Victorian Science Spectacular

Science and technology play prominent roles in our predictions of the future, whether we are imagining cures for disease, liberation from household chores, or interplanetary tourism. This was equally true in the late nineteenth century, when Victorians noted the significant technological and scientific advances since their grandparents’ days: they were proud of bicycles and typewriters; […]

Don’t try this at home: scientific injuries in the Royal Society archives

By which, of course, I mean records of injuries. Archives themselves tend to be fairly safe environments (although in some remote and older collections, which I probably shouldn’t name, I have found myself teetering at the top of a ladder and wondering how long it would take someone to find me if I fell.) Nevertheless, the records of the Royal Society throw up surprisingly frequent instances of scientists subjecting themselves to the tortures of the damned in pursuit of new knowledge, as well as the occasional laboratory accident. In no particular order, here are a few I’ve stumbled across recently:


Portrait of Charles Blagden FRS, by Mary Dawson Turner, after Charles Phillips, 1816


1)   Charles Blagden and Joseph Banks – the protagonists of much of our recent research at the Publishing the Phil Trans project – entered rooms heated to very uncomfortable temperatures with a view to finding out what the human frame could stand, and to establishing the relative inefficiency of atmospheric air as a conductor of heat. Blagden wrote the results up for the 1775 volume of Phil Trans; accompanied by Daniel Solander and George Fordyce, they went into specially-heated chambers in which the mercury in the thermometer stood at various temperatures, for as long as they could tolerate it. Rooms heated to 125 or 130 Fahrenheit posed no great challenge, and they stayed in them for 20 minutes or more at a time; Banks, meanwhile, went solo into a room where the air temperature stood at 211 degrees (according to the only thermometer which hadn’t warped or cracked in the heat) and lasted seven minutes. Blagden’s manner of reporting the experiments protests perhaps a little too much in his willingness, indeed his eagerness, to hurt himself in the cause of science: “We all rejoiced”, he says, “at the opportunity of being convinced, by our own experience, of the wonderful power with which the animal body is endued, of resisting an heat vastly greater than its own temperature”. He did, however, go back for a second dose three months later, publishing a paper on these further experiments in the same volume.

2)   Almost anyone who did a science practical in school will remember the safety lectures; my science teacher added to the standard narrative about the careful use of bunsen burners and the wearing of lab coats and protective goggles at all times an anecdote about his own science teacher’s demonstration of the percussive detonation of gunpowder involving some gunpowder, a bench, a hammer, and a broken arm for the teacher. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, the great French chemist and discoverer of boron, would perhaps have benefited from some basic instruction on workplace health and safety. Writing from Paris in 1808 (the letter had to go in the American diplomatic bag to get around the interruption of normal communication between English and French scientists caused by the Napoleonic Wars), Richard Chenevix explained to Blagden why not much had been heard from Gay-Lussac lately: “In preparing his potash he threw a large quantity of it into some alcohol an explosion immediately took place and he has suffered dreadfully. For a long time his sight was dispaired of but there are hopes at present.”

3)   Gay-Lussac was later put in charge of the giant voltaic battery Napoleon ordered to be built at the Polytechnic Institute in Paris. (Legend has it that Napoleon, whose own ideas of lab safety could have done with a quick refresher course, almost knocked himself out by applying his tongue to one of the battery’s terminals in order to test it.) Volta himself, as well as Alexander von Humboldt, both reported deliberately subjecting themselves to electric shocks; in Humboldt’s case, according to Joseph Banks, the experiment consisted of ‘put[ting] 2 blisters upon his back & to communicate these with his mouth Nose & Eyes by wyers that he might See taste & Smell Galvanism at the Same time in which he says he succeeded tho not without horrible pain which he sufferd like a True German.’ Banks recommended the account to a friend whom he thought it would amuse. It’s not clear which Banks found funnier – Humboldt’s self-inflicted injuries, or his performance of Teutonic fortitude.


Robert Boyle’s air pump, from his ‘New experiments physico-mechanicall’ (1660).


