The lesser-spotted physicist

The history of the Royal Society is full of famous men and women of science, but every so often we discover a significant but obscure figure deep in the archives. These are often some of the most interesting people, and were better recognised by their contemporaries than we have remembered.

One such figure is Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925). Who? He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891, specialising in electrical theory. His interest was sparked – pun intended – when he went to work with his uncle, Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), co-inventor in 1837 of the first commercial telegraph. Telegraphy involved a code-system which was used to transmit a message between two distant sites, and its commercial expansion led to a series of national projects to lay lines across Britain, as well as attempts to connect Britain with North America and further afield. Communication was transformed, and it was through this new technology that Heaviside developed his passion for electrical physics.



Oliver Heaviside, ca. 1900 (Smithsonian Libraries public domain image)


Heaviside’s life has been of interest to some historians of science, and physicists might recognise his name, but he rarely comes up in a general history of the Royal Society. He was born in London into a modest family; his father was a wood engraver. After grammar school, where Heaviside excelled in natural history, higher education was not financially feasible. The young Oliver was sent to work with his brother in the north of England on the telegraph. In 1873 he sent the Philosophical Magazine a paper that was praised by physicists William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell, eminent figures at the Royal Society and experts on electrical physics. After just seven working years, Heaviside decided to quit and devote all of his time to the study of electrical theory, never again seeking full-time employment. He lived with his parents in London, and later in Devon above his brother’s music shop, spending the last few months of his life in a retirement home.

He published many articles throughout his life, mainly in the monthly Philosophical Magazine and the weekly Electrician, and it was through these papers that his work became recognised by other physicists in the Society, leading to his election to the Fellowship. It was only after this date that Heaviside published with the Royal Society – five papers in Proceedings and one in the Philosophical Transactions, all in the 1890s. Before this date he did not have the necessary connections to access the Society: if an author was not a Fellow they had to get the support of a Fellow to even submit a paper.

Even after his election, however, it was far from plain sailing for Heaviside at the Society. In June 1891, now a Fellow, Heaviside submitted a paper on the ‘Force, Stresses, and Fluxes of Energy in the Electromagnetic Field’. An abstract was published in Proceedings on 18 June 1891 on the same day the paper was read to the Society (Proceedings 1891 vol. 50 302-307 126-129), but the full paper was not passed by Council for printing in the Philosophical Transactions until October 1892, a delay of fully sixteen months from its submission. At this point the paper was available as a ‘separate copy’, which Heaviside could circulate among his contemporaries and interested readers could purchase from booksellers; the paper only appeared in the bound Transactions volume in 1892.

A delay between submission and printing was not unusual in the nineteenth century, in fact it was normal for an author to have to wait several months for a paper to pass through the refereeing process at the Society. This was not the cause of the delay to Heaviside’s paper; rather, he held up the printing of his paper himself due to his dissatisfaction with the printer’s typesetting of the copious mathematical formulae in the first copy he received. He was adamant that a better attempt be made, which he related to the Secretary of the Society John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh): ‘the paper is hard enough to read without the unnecessary difficulty of unsuitable type, and I thought something must be done’ (MM/17/110).

Not only did such revisions to papers cause delay, but they were also expensive for the Society. Despite this, the Assistant Secretary appeased Heaviside, stating that Harrisons, the Society’s printer, ‘must do what they can to meet his wishes about the type’ (NLB/5/1076). Heaviside drew on his experience of publishing in the Philosophical Magazine and the Electrician to suggest the correct type to use. This is significant since the Society’s printing, until the work passed to Harrisons in 1877, had been done by Taylor and Francis, a company known for skilled typesetting of scientific papers. After months of to-ing and fro-ing between the Society, Heaviside and Harrisons, the Assistant Secretary believed an end was in sight: ‘we have got as near as we can to your [Heaviside’s] pattern’ (NLB/5/1166). In reality, Heaviside was still unhappy. The Society was now very anxious to get the paper out, but another four months passed before it was finally approved by Heaviside.

