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Early printed science material

The British Library holds major collections of early books, periodicals and other publications relevant to the study of science, medicine and technology from the late 15th century to the present day

Subjects covered by the earliest material include natural philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. These are joined later by chemistry, physics, mechanics and engineering, modern biology, as well as other aspects of pure and applied science. Beside materials printed in Britain, the Library has good holdings of publications issued in continental Europe, especially from the two and a half centuries before 1800.

This page focuses on science and technology materials printed before 1900 which form part of the Library's holdings of the Early Printed Collections department, but there are also significant resources held elsewhere in the Library, specifically:

  • Science Collections (especially 19th-century printed materials);
  • Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections (particularly for early Asian and Arabic sources);
  • Manuscript Collections (unpublished personal papers and institutional archives).
Plate from An Original Theory...of the Universe by T Wright

From An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright (London, 1750). © The British Library Board

Origins of the collection

The foundations of the early science, medicine and technology collections in the British Library go back to the donation or purchase of entire private libraries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Particularly important are those of Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Joseph Banks, King George III and Thomas Grenville. These collections were significantly enhanced in the late 20th century when the Patent Office Library joined the British Museum. Information about each of these private and institutional libraries can be found in the Directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials. In addition, the British Library (and before that the British Museum) has continued to build on these collections by purchasing both current and antiquarian materials. Significant numbers of British books and periodicals have also been acquired through legal deposit, especially under the Copyright Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries.

15th century

At the time of the development of letterpress printing in the West (around 1454), scientific and medical thought in Europe was still heavily influenced by classical Greek and Roman scholars. Manuscript texts remained in widespread circulation, but by 1500 most important texts had appeared in print. The Library has good collections of these, including many first printed editions of Aristotle, Plato, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, Galen of Pergamum, and Archimedes. It is possible, for example, to gain a good understanding of the full range of late-medieval and renaissance medical knowledge through the collection of 15th century printed books in the British Library. Further information about printed books from this period and how to find them is given on the Incunabula webpage.

16th and 17th centuries

In the mid-16th century, a new generation of thinkers began to publish findings and theories which challenged classical teaching. In the field of astronomy, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed that the Sun and not the Earth was at the centre of the universe. His work inspired others such as Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Others meanwhile were examining life of Earth. Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566) produced perhaps the first scientific description of plants, and Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) compiled a five volume description of animals, birds and fishes. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1566) challenged accepted knowledge about the human body, but it was not until 1628 that William Harvey (1578-1657) published his theories about the circulation of blood. By the mid-17th century, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was able to investigate further the laws of motion and light, and Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was using a microscope to examine fungi, insects, fossils and snow-flakes. Early editions of published works by all of the above can be found in the British Library, including:

  • Leonard Fuchs, De historia stirpium (Basle, 1542) [36.h.8; 444.k.6; 450.h.1];
  • Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium cœlestium (Nuremberg, 1543) [C.112.g.4; 59.i.6];
  • Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (Basle, 1543) [C.54.k.12];
  • Conrad Gesner, Historiæ Animalium (5 v. Zurich, 1551-8) [460.c.1-3; C.84.d.1];
  • Johannes Kepler, Mysterium Cosmographicum (Tübingen, 1596) [];
  • Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius (Venice, 1610) [C.112.c.3] and (Frankfurt, 1610) [531.e.4.(1.)];
  • Robert Hooke, Micrographia (London, 1665) [39.e.1; 435.e.19; G.1524];
  • Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (London, 1687) [C.58.h.4];
  • Isaac Newton, Opticks (London, 1704) [59.g.18; 1651/1139];

18th and 19th centuries

The 18th century saw a sharp increase in the amount of scientific publishing. The Library holds numerous examples of contemporary books and pamphlets relating to the work of most major figures during this period. These include Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) and Charles Babbage (1792-1871) in the field of mathematics; Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and Dmitri Mendeleyev (1837-1907) in chemistry; Michael Faraday (1791-1867) in physics; Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Georges-Louis Le Clerc (Count de Buffon) (1707-1788), and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in biology; and Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) in the area of germ theory.

Operating table from Le Otto Tavole Anatomiche

Operating table from Le Otto Tavole Anatomiche by Gaetano Petrioli (Rome, 1750). Shelfmark: 40.f.11.(1.). © The British Library Board

Collection highlights from this classic age of science include:

  • Carl Linnaeus, Systema naturae (Leyden, 1735) [C.161.d.5.(1.); C.161.d.6.(1.)];
  • Georges-Louis Le Clerc (Count de Buffon), Histoire naturelle (44 v. Paris, 1749-1804) [31.d.7-33, etc.];
  • James Smith, Flora Britannica (3 v. London, 1800-4) [37.c.6-8; 440.f.12-14];
  • Charles Lyell, Principles of geology (3 v. London, 1830-3) [970.f.29-30];
  • Charles Darwin, On the origin of species (London, 1859) [C.112.b.12; C.113.c.8].

This is also the period in which Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal was written and published. Produced in order to raise funds to release Alexander Blackwell from debtor's prison, this Herbal contains detailed copperplate engravings of plants accompanied by text describing the medicinal properties of each. The 1737 edition features in the Online Gallery.

The private library of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), rich in 18th and early 19th century natural history materials, was added to the collections in 1827. Although most of the monographs and periodicals are now dispersed across the historic parts of the British Library, Banks's pamphlet collection continues to be kept separately. There is also a large number of late 19th century pamphlets relating to birth control and other health issues from the private collection of Marie Stopes (1880-1958). Further information about both these special collections can be found in the directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials.

