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Q&A with Stanford Mellon fellow Aileen Robinson

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The above illustration of a diving bell was published in the “Illustrated London News,” June 11, 1842 under the title, "Science." Mellon fellow Aileen Robinson studies technologies like the diving bell to argue that early science has always been a kind of performance.
Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Northwestern University.

Aileen Robinson, a Theater Studies scholar, specializes in the history of optics and physics, magic performance and practice, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British theatrical performance and stagecraft. 

Her current book project explores the contribution of theatre and magic performance to the development of science as a discipline in the nineteenth century. Robinson reaches into the archival records of theatres and exhibition halls, early science museums, and public spaces to investigate how theatrical performances and magic shows used technological innovations to disseminate scientific knowledge. Her research suggests that the disciplines of science, magic and theater have been inextricably intertwined since the Victorian era.

Robinson received an interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama from Northwestern University in 2016.  She is a Stanford Mellon Fellow, and she teaches courses on science and performance at Stanford.

What drew you to this topic? 

I got really interested in British theatre because of the British pantomime, a unique, specifically British theatrical form that we don't have in the United States, that I found quite fascinating as a responsive form of theatre. I'm interested in theatre that's responsive to either local or national issues.

I found a couple of eighteenth and nineteenth century pantomime plays that were very topical, and would parody scientific discoveries, theories, and ideas such as electricity, steam, and railways. 

One of pantomimes (Aladdin, 1884-5) was parodying questions about electricity and whether it was safe or not. In one scene, chorus girls were dressed up as different lamps--a doctor's lamp, a railway lamp. They each had different meanings and humors associated with them. They also had an electric lamp and they would sing and make jokes about how electricity makes you look, because people concerned with the way electric light made one look in public. So I started to ask, ‘what does it mean that science has entered the theater in this way? How does this contribute to the history of scientific knowledge in public arenas?'

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Aileen Robinson teaches in the Department of Theater and Performing Arts. Photo credit: Steve Castillo.

How do you conduct your research? 

I’m interested in questions under the history of science's purview, questions about scientific practice and scientific methodologies, and questions about what constituted communicating scientific knowledge before “science” became what we know it to be today. Before the category of science was formed, what would it have meant to have early sciences in a space where lots of people were starting to learn about them.

I focus on how "scientific performances," emerge from three different disciplines: science, magic, and theatre. And through those three different disciplines, you get different modes of thinking about science as performance. 

I look at performances around the 1820s, performances with microscopes in exhibitions and demonstrations of microscopes that use similar techniques of display or spectacle, either in their advertising or in their performance itself, to animate and represent the technology. So you get science and technology as performance.

There’s also science in magic and science as magic. I trace the history of magic performance as it becomes a discipline and a performance genre in its own right. It shifts from being the domain of fairgrounds and street performers to being its own kind of gentlemanly magic, what we consider modern magic. 

I also look at how the solar microscope escapes these boundaries and enters these different places of representation or performance. I focus on a performance that occurred in the 1780’s that was a magic show.  I look at how the solar microscope entered this magician’s performance as a scientific instrument.  It was not altered to be a magical instrument, but performed as a scientific instrument within a magic show itself.

Your research traces the development and popularity of optical technologies like the diving bell.  Can you tell us more about the diving bell and its uses? 

The diving bell was an early submersible vehicle. There are sketches of it that reportedly date back several centuries to Alexander to the Great. By the late 17th century, the diving bell basically allowed people to go down deep underwater observing the bottom of the ocean. It was used primarily in salvage and reclamation. 

The diving bell was used in London to devise an underwater tunnel; it was also used to bring up corpses of people who had jumped off bridges in the Thames or had died in the river. There was a morbid curiosity associated with it. People would go to see it, and some were invited to ride along with the divers.

It was one of the most popular attractions of the Royal Polytechnic from the 1830s to its closure in the 1880s. So it was a one-season novelty, but it was a recurring novelty that people would go to again, and again, and again. So I look at that continuity and consistency. 

By examining early technologies like solar optics and diving bells, I show how scientific inventions were examined and explored in theatrical ways and how that has left an indelible mark on how we perceive science to this day.

What has surprised you about your research? 

The connection between past practice and present strategy in the communication of scientific knowledge.   The current techniques utilized by many science communicators on television and on stage replicate the performances of the nineteenth century.  In many ways, our contemporary practices are part of a living history of performance—one that I analyze in my work.