The Royal Society Early Letters

Primary Contributors:

The Royal Society, London

A cart with legs, illustration of Francis Potter’s design from a letter by Robert Hooke read at the Royal Society on 18 March 1663. (The Royal Society Archives, EL/ P1/40; image copyright of The Royal Society)

The Royal Society Early Letters (1613–1740)

Correspondence was a core activity of the Royal Society of London [for Improving Natural Knowledge] from its inception. Founding Fellows developed a ‘scientific method of correspondence’—in Andrea Rusnock’s words—which placed the institution as one of the most important hubs of diffusion for natural philosophy in the early modern world. Letters circulated within the Society in various ways: they were read at its meetings, printed in its periodical The Philosophical Transactions, preserved and copied in its Letter Books and Register Books. Correspondence served a variety of functions: it was a source of scientific information, a means of validation, but also a way to claim priority for new theories, inventions, or discoveries. Particularly under the secretaryships of Henry Oldenburg (1663 to 1675), Sir Hans Sloane (1693 to 1710), and James Jurin (1721 to 1727), calls for correspondence were issued to obtain information from particular countries (Greenland, Japan, Jamaica …) or on particular topics (mining, flora, weather …).

The collection known as ‘Early Letters’ is composed of original manuscript letters sent to, or collected by, the Royal Society from English and foreign correspondents. The material includes a few letters preceding the founding of the Royal Society (1660) and its royal incorporation (1662), the majority dating between 1660 and 1740. Letters found their way to the Society’s archives through various routes. A large portion was sent directly to the Royal Society’s secretaries, officers, and Fellows with the view to be disseminated. Some emanated from the private correspondences of Fellows, while others were solicited or copied in support of the Fellows’ immediate subject interests or Society projects. In all, ‘Early Letters’ consist of thirty-eight volumes containing 4,237 individual letters. These were organised alphabetically by author and then chronologically within those groups during the eighteenth century.

‘Early Letters’ inform on the Society’s activities and its institutional life, and form a chronicle of early modern science. Key points of interest in the collection include letters by Henry Oldenburg (404 letters), Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (316 letters), John Wallis (224 letters), Henri Justel (147), Christian Huygens (86 letters), John Flamsteed (74 letters), Martin Lister (61 letters), Giovanni Domenico Cassini (38 letters), Cotton Mather (36 letters), and Isaac Newton (31 letters).

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for Early Letters was supplied to EMLO by Dr Louisiane Ferlier, Digital Resources Manager at the Centre for the History of Science, The Royal Society. The data was extracted from the Royal Society’s archives management system. The catalogue entries were created and edited by generations of cataloguers and archivists who worked in the Royal Society archives. Thanks are extended to the Early Collections Archivist, Virginia Mills and Head of Collections, Keith Moore.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Boas Hall, Marie, ‘The Royal Society’s role in the diffusion of information in the seventeenth century’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28 (1973-4), pp. 173–92.

Hall, A. Rupert and Marie Boas Hall, eds and tr., The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg (Madison and London, 1965–86).

Hunter, Michael, The Royal Society and its Fellows, 1660–1700, the morphology of an early scientific institution, BSHS Monographs, 4 (1982; second edition: Oxford, 1994).

Moore, Keith and Mary Sampson, The Archives and Manuscripts of the Royal Society (London: The Royal Society, 1995).

Rusnock, Andrea, ‘Correspondence networks and the Royal Society, 1700–1750’, British Journal for the History of Science, 32 (1999), pp. 155–69.

Shuckard, W. E., Catalogues of the miscellaneous manuscripts and of the manuscript letters in the possession of the Royal Society (London: The Royal Society, 1840).

Turnbull, H. W., et al., eds, The correspondence of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, 1959–77).

van Rijnberg, G., et al., eds,  Alle de brieven van Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, 12 vols (Amsterdam, 1939–).

Letter by Samuel Colepress to Henry Oldenburg dated 30 June 1669, Leiden. (The Royal Society Archives, EL/C1/26; image copyright of The Royal Society)

Scope of Catalogue

It should be noted that work on the metadata in this catalogue is ‘in progress’ in EMLO at present. A number of queries remain to be resolved. Manifestations that the Library catalogue sets out as separate records will be identified and listed as one record in EMLO; bundles of letters clustered together in the Early Letters as one record will be unpacked and listed individually; and details from other Royal Society Library sources, for example, copies in the Letter Book, entry in the Register Book, publication in the Philosophical Transactions, and details of the date that a letter was read to the Society will all be collated.

Further resources

Catalogue of the Royal Society Archives and Library

The Newton Project

Groups of letters from the collection are included in individual editions of correspondences included on EMLO:

The Correspondence of John Aubrey
The Correspondence of Robert Boyle
The Correspondence of John Collins
The Correspondence of Christiaan Huygens
The Correspondence of James Jurin
The Correspondence of Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek
The Correspondence of Edward Lhwyd
The Correspondence of Martin Lister
The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg
The Correspondence of Robert Plot
The Correspondence of Francis Vernon
The Correspondence of John Wallis


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