Prometheus’s Fire

Prometheus’s Fire: ed Norman McMillan (Tyndall Publications 2000, 600 pages, price 42 euro hb, 24 euro pb) ISBN 0952597403. A multi-author history of the development of technical, technological and scientific education in Ireland.

In his first encounter with Trinity College in 1971 Dr McMillan was shown around the Physics Department, and in passing his attention was drawn to a heap of old notebooks, which he was told belonged to Fitzgerald, but it seemed no-one wanted them. Later he was shown Lloyd’s apparatus. There was however no sense at the time that these might have been historically important. Gradually however, with the aid of Provost McConnell, Gordon Herries Davies, David Spearman and others a sense of the need to conserve historical artefacts and documents relating to science became more widely known. McMillan spent much of his spare time researching the rich scientific history of the Protestant colonial community to which Trinity College was, and remains, the heir. After his move to Carlow, he was told, somewhat conspiratorially, about Tyndall, who locally had been forgotten, or perhaps ‘disremembered’, thanks to his famous 1874 Belfast Address, in which he took a critical view of the religious claims on the domain of cosmology. Subsequent research into Tyndall’s background revealed the wealth of scientific heritage that exists in Ireland, the theme which Mcmillan develops in the present work.

Additional background to this publication exists in the form of various conference proceedings, which arose as a result of an attempt over a long period, in marginal time, by a handful of people to put the history of science in Ireland on to the Irish cultural agenda.. The present publication is a distillation of contributiuons to this process made over a period.

J.G. Ryan traces the history of apprenticeship back five millennia, with the aid of the Talmud, Babylonian and Egyptian sources, Juan José Pérez-Camacho, in ‘Late Renaissance Humanism and the Dublin Scientific Tradition (1592-1641)’, analyses the elite of the colonial culture concentrated in Trinity College: Ussher, Lydyat and Carpenter. Lydyat’s De Natura Coeli (1605) attacked the Aristotelian system, and supported Tycho Brahe. There follow three papers covering the links with Protestantism, the scientific societies, and the nineteenth-century reform movement; Church-State relations; and the Baconian theory of the state. McMillan himself makes the case that Trinity has consistently played a pioneering role in the reform of university education in the United Kingdom as a whole. For example, in 1815 Bartholemew Lloyd introduced French mathematical notation, overthrowing what by then had become the ‘dead hand of Newton’, and risked being labelled as ‘subversive’ in the counter-revolutionary political climate of the time. Richard Jarrell (York, Toronto) considers technical education in the core industrial nations of Europe and in the United States.
Sean McCartain traces the rise of technical education in the context of the development of the fruits of the Recess Committee.


Prometheus's fire, edited by N.D. McMillan, ISBN 0952597403 (paperback)

Prometheus’s fire, edited by N.D. McMillan, ISBN 0952597403 (paperback)

Other chapters cover the development of the Vocational Education Committee curricula and the emergence of the National Council for Education Awards, modern apprenticeship procedures, case studies of historic Mechanics Institute episodes, the development of the examination system under the influence of James Booth, agricultural education, early teacher trade unionism, the role of local government and central government. There is a chapter by Clive Williams on the Pestalozzi method in technical education (learning by doing); this, in the context of general and technical education, became established in England after 1822 thanks to the prior work of John Synge of Glanmore, the grandfather of J.M. Synge, by a convoluted route which is traced. Patricia Phillips traces the history of the Queen’s Institute, Dublin (1861-1881), the first technical college for women in Europe.

See abstracts of chapters

‘In this volume Norman McMillan has brought together a significant collection of papers on various aspects of the history of technical, technological and scientific education in Ireland … This book deserves the attention of the increasing number of historians who are concerned with the cultural impact on their period of the state of the practical arts. ‘ – Roy Johnston in his review in History Ireland See more reviews