4)   No round-up of auto-experimentation in science would be complete without a mention of Robert Hooke. As well as a medical regimen, meticulously recorded in his diary, which was breathtaking in its variety and toxicity, Hooke subjected himself to the vacuum generated by the air pump he built for Robert Boyle. When the King’s cousin, Prince Rupert, attended a meeting of the Society in 1662, he was entertained with a demonstration of the air pump.  The need to put on a spectacular show for the royal guest was surely in everyone’s mind, and it’s been suggested that Hooke was very probably the unnamed man who thrust his arm into the exhausted receiver, which produced an immediate swelling, an enlargement of the veins in the arm almost to bursting point, and the speckling of burst capillaries when he eventually withdrew it.

Of course, there were particular experiments where volunteers were hard to find. We’ve already discussed the contentiousness and hysteria surrounding smallpox inoculation in the 1720s on this blog; another notable area of difficulty was blood transfusion. Hooke was also involved in these experiments in the 1660s, culminating in a successful transfusion from a live sheep into a penurious student named Arthur Coga.  This experiment was not soon repeated, but it gave rise to another notable scientific tradition – that of the student supplementing his income by participating in a clinical trial!


Edelstein Prize

Dr Aileen Fyfe‘s book Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860 has won the Edelstein Prize, an award given by the Society for the History of Technology. The prize was awarded at the Society’s annual meeting in Portland, Maine, where the book was honoured with a roundtable discussion. Panelists praised Steam-Powered Knowledge for […]

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.


Crowd-sourcing eighteenth-century science: the Great Fireball of 1783

Publishing the Philosophical Transactions has recently been turning its attention to the long Presidency of Sir Joseph Banks and its impact on Phil Trans.  We’ve just begun ploughing through his published and unpublished correspondence held at the Royal Society, and these letters are fantastic; full of scientific information, valuable insight into the processes by which the Transactions were compiled, and bitchy gossip. Among the best are the letters Banks exchanged with Charles Blagden, who kept him apprised of scientific goings-on, opened Banks’s mail for him, and marshalled  the traffic at Banks’s house at 32 Soho Square – a continual back-and-forth flow of books, drawings, journals, newspapers, plant specimens and people – while Banks summered in Lincolnshire.

It was a busy summer for scientific happenings – among other things, the Montgolfier brothers flew the first successful hot-air balloon at Annonay in France, and a craze for ballooning swept Parisian society (Banks did his best to resist the spread of ‘Ballomania’, as it was known, to England – unsuccessfully, in the event – believing it to be a mere fad with no real scientific potential and one that might give considerable scope to unscrupulous entrepreneurs). Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley continued their independent experiments on ‘inflammable air’ [hydrogen] and the chemical composition of water (recently recreated for television by Brian Cox in the second instalment of his Science Britannica series, in which he also enthused about the age and significance of Phil Trans).

That same summer a large meteor was seen over England on the night of August 18th, passing rapidly over Scotland and travelling down the east coast of England – it was seen at Lincolnshire, where it appeared to break up but the core continued, still blazing, more or less on its former trajectory , and at Ramsgate.  It was also seen from Brussels and France; and there was an unconfirmed sighting as far south as Rome. Blagden and Banks between them gathered reports of the event from across Britain and the Continent, and Blagden’s paper on the subject based on these observations was published in Phil Trans for 1784 to attempt to estimate the meteor’s size, altitude, and speed; it was visible for a little under a minute, its altitude was estimated variously between 50 and 60 miles, it appeared about as large as the Moon’s disc (Blagden reckoned its diameter at roughly half a mile) and its speed was calculated at 20 miles per second.