Heaviside never published another paper in the Philosophical Transactions. And even though he published several short papers in the Proceedings, when he attempted to publish here in 1894 he faced opposition from the referee, and was given the option to “withdraw” the paper: ‘I should, with much reluctance, prefer to withdraw it’ (rather than have it fester in the ‘archives’ of the Society where all unpublished papers resided) (RR/12/136).

Heaviside seemed to maintain his eccentricities in his personal life too. Without a job, he was exceedingly poor, only surviving on a small pension acquired for him by some Royal Society Fellows, which he was reluctant to accept. His work, however, was revered by other physicists at the Society, who were all formally educated and most in full-time academic positions. While his skill and intellect conceivably approached the likes of James Clerk Maxwell (whose theories he developed), his fame never did. The Royal Society’s archives may hold no portrait of Heaviside, but they do provide insight into the scientific merits of a Fellow who remained (possibly out of choice) on the margins of the scientific elite.


A bad break in the Lakes

If you’re a keen climber or mountaineer, you have something in common with several Fellows of the Royal Society.

I’m more of a stroll-up-a-hill type, but my interest in the history of climbing in Britain was piqued recently when I found a series of letters in the Society’s archives. The letters concerned one Fellow’s 1942 climbing adventure in the Lake District, and the catastrophic events that ensued for him and his wife.

Climbing was a pursuit of earlier Fellows of the Society too. The physicist John Tyndall (1820-93) became a pioneering mountaineer after he first visited the Alps in 1856 to research glacial motion. The growing popularity of mountaineering at this time has been attributed to a number of factors, including transport innovations across Europe that allowed freer movement between town and countryside, and romantic sensibilities about masculinity and exploration. But for Tyndall and many of his contemporaries in the physical sciences, it was also a way to observe in the field the extremes of nature that informed their research in the laboratory. Tyndall went on to conquer the Weisshorn in the Swiss Alps in 1861, and led one of the early teams to the summit of the Matterhorn in 1868. He was able to combine his love of climbing with his study of the origin and continued existence of glaciers; during his lifetime he published around twenty papers in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions on this and other topics.


Portrait of John Tyndall, by John McClure Hamilton, 1893-94 © The Royal Society


As climbing became popular in the mid to late nineteenth century, private clubs formed to allow climbers to socialise and pursue their hobby together. The Alpine Club was the first mountaineering club in the world, formed in 1857 in London; Tyndall became a member in 1858. Climbing clubs in the nineteenth century were attended mainly by middle- and upper-class men who had sufficient money and leisure time on their hands. Women were generally not admitted: the Alpine Club was strictly for men, at least until 1975. This did not inhibit keen female climbers, however, and the Ladies’ Alpine Club was established in 1907 by Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed.


The Weisshorn (photo by Jeff Pang,, via Wikimedia Commons)


It was after World War II that climbing became more accessible as a working-class pastime, with clubs proliferating as more and more people took up the challenge, helped by higher wages and shorter working hours. The equipment and clothing available included more waterproof and comfortable alternatives, informed by developments in science such as the commercialisation of nylon.

It was around this time that physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian FRS (1899-1977; President 1950-55), together with his wife Hester (1899-1966), frequented the Lake District to indulge their passion for climbing. This was slightly less ambitious than the mountaineering Tyndall had undertaken in the Alps, but although Edgar was not pursuing research during the trip, the Adrians’ leisurely climb took a turn that made it more pertinent to Edgar’s work than he could have anticipated.


Portrait of Edgar Adrian, by Middleton Todd, 1955 © The Royal Society


Edgar and Hester had met at Cambridge, where Hester was pursuing a career in psychiatry and Edgar was studying nerve impulses at Trinity College, having gained a natural history degree at Cambridge and later a medical degree in London. He is renowned most for his Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1932, which he shared with Charles Scott Sherrington for their work on the function of neurons.

