Posted by: whipplelib | December 5, 2016

W is for Ward’s World of Wonders

One of my favourite authors at the Whipple is Mary Ward (or the Hon. Mrs Ward as she was named on some of her books), writer on microscopy and astronomy.

The Microscope

Born in Ireland in 1827, Mary Ward took a keen interest in natural history and astronomy from an early age and proved herself to be an accomplished artist. As her enthusiasm grew into serious study, she put on exhibitions for her family and friends and hand-printed her own booklets. In 1857 she produced her Sketches with the microscope. It had begun as a collection of letters to her friend Emily Filgate on objects suitable for examination under the microscope. Ward lithographed the plates herself and they were then hand coloured by a Dublin engraver.


STORE 200:14

Sketches was published locally in 250 copies but it soon came to the attention of the London publisher Groombridge & Sons, who bought the copyright and republished it in 1858 as A world of wonders revealed by the microscope. The Whipple’s copy is beautifully bound in green gold-tooled binding.

The book combined a ‘panorama’ of the natural world, showing a real love of spectacle and the minute, with a guide to the practical use of the microscope. Ward taught herself various techniques for making observations and wrote honestly about the difficulties beginners faced when using the instrument. She relied on personal experience and emphasised the importance of making practical observations.


The Microscope, by the Hon. Mrs Ward. 3rd edition, 1870. STORE TURNER 6

Written at a key time in the history of microscopy, when good quality, affordable microscopes were becoming more generally available, A world of wonders proved popular and went through a number of editions and revisions. It later became Microscope Teachings, and finally simply The Microscope.

microscope-rossWard’s own microscope, used for her observations, had been bought for her by her father when she was 18. It was produced by Andrew Ross, a leading instrument maker of the time, and Ward opened her book with an illustration of it in Plate 1.



Telescope Teachings STORE CR 0:19

The Telescope

Mary Ward’s cousin was William, 3rd Earl of Rosse and she was a frequent visitor to Birr Castle. She met and corresponded with a number of leading scientists of the time, including David Brewster. Lord Rosse also had the famed great telescope,with a 6 foot diameter mirror, built at Birr Castle. This was completed in 1845 and Mary Ward was one of the first to make observations with it. She produced a companion volume to her microscopical work: Telescope teachings. Similar to her microscopy book, this presented the wonders of the heavens along with a practical guide to the use of a small telescope, with the aim of encouraging others to observe and study for themselves. It was llustrated with Ward’s drawings and observations, made using her own telescope, which had been recommended by her cousin. It was published by Groombridge & Sons in 1859. Also included were recent discoveries made with more powerful telescopes, including the comet of 1858.


Telescope Teachings
Plate 12: The Comet of 1858


The Telescope. 3rd edition. STORE 33:9

Another successful work, Telescope Teachings was revised to become The Telescope. The Whipple has the 3rd edition, bound in bright blue cloth, and the 5th from 1879 (STORE 93:32).

Although she had no real claim to the title, Ward was often named on her books as ‘The Hon. Mrs Ward.’ This was perhaps an attempt to reinforce her authority as an author at a time when it was likely difficult for a woman to find a publisher. Mary Ward’s writing was important in encouraging a knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the natural world among the general public and a young audience, at a crucial time in the history of the production and availabiltiy of scientific instruments like the microscope and telescope. Sadly she died in 1869 when she fell from a steam road carriage at Birr Castle.




G. L’E. Turner, ‘Ward , Mary (1827–1869)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 [, accessed 7 Nov 2016]

Owen G. Harry (1984), ‘The Hon. Mrs Ward and ‘A windfall for the microscope’, of 1856 and 1864’ Annals of Science, 41:5, pp.471-482



