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History of Science and Technology Collections

Find out more about the history of science and technology collections in the IHR Wohl Library. We collect historical sources, reference works and guides to finding and using sources. This page shows examples from the collections.

Introduction

This guide has two main objectives. The first is to showcase some of the works one can find in the library about aspects of the history of science and technology. Therefore, for example, you can find lists of relevant archives guides and bibliographies, a range of published letters and diaries by individuals such as Antoine Lavoisier, Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, and lists of several scientific works ranging from the medieval period to the twentieth century.

The second objective is to highlight source materials not primarily about the history of science and technology but which would still be useful. Newspapers and government papers, for example, are broad in scope where one can find references to a myriad of subjects, including articles and reports on developments in astronomy, engineering and computer science. This guide also highlights sources which one might not expect to yield much information. Below in the case studies, for example, home front diaries from the Second World War illustrate how relatively recent developments in technology were integrated into people's lives, becoming rather mundane, while school histories, logbooks and teachers' diaries document the place science teaching had in UK schools during the 19th and 20th century.

The guide also lists other relevant libraries and archives as well as other relevant collection guides of material one can find in the IHR Library.

Searching the Library

Collection Arrangement and Searches

You will find works on the history of science and technology across many of our collections. Our collections are arranged mostly geographically with some thematic collections. Searches can be done on the catalogue, both for items within the IHR library itself and for other libraries in the School of Advanced Study and Senate House Library.

You can find out more about collection locations and requesting items from the closed stacks here.

Further Help

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

You can also join the library and book a help session.

Primary Sources

Diaries, Letters and Collected Papers

The one of the library's strengths is its growing collection of published letters and diaries. Listed below are some of the scientists one can find published editions of their correspondence or diaries in the Institute's Library.

Robert Boyle Robert Hooke
Luigi Cremona Pierre-Simon Laplace
Marie Curie Antoine Lavoisier
Humphry Davy Ada Lovelace
Charles Darwin Lise Meitner
Émilie Du Châtelet Isaac Newton
Thomas Edison Joseph Priestley
Albert Einstein John Venn
Caroline Herschel John Wallis


Relevant material can also be found in other diaries and collections of published letters. For example, in the library's US collection, there are several large runs of papers of the early presidents and other prominent politicians such as Alexander Hamilton. Although dominated by the political and diplomatic history of the period, mention of contemporary scientific matters is also noted. Understandably, within the papers of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, this is quite frequent, given their interest in science and medicine, but even in the other sets of papers, recent scientific works and meetings with scientists are recorded. In a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail, during the course of a discussion about a caterpillar infested apple tree in their garden, he notes:

I Yesterday made a Visit to one, a Mr Lionet, a venerable old Man of 75, in full Health, Strength and Vivacity, respectable for several Offices which he holds, but more so for vast learning in various Kinds, and great Ingenuity. His Hobby Horse has been natural Knowledge. We went to see a Collection of marine Shells...But his Curiosity has not been confined to Shells. It has extended to Insects, and he has had it in Contemplation to write as full Account of these as Buffon has written of Birds, Beasts and Fishes. But beginning with Caterpillars, he has filled a Folio upon that Species - and drew, and engraved the Plates himself. Have you an Inclination to read and inspect Cutts of the Anatomy of Caterpillars...I don't know whether he teaches the manner of destroying them, and Saving the Apple tree.

Many of these papers are available online via Founders Online and fully searchable, however this is only a partial digitisation and does not include most recently published volumes.

Scientific Works

Although not a primary focus of the library's collection policy, a selection of specific scientific works can be found in our collections. This list also includes precursor disciplines to modern science such as astrology and alchemy.

General Overviews of Science, Logic and Scientific Methods

Mathematics and Computer Science

Astrology, Astronomy and Physics

Alchemy and Chemistry

Earth and Life Sciences

Government Sources

Covering reports as well as political biographies and diaries, below is listed some of the titles specifically about government policy and the sciences. 

