The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge (based on the A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall edition)

Henry Oldenburg, by Jan van Cleve. 1668. Oil on canvas, 83.8 by 63.5cm. (©The Royal Society, inv. no. RS.9673 ).

Henry Oldenburg (c.1619–1677)

Henry Oldenburg, one of the foremost scientific intelligencers of the early modern period, is central to a great many of the correspondence networks represented within EMLO. An indefatigable letter-writer and networker among the scientific community of his day, he is renowned in his capacity as secretary of the newly formed Royal Society in London, but his surviving correspondence, which numbers thus far well in excess of 3,000 surviving letters, testifies to his geographically dispersed circle and to his extraordinarily broad range of interests; encompassing everything from chymistry to technology, Oldenburg charts as he writes the scientific exploration and discovery of the latter seventeenth-century.

Oldenburg was born around 1619 in Bremen, where his father held a position as a teacher at the Paedagogium prior to an appointment as professor at Dorpat [Tartu] University. Following a degree in theology, Oldenburg moved to Utrecht in 1641, and thereafter spent a dozen years travelling around Europe as tutor to a succession of young Englishmen, during which time he met a number of significant figures, including John Dury and John Pell. Late in July 1653, as envoy from Bremen to England, he arrived in London where he became integrated immediately into a circle of English natural scientists, politicians, and scholars that included such luminaries as the poet John Milton (who became a friend), Samuel Hartlib, and natural philosopher Robert Boyle (whose friendship would become coupled with patronage that lasted for rest of Oldenburg’s life and whose nephew became his pupil from 1656). Whilst educating the young Richard Jones, Oldenburg studied natural philosophy and found himself ever more firmly embedded within the circle of scholars that included John Wilkins, John Wallis, and Robert Hooke. A three-year journey with his pupil through France and Germany enabled him to seek out natural philosophers from Saumur to Nuremberg and Paris. Recalled to London for the occasion of Charles II’s entry into London in May 1660, Oldenburg returned to the continent a year later, this time to Bremen and the Low Countries, where, in Leiden, he encountered Spinoza and resumed his acquaintance with Christiaan Huygens. Wherever he went, Oldenburg acted as a reporter to Boyle of news and scientific discovery. When the Royal Society was formed officially in July 1662, Oldenburg was recorded as an inaugural member and appointed one of the two secretaries; when the charter of 1663 set out permission for the Society to correspond through the secretary, Oldenburg became the only active member in this capacity. A born administrator, he came to embody the Society and all it stood for: unpaid, he organized meetings, liaised with members and colleagues, proposed members from abroad, and directed the staff. An income of sorts came later from his purveying of news when, in 1665, he instituted the Philosophical Transactions, a publication intended to disseminate news drawn in part from his own correspondence and in part from the activities of the Society. From 1666, he supplemented the scant income generated from this publication with support from Sir Joseph Williamson at the State Paper Office in return for information with respect to public opinion in France and the United Provinces. This arrangement, which involved Williamson picking up the cost of postage whilst Oldenburg provided political, military, and social news against the backdrop of the Second Anglo-Dutch war, resulted for Oldenburg in almost two months of imprisonment in the Tower. His crime, according to Pepys, was the writing of ‘news to a virtuoso in France’ [Pepys, Diary, 24 June 1667].

Upon his release, Oldenburg proceeded undeterred to build up his correspondence networks still further. Ever on the look-out for sources of income, he continued to provide news to Williamson as well as to translate and publish for Boyle and, from the early 1670s, for others including Malpighi. Oldenburg married twice: first Dorothy West (c.1623–1665) and secondly Dora Katherina Dury [Durie], daughter of John Dury, who by 1664 had lost her mother and, with her father in Kassel, had been made a ward of Austin Friars and, subsequently, of Oldenburg and Dorothy. Until the very end of his life, Oldenburg continued to promote the interests of the Society. His encouragement of younger natural philosophers was truly remarkable and his patronage and support regarding publication of their work legendary. Oldenburg died in early September 1677. His young widow followed him to the grave just eleven days later.

Partners and Additional Contributors

Collation of metadata for the correspondence of Henry Oldenburg began within the Cultures of Knowledge project in 2014 and Digital Fellows Dr Randolph Cock, Katherine Steiner, and Lucy Hennings have worked their way through the volumes of the edition of Alfred Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, while Charlotte Marique and Timothy Wade have helped to check the metadata. Cultures of Knowledge would like to extend sincere thanks to Sir Noel Malcolm, to Dr Philip Beeley, and to Dr Alexandre Tessier for their unfailing advice at every stage of this work and for their patience with numerous queries.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, ed. A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall, 13 vols (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press; London: Mansel; London: Taylor & Francis, 1965–86).

Scope of Catalogue

It should be noted that in their edition A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall used the Julian calendar to record the date for each letter in Oldenburg’s correspondence. To avoid confusion for scholars consulting the edition, EMLO has maintained these dates, has recorded also the ‘date as marked’ in the letter, and, in line with practice across the entire union catalogue, has generated and stored the Gregorian equivalent of all recorded Julian dates.

In keeping with the spirit of the Cultures of Knowledge project, EMLO has made available at the earliest opportunity basic metadata from all thirteen volumes of the Halls’ edition. In the course of 2017, metadata for people mentioned within the letters from a number of the Halls’ volumes will be added to the records in EMLO.


Letters in all EMLO catalogues from, to, or mentioning Oldenburg

Letters in the Halls’ edition

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