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Four Objects That Made Science History

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

The Royal Society in London has digitised around 250,000 documents which can now be viewed online, covering everything from climate observations, the history of colour, how to conduct electricity, and animals. To promote this new and invaluable archive, now available for everyone online, the Royal Society has picked out four particularly special items to help wow us all.

First letter signed by a woman: In 1734 a woman living in New England called Martha Gerrish wrote to the Royal Society that she had spotted a rare astronomical sight called a Parhelion or 'sun dog' - an optical phenomenon that appears in the sky as two halos beside the sun.

A drawing of a sundog by Martha Gerrish who signed the letter to the Royal Society with her own name
A drawing of a sundog by Martha Gerrish who signed the letter to the Royal Society with her own name | Royal Society

It is the first letter in the archives of the society's journal - called Philosophical Transactions - known to be sent by a woman in her own name. Most women at the time had limited access to formal education and would not be considered intellectual equals to men. The letter demonstrates that women have contributed to science for centuries even when their work was not public, explains Royal Society historian Louisiane Ferlier.

Victorian dinosaurs: Dinosaur hunter Gideon Mantell sent in detailed drawings from discoveries in 1849 he made of dinosaur fossils on the Jurassic coast, in southern England.

Some of the drawings were in fact made by his wife, explains Royal Society librarian Keith Moore, and were essential in showing other scientists what had been discovered before photography had been invented.

Early fossil hunter drawing from 1849
Fossil hunters drew their dinosaur finds and sent to scientists for study | Royal Society

"You've got a bunch of bones here. How are they put together? These days we kind of know what a dinosaur looks like, but when you're starting from absolute scratch, these drawings were really helpful," he explains.

Discovery of Uranus: Have a look at the original letter written by the scientist who discovered the planet Uranus. William Herschel wrote to the society in 1782 to say he had spotted a new "primary planet of our solar system".

Letter from William Herschel explaining that he had discovered Uranus
The letter from William Herschel explaining that he had discovered a new planet | Royal Society

It was a shocking discovery at the time, Mr Moore says, because scientists thought they understood what was in the skies. But William Herschel was using a powerful new telescope and "suddenly he found something new, which was the first planet discovered in modern history".

Early photography experiments: Long before smartphones and digital cameras were everywhere, inventors in the 1830s and 1840s were experimenting with a new idea. Some of the first attempts to capture images were sent to the Royal Society.

An early experiment with cyanotype photography from the 1830s
An early experiment with cyanotype photography from the 1830s | Royal Society

One innovator, William Henry Fox Talbot, wrote in 1839 that he thought he had discovered something that might have "many useful and important applications". His letters also reveal how inventions can sometimes come about through failure, explains librarian Mr Moore. Frustrated by his poor drawing abilities, Mr Talbot turned to trying to invent a new way to capture pictures.

As well as these four finds, the Royal Society - one of the world's leading scientific organisations - has thousands of other objects collected since it was founded in 1660.

Ground-breaking scientists including Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton sent their research findings to the society's journal. If you would like to explore the recently digitised archives, click here.


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