Posted by: whipplelib | December 1, 2016

V is for … Vestiges

L0012623 Robert Chambers, engraved portrait

L0012623 Robert Chambers, engraved portrait Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Chambers, Robert 1802-1871 Milton Millhauser, ‘Just Before Darwin’, Middletown Conn., Wesleyan U.P., 1959. Frontispiece, page 22. Engraving portrait of Robert Chambers, seated, to right;anon;before 1864. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Anonymously published in 1844, The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation has been noted by Millhasuer as “…one of the most roundly hated books of its time.” It caused much outrage from gentlemen of science and other commentators when it was published. Samuel Richard Bosanquet (1800-1882) wrote a whole book on his dislike for it entitled “Vestiges of the natural history of creation”: its argument examined and exposed” in 1845. I think he goes a bit over the top:

The treatise which we have to examine and analyse is most engaging and interesting. We willingly accord to it all the attractions of novelty and ingenuity, the fascinations of beauty, the delights of theory. We readily attribute to it all the graces of the accomplished harlot. Her song is like the syren for its melody and attractive sweetness; she is clothed in scarlet, and every kind of fancy work of dress and ornament…. But she is a foul and filthy thing, whose touch is taint, whose breath is contamination; whose look, and words, and thoughts, will turn the spring of purity to a pest, of truth to lies, of life to death, of love to loathing

Adam Sedgwick anonymously reviewed the Vestiges for the Edinburgh Review in July 1845. He spends about 15 pages discussing the “anatomy of the authors mind” and then concludes that

“..our authors work is not merely shallow and superficial, but utterly false throughout to all the principles of sound philosophy”

Despite this loathing of the book, it still ran to eleven editions and sold forty thousand copies in Britain alone.

We sadly don’t have a copy of the first edition but do have copies of the 4th and 9th editions (STORE 152:28 and STORE 47:213). On both of these copies previous owners have added Chambers name to the title page. We also have a German version, Spuren der Gottheit in der Entwickelungs by A. Seubert which Livingstone has pointed out “…strangely incorporated material from William Whewell’s Indications of the Creator (1845)- originally intended to rebut Vestiges”.


Newspaper clipping

In 1884, Chambers name finally appeared on the title page of Vestiges. The photo here shows a clipping from the Glasgow Evening Citizen which is pasted into our copy of Chamber’s follow up to the Vestiges “Explanations: a sequel to Vestiges of the natural history of creation” which was published in 1845, explaining the revealing of the author.



Millhauser, M. Just before Darwin: Robert Chambers and Vestiges
Livingstone, D.N. Putting Science in its place
Lightman, B “Science and the public” in Harrison, P., Numbers, R.L. & Shank, M.H. (ed.) Wrestling with nature, pp.337-375


Library Assistant

Posted by: whipplelib | November 30, 2016

U is for the Universe

Throughout history, humanity has looked to understand the Universe and our place within it, and the Whipple holds many volumes of work on time, space, matter and energy. Another strength of the collections is the great and varied 19th century material, including many books written for a ‘popular’ audience and for the education of children and adults. Charles Blunt’s The beauty of the heavens: a pictorial display of the astronomical phenomena of the universe reflects both of these aspects (STORE CR 0:45).




The Fixed Stars

In the mid-19th century, Charles Blunt, a lecturer on astronomy and natural philosophy, saw the need for a series of ‘accurate yet popular’ plates illustrating the known Universe. First published in 1840, the Whipple has the ‘new edition’ of 1842.

The text of Blunt’s book is presented as ‘A Familiar Lecture on Astronomy’. Lectures were often used to communicate knowledge in an easy to follow format and Blunt explains his intentions in the Introduction (pp. v-vi): this was to be read aloud by a parent, teacher or other adult to a gathered audience. The family didn’t even have to leave the home to learn about the Universe and to enjoy and understand the beauty of the heavens. The lecture, which avoided technical language and focused on simple explanations, was even neatly divided into 2 sections so it could be spread out over more than one session if desired.



Most striking are the 104 plates accompanying this lecture, made from Blunt’s own drawings, paintings and observations. These covered the Sun, Moon, Earth and planetary system, eclipses, comets, asteroids, the milky way, nebulae, clouds, constellations and phenomena, such as rainbows and the Aurora Borealis, all in colourful illustrations.