The library has large collections of general government sources where researchers can find relevant material. For example, material on the science policies of Harold Wilson's 1964-1970 government can be found online in U.K. Parliamentary Papers and in the library's print-run of Hansard for the Commons and the Lords. Researchers can also check relevant diaries and biographical works such as The Labour Government, 1964-1970 and the diaries of Tony Benn, who was Minister of Technology from 1966 to 1970. For an overview of the UK Parliamentary source you can find in the library see the respective collection guide.

Newspapers and Contemporary Serial Publications

Readers can access several online and physical newspapers and contemporary journals within the library. The eighteenth and nineteenth century run of The Gentlemen's Magazine has many articles and reports on contemporary developments in various aspects of the sciences, especially astronomy, engineering, natural history, medicine and geology.

Image of observation of the transit of Venus in The Gentleman's Magazine, volume 40 (September 1770)
Image of an observation of the transit of Venus (Gentleman's Magazine, Sept. 1770)

Earlier runs of many of our local history society publications are also useful. Besides historical subjects, many also published articles on the geology and natural history of their locality, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. General information about our English local history collection can be found in the respective guide. Similarly, many of the red volumes of the Victoria County History, also survey the geology and natural history of a given area.

Page 35 from Volume 1 of The Victoria History of Derbyshire
Page 35 from Volume 1 of The Victoria History of Derbyshire

Also there are several online newspaper resources accessible within the library including the Times Online, the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection and the British Library's online collection of 19th century newspapers.

Screen shot from the online resource, the Burney Collection of 17th and 18th Century Newspapers, showing a search for the "Transit of Venus"
Search for the "transit of Venus" within the Burney Collection of 17th and 18th Century Newspapers

Secondary Sources

Bibliographies and Archive Guides

The library has a range of guides to finding sources specifically about various aspects of the history of science and technology, some of which are listed below. Within the library readers can also access the general and comprehensive Bibliography of British and Irish History, if their interests are centred on the scientific history of Ireland, Britain and its empire.

Archive and Manuscript Catalogues

Bibliographies

Guides to Sources

Historiography and Methodology

The library has extensive historiography collections. Below are several titles specifically about the historiography and methodology of the history of science and technology as well as some articles and essays found in general works and periodicals.

Chapters and Essays in Other Works

Periodicals

  • Coote, Anne...[et al.] 'When commerce, science, and leisure collaborated: the nineteenth-century global trade boom in natural history collections' in the Journal of Global History, vol. 12 (2017)
  • Eastwood, Bruce. 'The astronomy of Macrobius in Carolingian Europe: Dungal's letter of 811 to Charles the Great' in Early Medieval Europe, vol. 3 (1994)
  • Edgerton, David. 'The 'White Heat' revisited: the British Government and technology in the 1960s' in Twentieth Century British History, vol. 7 (1996)
  • Kaye, Joel. 'The impact of money on the development of fourteenth-century scientific thought' in the Journal of Medieval History, vol. 14 (1988)
  • Kerber, Linda K. 'Science in the early Republic: the Society for the Study of Natural Philosophy' in William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 29 (1972)

Although the library does not currently subscribe to any print periodicals for the history of science, above are some of the articles researchers can find in more general journal titles available in the library. Also, several e-journal titles are accessible within the library including Osiris, The British Journal for the History of Science and the Revue d'Histoire des Sciences.

Many journals are also increasingly available in an open-access format. The Directory of Open Access Journals is a useful tool to search these freely accessible online periodicals.

Case Studies

Aztec Science in Spanish Sources

The library has a large Latin American history collection which is particularly strong on the period of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, especially for the area that would eventually become the nation of Mexico. The library currently has several specific works on aspects of Aztec science: within the Obras Completas of Francisco Hernández one can find his Historia Natural de Nueva España and although Martín de la Cruz's Herbal is primarily a work of medicine it does include information on Mexican natural history and botany. José de Acosta's Historia natural y moral de las Indias is particularly interesting since it begins by assessing Aristotelian thought about the natural world and comparing it to observations made in New Spain and South America, noting down many discrepancies and errors.

