We’ve reached a Royal Society Picture Library milestone, crossing the threshold of 5000 image records online. A modest number, you might be thinking, but the aim of the database is to provide a detailed catalogue of our image collection, setting it apart from other bulk suppliers of commercial images.
Some of the highlights from the past year include the first full volume of John Smeaton’s original engineering drawings, featuring wind and water mills. Smeaton is considered the father of civil engineering – a term he coined himself – and his research on the mechanics of mills secured him the Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal in 1759. These large drawings are a popular resource for local conservation projects, restoring Smeaton’s legacy. I am hopeful the digitisation of these works will save the backs of the Library staff who have to fetch the weighty originals from the archive store, but furthermore there is something fascinating about the beautifully rendered drawings, and the chance they provide to see the workings of a machine in this digital age.
A particular favourite of mine is The original drawings of the Rotifera by Charles Thomas Hudson (1886). This is a collaborative work with Philip Henry Gosse, the man who invented the aquarium (my screen saver is the frontispiece to his book on the topic, subtitled An unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea) and who is also credited with being a great populariser of science. Both Hudson and Gosse were naturalists and skilled scientific draughtsmen, and this study was the first work to specialise in the classification of rotifera alone; it remains a fundamental work on aquatic wheel animalcules. All 31 pages of the hand-drawn colour illustrations of these curious creatures can now be viewed on our picture database.
Work continues on our scientific portrait collection, with a focus on secondary photographs and prints, the bread and butter of the picture library. Most of our portraiture is formal, aiming simply to capture the likeness of the Fellow, and not revealing much about the life and work of the sitter. I’ve therefore been delighted to have an opportunity to catalogue the personal photographs of two significant scientific couples: Helen Kemp Porter FRS, Chair of Plant Physiology at Imperial College, with her husband Arthur Huggett FRS, physiologist and obstetrician; and the chemist John Cornforth FRS and his biochemist wife Rita, who collaborated throughout their careers. It is these photographs that will, I believe, be a useful and important resource in the future, for the insight they give into the working and personal lives of these key scientists in the mid-20th century. Well, maybe not this one…