The interest that both Edgar and Hester Adrian had in nerve behaviour and health care, respectively, makes the story of their climbing experience in 1942 all the more poignant. The couple were enjoying a climbing and walking break in the Lake District in September, and as Edgar later recounted to his friend, the Finnish-Swedish physiologist Ragnar Granit, they were coming down from an ‘extremely easy climb’ with ‘no difficulty of any kind’ when disaster struck: ‘a large rock, about 5 ft. high, suddenly broke away when I took hold of it. It fell some way but landed on a slope of grass & rocks & came to a standstill after rolling down the slope’ (MM/18/107). The worst of Edgar’s story was yet to come: ‘Hester, though not directly below me, was in the way of the falling rock which crushed her leg both above and below the knee’.

Edgar Adrian does not reveal exactly how they arrived at the nearest hospital, but it is likely they made their way to the bottom of the slope, rather than wait for any rescue operation; he goes on to state that they reached Keswick Hospital with ‘not too long a delay (about 10 hours from the accident)’. Edgar’s recall of the story is thus surprisingly positive. He reported to his friend Granit how Hester had very little shock despite the fact that ‘they could only amputate for the bone was too badly crushed to be saved’. ‘There is even a chance that she will be able to walk well with an artificial leg.’ His optimism may well have been a tactful way to avoid reflecting on the fact that the amputation was caused by a rock he loosened. As he reported to Granit, ‘Hester insists that I must not think of it as my fault and I am trying to obey her’.

To make things worse, as a result of his ongoing research into nerve behaviour, Edgar would have been highly aware of the nerve damage and referred pain that Hester would face, but in January 1943 he again wrote to Granit and informed him that ‘all the doctors and limb fitters who see it admire the stump as just the right length and shape’ (MM/18/108). By October 1943, it seems Hester was able to walk effectively with a prosthetic leg, even as far as eight miles during a summer holiday in Yorkshire (MM/18/109). Hester’s ordeal seemed to hinder her little, and much that she achieved in her career in health and penal work she completed after the amputation. As for Edgar, the accident must have led to a more experiential (albeit by proxy) understanding of nerve impulses pertaining to pain.


Making the first scientific journal

Today the Royal Society opens an exhibition to celebrate the earliest and longest-running scientific journal in the world. Entitled ‘The Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of Publishing at the Royal Society (1665-2015)’, the display highlights episodes in the history of the Philosophical Transactions, from its beginnings in 1665 when the ‘journal’ was yet to be defined as a genre of scientific publishing, to its continued production in today’s electronic age. Aptly, just yesterday the Society also celebrated its own anniversary, with Fellows gathering together to mark the foundation of the Society on 28 November 1660.


Front covers of the Philosophical Transactions from 1665 and 2010.


The exhibition has been curated by researchers working on a project based at the University of St Andrews, ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015’, and by staff at the Royal Society. It marks the start of a series of events at the Society to celebrate the journal turning 350 on 6 March 2015; other activities will include a conference on the history of science periodical publishing – ‘Publish or Perish? The past, present and future of the scientific journal’  – to be held in March 2015, and a special issue of the Society’s history of science journal, Notes and Records, which will include selected papers from the conference.


Manuscript of James Clerk Maxwell’s ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field’ (Royal Society PT/72/7)


Other noteworthy aspects of the 350th year of the Transactions are special issues of the Philosophical Transactions with comments from working scientists on the impact of some of the most important papers published in the journal throughout its existence. One highlight will be James Clerk Maxwell’s 1865 work on electromagnetism, in which he first proposed that light is an electromagnetic wave – the manuscript of this paper is featured in the exhibition. The Society is also producing several short films that take a more sidelong look at the history of the journal, focusing on papers whose importance might not have been recognised in their own time but which gave rise to questions or to new fields of enquiry that are still critical today.


