‘This collection of historic scientific instruments and old books are not only of significant interest, but they possess a great deal of artistic work of beauty and such a collection gives us the feeling of living in sympathetic contact with the great men of science who lived before us.’

Sir Henry Dale, President of the Royal Society, upon the presentation of Robert Whipple’s collection to the University of Cambridge, November 1944.

When Robert Whipple donated his extensive collection of more than 1000 books and a similar number of objects to the University of Cambridge in 1944, he stipulated that his donation be used to form a museum, demonstrating his desire to make accessible the studying of the History of Science.[1] In addition to a museum, a department and a library were created for the University: and thus, the Department of History and Philosophy of Science was born.[2]

Robert Whipple’s original catalogue, started in 1910

Whilst it is relatively easy to postulate why Whipple donated and to understand how his donation has affected the Department, Library and Museum, Whipple’s motivations for collecting are intriguing and more difficult to fathom. To a modern eye, devoid of the necessary funds to indulge in such a sport and accommodating a discerning attitude towards limiting access to knowledge, private collecting is an enigmatic hobby. Indeed, upon his donation, Whipple remarked how he ‘little thought’ that upon purchasing an antique telescope in France in 1913 he was ‘embarking on the slippery slope of collecting’; we can assume that Whipple’s intention to donate did not initially motivate his collecting. [3] To some extent, book collecting was a very ordinary hobby for a gentleman of some wealth as death duties and the decline of country houses resulted in the dispersal of libraries. Additionally, books were a robust investment. However, scientific book collecting was uncommon in the early twentieth-century, rendering Whipple something of a rarity.[4] Whipple’s motives for collecting were surely multiplicitous, not solely driven by the desire to own.

Whipple was exposed to the collecting of scientific objects throughout a large portion of his life. As a teenager, Whipple followed in his father’s footsteps by working at Kew Observatory, built to house King George III and Queen Charlottes’ collection of scientific and mathematical instruments. Although the majority of the instruments were moved in 1841, some remained at Kew, and during a 1926 lecture at the Optical Convention Whipple expressed his commentary on the King’s catalogues and concern at how the dispersal of the collection might lead to its being ‘lost… or destroyed’.[5] Indeed, in 1944 Whipple bought a microscope from George III’s collection that had passed into another private collection.[6] He subsequently went on to work at instrument makers L.P.Casella, as an assistant to Horace Darwin and later as manager and secretary of Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, where he remained until his retirement as chairman in 1949. Whipple was deeply enthusiastic about scientific instruments, participating in the Physical Society, the Institute of Physics, the Optical Society, the Royal Institution and the Institution of Electrical Engineers in various forms over his career – societies that fostered interaction between scientists and instrument makers, and whereby speeches could be given to the public.[7] Evidently, collecting was a part of Whipple’s identity, closely interwoven with his skills as an instrument maker and interests in science.

Robert Whipple’s original catalogue, started in 1910

Whipple started his catalogue of books in 1910, when he purchased 20 books in 6 months from 9 different vendors including Huygens’ Traité de la lumiere and George Adams’ Essays on the Microscope. That he began a catalogue upon these purchases demonstrates Whipple’s intent to collect. As Whipple collected, his interests, habits and relationships are reflected by his catalogue; for instance, Whipple bought around 140 publications by Robert Boyle and 40 from Benjamin Martin, far more than by any other authors. Whipple purchased 643 books and 354 objects from T.H. Court, himself a prolific collector and ‘lover of scientific instruments and books’, to whom he claimed he owed a ‘great debt’ for not only his aid in sourcing such artefacts but for helping him to source information and access other collections, including George III’s.[8] By comprehending why and how Whipple collected and catalogued, we can consider what unites these artefacts and refresh our perspective on their content and significance. Whilst it may not illuminate our comprehension of the book’s content, considering a rare book’s lifespan from publication, to collection, to library, is impressive as the extent of the care taken over hundreds of years to protect the loss of such volumes, as Whipple feared, becomes apparent.

The Whipple Collection bookplate, in one of the first books Whipple collected

[1] Silvia de Renzi, Instruments in Print: Books from the Whipple Collection, (Cambridge: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 2000), p. 87.

[2] Science Committee, in The Whipple Museum of the History of Science: Instruments and interpretations, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of R.S. Whipple’s gift to the University of Cambridge, ed. by Liba Taub and Frances Willmoth, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 12-16.

[3] Robert S. Whipple, in The Whipple Museum of the History of Science: Instruments and interpretations, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of R.S. Whipple’s gift to the University of Cambridge, p. 23.

[4] Silvia de Renzi, p. 89.

[5] Robert S. Whipple, An Old Catalogue and what it tells us of the Scientific Instruments and Curios Collected by Queen Charlotte and King George III, (Aberdeen: University Press, 1926), p. 15-16.

[6] Whipple object no. 0195.

[7] ‘Whipple, Robert Stewart’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36854, accessed 18/01/2016.

[8] Robert S. Whipple, p. 17.

Rosanna Evans, Lunchtime Invigilator