Philosophical Transactions in the 18th Century

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The periodical had begun as Oldenburg’s personal property. Later, it was taken as read by the Society that the right to publish the journal was inherited by one of the current Secretaries when he relinquished the reins (many of whom also explicitly denied that there was any official connection between the Society and the journal).  It was plain, however, that Oldenburg’s successors were keen to maintain some degree of continuity with the journal he had founded, even if their approaches to its production differed in some respects from its founder’s.

From the Royal Society Council Minutes of January 2nd 1678.

That there be prepared once a year a collection of all such matters, as have been handled that year, concerning four, five or more subjects, which have been well prosecuted, and completed; which may be printed in the name of the Society against the anniversary election-day:

That the Register-books of the Society be perused; and that what shall be thought fit by the council to be published, be drawn out and printed accordingly.

Establishing a reputation

By 1723, Phil Trans no longer enjoyed a unique position, but had proved itself extremely resilient.  Almost 60 years old, it had reached its 380th issue and passed through the hands of eight different editors. Besides Oldenburg, it had been produced by Nehemiah Grew, the successive teams of Francis Aston and Robert Plot, then Aston and William Musgrave, Edmond Halley (who did two terms as editor, between 1686 and 1691 and then again from 1714-1719), Richard Waller, Hans Sloane, and James Jurin, the incumbent in 1723.  With the exception of Edmond Halley’s first stint, which he undertook in his capacity as Clerk to the Society, all of these were undertaken by one of the Secretaries – or, occasionally, both. Some scholars would wish to see Robert Hooke included on this list; We’ve left him out because his Philosophical Collections defined themselves partly by their remorseless opposition to Oldenburg’s Transactions, which they were avowedly intended to replace. These tenures had not always been smooth or uninterrupted, and the status and responsibilities of the Secretary were much debated during this period.  They seem always (unofficially) to have included Phil Trans, however.  The Society had become keenly aware of how much of its early reputation had depended on Oldenburg’s journal, and while not apparently willing to assume responsibility for it, was anxious that it shouldn’t wither away either.

James Jurin

James Jurin, who was elected to the Secretaryship in November 1721, found himself forced to hit the ground running.  No clear financial data survives for this period of the journal’s production, nor is there any evidence on which to ground an estimate of its print run.  When Edmond Halley resigned the secretaryship, creating the vacancy Jurin was elected to fill, Phil Trans had fallen almost two years behind.  Jurin therefore set himself the task of bringing out two volumes at once.  (At this point in the journal’s history the distinction between issues – individual numbers of the journal – and Volumes – a given year’s, or sometimes two years’ worth of issues – was still observed).  Though this practice wasn’t yet formalised, Jurin also did his best to make sure that the papers he was publishing belonged to the period notionally covered by the issue in which they appeared.

Jurin got more out of the post than some of his predecessors.  He was an energetic correspondent and organiser, a dedicated disciple of the Society’s President, Isaac Newton (with whom Hans Sloane, for instance, got on uneasily), and a researcher with an agenda of his own, which he took full advantage of his editorship to pursue. A medical man by profession, and a successful one, his correspondence shows a man deeply interested in the process of bringing out the journal.

An energetic editor

We don’t have much sense of what the enterprise was costing him financially.  Jurin died rich, leaving over £35000 in trading company stocks.  This might be enough to suggest that the expense of publishing the Philosophical Transactions didn’t worry him, although the small bits of financial data that do emerge from the correspondence paint a clear picture of a man looking after the pennies, often extracting an author’s contributions from the printed journal to send to him in order to save on postage.  But he was an energetic editor, frequently suggesting changes to papers and actively soliciting contributions from his correspondents, occasionally reprinting individual letters or papers as pamphlets, and using the journal as a means of gathering comparative data and for co-ordinating observations of weather from across Europe.

Submissions and communications

Jurin’s own research interests were mostly medical. He was also able to take an intelligent interest in the physical and mathematical sciences as well, and he offered comments and criticisms on such papers. His relations with other researchers were mostly cordial, though 1723 happens to feature an ill-tempered exchange with the notoriously cantankerous John Woodward. Perhaps because he was more personally involved in research questions than Oldenburg had been, he was disinclined to pursue controversy in correspondence, preferring to leave the matter in abeyance if an agreement couldn’t be reached. Oldenburg, more of a middleman in scientific matters, tended to encourage it, because it made for good copy.  The process of submission to the journal remained informal. Jurin would sometimes ask permission from correspondents to include their papers in the Transactions, but sometimes he would simply include them without waiting and inform them of the fait accompli. (He seems only to have done this where he was reasonably sure that the contributor wouldn’t mind, however.)  A good number of his correspondents expressed the hope that he would find their communication worth including in a future issue of the journal.  As an editor he actively engaged with material sent to him, and although there was no formal process of peer review he often forwarded papers on more difficult mathematical or physical subjects to his co-Secretary, John Machin, or to Edmond Halley, his predecessor, for evaluation and comment.

