1951 saw London host the Festival of Britain. It was to be a celebration of the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition and aimed to be a “national display illustrating the British contribution to civilization in the arts, in science and technology, and in industrial design”1. The Festival was centred “around the twin themes of land and the people of Britain”2 and was planned to be unlike the 1851 Exhibition with no big demonstration of Britain’s power and industry. It was hoped the Festival would bring some post-war relief yet not be overly expensive. The Festival was based on the South Bank with a Dome of Discovery (imagine a smaller Millennium Dome) and a structure known as the Skylon, an aluminium-clad steel tower supported by cables. The Festival featured an Exhibition of Books at the Victoria and Albert Museum which included a range of sections covering the Bible, printing, children’s literature, books on politics and philosophy and a section called “The Scientist”.

“The Scientist”

The National Book League, along with its advisory panel, selected the books for this section of the exhibition as they were “landmarks in the progress of science”3. From what is the “first great scientific book to be printed in England”4, William Gilberts De Magnete, to Rutherfords book on radioactive substances, each has either been ground breaking in its own right or has led others to develop theories which have changed the face of science.

Title Page of Gilbert’s De Magnete

We have versions of a number of books in our collection that were displayed at the Festival of Britain. In a few cases these are the same editions but mainly they are later versions. Gilbert’s De Magnete was first published in 1600 and is mentioned by Zilsel as “the first printed book, written by an academically trained scholar and dealing with a topic of natural science which is based almost entirely on actual observation and experiment”5. Our copy is a second edition from 1628 which used to belong to the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637).  We have four copies of Robert Boyle’s Sceptical chymist (the Festival showed the first edition, ours are later publications), which is viewed as his most famous work. In it he tried to convince chemists to use a more philosophical approach to their investigations into nature. Here we can see the title pages of three of the Boyles.

One book we do have which is a first edition that was displayed at the Festival is James Gregory’s Optica promota. In it Gregory investigates the refraction and reflection of lens and mirrors using conic sections and he described a design for a new type of telescope. Sadly his telescope failed because instrument makers were unable to match his specifications at the time. However, a telescope based on the same ideas was successfully produced years later by Robert Hooke. And surely no exhibition demonstrating the greatness of scientific books would be complete without a copy of the Micrographia? We have three copies at the Whipple, a first edition and two later copies published in 1667 and 1780. Below is a selection of images from the first edition of the Mircographia.

Another, book which is mentioned in the Exhibition and that we have a copy of is John Dalton’s A New system of chemical philosophy. Our edition is slightly different, being published in London rather than Manchester. Dalton is accredited with realising that atoms had weight and he created a very basic table demonstrating this.  Some of his atom drawings are very much like those the 1951 Festival used for some of its promotional materials. A Festival Pattern group was set up to “use patterns derived from crystallographic structure as the basis for repetitive patterns in mass-produced consumer products such as carpets, textiles, glassware or lighting”6. The designs were drawn by Dr Helen Megaw, a pioneer in x-ray crystallography. Designs used for the festival included Beryl and insulin and appeared in the exhibition areas themselves on curtains and wallpaper.  (There is an interesting video about this at https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/designs-festival-pattern-group). Below are photographs showing some of Daltons diagrams.

About half of the books that we have in our collections that were represented at the Festival in 1951 (be they the same edition or later versions) are from the original Whipple donation. These tend to be pre 1860, but a few books from the early 1800’s (Dalton and Lyell’s Principles of Geology) aren’t from the Whipple donation. Anything published after 1900 is not from the Whipple donation even though they are dated before his collection was given to the University. So why did Whipple not collect copies of these important books? By looking at his original notebook, where his book purchases are listed, he didn’t collect items from his own time and only purchased items from before the mid 1800’s.

The Scientist today

What books would we display if the exhibition was happening today?  Discover magazine produced an article back in 2006 about the 25 greatest science books of all time which included works by Darwin, Copernicus, Versalius, Einstein, Dawkins and James Watson. But what about more modern 20-21st century books? Stephen Hawkings Brief History of Time perhaps? What about specific HPS books, Schaffer and Shapins Leviathan and the Airpump,  Cambridge History of Science volumes? Suggestions welcome!! Here are some more photographs of the books from our collections mentioned in the Exhibition catalogue.


1.    Wallis, N. (1951), ‘General Notes’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 99  (4848), pp.549-552

2.    Forgan, S. (1998), ‘Festivals of science and the two cultures: science, design and display in the Festival of Britain, 1951’, British Journal for the History of Science 31, pp 217-40

3. National Book League (1951) Exhibtion of books (Cambridge University Press)

4. idem.

5.    Zilse, E. (1941), ‘The origins of William Gilbert’s scientific method’, Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1), pp 1-32

6.    Forgan, S. (1998), ‘Festivals of science and the two cultures: science, design and display in the Festival of Britain, 1951’, British Journal for the History of Science 31, pp 217-40



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