Travel through 400 years of scientific history with the Royal Society’s Science in the Making archive portal

23 April 2023

Discover the first letter submitted to the Royal Society by a woman in her own name; dig through some of the earliest illustrated papers of dinosaur fossils; stumble (safely) across poisonous plant specimens; or peer over the shoulders of giants, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley, as they scribbled down revolutions in the world of physics. All this and more on the Royal Society’s new digital portal, Science in the Making, which launched today. 

Archivists at the Royal Society have completed a five-year project to gather a treasure trove of material spanning 400 years of scientific publishing. Until now, these pages from history have only been accessible to visitors to the Royal Society in London.

Scientists and historians, science enthusiasts, or the merely curious, can now delve into the Science in the Making portal to discover the original notes, data, illustrations, letters, and peer reviews connected to iconic scientific papers from the Society’s collections. They can also discover the papers that never made it into print, for being too long, poorly evidenced, or considered by referees to be simply “rubbish”.

The new permanent platform and its contents, in the form of 30,000 archive items and 250,000 individual images, have taken an estimated 15,000 people hours of conservation, digitisation and cataloguing by a team of 18. The oldest items on the portal date back to 1551.

The Royal Society’s librarian, Keith Moore, said: ‘From iconic papers to scientific failures and the interactions that took place behind the scenes, visitors to Science in the Making can glimpse into the minds of history’s most eminent scientists at work and investigate how science is shaped and communicated. It has been a mammoth task making our publishing archives available to the world, and now it’s all there, in full, waiting to be explored.’

Librarian Keith Moore and historian Louisiane Ferlier, who led Science in the Making, pick out ten of their favourite items to introduce the portal:

On a par-helion, 1734 (EL/G2/37)

This 1734 letter and drawing by Martha Gerrish, a woman of New England, described a Parhelion, a rare astronomical phenomenon. Gerrish comments ‘if this came from a masculine hand, I believe it would be an acceptable present to the Royal Society’. This is the first letter to the Royal Society known to be sent by a woman in her own name and demonstrates that women contributed to science even when their work was not made public.

Victorian Dinosaurs, 1849 (PT/35/10)

Dig through the beautifully illustrated papers of dinosaur hunter, Gideon Mantell, who discovered and collected specimens of the land dinosaurs iguanodon and hylaeosaurus, together with many other fossils from around the south coast of Britain. 

A poisonous gift, 1766 (L&P/4/326)

Among the many items sent to the Royal Society by enthusiasts were sometimes plant species thought by senders to be of interest to the Fellowship.

In this letter we found a dried leaf, unprotected, with no reference to the plant species. The letter read:

"Whatever it is, Time will shew, as I have planted a root of it in my garden, and when the leaves are large enough to distinguish the Plant, I shall doe myself the Pleasure to send you one of them."

A second letter from the sender helpfully points out that this leaf was not hemlock but henbane – both species are highly poisonous.

Isaac Newton, in his own words and doodles, 1671 and 1672 (EL/N1/36 & EL/N1/40)

Among the many letters by Isaac Newton you will find on the portal, are notes and figures related to his invention of the reflecting telescope as well as his prism experiments, and even his one-upmanship over Robert Hooke: 'So then in this Theory [the movement of planets], I am plainly before Mr Hook'. You can also find Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton discussing the latest scientific discoveries and their collaboration on Newton’s great Principia Mathematica [EL/N1/58]: 

"Sir I am very sensible of the great trouble you are at in this business, & the great care you take about it. Pray take your own time. And if you meet with anything else which you think need either correcting or further explaining be pleased to signify it to
Your humble & Obliged Servant
Is. Newton"

Rubbish colleagues, 1900 (RR/15/38)

Among the treasure trove of referee reports is one by physicist Shelford Bidwell (inventor of a precursor to the fax machine) about a paper on 'The evolution of the colour sense' by Frederick William Edridge-Green in 1900. Bidwell describes the author as ‘a crank’, and the paper as not only plagiarised but also ‘rubbish of so rank a character that no competent person could possibly take any other view of it’:

"Having long ago recognised in him all the well known characteristics of a 'crank', I have carefully avoided entering into any discussion with him or expressing any opinion as to his views."

He then goes on to suggest that if the Society takes issue with ‘this admission of bias’ they should refer the paper to someone else. Edridge-Green’s tests for colour blindness were nonetheless adopted by the Royal Navy.

Caroline’s comets, 1786 and 1800 (L&P/9/8 and MS/339)

Caroline Herschel is often celebrated for her observations of comets, and here you will find the letter which was published as her first scientific article. It begins, ‘I venture to trouble you with the following imperfect account of a Comet…’ Three weeks later, Caroline Herschel was summoned to Windsor Castle by George III, and the following year was awarded a royal pension to continue her astronomical research.

We also have the raw data that documents her life-long quest to catalogue the deep skies, including many documents attributed to her brother William, but written in her hand.  

Discovered in planet sight, 1782 (L&P/8/1)

Read the original manuscript letter by William Herschel announcing ‘a primary planet of our solar system’ and why he suggests it should be named ‘Georgium Sidus’ after King George III:

"In the present more philosophical era, it would hardly be allowable to have recourse to the same method, and call on Juno, Pallas, Appollo or Minerva, for a name to our new heavenly body."

The new planet is now called Uranus, named after the Roman god of the sky, and the first such body to be discovered since classical times.

Early photographic experimentations, 1839 and 1842 (PT/26/11 & AP/23/19)

Our collection houses some of the first accounts of ‘photogenic drawing’ or photography, including William Henry Fox Talbot’s original 1839 paper describing the process which he ‘began to put in practice’ in the spring of 1834. He writes, ‘even in its present state I believe it will be found capable of many useful and important applications’.

You will also find Sir John Herschel’s early experiments on the use of plant-based colours and various agents to fix images, alongside some beautiful and fascinating cyanotypes and chrysotypes made by their inventor.

Benjamin Franklin’s electrical experiments, 1752 and 1755 (L&P/2/343 & L&P/3/72)

Discover the letter describing the famous ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ which saw Benjamin Franklin ‘draw electricity from the cloud’ using a kite. Franklin’s urbane and witty writings include his demonstration of ‘stilling the waters’ with oil, and his committee work on preserving St. Paul’s Cathedral from lightning strikes. His series of experiments with electrical conductors is here, for which he was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society.

The plague in Constantinople, 1714 (CLP/14ii/6)

This treatise written in Latin by the physician to the British Ambassador in Constantinople describes an outbreak of the plague in the early 18th century. Emanuele Timone, the treatise’s author, would be instrumental in introducing smallpox inoculation to Britain through the patronage of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who is thought to be the first English mother to have her child inoculated.