‘Science in Print: Understanding book production from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries’ is a seminar series hosted by the Whipple Library in the Michaelmas Term. Over 5 sessions led by Roger Gaskell, Anna Jones and Jim Secord we look at various aspects of the production and illustration of scientific books during the handpress and mechanized periods (using examples from the Whipple’s collections), and how this matters when studying contemporary texts in the History and Philosophy of Science and beyond.
The series is open to all, from students to researchers. Read how Claire Sabel (HPS MPhil, 2014-15), one of this year’s participants, found the experience:
I took part in the ‘Science in Print’ seminar series while researching and writing my first MPhil essay. Although I had done a fair amount of work with early modern books and manuscripts before coming to Cambridge, the most I could have told you about my experiences was that the pages smell nice, and that it is proper etiquette to use a book weight.
Each week of ‘Science in Print’ brought new, concrete insights into the significance of book production that I was able to connect to the Renaissance natural history texts I was studying in the Rare Book Room of the University Library. The combination of independent work at the UL, and hands on learning with Science in Print created an enriching dialogue that considerably developed my appreciation of my sources, and provided ample resources for future studies of early modern material.
Although my reflections on the series are bound up in my personal project, I think explaining them in terms of my research shows how the course really made a positive and lasting impact on my appreciation of early modern books in particular, and the material and intellectual history of the book more generally.
Without digressing too much into the details of seventeenth century entomology, I’ll just briefly explain: For my essay I was looking at images of insects, particularly those drawn by the Dutch microscopist Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), and thinking about how new and extraordinary knowledge about the details of the natural world might be communicated visually. Each week, ‘Science in Print’ introduced a new way of approaching the medium of the book, from evaluating format and paper size, to going through the intricate steps involved in setting type and producing engravings. Every seminar shed new light on Swammerdam: I was able to make more and more sensitive evaluations about the way his books and images had been made, and about the significance of decisions made by the author, engraver, and publisher, and by the subsequent scholars who translated Swammerdam’s work into English, French and Latin.
For instance, although the original Dutch text was over 400 pages, and the English translation only 40, the difference in both paper size and the fact that the Dutch was an octavo accounted for a considerable amount of the discrepancy. Moreover, the contrast between these more humble editions made during Swammerdam’s lifetime, and the considerably larger folio volumes made in the 18th century alerted me to the altered status of Swammerdam’s work 50 years after his death. The large, lavishly illustrated bi-lingual Latin-Dutch edition would have been received and read by audiences very differently than the diminutive original, which was more akin to an every-day devotional book than an authoritative taxonomical treatise.
I was able to bring my discoveries back into the classroom with renewed attention to the importance of image reproduction, which we covered very thoroughly, from early wood-blocks to the wood-engravings of nineteenth century periodicals. The diverse expertise of the presenters, as well as many of the participants, allowed me to understand both specific details about one book’s eccentric binding, and long-term changes in print, such as the evolving role of the publisher.
The course balanced concise but very informative lectures from each of these experts with plenty of time to handle material. The best part of this was being able to discuss queries with the seminar leaders as they wandered around the room. We also discussed and handled a variety of material, covering both classics like Galileo and Darwin, and lesser-known works. The emphasis on the production-side of the book trade yielded important insights into the reception of scientific books. For instance, understanding the difference between new editions (a new reproduction of a book, requiring a complete re-setting of the type) and new issues (already printed pages rebound with a new title page) can reveal the difference in demand for something like Hooke’s Micrographia (two issues of a single edition) and Newton’s Principia (three editions in Newton’s lifetime).
It was also a pleasure to get to work with the very rich holdings of Whipple’s collections, supplemented by some of Roger Gaskell’s teaching aids (original woodcuts and engravings were a highlight), and Jim Secord’s Victorian rarities. The series really impressed upon me the strength of the Whipple Library for both primary sources and secondary literature, and also provided a thorough overview of the relevant secondary literature on bibliography and the book trade, which can illuminate more of the world that Whipple’s rare books came from. Seeing the books come alive in the hands of students and staff helped animate the history of print in my independent project, and I’m certain will continue to do so in future studies.