Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Sue Zemka

Second Advisor

Helmut Müller-Sievers

Third Advisor

Paul Youngquist

Fourth Advisor

Kelly Hurley

Fifth Advisor

Michael Gooseff


Streams’ and rivers’ use to drive mills dates at least to Roman occupation, but industrialization’s concentration along the watercourses that powered its factory-style “mills” had begun to deplete English watercourses by the 1790’s, exposing the need for a reliable hydrological science. Accordingly, cultural leaders turned to the existing, though unreliable, fields of “hydrodynamics” and “hydraulics,” and in 1822, the later-knighted John Robison codified a set of functions that a well-managed watercourse performed for society, pushing hydrological thinking to the cultural forefront. His idealized, natural “river” voided surplus, redundant material in predictable flows that could be easily, profitably, and—in theory—sustainably used. These functions appealed to and helped shape the sanitary movement’s goals, politicians’ approaches to urbanizing populations, and various industries, including serial literary production. Sanitarians seized on Robison’s concept of redundancy-voiding drainage in densely-inhabited cities, building drainage infrastructure and eliminating cesspools in favor of dismissing human waste through drainage flows connected to adjacent watercourses. Their subsequently accelerated pollution then led to catastrophes like 1858’s “Great Stink” in London. Though the sanitarian adoption of Robison’s concepts proved disastrous for England’s watercourses, it attracted social commenters and political authorities, who applied its voiding of “surplus” and “redundant” material to what they saw as problematic populations—treating them, in what I call social hydrology, as liquid material to be channeled and drained to avoid perceived, culturally-threatening collection, stagnation, or flooding. Simultaneously, the initial environmental disasters of sanitarian and industrial drainage initiated a second phase of hydrological thinking in nineteenth-century England that I call flow dynamics, which re-conceived and re-engineered naturally given flows for extended economic and social usefulness over distance and time. Massive expenditures of other natural resources and money would expand the capacities of previously-natural watercourses that could no longer meet society’s demands. In turn, skeptical Victorian novelists like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy reacted to flow dynamics’ wide-ranging implementation, exposing its consequences for the environment and people managed according to its tenets and problematizing its purported efficacy and disregard for individuals’ unique, dynamic potential.