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Early Letters

Dates: 1613-1740

The archival collection known as 'Early Lettersis composed of original manuscript letters sent to, or collected by, the Royal Society from English and foreign correspondents.

by Louisiane Ferlier
Digital resources manager

The 'Early Letters' or EL fond includes a few letters preceding the founding of the Royal Society (1660) and its royal incorporation (1662), notably one letter from Galileo Galilei. The majority of letters were written between 1660 and 1740.

Letters found their way to the Royal Society, and eventually into its archives, by various routes. A large portion was sent directly to the Royal Society’s secretaries, officers, and Fellows with the view to be disseminated. Some emanated from the private correspondences of Fellows, while others were solicited or copied in support of the Fellows’ immediate subject interests or Society projects. In all, ‘Early Letters’ consist of thirty-eight volumes containing 4,237 individual letters. These are organised alphabetically by author and then chronologically.

Correspondence was a core activity of the Society from its inception. Founding Fellows developed a ‘scientific method of correspondence’ which placed the institution as one of the most important hubs of diffusion for natural philosophy in the early modern world.

Key points of interest in the collection include letters by Henry Oldenburg (404 letters), the first editor of the Philosophical Transactions.

Letters from the Secretary: Oldenburg's correspondence

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (322 letters), the Dutch microscopist who contributed textual observations and equivalently fascinating illustrations to the periodical. 

Letters from Leeuwenhoek

Many other illustrious men of science feature in the collections, notably John Wallis (241 letters), John Flamsteed (93 letters), 

A selection of letters from Wallis and Flamsteed

Letters from Lister, Cassini, Mather and Newton

Letters circulated within the Society in various ways: they were read at its meetings, printed in its periodical, the Philosophical Transactions, and preserved and copied into its Letter Books and 'Register Books'. Correspondence served a variety of functions: not only was it a source of scientific information and a means of validation, but it was also a way to claim priority for new theories, inventions, or discoveries.

‘Early Letters’ inform on the Society’s activities and its institutional life and form a chronicle of early modern science.

To put these correspondence networks in the context of the Republic of letters, catalogue information is also available on Early Modern Letters Online.