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Posted by: whipplelib | November 29, 2016

T is for Tom Telescope

Tom Telescope and his Newtonian System of Philosophy regularly feature during special collections events at the Whipple.



Tom Telescope editions from 1797, 1838 and 1827

The text is a digest of natural philosophy presented for a young audience, cast in the form of ‘lectures’ by the eponymous Tom to members of the ‘Lilliputian Society’.


STORE 71:10 (1838), p. [1]

It was issued in a series of 14 editions over 77 years, initiated by the publisher John Newbery (1713-67), who specialised in children’s books, often ingeniously advertised. Newbury’s entrepreneurial spirit is evident in the other item in the Whipple collection from his print shop, namely A course of lectures in natural and experimental philosophy, geography and astronomy… (Reading, 1743) written by instrument maker Benjamin Martin. Adverts for Newbury’s wares, which included books and instruments, turn up on the frontispiece, and on a full-sheet fold-out plate illustrating a pocket reflecting microscope.

All but two editions of Tom Telescope were published beyond John Newbery’s lifetime. The earliest Whipple copy, “A New Improved Edition, with many alterations and additions, to explain the late new Philosophical Discoveries, &c. &c. By William Magnet, F.L.S.”, published in 1798, mentions no fewer than 5 firms on the title page: Ogilvy and Son; Vernor and Hood; J. Walker; Lackington, Allen, and Co.; Darton and Harvey. By 1827, the date of our second copy, Thomas Tegg of Cheapside was listed as a retailer, becoming the sole publisher of the final edition of 1838.

Jim Secord has shown how the content of ‘Tom Telescope’ changes over the course of its published life, reflecting shifts in perceptions of science in different political and historical circumstances.[1] It’s also possible to see across the three Whipple copies how the physical book changes, becoming slightly larger and more substantial in later editions, and illustrated with finer wood engravings as Tom himself grows up.

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[1] James A. Secord, ‘Newton in the Nursery: Tom Telescope and the Philosophy of Tops and Balls, 1761-1838’, History of Science 23 (1985), 127-151.

Posted by: whipplelib | September 20, 2016

S is for Sherburne’s Sphere of Manilius

Edward Sherburne’s Sphere of Marcus Manilius (1675) will be studied as a Primary Source in the HPS Part II undergraduate course this year.[1]


The text of the Sphere is a versified translation of the first book of Marcus Manilius’s 5-part astrological treatise Astronomicon, probably written in Rome in the first century CE. Sherburne’s publication, with an original Appendix that includes a catalogue of eminent ancient and modern astronomers, provides an interesting case study of the place of astronomy in gentlemanly society in seventeenth-century England, making it an ideal source for students of the history of science in the early modern period.[2]

As ever, the detail of that general picture is greatly enhanced by the evidence of a particular copy of the book, so, as Library staff busily prepare to support this and other taught courses in the Department with the start of term rapidly approaching, we take a moment to look at some of the features of the Whipple copy of Sherburne’s Sphere of Manilius that may help to bring this Primary Source to life.

pastedownThe Library acquired this copy at the sale of the private library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle in 2005.[3] The sale attracted a lot of public attention as it brought to widespread notice for the first time the riches of a collection built up by generations of the Parker family. This was particularly distinguished by the scientific interests and patronage of father and son Thomas and George, 1st and 2nd Earls of Macclesfield respectively, who spanned the period from the latter half of the seventeenth to the second half of the eighteenth centuries.[4] The books acquired for the household during this time remained largely undisturbed at Shirburn in subsequent years, so evidence of contemporary use is especially valuable.

Among the contributors to intellectual life at the castle was William Jones (1675-1749), resident maths tutor to both Thomas and George Parker. By virtue of his connections in the field Jones secured for Shirburn the library of a notable mathematical pedagogue of the previous generation, John Collins (1625-83). Collins had extensive connections with the book trade, and is credited by Edward Sherburne as having seen several important mathematical works through the press.[5]

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Sherburne’s Sphere is an impressive folio volume, with illustrations that would have required careful supervision through the press, perhaps with assistance from Collins himself. Besides a striking and richly symbolic full-page frontispiece engraved by Hollar there are 11 engraved plates on separate leaves bound in the book.[6] All occur in either Sherburne’s Preface or Appendix, since Manilius’s text is not illustrated (beyond decorative borders and initials), though the use of multiple types sizes to distinguish between the verse text and accompanying commentary on each page would have kept the compositors and proof readers busy.

