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Classified Papers

Dates: 1592-1741

The 'Classified Papers' of the Royal Society are papers from British and international natural philosophers and scholars categorised according to subject areas. 

by Virginia Mills
Early collection archivist

The papers in this collection are a combination of scholarly works, lists of enquiries, accounts of experiments, publications summaries, financial assessments and memoranda. They cover all disciplines of the emerging sciences, including mathematics and engineering, plus arts, trades and politics which were of interest to the early Fellows of the Royal Society. They were sent or donated to the Royal Society, presented at meetings of the Fellowship, created by officers of the Society, or commissioned by the organisation as an information gathering exercise on a particular place or subject.

The series was arranged into volumes using a subject classification devised by John Lowthorp for his abridgment of the Philosophical Transactions, a process completed by the historian Thomas Birch in 1741. Examining the number of papers dedicated to their selected topics still clearly illustrate the priorities of the early Fellowship. Whole volumes are dedicated to areas such as inoculation (volumes 23i and 23ii) or ship building and maritime navigation (volume 7i and 7ii); whereas some broader areas, including mathematics, botany, anatomy and astronomy, only occupy a single volume each.

Most of the ‘Classified Papers' fall into the date range 1660-1741: covering the period from the official foundation of the Society to the point when the collection was organised into its current classification. However, the earliest of the papers pre-date the incorporation of the Royal Society: found mostly in volume 25, they relate to Royal Household expenses (1610-1615) and the Roman Empire (1590s). These papers may have come from the Arundel Library of the Dukes of Norfolk, which was gifted to the Royal Society in 1667.

These aside, some of the earliest papers are associated with Francis Bacon’s projected compilation of a history of trades for the improvement of national industry. To realise their predecessor’s plan, between 1660 and 1690, the Fellows gathered information on specific trades, manufactures, commerce and agriculture, questioning crafts people and merchants to transfer their practical knowledge into the scholarly and later industrial realm. The resulting papers are mostly found in volumes 3i, 25 and 10ii but information-gathering on these themes persists across many of the volumes of 'Classified Papers'.

Authors were prominently Fellows of the Royal Society. Papers written by non-Fellows were communicated by the Secretaries of the Society or by a Fellow acting as an intermediary before being read at one of the weekly meetings of the Fellowship if deemed of interest. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, experiments and demonstrations were also a feature of the weekly meetings. Three volumes of Classified Papers are dedicated to the work of each of the Society’s curators of experiments. This was the first paid professional scientific post in Britain, and between 1662 and 1717 was held successively by Robert Hooke (volume 20), Denis Papin and the unsalaried Francis Hauksbee (volume 18i) and John Theophilus Desaguliers (volume 18ii). From that point, meetings became increasingly discussion-based. Papers by the curators preserve a record of their, and the Society’s, experimental programmes, carried out at meetings in Gresham College and Crane Court, as well as the broader theoretical understanding of these operators.

The notebooks of the curators of experiments

The Society’s working methods also included the compiling of lists to solicit regional and subject-based information from natural philosophers, merchants, and administrators across the globe. Much of what was collected appears in the volume classified as ‘Questions and Answers’. 

But, in another initiative, in 1724, the Society’s secretary, James Jurin, asked Fellows and journal readers to collect comparable meteorological data from disparate locations. This resulted in an entire volume of the ‘Classified Papers’ dedicated to the ‘Weather’, with a concentration of papers recording observations for 1724.

In addition to the curators’ papers and secretarial outputs mentioned above, some volumes of the ‘Classified papers’ were dedicated to the work of individuals prominent in the Society such as John Collins, Henry Oldenburg, Robert Hooke (all found in volume 24), and Edmond Halley (volume 21).

From 1741 onwards, material similar to that found in the ‘Classified papers’ continued as the series 'Letters and Papers' (1741-1806) with contiguous correspondence in the 'Early Letters' collection (1613-1740).