As one of two new cataloguers joining the Library team (and occasionally to be spied vanishing into the stores to fetch readers’ requests), it has been a great pleasure starting work on a series of archive volumes rather cryptically titled ‘New Letter Books’. These 73 volumes record outgoing correspondence from the President, Officers and Assistant Secretaries, covering the period 1885-1931, and offer a detailed insight into the Society’s day-to-day operations whilst based at Burlington House.
The correspondents involved vary tremendously and include Fellows, government officials, solicitors, bankers, publishers, printers, artists, engravers, engineers, plumbers and coalmen, to name but a few. The topics under discussion can be mind-boggling, from complaints regarding the unofficial use of the title FRS (by what appears to be a wig salesman no less) (NLB/4/1148), and neighbours at the Albany discarding items from their windows and blocking the Society’s gutters (NLB/1/472), to appeals to the Committee on Education bemoaning the neglect of elementary science in primary schools (NLB/4/187).
A great deal of correspondence in the New Letter Books relates to the publishing of the Society’s journals, with the Assistant Secretary often juggling the practical relationships between paper authors, engravers and printers. On this topic a letter which recently caught my attention from the then Assistant Secretary, Herbert Rix, reported to the Cambridge Instrument Company that one Mr Ascroft declared himself ‘exceedingly disappointed’ with the proofs of his illustrations (NLB/1/580), and in his despair felt unable to write down his instructions for improvement, requesting instead to see someone from the Company in person. As an aside in a later letter Rix notes Ascroft is ill, having eaten ‘bad mushrooms’, and this may be something to do with his irritability! (NLB/1/584) Ascroft’s illustrations were in fact a set of rather beautiful sunsets for the frontispiece of The eruption of Krakatoa and subsequent phenomena; report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (1888).
The August 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano between Java and Sumatra in present-day Indonesia caused the loudest explosion in history and was truly catastrophic in impact, resulting in the deaths of at least 35,000 people and the almost total obliteration of the island itself.
In the weeks and months following the eruption, stories of all manner of meteorological, geological and unusual phenomena were reported in the press around the world. For the first time the effects of such an eruption on global geography and climate could be measured and analysed, and the Royal Society formed a committee to collate and synthesize the wealth of information available.
The archive contains an amazing collection of correspondence in response to a call from the committee including reports, measurements and illustrations which were used to publish the final report under the editorship of meteorologist George James Symons FRS. A forerunner of the kind of global citizen science initiatives we see today, Symons’s letter in The Times on 13 February 1884 called for correspondents to “be very particular in giving the date, exact time (stating whether Greenwich or local) and position whence all recorded facts were observed”.
The Royal Society archive also contains several hundred newspaper clippings referring to the eruption and its after effects, which leads us to the title of this blog post from the Globe (because – as we well know – the British love nothing better than discussing the weather…).
The spectacular sunsets observed in 1883 and 1884 due to the release of huge amounts of dust and sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere during the eruption certainly caught the imagination of artists. Astronomers in recent years have suggested Edvard Munch’s memory of these dramatic after-effects inspired the swirling blood red sky of The Scream. An appendix in the committee’s report on the first appearances of optical phenomena certainly sometimes reads more like poetry, with “a lurid glare in the sky at sunset, objects looking a ghastly blue”. Such dazzling scenes certainly captivated Ascroft, who spent hours creating hundreds of sketches of the unfolding dramatic skies over the Thames in London. The collation of the optical phenomena in the committee’s report led to a map of how wind currents moved around the world; this “equatorial smoke-stream” is what we today term the jet stream.
If you are interested in the history of scientific publishing why not visit our exhibition celebrating the 350th anniversary of the publication of the first Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Ascroft’s dramatic landscapes and other images related to the Krakatoa eruption are also available to view via the Royal Society’s Picture Library.