A manuscript note in the Whipple copy provides a brief index to the illustrated plates, describing the astronomical ‘schemes’ they depict, and, where relevant, indicating the source of the illustration, e.g.

“C. The appearance of the Sun, from Kircher ………………………….. p. 166”

In each case, Kircher, Grimaldi and Hevelius’s work is discussed in Sherburne’s text on the surrounding pages.


Comparison of the engravings in Sherburne with the original sources cited shows that they are close copies, though the versions in Sherburne are not signed, so we cannot attribute them. In the case of the map of the moon from Hevelius’s Selenographia the Sherburne version includes the corner decorations from the original plate, including the legend attributing it to Hevelius with the date 1645. But the plate mark on Grimaldi’s ‘Figura pro nomenclatura et liberation lunari’ a few pages later clearly shows that the outer edges of the original have been masked out, presumably because the content wasn’t relevant to Sherburne’s purpose. We would need to compare multiple copies of the Sphere to determine whether the uneven edges of the mask match or whether there are variations across the edition. Plenty to follow up here for a bibliographically minded Primary Source student…

We can’t be sure of the author of the manuscript note, but it’s plausibly an aide memoire for an early reader of Sherburne at Shirburn, guiding them quickly to illustrations of key astronomical features as envisaged by leading authors of the day.

Anna Jones



[3] Despite the similarity of names, there is no direct connection between Edward Sherburne (1616-1702) and Shirburn Castle. Sir Edward pursued his poetic interests alongside government service, including as Clerk to the Ordnance Office during the Civil War. Hugh de Quehen, ‘Sherburne, Sir Edward (bap. 1616, d. 1702)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 20 Sept 2016]

[4] R. Gaskell & P. Fara, ‘Selling the silver: country house libraries and the history of science’, Endeavour 29,1 (2005), 14-16.

[5] Edward Sherburne, The Sphere of Marcus Manilius, pp 116-117.

[6] See R. Horry, ‘The mind of the frontispiece: myth, meaning and motivation in Sherburne’s ‘Manilius’ (unpublished dissertation, 2003).

Posted by: whipplelib | August 22, 2016

R is for the Royal Society and the History of Thomas Sprat

Spine titleAnother item from the generous bequest from the estate of Michael Clark is celebrated in this post: Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society.

On 28 November 1660, following a lecture at Gresham College from Christopher Wren, the first ‘learned society’ meeting took place of a group that would become known from 1663 as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’. Also in 1663, the young chaplain Thomas Sprat was elected a Fellow, on the recommendation of founding member John Wilkins. Sprat was soon commissioned to write a history of the Society.

Although Sprat seems to have had little direct interest in natural philosophy himself, this was a chance to demonstrate his literary talents and the clear, plain style he advocated for scientific writing. Almost finished by November 1664, parts of Sprat’s work were published around this time. However, The History of the Royal-Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge was first published in full in 1667, after being delayed by plague and the great fire of London. It was presented to the Society by John Wilkins on 10 October 1667. The History carries the crest and coat of arms of the Society with its motto – ‘nullius in verba’ (‘the word of no-one’, or ‘take nobody’s word for it’) – but it did not receive its official imprimatur.[1]

The work had various aims: to describe the Society’s purpose, methods and achievements; to meet criticisms of its limited productivity; and to present it as no threat to the establishment, but as beneficial to the nation and to humanity. Concerned about emphasising the productivity of the Society, a council had been set up in December 1664 charged with selecting material to include in Sprat’s work. 14 papers delivered to the Society between 1661 and 1664 were chosen, edited and prepared for the book – the focus was on the wide-reaching practical benefits of this scientific enterprise. The range of papers included ‘Direction for the observations of the Eclipses of the Moon’, ‘The History of Making Gunpowder’ and ‘A Proposal for making Wine’.

