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In focus

Looking backwards into the future

by Keith Moore

Opening the doors of locked strongrooms, Keith Moore, Head of Library and Information Services, explores the treasures of the Royal Society, the organisation’s manuscripts of experiment, observation, theory, and data.

What makes a treasure? We are familiar with the kind held in museums: from the British Museum’s classical antiquities to the glittering burial of Sutton Hoo; or artistic masterpieces hung in galleries, such as the Louvre, or MOMA. We may be less familiar with the intellectual treasures held in archives – often behind strongroom doors – some of which are the original versions of the scientific thinking responsible for shaping our modern world. Science in the Making is aimed at changing that, by opening up the main treasure-house of the Royal Society, the organisation’s manuscripts of experiment, observation, theory, and data.

The resulting digital resource is huge, and its riches are many. Anyone who looks for them will find classic scientific papers, but also writings which are specific to their interests. As a librarian, I naturally gravitate to text and reading, so it should come as no surprise that I love William Musgrave’s 1699 account of what we now know as the Alfred Jewel, a ninth century book pointer, and one of the treasures of the Ashmolean Museum. In the 1690s, it was a newly ploughed-up artefact from a field in Somerset. Reading Musgrave’s description as he (one imagines) rolls the gold and rock crystal jewel in his hands, ‘having now before me, the piece of Antiquity mentioned’, is profoundly moving. Its inscription, ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’ is a direct link to ninth century literacy and libraries.

Letter, from William Musgrave to Reverend [George] Hickes, dated at Exeter

Creator: William Musgrave Reference number: EL/M1/112

That Musgrave should send his account of this antiquity to the Royal Society for publication may surprise those who think of the organisation only in its modern guise, as a national academy of science. But the interests of the Fellows have changed considerably since the Society’s founding. 

You will, of course, find classic moments of discovery captured in Science in the Making. Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment is here, with its brief but meticulous instructions; not only on seeing the effects of lightning as an electrical phenomenon, but also the best way to make your kite. 

Letter, 'Of an electrical kite' from Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson

Creator: Benjamin Franklin Reference number: L&P/2/343

William Herschel’s series of papers on detection of infra-red radiation is also present, together with William Henry Fox Talbot’s practical application of light, in his world-changing first paper on photography, from 1839. Observations of the natural and physical worlds are well-represented: from Edmond Stone’s description of the medicinal properties of willow bark, to the galactic visions of the Earl of Rosse’s giant telescope, the Leviathan.

But for every experimentum crucis by Sir Isaac Newton, related in his Experiments on light and colour correspondence, there are other, surprising stories to be found.

One of my favourites from Newton’s time as President of the Royal Society is a letter by Cotton Mather, the Puritan clergyman and colonial natural philosopher, to Richard Waller. Although Mather could and did contribute interesting intelligence from colonial America, including on inoculations against smallpox, his tale of murder and apparitions from 1712 occupies a quite different tradition, but one of great interest to humanities scholars. Even here, in this most traditional of ghost stories, there is a nod to then-current science. According to Mather’s account, a death in London results in a spirit appearing in Boston: ‘the spectre, it seems, took the same time that the Sun takes, to pass over the degrees of Longitude, into America’.

Regrettably, there are no illustrations of Mather’s ghosts in the collections. However, the Royal Society’s archives are rich, not only in text, but in supporting scientific drawings and watercolours. 

Perhaps the most famous early example of the power of scientific illustration was the publication of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), the manuscript of which remains lost. A copy of one of the hugely influential drawings is contained within Science in the Making, from Hooke’s Royal Society manuscript remain. This picture, of frozen urine, may not be quite so appealing as Hooke’s flea, but as an example of the scientist’s artistic technique, it is, well, golden.

 More conventionally, the nineteenth century watercolour work of Francis Bauer is well represented, together with unexpected front-line British artists: notably Sir Thomas Lawrence, contributing drawings for a paper on the psychology of portraiture, by William Hyde Wollaston. By the 1840s, examples of the newest techniques of photography, by Sir John Herschel and others, begin to appear.

Well over a decade ago, the first version of what would become Science in the Making, was written up as a proposal by a joint team of the Royal Society’s Publishing arm, and the organisation’s Librarians.

The former looked towards a digitisation of the printed contents of the Society’s journals back-catalogue, notably the Philosophical Transactions,

while the latter proposed to capture not only the end-product of the publishing process, but the originals of papers, and everything in between: particularly the refereeing comments which transformed the better manuscripts into print and culled the remainder. 

In H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), the unnamed Time Traveller, and Fellow of the Royal Society, is in the far future – the year is AD eight hundred and two thousand seven hundred and one. He enters the ‘Palace of Green Porcelain’, a museum repository, and ‘the ruins of some latter-day South Kensington!’ Among the untended remnants of his civilisation, the Traveller encounters:

the decaying vestiges of books…Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralised upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought chiefly of the Philosophical Transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics’.

Science in the Making is not only a considerable achievement in opening the vaults to reveal the undecayed scientific output of the Royal Society – but also an aid to the preservation and dissemination of these riches. It is a journey in time – not forward, but backward: into different ages of science, regions of the world, ways of thinking, and much more. We hope you enjoy the ride.

About the Author:

Keith Moore has been the Royal Society’s Librarian since 2005. Previously, he has worked in the libraries and archives of the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and the Armitt collection in Ambleside. For most of his career he has specialised in history of science collections: apart from the Royal Society, he has spent time at the Wellcome Institute and at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.