Although more general in scope, and often centred upon the events of Hernán Cortés' conquest, information about Aztec science can be found within general histories and chronicles from the sixteenth century. Some works, for example, describe the Aztec calendar and how it is calculated: in Chimalpahin's edition of Historia General de las Indias by Francisco López de Gómara there are chapters on 'On the terms for counting', 'On the names of the months' and 'On the names of the Years'; there is even an acknowledgement, although rather patronising, of the accuracy of the Aztec calendar:

They were in error with this count, which did not coincide with the exact solar cycle. Even the year of the Christians, who are consummate astrologers, errs by many days. Nevertheless, these Indians came very close to what was accurate, and (their calendars) correlated with those of other nations.

One of the richest insights into Aztec science currently within the library's collections is the well-known work by Bernadino de Sahagún. His Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España covers a diverse array of subjects such as religion, commerce and governance, but also includes whole sections on Aztec astrology and natural philosophy (Book 7) and natural history, minerology and meteorology (Book 11).

Technology in the Home

Exploring the IHR library's collections one will find a few titles specifically relevant to the history of technology in the home. Henry Jephson's The Sanitary Evolution of London (1907), for example, charts the major engineering projects affecting the capital, for the better, in the nineteenth century and how this affected housing, while Look! It cooks: a Life in Microwaves, is a memoir by Lewis Napleton who, from the 1950s, developed microwave technology for domestic use, working for companies such as Lyons, Philips and Litton.

However, more often one can find relevant source material buried within unexpected titles. Government papers, both physical and online, are a rich source for the history of a myriad of subjects including electrical supply, telephones and television as well as internet regulation and the growth of the fibre optic network. The library's extensive holdings of published letters and diaries can also glean interesting insights into how relatively new technology could quickly become everyday, when it worked. For example, in The London Diary of Anthony Heap, the author recounts the various struggles he and his wife, Marjorie had with various wirelesses between 1941 and 1942.

[19th Oct. 1941] I got up and prepared some breakfast and had just washed up and dressed when someone came to have a look at the radiogram. Said it would need three new valves. That is the cost of financing overhauling etc amounting to about £2.10.0. Will have to let Mrs Ellis know about this before proceeding further.

[13th Nov. 1941] The wireless repairers came again this evening and after spending four hours on the radiogram at last got it into perfect working order. The total cost including replacement of valves came to £2.10.0 which, considering the time and trouble they’ve expended, is very reasonable indeed. Mrs E[llis, the landlady] has agreed to pay half of this so we won’t be out of pocket.  

[23rd Dec. 1941] On getting home at 9.30 found M[arjorie] had brought a radio set home on trial. A second hand Echo, for which they ask £5.10.0 knocked down from £6.10.0 since M bargained for it. Sounds all right so I suppose we might as well buy it. We’ve got to get a set of our own sooner or later and the Ellis set appears to be a washout anyway, so why not now.

[29th Dec. 1941] M[arjorie] took the faulty radio set back to the shop today and left it to be brought back and fixed up later in the week. Before doing so, however, she’d tried to put it right herself and fused the electricity supply in the process. With the result that we are without electric light this evening, for despite repeated phone calls to the supply company, an engineer has failed to come along and repair it.

[5th Aug. 1942] The young scallywag who came and took the Ellis radiogram set away to be repaired over six months ago, at last brought it back this evening and fixed it up. It went perfectly by the time he’d finished, and all was forgiven.

Another unexpected source of potentially useful material is directories. These chart the growing number of businesses which offered to supply new technologies in the home. In the Royal Blue Books for 1937 and 1938, for example, there are advertisements for professional vacuum cleaning businesses and steam-powered carpet beating, refrigerator rental and hairdressers where, if you were wealthy, you could treat yourself to an, 'electricity and mud face pack'.

Teaching and Learning Science in UK Schools

The library's general British history collection includes many matriculation lists for both UK schools and universities. In the local history collections you can also find published diaries and logbooks of UK schools from the eighteenth century to the late twentieth. With these sources it is possible to piece together glimpses of how science was taught, if at all, and who it was taught to.

