Dipping into the Royal Society’s archive

I’m not supposed to be blogging tonight but I’ve allowed myself half an hour to advertise the announcement from the Royal Society today that they’re making their entire journal archive permanently available online for free. The society was founded in 1660 with the aim of bringing together eminent scientists to discuss their research and promote their ideas about how the world works. The society’s journal – “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” was (and is) a key part of this, and contains around 60,000 papers from, amongst others, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

I went to the archive and selected the year 1785 at random to see what came up. There were technical papers such as:

A Description of a New System of Wires in the Focus of a Telescope, for Observing the Comparative Right Ascensions and Declinations of Coelestial Objects; Together with a Method of Investigating the Same When Observed by the Rhombus, Though It Happen not to be Truly in an Equatorial Position. By the Rev. Francis Wollaston, LL.B. F.R.S.

which were immediately followed by one which I’d put into the category of “I was out walking and saw something odd”:

An Account of a Stag’s Head and Horns, Found at Alport, in the Parish of Youlgreave, in the County of Derby. In a Letter from the Rev. Robert Barker, B.D. to John Jebb, M.D. F.R.S.

I was also pleased to see two papers from William Herschel, after whom the Herschel Space Observatory (which gets lots of mentions on this blog) was named. In 1782 Herschel was appointed “The King’s Astronomer” which allowed him to devote himself to his astronomical work. His first publication of 1785 was the addition of over 400 objects to his catalogue of double stars. As he writes:

The happy opportunity of giving all my time to the pursuit of astronomy which is has pleased the Royal Patron of this Society to furnish me with, has put it in my power to make this present collection much more perfect than the former.

His second, “On the Construction of the Heavens” was an analysis of his observations and his attempt to understand the Universe. It opens with a statement that I think is still extremely relevant today:

…if we would hope to make any progress in an investigation of this delicate nature, we ought to avoid two opposite extremes, of which I can hardly say which is the most dangerous. If we indulge a fanciful imagination and build worlds of our own, we must not wonder at our going wide from the path of truth and nature…On the other hand, if we add observation to observation, without attempting to draw not only certain conclusions, but also conjectural views from them, we offend against the very end for which only observations ought to be made.

My time’s up so I can’t poke around in the archive anymore tonight. If you come across something interesting over there please come back and leave a note of it in the comments – more distractions from work are always welcome!

ResearchBlogging.orgHerschel, W. (1785). On the Construction of the Heavens. By William Herschel, Esq. F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 75, 213-266 DOI: 10.1098/rstl.1785.0012

ResearchBlogging.orgHerschel, W. (1785). Catalogue of Double Stars. By William Herschel, Esq. F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 75, 40-126 DOI: 10.1098/rstl.1785.0006


2 Comments on “Dipping into the Royal Society’s archive”

  1. […] (from the We Are All in the Gutter astronomy blog) browses the newly-opened Royal Society archives for interesting papers from the past. Since the Royal Society began in 1660 and published works by […]

  2. […] According to the current attention rankings in the Altmetric database, the most popular historical paper from the Royal Society’s archives thus far has been Isaac Newton’s letter in Philosophical Transactions (published in 1671). Notable for being Newton’s first scientific paper, the letter was mentioned by Boingboing, which led to a great deal of online attention on Twitter and blogs. (Read excellent blog posts by GrrlScientist and Emma, an astronomy blogger.) […]


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