The Acts of God Committee

Lightning-proofing St Paul’s and the Purfleet magazines.

It’s a well-attested fact that when a person embarks on a historical research project, however apparently specific, they start to see it everywhere. My commute to the Royal Society Library takes me under the Thames and past Purfleet, site of the Board of Ordnance’s gunpowder magazines after they were moved from Greenwich in 1765. You can’t see the one surviving magazine building from the train – the lines of sight aren’t quite right – but Purfleet is one of a couple of places on that route with a connection to the history of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

In August 1772 the Royal Society was asked by the Board of Ordnance to put together a committee to consult on the best way of securing the new magazines at Purfleet against lightning strikes. Their caution was well-advised; there had been enough recent instances of fires started by lightning strikes, and an explosion in a firework shop in the City of London in 1715 had started a fire which one contemporary estimated to have caused half a million pounds’ worth of damage and killed 60 people before it was stopped – quite a lot more than the official death toll from the Great Fire of 1666. The danger of storing powder in populated areas was surely one of the factors in moving the magazines to Purfleet in the first place.


An example of the effects of a lightning strike: damage to the walls and rafters of Heckingham Workhouse, Norfolk, 1782. Watercolour subsequently published in Phil Trans 72 (1), 1782, pp.355-378.


The Society already acted for the Ordnance Board in a supervisory capacity; they carried out an annual inspection of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and made recommendations about its fabric, instrumentation, and staffing requirements, as well as supervising the annual publication of the Astronomer Royal’s observations. With a view to avoiding regaling the residents of Gravesend with an inadvertent firework display, the Society asked James Robertson, William Watson, Benjamin Wilson, Henry Cavendish, and Benjamin Franklin – that Benjamin Franklin – to inspect the Purfleet site and make recommendations. This they did, advising the installation of lightning conductors and suggesting specifications for them. Their recommendations were published in Volume 63 of the Philosophical Transactions.

In fact this was the Royal Society’s second committee on the matter of lightning conductors. Some readers may remember a dramatic news photo of lightning striking the Vatican during the last papal conclave, jokingly interpreted in some quarters as a mark of divine displeasure at Benedict XVI’s resignation from the papacy. Back in 1769, the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral, legitimately concerned about the danger to the handsome fabric of Wren’s building, displayed a more practical and less providential attitude, and called the Society in to advise, perhaps remembering the damage caused to the old building by two separate lightning strikes, as well as a more recent one at St Bride’s nearby that had blown an eight-foot section off its beautiful tiered spire. The results of this consultation were also published, in Phil Trans 59. The Society then revisited St Paul’s in 1773, a week after it was actually struck by lightning, and while viewing the damage gloomily noted that their instructions hadn’t been followed precisely – the conductors weren’t continuous and had been allowed to rust, which severely diminished their effectiveness, as Franklin and others had pointed out.

A little unusually, however, one member of the committee publicly dissented from the recommendations. Benjamin Wilson was so concerned about the merits of pointed as opposed to blunt lightning conductors – he thought that a broader surface area at the top of the conductor stood a better chance of surviving a lightning strike undamaged – that he put his objections in writing, and published them in the same volume of the journal. The committee saw no reason to change their recommendation, however, and said as much in the fairly bland note they printed in reply to Wilson.

The conductors at Purfleet were put to the test by a lightning strike in 1778, which did some damage to the brickwork and the roof, renewing the anxiety of the Board of Ordnance and spurring Wilson on to a series of experiments to model the effects of a lightning strike indoors, at the Pantheon on Oxford Street; these were reported in the Phil Trans for 1778, and the apparatus he used is illustrated below. Wilson continued to insist that broad-tipped lightning conductors would work better; the Society continued to stick to its original position, and to insist in print that the Purfleet conductors had worked perfectly adequately.


‘A view of the Apparatus and part of the Great Cylinder in the Pantheon’, by Benjamin Wilson.
From ‘Sundry papers relative to an accident from lightning at Purfleet, May 15, 1777’, Phil Trans 68, 1778, pp.232-317


The Royal Society had supplied advisory committees of this kind before, and would continue to do so through the nineteenth century and beyond. But it’s a little unusual to see the results being published; these articles in the Phil Trans show the Society engaging positively with the idea that science, or natural knowledge, should be deployed for the public good, an idea which had been part of its brief since its inception but which it had sometimes struggled to live up to. It’s even more unusual to see them publishing a dissenting opinion. Resistance to controversy became a very strongly entrenched aspect of the Society’s public face in the eighteenth century, and after the Society took over the publication of Phil Trans in 1752 – it had previously been the private venture of the Society’s Secretary – some of that culture seems to have spread to the Phil Trans as well. The selection of papers for publication was taken by secret ballot and without discussion, just as the Society’s meetings had been transformed from the lively discussions of its early years into a respectful forum in which papers were listened to in silence.

The lightning-proofing committees represent two facets of the Society at this time; it was becoming bolder in its ventures into the public arena, yet oddly restrictive of free debate in its meetings and publications. Joseph Banks, who became President in 1778 and served until 1820, hugely increased the Society’s advisory roles in government affairs, but he was also known for his rather autocratic leadership. It would be this, in the early nineteenth century, which led to increasing calls for reform of the Society, from within and without – calls that would have substantial, if gradual, effects on the Society’s membership, its practices of discussion, and the Phil Trans themselves.

