Our latest history of science exhibition opened earlier in December: ‘Treasures of the Royal Society Library’ celebrates the Library’s 350th anniversary (imaginitive exhibition titles are not our strong point). Of course, apart from deciding on a sensible title, the main difficulty about organising a ‘Treasures’ exhibition proved to be deciding which books to leave out. With display space for only about 50 volumes in total, the competition was extremely fierce. You can see many of our final selection on the exhibition website, but I’d like to devote the rest of this blog to just a few of the ‘Treasures’ we didn’t put on display.
I should say at the outset that for librarians, historians and bibliophiles it’s very difficult to find a lacklustre book in the Royal Society’s library collection. The shelves are full of rare, old and valuable books, beautifully illustrated books, books written and donated by eminent scientists, and first editions of groundbreaking texts. Most importantly, though, all our books represent a window onto the intellectual and cultural world of their time – not always a world that’s comfortable or familiar to us today. With this in mind, let’s wander down the shelves…
The Birds of Asia by John Gould, 7 vols. (London, 1850-1883)
Gould began his career as a taxidermist, at one point employed by George IV to stuff the first giraffe that had arrived in England. He first ventured into publishing when a collection of Himalayan birds arrived at the Zoological Society’s museum, and Gould came up with the idea of a large format (the technical term is ‘imperial folio’) volume with lavish coloured illustrations. No commercial publisher would take on the project so Gould published it himself, with his wife Elizabeth as illustrator. He went on to publish 50 massive volumes on birds of the world, and Australian mammals. The illustrations are always beautiful, none more so than those of the humming-birds: the natural irridescence of their feathers was imitated using gold leaf. The books are incredibly impressive to look at but unfortunately the Birds of Asia volumes are rather fragile and difficult to display.
Voices from the Void: Six Years’ Experience in Automatic Communications by Hester Travers Smith (London, 1919
This slim cloth-bound volume begins with an introduction by Professor Sir William Fletcher Barrett, FRS. Barrett (1844-1925) was a physicist, but his introduction reveals his strong interest in the book’s subject matter – clairvoyance, telepathy, and the possibility of ‘survival after bodily death’ and communications from the afterlife. Barrett’s interest in such matters dated back to the 1860s and had led to his involvement in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. Although such studies remained controversial, a hint of their attraction comes in the final line of Barrett’s introduction: ‘In this awful and devastating war such evidence [of survival after death] comes as ‘the shadow of a great rock in a weary land’ [that is, as a refuge in the desert – a quote from the Book of Isaiah].
Das Buch zu Distillieren by Hieronymus Braunschweig (Strasbourg, 1519)
This is a large folio volume packed with detailed illustrations of distillation equipment, furnaces, and Renaissance men engaged in the distillation process. Braunschweig was a chemist and pharmacist, and his book also includes instructions on how to distill essential oils from various plants, as well as information about how to use the resulting products to treat particular ailments. It is a beautiful book, linking the world of the medieval herbal with the early days of experimental chemistry. This volume was donated to the Royal Society in 1667 as part of the Arundel Library.
Coryates Crudities Hastily Gobled Up in Five Moneths Travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia, etc by Thomas Coryate (London, 1611)
Like most other people, scientists seemingly never tire of travellers’ tales. This was particularly true in the early days of the Royal Society, when reliable information from abroad was scarce and hard-won. Coryate’s famous book, which describes his journey through Europe made largely on foot, is a rather odd addition to the travel collection. Even in its own day it was seen as something of a literary joke. A flock of London wits and courtiers produced 100 pages worth of prefatory verses, most of them mock-encomiums and burlesques poking fun at Coryate. The book itself is actually a great read, and among other things describes the use of the table fork in Italy. Coryate adopted the fashion and brought it to England – apparently causing much mirth amongst his associates. But I particularly like his comment about another Italian culinary habit: ‘I obserued a custome in many Townes and Cities of Italy, which did not a little displease me, that most of their best meats which come to the table are sprinkled with cheese, which I loue not so well as the Welchmen doe’.
The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland by Thomas Moore (London, 1855)
Over the centuries many scientists have turned to illustrations in order to explain their work more successfully. Often scientists have been among the first to experiment with new forms of representation: a good example is Anna Atkins’s cyanotypes of British algae. This book of ferns was illustrated by Henry Bradbury using the nature printing process, where a specimen is pressed into a lead plate to leave a detailed impression which can then be used to make prints. Of course the resulting image needed to be coloured by the printer, but in this volume the ferns do look extremely life-like.