Chapter 4 expands the history of improving experiment to examine its largest, most theatrical, and high-stakes setting: the public machine trials of the 1850s. These trials reversed the flow of information across the Atlantic, particularly after the dramatic reaper trials at the Great Exposition of 1851. The chapter shows how machine trials became a form of experimental publication—one circulated by agricultural societies and journals, but also by the advertising pamphlets and testimonials gathered by the rapidly proliferating manufacturers of machinery. Trials became increasingly precise but the natural variability of harvesting and the complexity of the task meant that judging machine performance was not simple. Increasingly trials also became tests of mechanical “principles”—ideas or design features that manufacturers licensed to each other and that became the subject of increasingly high profile patent lawsuits. Like much of improving knowledge, definitions of principles blurred the distinction between human and divine design. Overall the chapter sketches a larger movement of improvement into commercial networks of knowledge-making. Commercial sites like warehouses, nurseries, and factories were understood to be centers of knowledge making—giving us an expanded sense of the location of scientific expertise in the antebellum period.
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