Portrait of Henry Oldenburg, 1668, by Jan van Cleve © The Royal Society


The exhibition begins with the early history of the Transactions, framed by the activities of Henry Oldenburg, polyglot and secretary to the Royal Society from 1663 to 1677, who spent a brief period in the Tower of London in 1667 for suspected treason, as a result of his receipt and translation of foreign correspondence during the Anglo-Dutch War. It was Oldenburg’s skill as translator, however, and his connections to men of science across Europe that provided the content for his nascent journal, the Transactions, in 1665, and created a form of print whose flexibility, diversity of content and speed of transmission immediately captured the imagination of seventeenth century ‘natural philosophers’ and sparked a revolution in science communication. The Transactions continued to be a prestigious publication into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was particularly important as practitioners of science became increasingly eager in the nineteenth century to see their discoveries published rapidly and to secure the credit for their inventions.

In addition to documenting the notable successes of the journal, the exhibition also brings to light its survival in the face of criticism in the eighteenth century from a disenfranchised few outside the Society, and reform in the nineteenth century as a result of unrest among the Fellowship. Interwoven with the social, political and cultural circumstances of the journal’s development are the stories of men and women of science who sought publication in the journal. Their experiences reveal how the editorial and reviewing processes evolved from Oldenburg’s sole editorial power, through decision-making by committee, to the use of written referees’ reports and discipline-based advisory editors. For example, the display tells how Charles Darwin faced criticism in 1839 from his referee, Adam Sedgwick, for the unnecessary wordiness in his paper on the parallel roads of Glen Roy; the paper was passed by the Council of the Society and was in fact the only paper Darwin ever published in the Transactions (though he later acted as a referee). The exhibition raises the question of how peer review as we know it today developed from the reviewing practices in place in science periodicals in the nineteenth century.

The exhibition also shows how the Transactions’ contribution to scientific communication long ran at a loss. It was only in the late 1940s that the journal’s income consistently exceeded expenditure. The Society’s Publishing section, which now hosts ten journals in total, has grown to include academic editors, commissioning editors and other professional members of a production team of twenty. While today the journal is delivered largely electronically, the display recalls the manual printing techniques on which the journal relied in the pre-electronic age.

The exhibition ultimately discusses how the Royal Society and its Publishing division, including Philosophical Transactions, continue to be at the forefront of debates about science publishing in an ongoing communication and information revolution. It will run until June 2015.


Tracing authors’ copies of the Philosophical Transactions

The ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions Project’ is in its seventh month at the Royal Society. To date, one aspect of the Phil Trans that has continued to crop up in our research is authors’ copies or, as they are often called, authors’ offprints. When scholars publish a paper, whether in a science or humanities journal, they usually get a copy of the finished version. Today, this is often electronic. If a paper version, an author might get five copies, maybe ten. In my experience, these usually go to grandparents, parents and unfortunate friends. The rest end up in the recycling bin.

Before electronic publishing came to the Royal Society around 1990, the common practice was to allow authors one hundred copies of their papers, each. In the twenty-first century, when many people read from their laptops or tablets, this seems like an enormous amount to dispose of. Yet, that is exactly what authors in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century did.  For some, even the one hundred copies were insufficient. For example, Mr T. Wharton Jones applied by letter to the Council of the Royal Society for fifty additional offprints of his paper on ‘The Microscopical Examination of the Hepatic Ducts & C.’, printed in Phil Trans in 1848. The large number of ‘extra copies’ printed led the Treasurer, Edward Sabine, to rule in 1852 that if the number of offprints for any one author should exceed one hundred, the expenses of printing and paper would be covered by the author.

Edward Sabine FRS, Treasurer of the Royal Society 1850-61 and President 1861-71, by Stephen Pearce, 1855.


