An interview with Margaret Jacob on the archives and scientific history

February 6, 2017

An interview between Naomi Zurevinski and Margaret Jacob, author of “Commerce, Industry and Newtonian Science: Weber Revisited and Revised,” on the work that she did for her article, as well as the importance for historians to work in the archives. To read more about Jacob’s career journey and experiences, click here. Jacob’s article appeared in the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes in 2000, and is available here to read for free for a limited time.

When asked to give some advice to young scholars, Jacob noted the importance of working with original documents and making new discoveries. With the article she did for the Canadian Journal of History in 2000, entitled, “Commerce, Industry and Newtonian Science: Weber Revisited and Revised,” Jacob said it “practically wrote itself” as she was looking through the diaries of early industrialists and philosophers, like Joseph Priestley.

“[That article] grew out of a long-standing interest I’ve had in the question of religion and capitalism,” she said. “When I went and read [Joseph] Priestley, I was stunned by how much attention he was paying to the issue of material success and how it was possible to negotiate it and still be godly. I thought, ‘…That’s all he’s talking about!’”

As a professor of history at the University of California in Los Angeles, Jacob is also the author of a number of publications and notable works. Her article for the Canadian Journal of History looks at the relationship between religion and science during the industrialist boom in modern Britain and argues that Unitarianism, a more rational religious ideology, allowed industrialists of the period to accumulate wealth and power, without religious backlash. Industrialists who found wealth by scientific discoveries and inventions justified their prosperity by believing they were working within the laws of nature.

Going into the archives was important for Jacob’s research process, and she offered a story about the significance of doing archival research.

In 2000, she was working in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, and casually flipped through a card catalogue that was labelled “Unitarians.” She found a three by five index card that read, “J. Ryder 46 volumes,” and was intrigued. So she called it up, and it turned out to be the spiritual diary of an 18th century Leeds clothier named Joseph Ryder, who had recorded all of his anxieties about the salvation of his soul.

“I started reading this and I thought… ‘This is incredible stuff!’ I had a student at that very moment who was looking for a dissertation topic, and I told him to get on an airplane and come to Manchester. He took over Ryder and the book came out with Yale University Press about two years ago, and it’s called The Watchful Clothier [by Matthew Kadane]. It’s a terrific book, and it grows out of this diary,” she said. “You know, it was just there, and nobody knew. These are the things that can happen to you when you spend time in an archive.”

Working in the archives and with original documents is something that is crucial to the discipline of history. Jacob said that making unique discoveries is necessary to the study of history – something that historians should keep in mind when connecting the past with the present.

Jacob’s work, “Commerce, Industry and Newtonian Science: Weber Revisited and Revised” is free to read for a limited time. Click here to read the article on CJH Online –

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