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Register Books

Dates: 1661-1739

The 'Register Books'contain copies of scientific papers transcribed to establish their precedence for a particular discovery or idea.

by Virginia Mills
Early collections archivist

The papers copied in Register Books were submitted to the Society or occasionally generated by it, usually to be read at meetings and considered for publication. Not all communications to the Society were registered in this manner, but only those judged to contain particularly significant material.

Many of the papers entered into the 'Register Books' were published in the Philosophical Transactions. The original documents may be found in the series: 'Classified Papers' or 'Additional papers read before, or collected by the Royal Society'. Not all registered papers have a corresponding original in the archive, making the 'Register Books' a valuable record of important items not otherwise retained by the Society. Such copies are most frequently accounts of experiments carried out at meetings of the Royal Society, and outgoing requests from Fellows resulting from discussion or orders at these gatherings. For example, lists of experiments or investigations which were requested to be carried out elsewhere by Fellows may be noted in the minutes of meetings kept in the 'Journal Books' but only exist in more detail in the 'Register Books'.

The 'Register Books' series reflects the early Fellows’ wide-reaching interest in natural philosophy, taking in mathematics, engineering, medicine, and both established and emerging scientific disciplines. The selection of material entered into the Register Books can provide insight into topics estimated by Society to be of greatest value. They are a record of innovative thinking in a time of enormous intellectual and practical progress: including, for example, a version of De motu corporum (1684) sent by Isaac Newton to Edmond Halley, and the precursor document to Principia Mathematica.

Definitions by Isaac Newton

Reference number: RBO/6/62

The full series of 21 volumes covers 1661-1739, plus two subject index volumes prepared by Royal Society Secretary Richard Waller in 1689 and 1695 respectively. Volumes 1-5 contain some subject indexing; volumes 7, 11-17 and 20 have indexes to authors. There are two copies of 'Register book original' volume 2 (1662-1663), which differ in content. 

The first instance of volume 2 was lost and a second incomplete register made before the first was restored to the Society by Hans Sloane in 1703. RBO/2ii also contains some material that does not appear elsewhere in the series. 

There is also no volume 10, which was intended to be reserved for the transcription of papers missing from the sequence, but this never occurred leaving no papers registered for the period 1708-1719. 

In our 'Manuscripts General' series, MS/245 may once have been considered as part of, or supplementary to, the 'Register Books'. It contains copies of original documents in 'Classified Papers23i and 23ii on the subject of inoculation, and is copied and bound in similar style.

The Register Books are by nature copies of notable documents transcribed into a register, in turn the registers exist in original and copy form as the original register book was transcribed in the eighteenth century, probably as a backup for information security reasons. The subject indexes (volumes 22 and 23) also incorporate references to the Journal Books of the Royal Society which contain the minutes of weekly meetings of Fellows, and to the Letter Books Original which is equivalent to the Register Books, but for transcription of significant letters submitted to the Society, with the originals archived as part of the Early Letters series.