Thus, in 1873, Warren de la Rue went straight to the Society’s printers, Taylor and Francis, and paid £6 for 50 extra copies of his paper. Two years later, the chemists Captain Noble and F. A. Abel paid Taylor and Francis to produce 150 extra offprints of their paper, ‘Researches on Explosives’, from Phil Trans in 1875, costing them £14 7s 6d. The cost to these authors was not a deterrent to getting their hands on multiple prints. Even more additional copies were ordered in 1856, when Colonel James requested 250 copies of his two papers for the Phil Trans, now in press, printed for him at his own expense, in addition to the one hundred copies furnished to him by the Society.

Evidently, a large number of Phil Trans papers ended up circulating as separate texts. One of the challenges in our project is to trace the distribution of these offprints: where and to whom were they sent?  Having received his one hundred prints, British physician Lionel Beale requested in 1864 a further 150 copies of his paper; printed in the Phil Trans in 1863, it was on the structure and formation of nerve-cells. The purpose of the duplicates, as Beale revealed to the Council of the Society, was for ‘separate publication on the Continent’. Beale, however, was keen to acknowledge the source, insisting that ‘the publication shall bear on the title that it is an extra-impression from the Philosophical Transactions’. Beale was eager for his work to reach beyond the Fellows of the Royal Society, and to come to the attention of his colleagues in the rest of Europe. The very physical format of his original paper in the Phil Trans was transformed to facilitate its transmission over space. Also necessary were modes of transport, in the form of the steam train and sea travel. Authors’ offprints thus facilitated the dissemination of science from the place of its production.

Some Phil Trans authors, however, were less ambitious in the geographic spread of their work, merely hoping to distribute their papers among colleagues in the UK. This too was made easier by the expansion of rail travel in the nineteenth century. Still, readers in the UK faced the problem of accessing the most recent scientific papers. There were no electronic search engines, and manual lists of scientific papers were only starting to emerge. In fact, in the 1850s the Society begun to compose a Catalogue of Scientific Papers, ordered by author surname and listing all contributions in the Phil Trans and in other scientific journals across Europe.

The relative difficulty of tracing science papers is perhaps why James Jeans’s Cambridge colleagues wrote to him while he lay infirm in Hampshire to request copies of his work in the Phil Trans. In 1902 and 1903 respectively, Godfrey Hardy (1877–1947), who was a fellow mathematician at Trinity College, and Arthur Hinks (1873–1945) from the Royal Observatory, asked for two separate papers. Not yet Fellows of the Royal Society, they were not automatically in receipt of the Phil Trans. In the early twentieth century, Phil Trans was distributed as a complete volume or in parts of a volume, which were available to subscribers (including Fellows of the Society) and to casual purchasers, as well as to subscribing institutions. Individual papers were not readily supplied, except to authors who, as noted, were entitled to up to one hundred free copies.

There was another way both Hardy and Hinks could have read Jeans’s papers: although Cambridge was geographically removed from the Royal Society, the Cambridge University Library was among the institutions listed in the introductory pages of the journal as entitled to the Phil Trans. Yet photocopying was not an option until the 1940s, and asking the author for a print was probably an easier option than spending several hours transcribing from the original in the University Library, and was cheaper than employing someone else to do so.

The actual offprints of Jeans’s and others’ papers, some of which are preserved in research libraries today, may prove to be an important source in understanding the readership and distribution of the Phil Trans, if we can locate them. These texts, separated from the Phil Trans volume in which they originated, were probably read in the scientists’ private offices, discussed over coffee, and may have been annotated as readers agreed with or questioned the findings presented.


Mathematical musings from the sickbed

Have you ever written a letter to yourself? This is exactly what James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) did in 1902 as he lay in a sanatorium at Ringwood, Hampshire.


Portrait of James Jeans FRS, 1924, by Philip de László © The Royal Society


Jeans was a mathematician and astronomer, born in Lancashire and spending most of his early adult life studying mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Apparently, he could tell the time at the age of three. This natural inclination towards arithmetic was evident during his battle, from c.1898, with tuberculosis of the knees and wrists.

