine collection, first housed in the Oddfellows Hall between Umist and Manchester University; Cardwell also helped establish the national fund for the preservation of industrial and scientific heritage.

Around the time of Cardwell's retirement from Umist in 1984, the Manchester collections moved to Castlefield, to the site of the world's first railway station. There the museum's growth has been so spectacular, and its brief is now so large, that it is rarely thought of as a "university" foundation. That almost seems fitting. It is a working monument to a historian of practical men, a contribution to Manchester from a lively scholar who taught us to see in the microcosm of the industrial city the creative interweavings of scientific, technical and civic concerns.

Donald Stephen Lowell Cardwell, historian of science and technology: born Gibraltar 4 August 1919; Reader in the History of Science and Technology, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist) 1963- 73, Professor 1974-84 (Emeritus); married 1953 Olive Pumphrey (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Macclesfield, Cheshire 8 May 1998.

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