Monthly Archives: January 2016

‘The Learned Doctor’: Robert Plot


Illustration by Michael Burgers from Robert Plot’s ‘Natural History of Oxford-shire’ (Oxford, 1677), plate IX. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

We are pleased to be publishing this week a catalogue of particular interest both to historians of science and to historians of collections: the correspondence of the first keeper of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Robert Plot. Metadata for this correspondence has been collated from the indispensable work of Robert Gunther, the zoologist, antiquary, and historian of science who between 1920 and 1945 published fourteen volumes entitled Early Science in Oxford and who was himself the inaugural curator of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science.

Robert Plot was known during his lifetime as ‘the learned Dr Plot’. He published natural histories of Oxfordshire and Staffordshire, and was appointed simultaneously Oxford’s first professor of chemistry and curator of Elias Ashmole’s substantial donation to the University, which formed the foundation of the Ashmolean. Plot lived and worked in the building in Broad Street (now the fittingly the Museum of the History of Science) that was constructed especially to display Ashmole’s gift alongside a School of Natural History, which was located on the middle floor, and a chemical laboratory, which was set out in the basement. Opening in 1683, the museum was the first institutional collection in England to permit access to the general public. Gunther is a mine of information about these crucial years of scientific advancement in Oxford, and there is many a treat in store for those who have not encountered his volumes hitherto. When discussing Plot’s resignation as secretary of the Royal Society, for example, Gunther considers the coach service between Oxford and London, speculating that this might have been a factor in Plot’s decision. ‘Between 1660 and 1669,’ Gunther writes, ‘a diligence ran from Oxford to London in two days. The passengers slept at Beaconsfield. In 1669 a Flying Coach started from All Souls College at 6 a.m. and reached the capital at 7 p.m. The cost was about twopence-halfpenny a mile.’ Somewhat pricey, my colleague the John Wallis scholar Philip Beeley has pointed out, when bearing in mind as comparison that a standard letter could be sent from Oxford to Scotland at a cost of just 5 pence.

Of course there is significant overlap between these letters published by Gunther and those in a number of alternative catalogues available already in EMLO, in particular those of Martin Lister and Edward Lhwyd (Lhwyd was Plot’s assistant at the fledgling Ashmolean and, from 1690, his successor to the post of Keeper), as well as with records in the Bodleian card catalogue. With the assistance of current Oxford students these parallel letter records are being linked to enable EMLO’s users to toggle between different interpretations of the same letter within the union catalogue, and this feature will be in place very shortly. In the meantime, we trust you will enjoy Plot’s letters, and we hope also you will take this opportunity to explore Gunther’s volumes.

‘Skybound was the mind’: Johannes Kepler


Artist’s conception of the Kepler space telescope observing planets transiting a distant star. (Image source: NASA Ames/ W Stenzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In the week that a possible ninth planet appears in the BBC news firmament, we are exceptionally pleased to announce serendipitous publication in EMLO of the first installment of our catalogue of Johannes Kepler’s correspondence. Thankfully Kepler — following initial leanings towards theology — kept his gaze fixed steadfastly upwards and turned his attention to the heavens by making astronomical observations. ‘I wanted to become a theologian’, he explained in 1595 to Michael Maestlin, the Tübingen professor of mathematics who had first introduced him to Copernicanism, ‘and for a long time I was restless. Now however, behold how God is being celebrated in astronomy.’

We should be thankful also that it has been possible to compile this epistolarly calendar for Kepler in a number of stages. First, Professor Adam Mosley kindly made available to EMLO the treasure-trove that is his working spreadsheet of astronomical correspondence collated in the course of his research and publication on Tycho Brahe, from which we extracted records of Kepler’s letters and passed these to Dr Francesco Barreca of the Museo Galileo, Institute and Museum for the History of Science, Florence, for significant scholarly expansion. Working from Johannes Kepler. Gesammelte Werke (ed. Max Caspar, et al., currently 20 vols [Munich: C. H. Beck, 1938–]), Dr Barreca expanded the metadata considerably, enriching each letter record with invaluable and searchable abstracts and keywords, and by creating links between letters to indicate which letter is in reply to or is answered by which. Each letter record includes also a link to the indispensable Kommission zur Herausgabe der Werke von Johannes Kepler where, if users click through to ‘KGW Digital’, searchable PDFs of the relevant volumes may be downloaded.

Alongside Tycho Brahe, Kepler is one of the very central figures in early modern cosmology and astronomy, and together these two astronomers are forming the firm foundations of what we hope will develop into a rapidly expanding cluster of astronomically focussed correspondences in EMLO. As a first step towards this, eagle-eyed of users of the union catalogue may have spotted a change in how we are choosing to list and group our ever-expanding list of correspondences. Were you to visit EMLO’s catalogue page you would find now the full index of our correspondences set out alphabetically within the ‘Catalogues’ section in a manner you will recognize, as well as work-in-progress areas where we plan to enable in the very near future chronological, geographical, and thematic searching and where we will provide a number of bird-eye-view visualizations. We will be compiling also useful listings set out both by contributor to EMLO and by holding institution of manuscript versions. We hope you will find these of use as you navigate the expanding EMLO universe; please keep revisiting as it will not be long before you will meet both Kepler and Brahe again in the astronomically themed section. As our work continues, you will notice increasing links being forged between correspondences, across the subject matters contained therein, and among the people and places involved. It is in this way that we will begin to shed light on those who in the period under our investigation worked on, amongst a myriad of other topics, cosmographic mysteries.