Despite spending considerable time in seclusion until he was cured in 1903, Jeans was not cut off from the burgeoning expertise and intellect of his colleagues and friends at Cambridge. It was during this time that he established himself as a prestigious mathematician. He was awarded a first class degree, followed by an Isaac Newton studentship and a Smith’s prize. His success continued after his health was restored and in 1906 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the early age of 28.

On 19 April 1902, having spent a long duration at Ringwood, Jeans employed an interesting technique to lift his spirits above the dismal condition of his body: he wrote a letter to himself.

Jeans pondered the fact that ‘this confinement at Ringwood has told somewhat upon your [Jeans’s] spirits – as how should it not?’. Yet Jeans was hopeful: ‘your anxiety is now over: you have every reason to feel hopeful: you have freedom from actual pain’. Parts of the letter are poetic representations of Jeans’s improving condition: ‘The clouds race over the brink of your valley; the birds have begun to chatter about nest-building; and the trees are pushing on with their budding, & give the birds their leafy secrecy’.

Jeans’s letter was reciprocated a few days later. The writer (Jeans) confessed to Jeans: ‘I read your letter with mixed feeling’. In fact for Jeans, replying to the first letter, the language used therein was ‘too childish. What is the talk of birds (gracious powers!) and clouds (good God!)? What sickly sentimental stuff!’. Jeans also rejected the positive tone expounded in the initial letter, rather, describing his debilitated state at Ringwood as ‘perfectly disgusting’. Yet, an inward (and outward) struggle between despair and hope over his current health is apparent as Jeans admitted, ‘I am secretly more optimistic’.

In these communications Jeans’s reliance on the ‘sympathy’ of his friends at Cambridge is also apparent. Not able to see them in person at Ringwood or return to Cambridge, one way Jeans maintained contact with his colleagues and friends was through the Philosophical Transactions, the long-running scientific journal of the Royal Society.


Photograph of G H Hardy FRS, from the Archives of the Royal Society


Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947), who was a fellow mathematician at Trinity College, wrote to Jeans during his time at Ringwood, relaying the sentiment that he ‘was very glad to hear such an encouraging report and suppose we may really expect you up [in Cambridge] next term’. Yet he confessed to Jeans that the real reason for his writing was less altruistic: ‘I was really writing to ask for a copy of your latest paper, which seems to me to be rivalling Whittaker’s in notoriety’. The said paper was ‘The Distribution of Molecular Energy’, printed in Phil Trans in 1901, during which Jeans was laid up in Ringwood. Edmund Taylor Whittaker’s (1873-1956) paper, which Hardy referenced, was ‘On the Connexion of Algebraic Functions with Automorphic Functions’, published in Phil Trans in 1899.

As Jeans came to the end of his respite in April of 1903, Arthur Robert Hinks (1873-1945), who was at this time astronomer at the Observatory in Cambridge, thanked Jeans for his ‘most interesting paper’ (‘On the Vibrations and Stability of a Gravitating Planet’ published in the Phil Trans in the same year). Hinks also knew of a 1902 paper by Jeans in Phil Trans on the ‘nebula’: ‘Have you a copy you could spare? I should value it greatly’.

Despite Jeans’s ostensibly prohibitive condition, he continued to communicate with his colleagues and to distribute his mathematical theories. Between his quarantine and his return to academic life Jeans published a total of five papers in the Phil Trans, in addition to the monograph he published at the same time. The Philosophical Transactions was an important medium in these sickbed communications.


From manuscript to Microsoft

The more recent history of the Royal Society and the Philosophical Transactions.

The history of the Royal Society has received considerable attention in the last fifty years. This has largely focused on the beginnings of the Royal Society in 1660 and on the individuals who shaped the nature of science at this time, and in the period up to 1900.

