Professor Richard Noakes
Associate Professor of the History of Science and Technology
I am a historian of science and technology with special interests in 19th and 20th century aspects of the physical sciences, telecommunications, psychic phenomena and the occult, the engagement of science and religion, and the relationship between science and literary texts. I have published this research in many articles, chapters in edited collections and most recently, in my book, Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain (Cambridge, 2019). My interests in telecommunications have led to collaborations with the Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno and are currently part of two doctoral research projects with BT Archives. My current research also includes a new project on the relationships between engineering creativity and science fiction in early twentieth century Britain.
My research embraces the historical relationships between, on the one hand, Western sciences, and on the other, wider aspects of human culture, including religion, the occult and esotericism, technology, industry, and the mass media. I have long been fascinated by the interest of nineteenth and early twentieth century scientists and engineers in spiritualist mediumship, telepathy, apparitions and other phenomena variously grouped together as 'occult', 'psychical', 'paranormal'. This fascination continued well into the twentieth century with the intriguing interest of post-Second World War physicists in the 'spooky' implications of quantum mechanics. I have published this research in many journal articles, chapters in edited collections and in my recent monograph, Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain (Cambridge, 2019).
A closely related research interest is electrical communication, and particularly overland, submarine and wireless forms of telegraphy. I'm particularly interested in the wider cultural, political and social meanings of electrical communications and these have led to several AHRC-funded projects, including 'Connecting Cornwall: Telecommunications, Locality and Work in West Britain 1870-1918' (with the Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno, 2008-10) and two of my current Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships (with BT Archives).
I am also interested in the popularisation of the sciences and the engagement of literary texts with scientific, technological and medical subjects. These interests build on my contribution to the 'Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical' project at the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield (1998-2001) and these led to several co-edited collections of scholarly essays and an online database (https://www.sciper.org/).
My most recent project draws on questions prompted by the 'physics and psychics' and electrical communication researches. This examines the relationships between, on the one hand, technological and scientific creativity, and on the other, the literary imagination. This research will represent my most interdisciplinary project to date in that it will involve contributions from practitioners of HASS and STEM subjects.
I am currently supervising two doctoral research projects in collaboration with BT Archives (part of the Science Museum and Archives Consortium). Both are funded via the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.
I have collaborated with Porthcurno Telegraph Museum on 'Connecting Cornwall: Telecommunications, Work and Locality in West Cornwall, 1870-1918', and received an AHRC research grant for the project in 2008: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/nerve-centre/digital-archive
I was an advisor for The John Tyndall Correspondence Project, an international research and transcription project involving York University, Canada, Montana State University, University of Auckland and several UK unversities: http://www.yorku.ca/tyndall/
I was on the advisory board and a workshop convenor for the AHRC-funded 'Oliver Lodge Research Network', a collaborative venture with the University of Leeds and other institutions.
I have supervised undergraduate and postgraduate students on a range of research topics connected with the history of science, technology, occultism and Western Esotericism. I am especially keen to supervise students in the following broad areas:
- History of science and technology since 1700
- History of the occult and Western Esotericism since 1800
- The role of the imagination and creativity in science and technology
- Popular science since 1800
- The engagement of sciences and religions
- Science fiction since 1800
My current PhD students are:
Christopher Freeman, ‘Beaming the British Empire: The Imperial Wireless Chain, c. 1900-1940’, (lead supervisor, with Richard Toye), 2017-
Megan Furr, ‘British Telegraphic Work and Spaces, 1846-1950’ (lead supervisor, with Sam Kinsley), 2020-
Lucy Hilliar, ‘A Rising in the West: The Development of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Western Esoteric Tradition’, (lead supervisor, with Marion Gibson), 2016-
I have also supervised the following students who have successfully defended their doctoral dissertations:
Gustavo Fernandez, ‘Esoteric Quantization: The Esoteric Imagination in David Bohm’s Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’ (second supervisor, with Andrew Pickering), 2008-16
Trevor Hamilton, ‘A Critical Examination of the Methodology of the First and Second Generation Elite Leaders of the Society for Psychical Research’, PhD by publication, (lead supervisor, with Jason Hall), 2018-20
Jeffrey Lavoie, ‘Saving Time: Cosmology, Soteriology and the Implications of Temporality in Modern Theosophy’ (lead supervisor, with Jonathan Hill), 2010-16
Lori Lee Oates, ‘The Transmission of Occultism between France and Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century’ (lead supervisor, with Regenia Gagnier and Joseph Crawford), 2012-16
Ryan Patterson, ‘“So Many Applications of Science”: Novel Military Technology, British Imperial Culture, and the Abyssinian and Ashanti Expeditions, 1868-74’ (second supervisor, with Jeremy Black), 2011-16
Tim Rudboeg, ‘H. P. Blavatsky's Theosophy in Context: The Construction of Meaning in Modern Western Esotericism’ (second supervisor, with Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke), 2008-12
Ryan Sweet, ‘A Cultural and Literary History of Prosthesis in Victorian Britain’ (second supervisor, with Jason Hall), 2012-16
Editorial board member, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London
Member, British Society for the History of Science
Member, History of Science Society
Associate Member, Society for Psychical Research
Member of the Peer Review College of the ESRC
Historical consultant for the Battle for Britain's Soul, Series 2, historical documentary, first broadcast by BBC 2 television, 3-24 October 2005
Principal historical and script consultant for, and contributor to, Science and the Séance, historical documentary, first broadcast by BBC 2 television, 31 August 2005
Contributor to The Long Search, a historical documentary, first broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 14 December 2003
Principal historical and script consultant for, and contributor to, Was Anybody There?, historical documentary, first broadcast by BBC 2 television as TV 17, A103, An Introduction to the Humanities, Open University, 29 January 1998
External impact and engagement
I currently have two PhD students working on the history of telecommunications and their research is helping BT Archives strengthen its catalogue.
