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Transcribe Bentham: A Collaborative Initiative

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Bentham is perhaps most famous for the panopticon building, or at least Michel Foucault's interpretation of it. It has remained a highly controversial idea.

The basic idea behind the panopticon - a circular building allowing for central inspection of workers - originated with Jeremy's brother, Samuel, a naval engineer. Jeremy refined the plan as a prison, in a which a central inspection tower would allow the prison warder and his officers to observe prisoners housed in cells, arranged around the tower. Bentham believed the panoptic principle was also applicable to workhouses, lunatic asylums, schools, apprentice schools, and more.

The panopticon was to prove one of the greatest disappointments of Bentham's life. Though he bought land on which the prison might be built, and entered into a contract with the British government to do so, no panopticon prison was ever constructed. Finally, in 1803, the government reneged on the contract, and decided to instead continue sending convicts to New South Wales.

Bentham was crushed by his experience with the panopticon: 'They have murdered my best days', he wrote, and he believed it had been thwarted by a conspiracy among politicians who had their own 'sinister interests'. Bentham was eventually awarded £23,000 by the government for the expenses he had incurred in trying to see the panopticon to fruition.

The best account of Bentham and his panopticon is Janet Semple's Bentham's Prison (Oxford, 1993). Professor Philip Steadman of UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment has written two articles on the panopticon from an architectural point of view, both of which can be downloaded from the Journal of Bentham Studies].




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