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Manuscripts General

Dates: 1551 - 1951

Science in the Making presents selected items from the 'Manuscripts General' series, notably astronomical observations, investigations of discrete topics, and indices and registers of papers read before the Royal Society.

by Virginia Mills
Early Collections Archivist

The Science in the Making platform includes a selection of material from the archival series ‘Manuscripts General’. This is a very varied collection, intended to contain all sets of documents not generated by the Royal Society administration but rather acquired from other (usually external) sources. The chronological range stretches from material predating the creation of the Society, including a handwritten thirteenth-century copy of Euclid’s Elementa, to smaller caches of 20th and 21st century Fellows’ working papers, notably Colin Pillinger’s lunar regolith research. The collection is still being added to by purchase and donation.

Most of the ‘Manuscripts General’ collection was created or donated by Fellows of the Royal Society. Of these, Science in the Making features only those works which related to published Royal Society journals content. This includes, for example, a paper by Charles Piazzi Smyth FRS, who worked alongside his wife Jessie (MS/626) in making astronomical observations on the island of Tenerife; and nebula data compiled by William Herschel FRS and his sister Caroline Herschel (MS/272, MS/279, MS/339, MS/344, MS/348). In each of these cases, women were making significant contributions to astronomy, despite being excluded from the Fellowship on the grounds of gender. Also featured is the work of Clare Harris for the Royal Society’s Glassworkers' Cataract Committee (MS/165).

Some manuscripts relating to the Society’s meetings, committees and publishing administration are also included: original papers read at the Society (MS/366); personal copies of scientific papers made by Robert Hooke FRS (MS/215); together with journal indexing and registers books for the control of papers prepared by Society staff (MS/386, MS/421MS/624, MS/703-704). These provide valuable insights into the journal production processes of the Royal Society, in addition to providing additional access points into the collections.

Herschel family astronomical papers

These are the working documents behind William Herschel’s ‘Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars’ published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in three parts (1786, 1789 and 1802) and listing 2,500 nebulae and stars. Based on years of observational data collected by sweeps of the night sky, the Herschels’ astronomical catalogue was foundational to registers of deep-sky objects still in use today. Prepared with the assistance of William’s sister, Caroline Herschel, the catalogue was later expanded by his son John Frederick William Herschel FRS who donated the collection to the Royal Society.

Nebulae sweep books of William Herschel

Creator: William Herschel Reference number: MS/272

Registers of nebulae by William Herschel and Caroline Herschel

Creator: Sir William Herschel Reference number: MS/339


Examples of scientific research carried out by both Fellows and non-Fellows, this sample of three small collections of papers from the ‘Manuscripts General’ collection represents the diverse interests of the Society, from astronomy to public health, and demonstrates different routes by which research was facilitated and consumed. 

Included are: Admiralty-commissioned and privately- supported astronomical research by Jessie and Charles Piazzi Smyth FRS in Tenerife in 1856, which led to pioneering photographic publications; a 1920s report on the biochemistry of the eye, commissioned by the Royal Society Glassworkers’ Cataract Committee from Clare Harris, clinical assistant at Moorfield’s Hospital (which ultimately went unpublished); and a set of original watercolour illustrations by Arthur William Head (1861-1930) illustrating observations of the mammalian eye published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1901 by ophthalmologist George Lindsay Johnson (1853-1943).

Tenerife Papers of Charles Piazzi Smyth

Creator: Charles Piazzi Smyth Reference number: MS/626

Original illustrations of the mammalian eye by George Lindsay Johnson and Arthur William Head

Creator: George Lindsay Johnson, George Lindsay (1853-1943), Arthur William Head Reference number: MS/697/1

Papers read before the Society, administrative indices and registers of papers

Many copies and listings have been made of manuscripts submitted to the Royal Society as part of the Society’s procedures for reading, publishing and archiving papers. Much of the administrative material can now be found within ‘Manuscripts General’. Registers and indexes were compiled by successive members of Society staff including assistant secretaries, clerks and librarians, either while administering the submission, review and printing processes or during the management of the resulting archive.

Papers related to Robert Hooke and Additional Papers

The collection also contains selected copy papers created or collected by Robert Hooke during his first years as Curator of Experiments at the Society (c.1662-1664). Seemingly based on his own research preoccupations (MS/215) these were only much later accessioned into the Society archive. MS/366 ‘Additional Papers’, meanwhile, comprises five volumes of original manuscript papers submitted to the Society in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries but omitted from the 'Classified Papers' series where the rest of the manuscripts received in this period were gathered.