The Ship as Laboratory: Making Space for Field Science at Sea

J Hist Biol. Fall 2014;47(3):333-62. doi: 10.1007/s10739-013-9367-7.


Expanding upon the model of vessels of exploration as scientific instruments first proposed by Richard Sorrenson, this essay examines the changing nature of the ship as scientific space on expedition vessels during the late nineteenth century. Particular attention is paid to the expedition of H.M.S. Challenger (1872-1876) as a turning point in the design of shipboard spaces that established a place for scientists at sea and gave scientific legitimacy to the new science of oceanography. There was a progressive development in research vessel design from "ship as instrument" to "ship as laboratory" and changing spatial practices aboard these vessels were paralleled by changes in shipboard culture. I suggest that the "ship as laboratory" has now in turn been supplanted by a new model, the "ship as invisible technician", as oceanographic research vessels deploy remote-sensing equipment and gather data that are no longer analyzed on board.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Expeditions / history*
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Laboratories / history*
  • Oceanography / history*
  • Oceanography / instrumentation*
  • Research Design
  • Ships*