‘Meteor seen over Hewit Common near York’, by Nathaniel Pigott (Royal Society L&P/8/92)


These calculations of the meteor’s altitude and speed are remarkably plausible – and if Blagden’s estimate of its size is even marginally accurate then humanity can breathe a two-hundred-year’s delayed sigh of relief at its close shave.  Blagden didn’t see it like that, because he didn’t think meteors were physical bodies but electrical phenomena in the upper atmosphere.  His reasons for thinking this are striking.  When he heard that the Astronomer Royal, Nevill Maskelyne, was sending out queries of his own for an investigation of the comet, he wrote scoffingly to Banks:

‘I hear many years ago Professor [John] Winthrop, of Cambridge [Harvard] in new England, sent a paper to the R.S. containing a circumstantial theory of meteors as bodies revolving in very excentric elipses round our earth, & producing light by their effect upon our atmosphere.  This paper it was not thought proper to print; but most likely [Sir John] Pringle took his ideas from it, which Maskelyne is now going to hash up warm.  If every falling star be such a body, and it seems impossible to draw a line of distinction between them & the larger meteors, we are in high luck indeed that some of them, out of such an immense number, do not now & then miss their way, or get entangled in our atmosphere, and give us a smack.  That this good world may be preserved from such misfortunes is the hearty wish of

Your affectionate


Blagden argued in his published paper that it was precisely because meteors were seen so frequently, yet never felt actually to hit, that they weren’t orbiting bodies like comets.  His crowd-sourced data was remarkably reliable; and from his description of the meteor you would swear he imagined it as a solid body, but he’s forced away from that conclusion because he can’t find any evidence for the logical endpoint of that line of thought: namely, the meteor’s impact.

Blagden’s dismissive mention of John Winthrop, Hollis Professor of natural philosophy and Astronomy at Harvard is intriguing, in this context.  Winthrop’s theory that meteors were of extra-terrestrial origin was substantially correct, and his paper, which the Society hadn’t seen fit to publish at the time, is still in the archives in the Letters & Papers series; but he was also responsible for one of the first attempts to treat earthquakes as geological phenomena.  Like meteors and comets, these had largely been regarded prior to the scientific revolution as manifestations of divine wrath or providential omens; Winthrop’s study of the effects of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which had also been felt in New England, attempted to measure the damage it caused and to quantify the forces involved, and he published the resulting lecture in Boston as well as sending an account to the Royal Society. This, along with numerous other descriptions of the Lisbon earthquake, formed the basis of an entire annual volume of Phil Trans.

Crowd-sourcing observations in this way was an important tool in Phil Trans, and continues to be important to modern science; as in the cases of Mass Observation, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and numerous other projects.  It’s also crucial to the history of science.  As I write the Royal Society is hosting a wikipedia edit-a-thon on Women in Science, in anticipation of Ada Lovelace Day. Expert volunteers are teaming up to work on the information available in the world’s most consulted encyclopedia, which should give rise to substantial improvements in both the number and quality of entries on women’s contribution to science.


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.


“Permit me to lay before you the bladder of Mr Gardiner”

Medicine in public in eighteenth-century London

Poor Mr Gardiner’s bladder was to be the subject of a great deal of curiosity and investigation over the course of several years. It features prominently in the Letters & Papers series which I’ve been working through in the Royal Society archive recently. These are the original drafts and translations of papers communicated to the Society from 1740 to around 1800, many of which subsequently found their way into the Philosophical Transactions. Amongst these I came across a series of documents relating to patent remedies for curing bladder-stones, extraordinarily painful concretions which were typically dealt with surgically in the period, by cutting into the bladder and physically removing them.

The early Royal Society appears to have been curiously fascinated with bladder-stones; there are numerous reports of unusually large calculi, as they were also known, being shown in meetings. The surgery was invasive and, because it was performed without anaesthetic, agonising; the young Samuel Pepys was a martyr to bladder-stones and underwent successful surgery to have them removed in 1658. Pepys himself doesn’t say what this was like – perhaps mercifully, 1658 falls outside the period covered by his diary, but his biographer, Claire Tomalin, supplies an eye-watering account of the procedure based on contemporary surgical manuals.

The operation was usually performed at home, since the patient would need plenty of time to recover and it was dangerous to move him. The pain and danger it entailed led to considerable interest in alternatives to surgery, and a Mrs Joanna Stephens offered a patent remedy that she claimed would dissolve the stone without the need for surgical intervention. Specifically she offered in 1738 to make the recipe publicly available in exchange for a reward of £5000, and a parliamentary committee was set up to supervise a clinical trial. Fellows of the Royal Society were heavily involved in the trials and subsequent debates. Four patients were examined before and after a course of Mrs Stephens’ treatment; all reported relief of their symptoms and Mrs Stephens duly claimed her prize in 1740.

