Jessica R. Ratcliff

Assistant Professor


Jessica Ratcliff works on the history of science and technology. She specializes in social and material approaches to the history of knowledge, with a focus on Britain and its former empire from the 17th through the 19th centuries. She has published or is working on research about Britain, colonial India (especially southern India), and Southeast Asia (especially Java and Singapore), on topics ranging from inventions and patents to positional astronomy to natural history.  Professor Ratcliff is especially interested in studying how states and corporations have shaped the history of knowledge, and in the political economy of information.   

Her first book, The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain explores large-scale astronomical expeditions in the nineteenth century. It reconstructs Britain's attempt to measure the distance to the sun in 1874, and uses this case to show how the Admiralty and its colonial resources were central to the culture and practice of Victorian astronomy.

Her current book project, Natural Monopoly: Science and Colonial Capitalism at the East India Company, is about the Honorable East India Company and its role in the growth of science in nineteenth-century Britain. The book traces out in detail the changing intellectual (or cultural-intellectual) property relations at the Company between 1757-1858. Focusing on the history of the Company’s library, museum and colleges in Britain, the project aims to provide an important historical context for broader questions about the relationship between “public” (i.e. state) science and “private” (i.e. corporate) science.

Prior to joining Cornell, Professor Ratcliff was an Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and, before that, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. Her research has been supported by the University of Sydney, the Huntington Library, the Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, the National Maritime Museum London, the Singapore Ministry of Education, and the Institute for Advanced Study.



“Trading Knowledge: Colonial Science and Frontier Capitalism in Early British Singapore” (essay draft)

Natural Monopoly: Science and Colonial Capitalism at the East India Company, London 1757-1858 (book project)


The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008)


  • “Hand in Hand with the Survey: Surveying and the Accumulation of Knowledge Capital at India House during the Napoleonic Wars.” Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 73 (2) (May 2019)

  • "The East India Company, the Company's Museum, and the Political Economy of Natural History in the Early Nineteenth Century" Isis (September 2016)

  • "Travancore's Magnetic Crusade: geomagnetism and the geography of scientific production in a princely state" British Journal for the History of Science (June 2016) 

  • "The Great Data Divergence: Global History of Science within Global Economic History" in Global Scientific Practice during the Age of Revolutions (Patrick Manning and Dan Rood, eds., University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)

  • "'Art to Cheat the Common-Weale': Inventors, Projectors and Patentees in English Satire, c. 1630-80" Technology and Culture 53(2) (2012)

  • "Models, Metaphors, and the Transit of Venus in Victorian Britain" Special issue: "The astronomical event of the century? Social history of the transits of Venus, 1874-1882" Cahiers François Viète 11—12 (2007)

  • "Samuel Morland and his Calculating Machines c. 1666: The Early Career of a Courtier-Inventor in Restoration London" British Journal for the History of Science 40(2) (2007)


  • Anna Winterbottom. Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World (Palgrave Macmillian, 2015) in Isis (2017)
  • Barbara J. Becker, Unraveling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) in Isis 105(2) (2014)
  • Caspar Anderson, British Engineers and Africa, 1875-1914 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011) in Victorian Studies 56(2) (2013)
  • Roger Hutchins, British University Observatories 1779-1939 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)  in Isis 103(1) (2012)
  • Craig Ashley Hanson, The English Virtuoso: Art, Medicine and Antiquarianism in the Age of Empiricism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)  in Metascience 20(3) (2011)