David Cahan

Charles Bessey Professor of History Profile Image
Charles Bessey Professor of History History dcahan2@unl.edu (402) 472-2414 629 Oldfather Hall
JOINED THE DEPARTMENT

1982

I'm an historian of modern science, and my main research interests include the historical relationships of science and society since 1750, including the relationships of technological innovation to science and society, and issues of science and culture. My current major research project is a biography of Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the major figures in nineteenth-century German (and European) science. My biography portrays both Helmholtz's life and work, and explores the broader context and larger-scale developments of nineteenth-century science and culture as these affected Helmholtz and as he in turn affected them. I've edited three previous books by or about him: Letters of Hermann von Helmholtz to His Parents: The Medical Education of a German Scientist, 1837-1846 (Stuttgart, 1993); Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science (Berkeley, 1994); and Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays (Chicago, 1995). My interests in issues of science and technology can also be seen in my first book, An Institute for an Empire: The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, 1871-1918 (Cambridge, 1989; paperback reprint, 2004), while my interests in American science can be seen in my co-authored (with M. Eugene Rudd), Science at the American Frontier: A Biography of DeWitt Bristol Brace (Lincoln, 2000). I have also edited a volume on the historiography of nineteenth-century science: From Natural Philosophy to the Sciences: Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century Science (Chicago, 2003).

My teaching interests cover several broad areas, including the history of science from the ancient Greeks to the present, the history of Western Civilization (1700 to the present), European intellectual history (Enlightenment to the present), and the relations of science, technology, and the economy.

TEACHING SUBJECTS
A. History of Science (and Technology)

History of Science (ancient to present)
History of Modern Science (1500 to present)
The Culture of Science and Technology
Science, Technology, and Culture
Science and Technology in the Making of the Modern World Economy

B. Modern European Intellectual History

Modern European Intellectual History (1500 to present)
The Enlightenment
Nineteenth-Century European Intellectual History
Twentieth-Century European Intellectual History

SELECTED HONORS AND AWARDS
  • Creative Activities Enhancement Program For Faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences, UNL (2015)
  • "(with Will Thomas)" UNL Research Council (Dec. 2012)
  • Albin T. and Pauline Anderson Award (UNL, Department of History 2011)
  • Faculty Development Award, University of Nebraska (2011)
  • National Science Foundation (2005-7)
  • Senior Fellow, Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2004-5)
BOOKS
  • From Natural Philosophy to the Sciences: Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century Science. Edited, introduced, and with an essay by myself. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Science at the American Frontier: A Biography of DeWitt Bristol Brace. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. (Co-authored with M. Eugene Rudd)
  • Hermann von Helmholtz. Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Edited, introduced, and in part translated by myself.
  • Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press, 1994. Edited, introduced, and with an essay by myself.
  • Letters of Hermann von Helmholtz to His Parents: The Medical Education of a German Scientist, 1837-1846. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1993. Edited, introduced, and annotated by myself.
  • Meister der Messung: Die Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt und der Aufstieg der physikalischen Institute in Deutschland, 1871-1918. German edition of the item below. Weinheim, New York, Basel, and Cambridge: VCH Verlagsgesellschaft, 1992. Reprinted 2011.
  • An Institute for an Empire: The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, 1871-1918. Cambridge, New Rochelle, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989; paperback reprint edition, 2004.

SELECTED ARTICLES
  • “The Awarding of the Copley Medal and the ‘Discovery’ of the Law of Conservation of Energy: Joule, Mayer, and Helmholtz Revisited.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 66. 2012. Pp. 125-39.
  • “Helmholtz and the British Scientific Elite: From Force Conservation to Energy Conservation.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 66. 2012. Pp. 55-68.
  • “Helmholtz in Gilded-Age America: The International Electrical Congress of 1893 and the Relations of Science and Technology.” Annals of Science. Vol. 67:1. 2010. Pp. 1-38.
  • “The ‘Imperial Chancellor of the Sciences’: Helmholtz between Science and Politics.” Social Research. Vol. 73:4. Winter 2006. Pp. 1093-1128.
  • “Helmholtz and the Ideals of Science and Culture in Gilded Age America.” Revista da Sociedade Brasileira de História da Ciência. Vol. 4:1. 2006. Pp. 6-16.
  • “Hermann von Helmholtz und die Ausgestaltung der amerikanischen Physik im Gilded Age.” In Universität der Gelehrten–Universität der Experten: Adaptionen deutscher Wissenschaft in den USA des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Eds., Philipp Löser and Christoph Strupp. Transatlantische Historische Studien Band 24. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005. Pp. 71-87.
  • “Helmholtz and the Shaping of the American Physics Elite in the Gilded Age,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences. Vol. 35:1. 2004. Pp. 1-34.
SELECTED CONFERENCE PAPERS AND INVITED LECTURES
  • Lecture Presentation: “The Reception of Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone: Celebrity vs. Enlightenment,” at the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science, 22 March 2013, for a symposium devoted to the “150th Anniversary of Hermann von Helmholtz’s Landmark Work On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music.”
  • Co-organized a session on “The Heidelberger Kreis of Scientists at Mid-Century: Teaching, Research, and International Fame,” and delivered a paper entitled “Helmholtz and Heidelberg’s Fame,” at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society, Cleveland, Ohio, November 2011.
  • Organized and introduced a session on “Environment and Evolution on the Great Plains, 1809-2009,” for the Celebrating Darwin’s Legacy Symposium, 26-28 March 2009.
  • Presented a paper on “Johannes Müller as Mentor and Model for Helmholtz,” at a conference on “Johannes Müller’s Vision,” Berlin, Germany, 10-11 October 2008.
  • “Helmholtz as ‘Imperial Chancellor of the Sciences’: Between Science and Politics.” Invited lecture at Washington University in St. Louis, 28 March 2007.
  • “Helmholtz and the Ideals of Science and Culture in Gilded Age America.” Invited keynote address to the 10th National Seminar on the History of Science and Technology, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 17-19 October 2005.
EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND

Ph.D., History of Science, The Johns Hopkins University, 1980
M.A., History of Science, The Johns Hopkins University, 1977
A.B., Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley 1969

Expertise

History of Science, European Intellectual History, Modern Germany, Science, Technology and Society