I have worked extensively with the Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno, including a temporary exhibition in 2010, 'Nerve Centre of the Empire'.
Contribution to discipline
2020-present: Council Member, Devon and Cornwall Record Society (see http://www.devonandcornwallrecordsociety.co.uk/)
2013-2015: Member, Senior Advisory Board, Making Waves: Oliver Lodge and the Cultures of Science, 1874-1940 (see http://www.oliverlodge.org/)
2012-16: Treasurer and Council Member, British Society for the History of Science (see http://www.bshs.org.uk/)
2010-present: Member of the Peer Review College of the Economic and Social Research Council
2008-present: Advisor, The John Tyndall Correspondence Project (see http://www.yorku.ca/tyndall/)
2007-2012, Member, Editorial Board of Notes and Records of the Royal Society (see http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/)
I have contributed to many British radio and television documentaries on topics broadly relating to my research interests in the history of 19th and 20th century science, telecommunications and the occult. These include Invented in Cornwall (BBC1 TV, 2017), The Unseen - A History of the Invisible (BBC Radio 4, 2016), The Genius of Invention (BBC2 TV, 2013), Science and the Seance (BBC2 TV, 2005) and Was Anybody There? (BBC2 TV, 1998).
I am a great believer in teaching as performance and communication. When I started lecturing in 2002 I, like most young lecturers, thought that it was enough to read out from a script and point to a few slides. Convinced that students were as bored of this format as I was, I took to Powerpoint. I do find that this is a good way of creating a more concise and lively lecture and very often my lectures comprise commentaries on a series of images. I believe the lecture experience should complement and reinforce the private and seminar experiences of close and critical reading as much as possible.
Most of my teaching is strongly informed by research and my research is significantly enriched as a result. My second year module, 'The Occult in Victorian Britain' (HIC2316) has been critically important in helping me think through ideas central to such publications as my first monograph Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain (Cambridge, 2019). My third year module 'Britain and the Telecommunications Revolution' (HIC3300) is constantly opening up new ideas about future research projects including those relating to telegraphic work, gender and space, and the relationships between engineering creativity and the literary imagination. My second year module, 'The Cultures of the Sciences from the Renaissance to the French Revolution' (HIC23317) has long been helping me put my current researches (focused on nineteenth and twentieth centuries) into longer historical perspective. One of the great joys of research-led teaching is the insights that are often generated when closely reading research sources. My students and I often see things in texts and images that I've not spotted before and which prompt many interpretative revisions
In 2019 I was shortlisted for the University of Exeter Students' Guild/FXU Teaching Awards in the category 'Best Teacher/Academic'. I have also been nominated by these bodies for the awards for 'Best Lecturer', 'Best Feedback Provider' and 'Innovative Teaching'.
I grew up in Forest Hill, South East London. In 1989, after attending Eltham Green and Crown Woods comprehensive schools, I studied the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University (Corpus Christi College). I graduated with a BA in History and Philosophy of Science 1992 and a PhD in 1998. My doctoral dissertation examined the relationship between science, technology and spiritualism in Victorian Britain. Between 1999 and 2002 I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the 'Science in the Nineteenth Century Periodical Project' at the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, and between 2002 and 2007 2002 I was British Academy-Royal Society Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the History of Science at Cambridge University. I was appointed Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter in 2007. I was promoted Senior Lecturer in 2012 and Associate Professor in 2020.