Two of the articles in this issue treat science, in its broadest sense, in the early years of the nineteenth century. Yet the contexts they evoke could scarcely be more diverse. Focusing on the upper reaches of scientific London, Patrick and Robert Unwin give a vivid impression of the reforming aspirations of Humphry Davy, applied in this case to the relatively young and financially insecure Royal Institution rather than the more venerable Royal Society, which Davy tried to reform with limited success in the years of his presidency (1820–27). The article develops an unusual perspective by concentrating less on the Royal Institution's laboratory and lecture-theatres than on the library, which Davy (from his powerful position as the institution's charismatic professor of chemistry) saw as an underexploited asset. Simon Werrett's article deals with the very different worlds of British warfare in India and the ‘home base’ of British military technology at Woolwich Arsenal. In that context, another Fellow of the Royal Society, William Congreve (FRS 1811), deployed a mixture of scientific understanding, engineering know-how and military experience in search of a response to the Mysore rockets that had been used for some years against the British. Werrett's study can also be read as a contribution to the continuing debate about the true extent of European debts to Indian knowledge and practices. Congreve, as Werrett argues, carefully fashioned a public image that enhanced his standing as an independent innovator and concealed what he had borrowed from Indian pyrotechnics.
An older and gentler scientific world is the one that Joan Kenworthy and Margaret McCollom describe in their contribution on Spencer Cowper, an eighteenth-century Dean of Durham. The core evidence in their article is a letter of January 1770 from Cowper to an unknown correspondent whom they identify as Thomas Hornsby, the Radcliffe Observer and Savilian Professor of Astronomy in Oxford. From that document, they broaden their discussion to draw attention to Cowper's meteorological work (although sadly, in the absence of his journal of observations, now lost) and more generally to illustrate the importance of the correspondence networks on which the science of Cowper's and Hornsby's day depended.
The facet of Ludwig Wittgenstein's work that John Cato and Ian Lemco describe in ‘Wittgenstein's combustion chamber’ will be unfamiliar to many readers. But as a research student in Manchester between 1908 and 1910, Wittgenstein stood on the threshold of a career in aeronautical engineering and even patented a novel aero-engine incorporating a combustion chamber for which the designs have survived. Philosophy soon assumed the upper hand in Wittgenstein's interests, however, and we shall never know whether his engine might have been developed into a working reality.
In an area of scholarship that, for understandable reasons, has dealt predominantly with male achievements, it is always refreshing to see the literature of the history of science enriched by studies of the research and careers of women. Melinda Baldwin's study of Kathleen Lonsdale (one of the two first women to be elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, in 1945) brings out the tensions in the life of someone who chose the path of wife and mother as well as that of the eminent crystallographer she was by the time she became a Dame of the British Empire and received the Royal Society's Davy Medal in the mid 1950s. No one was better placed to speak out on the place of women in science, as Lonsdale did from the early 1960s.
The diversity of the contents of this issue of Notes and Records of the Royal Society conveys something of the range of topics that are currently attracting the attention of historians of science. And that range can only grow as the science of today passes, as it very quickly does, into the province of history. The process is one that Notes and Records of the Royal Society is particularly well placed to facilitate, and to this end eye-witness accounts under the heading of ‘Recollections’ will be a regular feature of future issues. James McQuillan's contribution to the series treats the discovery of surface-enhanced Raman scattering. Drawing on his experiences as a postdoctoral fellow in the Chemistry Department at Southampton University in the early 1970s, McQuillan offers a personal eye-witness account while also raising in passing fundamental questions about what constitutes discovery.
Finally, I add a word about the frontispiece. This shows the Newtonian reflecting telescope (of uncertain provenance) that has long been in the Royal Society's possession. It is chosen as a reminder that we are now well into the International Year of Astronomy. In fact, 2009 will be a year rich in scientific celebrations. It marks the 400th anniversary of the first use of a telescope for astronomical purposes by Galileo and Thomas Harriot. It is also just 100 years since the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun for their contributions to wireless telegraphy. And, perhaps most visibly, this will be a Darwin year, marking the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The origin of species. These are events to which Notes and Records will return later in 2009.
- © 2009 The Royal Society