The efficacy of the treatment continued to be hotly contested after Mrs Stephens herself fades from the historical record. Edward Nourse, a Fellow of the Society and a surgeon at Bart’s Hospital, wrote to the Society in January 1742, reporting that he’d examined one of the guinea-pigs – a Mr Gardiner – before, during and after his treatment, and indeed after his death. Nourse’s letter apparently accompanied Mr Gardiner’s actual bladder, which had been removed in the presence of witnesses after he died earlier that month. Nourse had examined Gardiner in December 1738 and immediately found a stone in his bladder. He doesn’t say where this happened, but the next examination took place in startlingly public fashion after the patient had begun to take Mrs Stephens’s medicine.

Locating a bladder-stone was itself a fairly invasive procedure, since it involved the insertion of a steel rod into the bladder via the urethra. Almost a year later, Nourse reports running into him by chance at Child’s coffee-house, where the luckless Gardiner had his genitals probed again, by Nourse and a number of other physicians and surgeons who happened to be present. Child’s had become a notable haunt for eighteenth-century medical men and appears – startlingly, to modern sensibilities – to have been used informally as a consulting-room. Some of them also used it as a correspondence address – the same series of papers that includes Nourse’s letter in the Royal Society archive also contains a few letters to James Jurin, a former Secretary to the Society and editor of the Phil Trans, addressed to him at Child’s (and this isn’t the only recorded instance of Royal Society Fellows carrying on their scientific work in the coffee-house: in November 1680 Robert Hooke and Edward Tyson dissected a porpoise at Garraway’s, publishing the results the following year).

The Society continued to gather information about the efficacy of the Stephens remedy over the next several years, which they continued to publish at intervals. Although the medical establishment seems to have been divided on the question, most of the material gathered by the Society inclines to scepticism. This may have been reinforced by Gardiner’s bladder, which was found to contain six holes. Whether these reflected a pre-existing condition or had actually been caused by Mrs Stephens’ remedy the Fellows were unwilling to say definitively; but they certainly made the bladder itself public.


Two illustrations by Elizabeth Blackwell showing front and back views of the bladder of the late Mr Gardiner.
Philosophical Transactions vol. 42, 1742-43, pp.11-14.
Royal Society Picture Library image RS.10395 © The Royal Society


It was engraved and printed as an illustration to Nourse’s letter in the Phil Trans, by Elizabeth Blackwell, who applied her considerable talents as an artist to rescue her husband Alexander from debtor’s prison, where he had been shut up after the failure of his printing business. She is a remarkable figure in the early history of science: her illustrated herbal, featuring her own hand-coloured engravings of 500 medicinal plants, successfully rescued the family from debt. She was well-known to the Fellows of the Royal Society, and her illustration for Nourse’s report may well be the earliest substantive contribution by a woman to the Philosophical Transactions.


Caryophyllus ruber, by Elizabeth Blackwell.
Plate 85 from ‘Herbarium Blackwellianum’, vol.1 (Nuremberg, 1750).
Royal Society Picture Library image RS.9469 © The Royal Society


The Royal Society’s move here is typical, and might suggest a few things about the impact of the medical and allied professions on publishing research-driven medicine. Though many medical men were members of the Royal Society, relations between the Society and the professional medical associations of early modern London weren’t always easy. Part of this was due to distrust of innovation on the part of some medical practitioners, but it was also due to the Society’s nervousness about appearing to endorse particular practices in any discipline. Medicine in the Phil Trans and in meetings of the Society tended towards reports of the curious and extraordinary – towards the singular, or at any rate the specific instance, rather than the general remedy; and towards investigation and description rather than therapy. In a public debate over the efficacy of a particular cure, the Society was happy to gather evidence but not to adopt a position, and might not have been willing to go even that far if the medical professions had been united in opposition to it.


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.