Early scientific periodicals

Scientific periodical publications began in the mid-17th century, when new institutions such as the Royal Society in London and the Académie des Sciences in Paris were founded to promote scientific investigation. The Library has good holdings of publications from these institutions, including complete sets of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions: there is for example a run covering the years 1665 to 1886 in the Science, Technology and Business Collections at shelfmark (P) BX80-E(43); full digital facsimiles are also available through any reading room electronic resources computer on the JSTOR e-journal platform.

Monkey and monkey skeleton

From Angenehmer und nützlicher Zeit-Vertreib by Johann Daniel Meyer (Nuremberg, 1748-1756). Shelfmark: 460.f.1. © The British Library Board

During the 18th century it gradually became the usual practice to publish new findings and theories as papers in scientific periodicals. The British Library holds many of the important early periodicals from this period, some of which are still published today. Examples of some of the more influential titles include Observations sur la Physique (Journal de Physique), Philosophical Magazine, Journal der Physik (Annalen der Physik), Chemical News, and Nature. Most 18th and 19th century scientific periodicals are held in the general humanities collections and are most easily consulted in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. In addition, the Science, Technology and Business Collections department, which collects current material, has lengthy runs of periodicals which in many cases extend back into at least the latter part of the 19th century.

Early trade literature and patents

The excellent collections of early trade literature and patents originally formed by the Patent Office Library (1855-1966) are now held in the Science, Technology and Business areas of the British Library. Staff in the Business Information and Patents services can provide advice about these. Some early trade literature was acquired by the British Museum and can be found by searching Explore the British Library.

Catalogues and bibliographies

Early printed scientific books and periodicals are listed in the British Library Integrated Catalogue. In many older catalogue records, the form of the author's name might not always reflect current usage: for example Ptolemy files under 'PTOLOMÆUS, Claudius' and Johannes Kepler under 'KEPPLER, Johann'.

It is often worthwhile consulting one of the Printed Catalogues of the British (Museum) Library, where the entries for significant writers are normally laid out in a helpful way for browsing.

From De Architectura by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio

From De Architectura by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (Como, 1521). Shelfmark: 60.g.4. © The British Library Board

Older catalogue records do not contain subject indexing terms. The page on Subject Access to Early Printed Materials gives information about the British Museum's separately published subject indexes, and describes other key resources such as the English Short Title Catalogue (where entries for 'English' books printed before 1700 always include subject indexing terms).

There are in addition several published catalogues, bibliographies and resource guides which deal specifically with science books and periodicals. Those which relate to materials now in the British Library include (selected shelfmarks given in square brackets):

  • Anne Summers, How to find source materials: British Library collections on the history and culture of science, technology and medicine (London, 1996) [MSS507.2].
  • British Museum, Catalogue of the works of Linnaeus and publications more immediately relating thereto preserved in the libraries of the British Museum, Bloomsbury, and the British Museum (Natural History), South Kensington. 2nd ed., by Basil H. Soulsby (London, 1933) [2728.c.7].
  • Kurt K. Doberer, Bibliography of books on alchemy in the British Museum (London, 1946) [2748.b.1 (annotated)].
  • Jonas Dryander, Catalogus bibliothecae historico-naturalis Josephi Banks (London, 1796-1800) [1966 reprint: HLR508.016].
  • Jaap Harskamp, Dissertatio medica inauguralis: Leyden medical dissertations in the British Library, 1593-1746 (London, 1998) [RAR610.72]; see also the British Library webpage on Leyden Medical Dissertations.
  • Patent Office Library, Catalogue of the Library of the Patent Office arranged alphabetically (London, 1881-1898) [Science Reading Room, 3rd Floor (annotated)].

At a more general level, there a many published bibliographies which can describe the range of scientific and medical publications produced in earlier centuries, many focusing on fairly specific fields of study. Selected examples are listed below (with British Library shelfmarks in square brackets):

  • John L. Thornton and Robert Tully, Thornton and Tully's Scientific books, libraries, and collectors: a study of bibliography and the book trade in relation to the history of science. 4th ed., by A. Hunter (Aldershot, 2000) [RAR501.6; HLR501.6].
  • John L. Thornton, Thornton's medical books, libraries and collectors. 3rd ed., by Alain Besson (Aldershot, 1990) [HLR610.16].
  • William A. Cole, Chemical literature, 1700-1860: a bibliography with annotations, detailed descriptions, comparisons and locations (London, 1988) [HLR540.16].
  • Augustus De Morgan, Arithmetical books from the invention of printing to the present time (London, 1847) [1967 reprint: 2747.a.10].
  • Robert M. Gascoigne, A historical catalogue of scientists and scientific books from the earliest times to the nineteenth century (New York, 1984) [HLR509.22].
  • D.A. Kronick, Scientific and technical periodicals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a guide (Metuchen, N.J., 1991) [HUR505].
  • M.B. Stillwell, The awakening interest in science during the first century of printing, 1450-1550: an annotated checklist (New York, 1970) [X.622/1377].
  • Wellcome Historical Medical Library, A catalogue of printed books in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library. v.1: Books printed before 1641; v.4: Books printed from 1641 to 1850 (London, 1962- ) [RAR610.16].

Further information

Rare Books Reference Team
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7564

E-mail: Ask the Rare Books Reference Team