The absence of science teaching is a particular feature of the sources, particularly for the earlier period. Reading and scripture dominated in many schools, although even those that taught Latin and a little Greek sometimes overlooked science writers from the classical period: from a 1707 reading list of classical authors from the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith, the emphasis is on works on history, drama and rhetoric with Aristotle and Pliny the Elder being absent. With this omission even in an elite school it is perhaps unsurprising that schools serving rural and working class communities strictly adhered to the three 'Rs', even though there does seem to have been a curiosity and a little regret in being taught so narrow a curriculum. In 1882, the Scottish publisher, William Chambers recalled:

I was not fated to receive more than a plain education in the place of my birth, a small country town in the south of Scotland. Matters there were still somewhat primitive. In schools I passed through, there was not a map, nor a book on geography, or history, or science. The only instruction consisted of the three Rs, finishing off with a dose of Latin

Scots at School: an anthology

The prevalence of science lessons mentioned in the sources does increase, especially from the late nineteenth century but this was not uniform. As universities were only just beginning to admit women during this period, girls were still excluded in some schools from science lessons and there was an anxiety that teaching some subjects, such as science, would be dangerous to their mental well-being. The journalist, Laurie Magnus, in defending the creation of more high schools noted arguments against their creation:

Rather higher in scale of argument came the reasoned doubt as to the superior advantages of High Schools. Were they likely to turn out a generation of girls made to pattern, and, haply, to the pattern of boys? Chemistry, mathematics and the humanities might prove perilous, defeminizing studies.

Thankfully these arguments were not heeded for too long and, although subjects like scripture, reading and writing and practical subjects like book-keeping still featured heavily in the sources from the twentieth century, science teaching in various forms does slowly become more prominent. Sometimes it would be known as Nature Study or Object Lessons, as shown in the logbook from the Weston School, Hertfordshire, were a random list of objects and animals formed the basis of regular lessons. These included items such as coal, iron or silk as well as themed lessons on basic botany and human anatomy.

In contrast to the attitudes of the early twentieth century, one of the richest sources in the library at present are the Records of Holton Park Girls' Grammar School from 1948 to 1972. Science teaching was a regular feature of the curriculum: during the period covered by this source the school employed a total of 28 science teachers with the highest proportion teaching maths (8) and biology (9). The pupils throughout this time also had the opportunity to attend not only a science club, which was established in 1966, but also a regular programme of lectures on a range of subjects including atomic physics (May 1958), atomic energy (February 1963) and energy flow in ecosystems (May 1971).

Other Collections

For a general survey of special collections in the UK and Ireland researchers should consult the Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections. To find the location of specific titles in UK libraries researchers can use Library Hub Discover while archive material can be tracked down via the catalogue of the National Archives. Also listed below are some specialist libraries and archives located mainly in London.

  • Geological Society. The Society's library houses one of the finest collections of geoscience in the world.
  • Kew Gardens. The library and archives hold one of the best collections in the world about the history of botany.
  • Linnean Society. The library holds outstanding historical works on natural history, and is a major repository for information on plant and animal classification, as well as the life and work of Carl Linnaeus.
  • London Mathematical Society. The collection of the Society was founded in 1866 and is currently housed within University College London Library. The Society's archive is held in several different locations and includes materials from the British Society for the History of Mathematics and the British Mathematical Colloquium.
  • Natural History Museum. The museum's library and archives is an unparalleled resource for anyone researching subjects within the history of natural history, biology or palaeontology.
  • Royal Astronomical Society. The library and archive are a rich resource for the history of astronomy and geophysics.
  • Royal Society. The library and archives hold extensive collections of manuscripts, papers and records, books and journals on the history of science and the Society's activities.
  • Royal Society of Chemistry. The Society's historical collections covers the development and evolution of the chemical sciences from the 16th to the 20th century.
  • The Science Museum's Library and Archives includes half a million items. Access to most of the collections can be arranged through the Dana Research Centre and Library in London. Although material that cannot be transported can be consulted at the National Collections Centre in Swindon. 
  • UCL Library Special Collections. One of the strengths of this extensive collection is the history of science

Collections found in some of our partner libraries within the School of Advanced Study would also be of interest to historians of science and technology. The collections of the Institute of Classical Studies hold many works on Greek and Roman science while the Warburg Institute holds large collections on medieval and early modern science. 

Moreover found within the vast collections of Senate House Library one can find extensive holdings on the history of both science and medicine.