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Letters and Papers

The 'Letters and Papers' series contains the scientific correspondence sent to the Royal Society through the 18th century, many of which were published the Philosophical Transactions.

by Virginia Mills
Early collection archivist

The ‘Letters and Papers’ collection is a continuation of the ‘Early Letters’ and ‘Classified Papers’ archival sequences into the 19th century. It was instigated after these earlier series were arranged by the historian Thomas Birch. ‘Letters and Papers’ commences in 1741 and runs until 1806 when the sequence was again divided into two parts: the 'Philosophical Transactions' (for published material) and 'Archived Papers' (usually for rejected or abstracted works).

‘Letters and Papers’ documents are broadly arranged in chronological order, by date of the meeting at which they were read. Originally they were divided into twelve ‘decades’ (groupings of 10 volumes) and now comprise 119 volumes and two supplementary boxes of papers.

Like its predecessors, ‘Letters and Papers’ contains both correspondence and reports of scientific experiments and natural phenomena. The Society continued the practice of formally reading papers aloud at weekly meetings, with the works of non-Fellows being communicated either via the Secretaries of Royal Society, or by Fellows who acted as a sponsors and intermediaries. The weekly meetings encouraged the exchange of ideas and information from the Fellows and their wider networks, including the guests (or ‘strangers’) whom Fellows might introduce as members of the audience. Many of the works that were read and commented upon during meetings were chosen to be more widely disseminated through publication in the Society’s journals.

‘Letters and Papers’ (or 'New Guard Books' as they were originally known) diverged from earlier practice in that none of these original papers were copied into 'Letter Books' or 'Register Books' that had previously been used to record priority of notable ideas or discoveries. Nevertheless, the series contains many ground-breaking scientific papers. Scientists represented include William Herschel (71 papers) William Watson (95 papers) Henry Baker (78 papers) Everard Home (31 papers), William Stukeley (40 papers), Joseph Priestley (28 papers) and John Smeaton (24 papers).

As the series progresses, the character of the documents alters - the earlier decades contain larger numbers of short letters, but by the 19th century most of the manuscripts are in the form of long articles. The texts are supported by original illustrations throughout the series, versions of which appeared as the engraved plates of their printed equivalents. This collection provides a virtually unbroken run of presentations by leading 18th century scientists, with the exception of 1746 to 1749, when no papers were collected. Occasionally such missing items may be elsewhere in the archives of other institutions.