We are familiar with names such as Hans Sloane (1660–1753), Robert Boyle (1627–1691), Robert Hooke (1635–1703), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), Henry Oldenburg (1617–1677) and Charles Darwin (1809–1882), to name but a few, all Fellows of the Royal Society who occupy the stage in studies of the Society in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The reasons for their fame in the history of the Society are many, ranging from the impact they had on the world of science, to the rich material that survives on their discoveries, theories and life.

Henry Oldenburg FRS, the first editor of the Philosophical Transactions.
Portrait by Jan van Cleve, 1668 © The Royal Society


The interest in the Society’s early history is rich and important, but the Society’s role in science and its communication is long and extends further than the two hundred and forty years from its formation in 1660 until 1900. There is much to know about the individuals shaping science in the early twentieth century, and while this period has received some attention, there are many more stories to tell (watch this space). But what is there to know about the even more recent history of the Society in the late twentieth century, which has had little consideration, and particularly what can we understand about its publication, the Philosophical Transactions? To provide a brief glimpse of the changes and developments the Philosophical Transactions experienced in the late twentieth century let us focus on one year, say 1990.

First let us look at what was happening in science generally around this year. A major event in 1990 was the beginning of the Human Genome Project, which started in the US and was an international scientific research project with the goal of determining the sequence of human DNA. One of the findings of the project was that there are approximately 20,500 genes in human beings.

Understanding DNA sequencing was another step towards getting to grips with the nature of diseases and their effect on humans. The Philosophical Transactions Series B (Biological Sciences) was the site of early discussions about identifying human DNA sequences, including a 1988 paper by Edwin M Southern on ‘Prospects for a Complete Molecular Map of the Human Genome’. Southern discussed the appropriate form and scale of such a genome map, based on contemporary knowledge of the organization of human DNA. Southern went on in 2005 to win the Lasker Award in biology for his laboratory procedure, inventing the ‘Southern Blot’, which was the first test for fingerprinting and determining paternity, and is today used for DNA analysis in many fields of biology. In terms of its impact on our understanding of genetics, Southern’s test was just as innovative in the late twentieth century as, say, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke’s air pump was to naturalists in the seventeenth century.

What else was happening at the Royal Society around 1990? At this time, the Society’s medium of communication was, in part, the Philosophical Transactions. This journal went through a transition in 1990: it had previously been considered to be under the responsibility of the two Secretaries of the Society, but was now assigned two editors. These editors were scientists based in external institutions (often universities) who had specialist knowledge of a field of biology or physics. Getting to grips with the ways individuals, printers and publishers maintained the journal as a leading scientific publication in the late twentieth century informs our understanding of science communication and the nature of the print trade in an age of changing media technology.

There was also an international development in 1990 that had a large impact on the communication of science by the Royal Society, and particularly on the ways in which its journal, the Philosophical Transactions, was published. Some of us are old enough to recall the impact this phenomenon had on people’s understanding of and interaction with one another and the world around them, though others may be too young to remember how influential this development really was on the generation of people who had to (or chose to) mould their practices in favour of its revelatory ways. You may wonder what I’m referring to or you may have guessed: it’s the World Wide Web and, connected to this, the popularisation of computers.


Sir Tim Berners-Lee FRS signing the Royal Society’s Charter Book, October 2002
(IM/000347 © The Royal Society)


The World Wide Web came into existence in 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee created the first web server, which was released to the public in 1991. Along with the World Wide Web, there was an increasing move towards digital/computerised systems in the communication, ordering and dissemination of information. For the Royal Society, a pivotal moment in this transformation of communication technology was the start in 1997 of electronic delivery of the Royal Society’s journals by Blackwell’s ‘Navigator’. The in-house administration of the journal also faced a change to a Windows-based computer system with personal email, and was allied with the creation of a website for Philosophical Transactions where readers and authors could access information about the journal remotely. The practice of exchanging manuscripts between authors and those responsible for compiling the Philosophical Transactions was replaced by an online and digital system of transfer and communication.