A small print run

Print runs in this period remain obscure, although Jurin and his colleagues in the Society were active in distributing the journal at home and abroad.  The Society had in the past effectively subsidised the publication of Philosophical Transactions by taking a large number of copies of each issue at a small discount on the shop price, but there’s no evidence that this practice continued during Jurin’s editorship.  Though not a personal enemy of Hans Sloane’s, he resigned the Secretaryship in 1727 on Newton’s death and Sloane’s accession to the Presidency of the Society.

By 1773 the Royal Society had formally assumed control of the journal.  The right to publish no longer belonged with the Secretary’s office. Instead it fell to the oversight of a Committee of Papers, constituted in 1752. 

Management decisions about the journal, including the business of negotiating with printers and booksellers, was still the preserve of one of the Secretaries. Editorial control was exercised through regular meetings of the Committee, membership of which was conferred automatically on any Fellow who sat on the 21-strong Council.  In 1773, the President of the Society was Sir John Pringle, an army physician (up to that point the only medical man, besides Sir Hans Sloane, to have held the post). The Secretaries were Charles Morton and Matthew Maty. Both Maty and Morton also held posts as Librarians of the recently-founded British Museum, based on the vast collections of rarities, natural specimens, books, prints, drawings  and manuscripts assembled by Sloane and bequeathed to the nation on his death in 1753.  (One of the interesting after-effects of Sloane’s death and the foundation of the British Museum seems to have been the crossover of staff between it and the Royal Society.  It’s suggestive of an influence on the part of Sloane that extended beyond the grave, and might account for the increase in the number of papers on antiquarian subjects appearing in Philosophical Transactions in the later 18th Century.)

Under Royal Society control

The transfer of responsibility had the predictable effect of tightening existing links between the journal and Society activity.  Any paper read before the Society was automatically considered by the Committee. From a contributor’s point of view, therefore, any communication to the Society was an implicit submission for publication.  (An author would have the option of withdrawing his paper from consideration, however). Once a paper had been considered by the committee it might be accepted for printing, rejected, postponed to a subsequent meeting, or referred to a designated ordinary member of the Society for expert evaluation. This last only happened at the specific request of the Committee; reviewing was thus written into the constitution of Phil Trans for the first time, but seldom used in practice. The Committee mostly based its judgements on the 300-500 word abstracts of papers read to the Society that formed the minutes of its weekly meetings, although they could if they desired consult the original paper in full.  Decisions on publication of individual papers were taken by secret ballot of the full meeting. The secret ballot was intended to negate the possibility of personal bias coming into play when papers were being evaluated; and in fact any discussion of papers during the meetings was explicitly prohibited. This was presumably meant to prevent blackballing (although it has to be said that the measures by themselves don’t look strong enough to guarantee against it).  The lack of debate may reflect what went on in Society meetings; certainly the record of the meetings records only the delivery of papers and their contents, making for a striking context with the back-and-forth discussions we find in the early minutes of the Society.  It’s very rare to find all twenty-one Committee members present at any given meeting, but attendance was frequently better than at Council.

Fellows and devils

Once the decision to print had been taken, the paper appeared in the volume for that year. The practice of publishing monthly or quarterly issues had by this time been discontinued, and had to all intents and purposes ceased well before the Society assumed control.  It would feature the author’s name, the name of the Fellow who had communicated the paper to the Society, and the date on which it was read. The decision to take over the journal had resulted in the fixing of the print run at 750 copies; the Society paid for paper, engraving and printing costs, and took 300 copies for distribution to the membership (or those of the Fellows who were up to date with their subscriptions, at least.)  Fellows were expected to sign for their copies in person – and one of the surviving signature-books, as if to prove that noticeboards bring out the childish sense of humour in everyone, bears a signature purporting to be ‘His Royal Highness the Damn’d Bloody Devil, by Note from Himself’.  The remaining copies were held by a bookseller, who sold them on 25% commission and settled up with the Society at the end of the year.  (One of the printers to whom the Society records payments for Phil Trans was Samuel Richardson, the author of Pamela and Clarissa.)  In 1773 the Council decided to split each year’s volume into two parts, going to press in April and November.  The Society’s period of activity each year was, roughly, the eight months between early November and early July; each part covered half the year’s meetings.

A money-losing proposition.

The Society found the journal to be a money-losing proposition. It cost, on average, upwards of £300 a year to produce, of which they seldom recouped more than £150.  Because two-fifths of the copies were distributed for free to the journal’s natural market, sales were generally slow, and although back issues sold out gradually it would usually be ten years or more before there were fewer than 100 left of any given print run.  The problem was perhaps compounded by the fact that contributors were allowed to take off-prints of their papers for their own use; a Council decision of 1773 limits this to 100 copies (a strikingly high figure).  Prices fluctuated with the size of the volume, from 7 shillings in some cases to £1 in others! Clearly not an excellent business model, but this was also not the point of early scientific dissemination.

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