Posted by: whipplelib | March 17, 2016

Science in Print 2015-16 – a presenter’s view

The Library’s ‘Science in Print’ series was expanded this year to include a separate sub-series on ‘Book production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’. In this second blog post from the class of 2015-16, co-presenter Dr Sarah Bull reflects on what she learnt.

“This past term, Dr. James Poskett and I helped organise Part II of the Whipple Library’s seminar series ‘Science in Print: Book production in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’. As a relative newcomer to Cambridge, I didn’t know much about the Whipple’s collections outside those relevant my own research on nineteenth-century medicine. Becoming involved in Science in Print gave me a wonderful opportunity to familiarize myself with them.

The first thing that struck me about the Whipple’s rare book collections is their diversity. They not only cover a wide range of scientific subjects, but also run the gamut of print materials produced for different kinds of audiences. This gave us wonderful opportunities to think about how the different forms that scientific publications take on depends a lot on who their audience is—and what their authors and publishers are willing to spend.

Hardwicke vol1 title page2_small

Looking at a variety of scientific journals, including Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip: An Illustrated Medium of Interchange and Gossip for Students and Lovers of Nature (1865-1893) and The Lens: A Quarterly Journal of Microscopy and the Allied Natural Sciences (1872-1873), enabled us to think about how and why some scientific journals (especially microscopy and astronomy journals) experimented with pricy new photoreprographic illustration techniques at a time when photography was still a relatively novel technology, in the 1860s and 1870s—why many (often, less specialized) journals stuck to older illustration techniques.

The lens_small

The Reverend John George Wood (1827-1889) Collection, which showcases this author’s extensive output of popular works on natural history, also helped is think about the relationships between publications’ material forms and their audiences.

Wood back cover_small

My favourite book from this collection is a 1900 edition of Wood’s Common Objects of the Microscope (1861), which still has its price stickers and advertising in it. As we discussed during the seminar, this book’s “yellowback” paper binding was characteristic of works sold at railway bookstalls in the last half of the nineteenth century. The binding communicated its status as accessible and entertaining science writing, as well as making it cheap enough that even skilled working-class people could buy it.

Tom Telescopes4_small

One of the interests that guides my own research is in how the same works often take on different material forms over time, becoming different kinds of objects that communicate different things about the text to their readers. I was, therefore, excited to find that the Whipple holds multiple editions of many important scientific works. James and I were able to use three different editions of The Newtonian System of Philosophy (published in 1798, 1827, and 1828) to show how book production changed in the early nineteenth century, with the emergence of new paper-making and book-binding techniques.

We also used two different versions of the sixth edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1901, to show how Victorian publishers often packaged the same works in different ways for different audiences: one of these books is a library edition of the Origin, aimed at readers interested in using and displaying the book on their library shelves for many years. The other is a paperback edition, targeted to an audience more interested in purchasing an inexpensive copy than they were in showing off their taste. The Whipple also holds a first edition of Origin of Species (1859), so we can see the form in which its first readers encountered it 42 years earlier.

1901 Origin of species2_small

We were also lucky to work with Dr Josh Nall, Curator of Modern Sciences at the Whipple Museum, for our session on nineteenth and early twentieth century illustration techniques. Complementing the Whipple Library’s collections, the Whipple Museum owns a large number of printing blocks that were used in the making of trade catalogues for several scientific instrument companies, including the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Examining these catalogues’ illustrations alongside the very tools that made them brought some of the illustration processes that we’d been discussing to life in a new way for me.


Being involved in Science in Print this year not only taught me a lot about the Library’s and Museum’s collections. It also taught me a lot about scientific print culture in the nineteenth century, and made things that I previously knew only in a theoretical sense (such as the fact that scientific journals produced for different audiences would probably look and feel very different) more concrete. The seminars were especially valuable in this regard. Questions emerged in my discussions of works from these collections with the great group of people who came out to Science in Print II that I never would have thought of asking, and I found myself looking for the answers after the sessions had ended. I’m looking forward to digging even deeper into the collections and having more discussions like this at HPS in the future.”

Dr Sarah Bull, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.
March 2016


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