Job’s boils and washballs

Publishing the Philosophical Transactions has now been under way for a month, and as we orient ourselves in the Royal Society archives we’re beginning to find fascinating historical material relating to the pitfalls of science publishing…

When vaccination against smallpox was introduced to Britain from the Middle East in the early 1720s, members of the Royal Society found themselves on the wrong side of both conventional wisdom and contemporary piety. Inoculation against smallpox by variolation – deliberately infecting a healthy patient with a mild case of the disease – was introduced to Britain in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the English ambassador at Constantinople.

Fellows of the Royal Society were among the early champions of the technique but it also became the subject of much wider scrutiny when members of the Royal Family, fearful of the series of outbreaks of the disease in 1721 but equally fearful of its cure, agreed to a singularly inhumane clinical trial.  Six condemned prisoners were to be subjected to the procedure in exchange for clemency if they survived.  They did, and the royal children were duly inoculated.  The treatment soon became widespread, though physicians kept a careful eye on the outcomes and compared notes.


Portrait of James Jurin, by James Worsdale, ca. 1740s © The Royal Society


One of these was James Jurin, then Secretary of the Royal Society.  He was also the editor and publisher of the Philosophical Transactions, and he used the journal to track and promote the success of inoculation in England.  He solicited accounts of trials from physicians up and down the land and published them in Phil Trans as they arrived.  It’s a striking early instance of an attempt to co-ordinate medical research. It also suggests the extent to which the journal could be used as a mechanism of persuasion, a means of promoting a particular medical agenda.

This was the more necessary because, despite the notoriety of the royal inoculation, the technique hadn’t gained straightforward acceptance everywhere.  It met with resistance from people who assumed, not wholly unreasonably, that to infect oneself intentionally with smallpox was to invite disaster; and from the pious, who argued that to attempt to cure or prevent smallpox was to presume against God, who visited the disease upon its victims as a trial, a punishment, or a blessing, according to interpretation.  Edmund Massey preached a striking sermon on the folly of inoculation in 1722, taking Job’s boils as his text. Reading him, one suspects that his objections extend beyond the practice of inoculation to medical intervention as such: and indeed, half way through the text, he suggests that most patients would be better off if their doctors left off doctoring and prayed for them instead.

The case for inoculation was finally unanswerable: fewer than 2% of those inoculated died of the procedure, where the death rate among those who caught the natural disease during an outbreak could be anywhere between 10 and 25%.  In absolute terms, Jurin calculated, 7% of all deaths were caused by smallpox. Jurin and his colleagues began to collate those figures in the Phil Trans from early 1723, and the article was republished as a pamphlet when new information became available. Jurin also published updated accounts annually.

However, reports also began to be spread in the London newspapers of patients dying of the treatment.  Fear of the disease was very high, and in the summer of 1722 it was never out of the papers, in the form of reports of the epidemic in Paris, the deaths of prominent victims, accounts of successful and unsuccessful inoculations (as in a letter from Salisbury reporting on the death of an MP’s daughter in Nathaniel Mist’s Weekly Journal of 26 October and inveighing against the “wicked and sinful” practice), and adverts for patent medicines and specifics against it. Some of these had spectacular names – the “only true original royal chemical washballs” which were advertised in issue after issue of the Daily Courant and the Weekly Journal, for instance.

One reference in particular caught the eye of Thomas Nettleton, a physician in Halifax, who saw it reported in several papers sent up from London (unfortunately he doesn’t say which ones) that a patient of his had died from being infected with smallpox in the name of inoculation.  In fact the patient had done no such thing, but Nettleton was too anxious about the damage this could do to his reputation, and to the cause of inoculation more broadly, to let it pass without a speedy rebuttal.  He wrote about the matter to Jurin, who consulted with a colleague and paid for space in the London Daily Journal to refute the assertion and print certificates to that effect from the physicians and families of those involved.  It’s a powerful indication that when contentious research or new treatments were misreported, the usual channels of scientific communication, highly respectable but slow to appear and limited in their circulation, weren’t adequate to address the mistake; more public action was needed.

In a world where popular and ephemeral print was gaining ever more traction – and particularly when new medical procedures or new research were counter-intuitive and frightening in their implications – medical researchers and natural philosophers had to defend themselves on two fronts, gathering data and establishing the credibility of their work through the learned journal on the one hand, and venturing into the rather less controlled environment of the Grub Street press on the other.  The ways in which developments in other media impinged upon the Philosophical Transactions, whether to make the journal more publicly engaged or less, will be one of the key themes of our project…

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.


Prize for Steam-Powered Knowledge!

I just discovered that I’m sharing this year’s Colby Prize, awarded by the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, for my book Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860 (Chicago, 2012). The Colby Prize, established in 2006, is awarded to the book that most advances our understanding of the nineteenth-century British newspaper or […]

AHRC award for the history of the Philosophical Transactions (1665-2015)

Cross-Posted from the St Andrews School of History blog. Dr Aileen Fyfe has been awarded a £790,000 research grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council for a four-year project telling the story of the world’s oldest surviving scientific journal. The Philosophical Transactions has been published by the Royal Society in London since 1665, and […]