The year 1990 was part of a long history of change and variation in the Royal Society, in science, and in scientific communication. It serves as an example of the connection between science and technological developments and, significantly, reveals the importance the late twentieth century holds for our knowledge of science communication and scientific journal publishing.


A Royal occasion

The beginnings of the Philosophical Transactions Project at the Royal Society.

You may not remember what you were doing on Wednesday 8 May 2013. This day was important for a couple of reasons. For one, it was the day of the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament. On a more personal level, it was also the first day at the Royal Society for me and Noah Moxham. We will be based here for the next four years, as post-doctorates working on the ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions’ project, funded by the AHRC and led by Dr Aileen Fyfe at the University of St Andrews.

If you have visited the Royal Society you will know that it backs onto The Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace. Just before the Queen’s Speech on 8 May, I heard ceremonial trumpets and the clip-clop of horses and, this being a new phenomenon for me, I wondered whether I was still in a daze after the 12-hour road trip I had undertaken from Edinburgh to London the previous day.

It feels appropriate to be sitting in the Royal Society writing about the history of the Philosophical Transactions, whilst looking out onto The Mall and St. James’s Park, frequently witnessing a royal entourage passing by. This is a lot more pleasant than the view from my previous office as a post-graduate student at the University of Edinburgh. Here, I resided in the basement of an old hospital (i.e. the morgue), which was in fact linked to the Burke and Hare scandal, and where I could see only a glimpse of daylight through windows that refused to open.

To start the Philosophical Transactions project with a royal parade is also fitting because of the close connection between the Monarch and the Royal Society since the latter’s formation in 1660. In that sense we’re more privileged than the Original Fellows of the Royal Society, who spent months, and eventually years, in feverish anticipation of a projected visit by Charles II that never materialised (despite the award of its Royal Charter in 1662). Later members of the royal family would take a more active interest, and one even held an official administrative role in the Society: in the period 1830–1838, Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, was President.

The administration of the Philosophical Transactions, which is one of the foci of our project, is also informed by an on-going relationship with the monarchy. First published in March 1665, the Philosophical Transactions is the world’s longest running science journal, and was the first to concern itself exclusively with scientific matters. The project Noah and I are working on aims to use previously unexamined archival collections at the Royal Society to understand the individuals and practices involved in producing and publishing the Philosophical Transactions. We will be looking into the publishing of this influential journal from its beginning in 1665 to the present day. My part in this is to focus on the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, while Noah tackles the earlier period.


Title page of the first volume of Philosophical Transactions, 1665-1666


The royal connection is just one element that will inform this project. One way this is apparent is through the Royal Medals issued under the approval of Queen Victoria (and henceforth by the ruling monarch) and awarded to the authors of the most outstanding papers in the Philosophical Transactions. These are also sometimes given to the Society’s Fellows who have written ground-breaking monographs, such as Charles Darwin’s book The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, for which he received a Royal Medal in 1853. The medal scheme still exists today and in 2012 a Royal Medal was presented to, among others, the Australian chemist Andrew Holmes FRS.


Portrait of Charles Darwin by Mabel Messer, 1912, after an original by John Collier, 1881.


This project will address many other elements that characterise the publishing of the Philosophical Transactions and its role in science communication in a period spanning just under 350 years from the 17th century through to the present day. These include questions about the commerce of producing a scientific journal, such as printing, paper and binding costs. Another important and relevant issue for science publishing today that will be considered is the peer review process, the genesis of which is often attributed to the Philosophical Transactions. The distribution of the journal from London to particular institutions (including other learned societies) and individuals in Britain, the US, China and other parts of the world is also of interest in this project. These subjects will be studied over time to identify change in the practices of those administering the publishing of the Philosophical Transactions, and they will also be linked with current developments in science publishing and science communication more generally.