Spectrum of Belief

From Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology

Spectrum of Belief

Joseph von Fraunhofer and the Craft of Precision Optics

By Myles W. Jackson





In the nineteenth century, scientific practice underwent a dramatic transformation from personal endeavor to business enterprise. In Spectrum of Belief, Myles Jackson explores this transformation through a sociocultural history of the rise of precision optics in Germany. He uses the career of the optician Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826) to probe the relationship between science and society, and between artisans and experimental natural philosophers, during this important transition.

Fraunhofer came from a long line of glassmakers. Orphaned at age eleven, the young apprentice moved in with his master, the court decorative glass cutter. At age nineteen, bored with his work and angered by his master's refusal to allow him to study optical theory, Fraunhofer took a position at the Optical Institute assisting in the manufacture of achromatic lenses. Within ten years he was producing the world's finest achromatic lenses and prisms.

Housed in an old Benedictine monastery, Fraunhofer's laboratory mirrored the labor of the monks. Because of his secrecy (after his death, even those who had worked most closely with him could not achieve his success), British experimental natural philosophers were unable to reproduce his work. This secrecy, while guaranteeing his institute's monopoly, thwarted Fraunhofer's attempts to gain credibility within the scientific community, which looked down on artisanal work and its clandestine practices as an affront. The response to the ensuing rise of German optical technology sheds light on crucial social, economic, and political issues of the period, such as mechanization, patent law reform, the role of skills in both physics and society, the rise of Mechanics' Institutes, and scientific patronage. After his death, Fraunhofer's example was used in the newly united Germany to argue for the merging of scientific research and technological innovation with industrial and state support.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262100847 296 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262527231 296 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • Fraunhofer was the marvel of his age—his fine glass lenses and prisms transformed the work of nineteenth century sciences and made the Kingdom of Bavaria an economic powerhouse. Glass-making was a key technology of the modern scientific world. In this intelligent and careful book, Myles Jackson explains the basis of Fraunhofer's triumphs and their place in European scientific, economic, and social milieux. Using graphic illustration and compelling analysis, he unlocks the worlds of cloistered artisans, learned savants, and cunning entrepreneurs. He shows how the British failed to reproduce Fraunhofer's recipes with a mix of mathematics, experiment, and bribery, and how the Germans succeeded in turning the Bavarian artisan into an imperial hero sprung directly from traditional soil. In so doing, this book offers an indispensable guide to the roots of the modern technological and economic order, and to the puzzles of customary skill and rational scientific management which stay as current today as they were two centuries ago.

    Simon Schaffer

    University of Cambridge

  • Jackson's analysis of the scholar-inventor-entrepreneur Joseph von Fraunhofer and the rise of nineteenth-century precision optics offers a compelling account of craft knowledge and its viiability, the response of scientists to artisans' labors, and the way in which entrepreneurs managed such knowledge.

    Bernward Joerges

    Technical University Berlin and Social Science Research Center Berlin

  • Glass, Myles Jackson shows us, is the least transparent of all substances. By following the competition, patents, artisanship, secrecy, bribery, and espionage that surrounded Joseph von Franhofer's production of optical glass, Jackson reveals an unfamiliar world of science. This is textured history from below, history in the guilds done by artisans and laborers. But Spectrum of Belief is more that that, as Jackson ably moves outwards from the artisanal soil to the view from Berlin, from Britain, and even from the 'canonization' of Fraunhofer as an ideal of pan-Germanic culture in late 19th century Germany. Anyone wanting to understand early 19th century science from the ground up should read this book.

    Peter Galison

    Mallinckrodt Professor of the History of Science and of Physics, Harvard University