Sprat’s work was not an accurate history of the Royal Society’s founding or practices however. Instead, this was in many ways a piece of PR.[2] It was closely overseen by Wilkins and by other members of the committees set up to select and edit content. The careful selection of material to be included, or excluded, was key to its purpose, but has also caused criticism over the book’s reliability and accuracy. Essentially, Sprat’s History aimed to show the novel methods and aims which the Society stood for, to promote its activity and assert its place within the social order, and was an appeal for both moral and financial support.

Title page and frontispieceAmong the books to reach the Whipple from the collection of Michael Clark is a first edition of Sprat’s History, with some modern repairs and binding. Importantly, this includes a frontispiece only present in some copies. This shows a bust of Charles II, patron of the Society, being crowned with a laurel wreath by an angel. Seated beside the bust are the first president of the Society, William Brouncker, pointing at the dedication to Charles II, and Francis Bacon, pointing towards the title page. They are accompanied by items relating to the Society’s early history and scientific instruments, including an aerial telescope, scales, a pendulum clock and an air pump.[3] This copperplate engraving combines the great influence of Bacon (whose ideas and methods were followed by the early Fellows, although his authority was exaggerated by Sprat, disregarding many other influences) with the Society’s royal patronage. The instruments displayed highlight the experimentation and practical observations carried out by the Society’s members. Abraham Cowley composed the Preface, a poem celebrating Bacon, Sprat and the Society.

This is an important addition to the Whipple collection. The Library already holds two other copies of Sprat’s History: the 3rd edition, published in 1722 (STORE 62:3) and the 4th from 1734 (STORE 62:4). Neither of these editions contained the frontispiece.


The beneficial role of science continues to be central to the work of the Royal Society, as seen in its mission and priorities statement today:
“The Society’s fundamental purpose, reflected in its founding Charters of the 1660s, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”[4]

[1] John Morgan, ‘Sprat, Thomas (bap. 1635, d. 1713)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008. Accessed 22 Aug 2016.

[2] ‘Sprat, Thomas.’ Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 12. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008. 580-587. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 22/8/16.

[3] Accessed 19/8/16.

[4] Accessed 19/8/16.

Dear, ‘Totius in verba: Rhetoric and Authority in the Early Royal Society’ Isis 76.2 (1985), pp.144-161
Hunter, ‘Founder members of the Royal Society (act. 1660–1663)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2006; online edn, Jan 2016
Lyons, The Royal Society 1660-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1944)
Morgan, ‘Sprat, Thomas (bap. 1635, d. 1713)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008
Skouen, ‘Science versus Rhetoric? Sprat’s History of the Royal Society ReconsideredRhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 29.1 (2011), pp.23-52
‘Sprat, Thomas.’ Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 12. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008. 580-587. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
The Royal Society website:


Posted by: whipplelib | August 9, 2016

Q is for Quekett, the Quekett Club and its journal

Developing a market for scientific instruments from enthusiastic amateurs

The Quekett Microscopical Club, founded in 1865, was named in honour of Prof. John Thomas Quekett, a famous Victorian microscopist, “who had worked so hard and successfully towards making the microscope a vital scientific research instrument. (…) His interest in the microscope began early: he is said to have constructed one fP1020071or himself out of a roasting-jack, a parasol, and some fragments of brass, and with assistance of this remarkable instrument to have given, when still only sixteen, a course of lectures at Langport school in Somerset.”1

Quekett decided on a medical career and was entered as a student at the London Hospital Medical College, and at Kings College, London. He successfully completed a studentship in Human and Comparative Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, during which time he made some 2,500 microscopical preparations, a high proportion of which remain in the College’s slide collection today2. His Treatise on the Microscope, first published in 1848, was published in revised editions in 1852 and 1853, and a German translation was published in Weimar in 1850. In due course he was awarded a Professorship in Histology at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1852, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860.

The Quekett Microscopical Club grew out of the Society of Amateur Botanists, a group of amateur microscopists in London that included prominent figures such as: M.C. Cooke, Thomas Ketteringham, and Witham Bywater. At the time, Cooke, Ketteringham, and Bywater were meeting once a week at Bywater’s house for an evening with their microscope, when they would examine objects and discuss specimens of special interest they had brought with them. At 10.00 pm they would put away their instruments and discuss Science Gossip, a journal edited by Cooke (more information about Science Gossip can be found under letter J is for Journal in this blog’s series). Later on the three friends agreed to support the proposal that the informal meeting be adopted as a provisional committee. The title agreed for this new association was “The Quekett Microscopical Club”.

“The Quekett”, as it is commonly known today, remains dedicated to the interests of amateur microscopists, holding monthly meetings in London, in which ‘Gossip’ style meetings are combined with short talks by a member. The Quekett Microscopical Club publishes The Quekett Journal of Microscopy and the Bulletin of the Quekett Microscopical Club. The Quekett Journal of Microscopy has continued an unbroken tradition since 1868, during which time it has also been known as the Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club (1868–1966) and Microscopy (1966–1993). Many of the volumes are accessible via:

Members of the Club also receive issues of the Bulletin of the Quekett Microscopical Club.

In the Whipple collection the Quekett Microscopical Club’s journals appear under all three titles: Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club (from the periods between 1869-84); continues as Microscopy: the Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club (1966-67, 1988-92); and Quekett Journal of Microscopy (1993-2003). The Whipple also holds some copies of the Bulletin of the Quekett Microscopical Club. (Most of the earliest issues came from the library of Gerard Turner).

Holding in one hand a copy of the Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club from the 1860’s and in the other an issue from 1965, is easy to observe how this journal has been developed throughout one century!

Aga Lanucha


1 Turner, G.L’E. Micrographia historica 1972, p. 5

2Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club, Special issue for the Centenary meeting and the exhibition, vol. 30, no. 3, 8-9 October 1965, p.57

Posted by: whipplelib | August 3, 2016

P is for … Phrenology

Archive Boxes

The Boxes

As any person with a knowledge of the Whipple hopefully knows, we have a very wonderful collection on phrenology. This post will focus on the archival material rather than the books. The archival material was donated in 1998 by the publishing firm C.W. Daniel Co. Ltd. It had belonged to Frances Hedderly, who was a former President of the British Phrenological Society.

Along with letters, drafts of articles, information on the liquidation of the Society and courses on phrenology, there is a collection of phrenological analyses. These mainly fall into a pattern of someone writing to Miss Hedderly at the Society and asking if there is someone near to where they live, or if she is available, to perform a phrenological reading. An appointment is made, the reading is done and sometime later a report is produced. In some cases, further contact is made and later appointments booked. This tends to happen when parents have their young children (the ones I looked at were all boys) analysed and then have the procedure repeated when they are about 14. One of the reports is about a 5 year old called Clive. His mother gets in contact with Miss Hedderly again when he is 14 to set up another appointment and writes that the first report mentioned Clive “developing a strong capacity for the enjoyment and appreciation of music”, and now, at the age of 14 he plays the piano, viola, violin and the organ at the local spiritualist church. Sadly there is not a copy of the second report to see what the future holds for Clive.

Handwritten measurements

Handwritten phrenological measurements

But why do people want to be analysed? As we have seen above, it is concerned parents worried about their child’s development and future. One son is described by his mother as “anti-social” and she points out he has never liked being around other people. Perhaps phrenology can explain why. He also doesn’t know what career path to take. It is suggested that he joins a debating society to meet people and takes up the study of nature. Another lady writes that her son wanted to be an RAF pilot but has been rejected on minor medical grounds. The mother had a phrenological analysis performed 25 years previously on herself and has had a wonderful career and wants it to help her son find a career too.

I’ve enjoyed having a quick look through these letters and reports, and especially seeing a few hand drawn maps giving Miss Hedderly directions to their homes and the mentions of delays in letter writing due to holidays, house moves or work commitments. The days before sat-nav and email!!!

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Posted by: whipplelib | August 1, 2016

O is for Owen: On the quest for the giant sloth

Richard Owen (1804-1892) was a prominent figure in British natural history for much of his long career, but his posthumous reputation suffered from negative reactions to his public criticism of Darwin, and his achievements were buried under withering assessments of his awkward character.

L0014087 Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Maull & Polyblank.

L0014087 Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Maull & Polyblank. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Maull & Polyblank. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Happily, Owen has received more sympathetic treatment in recent years through studies that consider his work in a wider context than simply in relation to the development of evolutionary theory.[1]

Historical assessments aside, however, Owen’s popular legacy is assured, whether consciously or not, through his coining of the term ‘dinosauria’ to describe a category of extinct large terrestrial reptiles, and through the legacy of the Natural History Museum, which he campaigned to establish.

Dinosaur mania itself has a distinguished history. Prince Albert thought to celebrate recent discoveries in prehistorical natural history by commissioning a series of life-sized sculptures for the re-homed Crystal Palace at Sydenham Park, and visitors have been enjoying the benefits of Owen’s anatomical expertise through these models since 1854.



Megalosaurus at Crystal Palace Park, London. By, CC BY 3.0,

Owen was a prolific writer with a distinguished publication record in his specialist field of comparative anatomy. Of the several works held at the Whipple we’re particularly fond of the two concerning giant sloths: Description of the skeleton of an extinct gigantic sloth (1842) and Memoir on the Megatherium: or giant ground-sloth of America (1861).

M0012517 Portrait of William Buckland

M0012517 Portrait of William Buckland Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Portrait of William Buckland Mezzotint By: S. Cousinsafter: T. PhillipsPublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Originally intending to practise medicine, Owen was soon overtaken by an interest in comparative anatomy, and travelled from Edinburgh to London in 1827 where he fell under the patronage of John Abernethy, president of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was soon established there as assistant to William Clift, conservator of the Hunterian Museum, and so began a fruitful apprenticeship that set the path for his future career. A fortuitous encounter with the French naturalist Georges Cuvier in 1830 brought Owen into contact with a functionalist approach to fossil zoology which he adopted enthusiastically as a principle in his own work, becoming in time a disciple of theologian, geologist and palaeontologist William Buckland (1784-1856).[2]

Buckland had made a feature of the Megatherium – affectionately described as the ‘Behomoth of the Pampas’, with reference to its original habitat in Argentina – in his Bridgwater Treatise of 1836 in which he sought to show that every aspect of its anatomy pointed to the work of an intelligent creator in providing physical features well suited to their function.


Owen further advanced Buckland and Cuvier’s view of the vegetarian root-digging habits of the prehistoric sloth supported by discoveries based on fossil bones brought back by Darwin from his Beagle voyage in 1836.


Skeleton of Megatherium Americanum from Owen’s Memoir. Whipple Library Store 188:26

Famously, Owen’s Description includes the suggestion that the Mylodon (another South American ground sloth, smaller than the Megatherium) used its tail as a third hind leg for extra support when wrenching over trees.[3] The tripod pose depicted in this fold-out plate became the iconic image of the long-extinct creature.



Upright Mylodon from Owen’s Description. Whipple Library Store 188:24


These copies of Owen’s Description and Memoir came to the Library with a transfer of books from the Department of Anatomy in 2000. Receiving transfers of historical material from other libraries in the Cambridge network remains an important part of the Whipple’s remit, where it complements our existing collections.

Anna Jones

[1] E.g. Jacob W. Gruber, ‘Owen, Sir Richard (1804-1892)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2006 [, accessed 25 July 2016]  and Nicolaas Rupke, Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin, a revised edition (University of Chicago Press, 2009), to both of which this post in indebted.

[2] Gruber, op cit.

[3] Rupke, op cit., pp 75-77.

In 2015 the Whipple gratefully received a number of historical science books from the estate of Michael Clark, a former chemistry teacher and collector. Among these was a copy in modern binding of the 2nd edition of Robert Boyle’s New experiments physico-mechanical, touching the air, and its effects, (made for the most part, in a new pneumatical engine), published in 1662. What caught our attention with this book was the signature of Edward Nairne.

One of the most famous English instrument-makers of the 18th century, Edward Nairne (1726-1806) enjoyed a long career working in London. His range of products was great and included microscopes, telescopes, quadrants, sextants, globes, barometers and electrical machines. For some 20 years Nairne worked in partnership with Thomas Blunt in Cornhill, London. A number of instruments bearing the signature “Nairne, Cornhill, London”, “Nairne, London” or “Nairne & Blunt” have been identified. The Whipple Museum has an equatorial telescope marked “Nairne & Blunt LONDON”.[1] The Library holds some accompanying trade literature in Nairne’s Description and use of a new constructed equatorial telescope or portable observatory, published in 1771 and owned by Robert Whipple (STORE CR 10:20). Strangely, this also has the name Nairne written (in 2 attempts?) on the reverse of the frontispiece.

Another important part of Nairne’s business was his work with electrical machines. The Museum has a Nairne’s Patent Medico-Electrical Machine from around 1787, transferred from the Cavendish Laboratory, and again complementary printed material can be found in the Library’s collections.[2] A facsimile of the 1773 Directions for using the electrical machine (first published in 1764) shows Nairne’s first commercial success in the field of electrical machines (STORE 97:8). In 1782 Nairne received a patent for his new and improved machine, a design that would go on to be very popular. The description and use of Nairne’s patent electrical machine: with the addition of some philosophical experiments and medical observations was first published by Nairne & Blunt in 1783. We have a copy of the 8th edition, published by Nairne in 1796 (STORE CR 10:21), and a copy of the French translation by M. Caullet de Veaumorel from 1784 (STORE 95:30), attesting to its popularity beyond England.

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Nairne and Boyle…

Boyle engraving

Is the Nairne signature genuine? A smudged signature of ‘Ro.Boyle 166[?]’ written on the title page in a different hand and ink seems very dubious. However, Boyle’s New experiments physico-mechanical… would certainly have been a fitting work for Nairne to have. In this book, Robert Boyle described in great detail his experiments made on the effects of reducing the pressure in the air on diverse physical phenomena. Working with an air-pump designed and constructed by Robert Hooke these experiments, first published in 1660, were extremely influential. The engraving featured in the book clarified the written description.

Air pump in Museum

Copyright: The Whipple Museum (Wh.3145)



By the 18th century, the air-pump was one of the most important instruments for scientific study and a number of instrument-makers of the day sold them. Nairne improved an air-pump designed by John Smeaton and both were illustrated in the plates of Abraham Rees’ The cyclopaedia: or, Universal dictionary of arts, sciences and literature under the ‘Pneumatics’ section (STORE 213:64). The Whipple Museum also has a great example in an air-pump marked “Nairne & Blunt LONDON”. In the history of scientific instruments, the Whipple collections show some of the work of an instrument-maker such as Nairne in the 18th century and the great influence of Robert Boyle. The recent acquisition of Boyle’s New experiments nicely connects the two.

Air pumps in Rees

[1] No. 3 in J.A. Bennett, The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Catalogue 3: Astronomy & Navigation (The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 1983).

[2] No. 412 in Kenneth Lyall, The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Catalogue 8: Electrical and Magnetic Instruments (The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 1991).

G. Clifton, Directory of British scientific instrument makers, 1550–1851, ed. G. L’E. Turner (Zwemmer in association with the National Maritime Museum, 1995).
Simon Schaffer, ‘Nairne, Edward (1726–1806)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 20 July 2016]
D.J. Warner, ‘Edward Nairne: Scientist and Instrument-Maker’ Rittenhouse 12.3 (1998), 65-93.
J.B. West, ‘Robert Boyle’s landmark book of 1660 with the first experiments
on rarified air’ Journal of Applied Physiology 98 (2005), 31–39.


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