Category: Scholarship

Storms, Sounds and Authorship

The wind has been wildly whipping the last few days, putting me on edge. It doesn’t help that the wind makes the neighbourhood noisier than usual: clanking gates, blowing cans… The normally distant rumble of the tube train suddenly passes right down our street, while the planes seem to fly right over our roof. The weather can do funny things to sound.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Back in 1708, William Derham was inspired by his observations on weather and sound to publish on the motion of sound in the Philosophical Transactions. Derham’s letters to Sloane show how Derham had carefully thought about the subject for years before his article appeared. Academic writers will have much sympathy for Derham’s path toward publication.

In January 1704/5, Derham was confident that he was “setteling the business of the Flight of Sounds, which may be of good use”. He had ten questions and was happy to add more if anyone in the Royal Society had any; by the time he published, there were nineteen questions. Derham was charting the sound of gunfire to determine what factors affected sound, such as the type of winds and weather, size of gun, time of day, and direction of the shot.

Many credible authorities, from the Florentine Academy to Isaac Newton, had differed on the question of “What Space Sounds fly in a Second or any determinate Time?” To settle the matter, Derham repeated their experiments and at greater distances. The answer seemed close:

I have allmost satisfied my self about all the former Enquiries, which when I have fully done I will impart it to the Society. I only want a few Guns from the Tower or some such large distance (which I could see in the Evening) to fully confirm what I have already done.

Derham was more guarded by April 1705. He reported that he was not as close to finishing his experiments as he’d hoped. Having met “with fresh matters” that nobody had ever observed before, he was “cautious of determining any thing precipitatly; & therefore I shall yet delay giving the Society an account of what I have done”.

Lithograph by C.H. Bacle,  19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A light-hearted picture, but I hasten to add that Derham did not use women’s skirts to test his theories on sound. Lithograph by C.H. Bacle, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

What he could tell them was that “Storms do accelerate Sounds, wch I did not discover (only suspect) till last Fryday” when he had been timing the sound of guns fired at Blackheath. Contrary winds resulted in delays, while high winds sped the sounds up. But to test his theory, he needed more guns. Derham reassured Sloane that he would “use my greatest care in all this matter” because his newest observations differed so greatly from those of others–and “perhaps the Societys reputation my be somewhat hurt by any neglect or want of an act”.

In December 1706, Derham was still working on the project. He had only just found “an excellent semi-circle to take the Angles, & thereby the distances of the places from whence I observed the Flight of Sounds”. This, he noted, “was the only thing that hath delayed the me from imparting my Observations on that subject.” And in April 1707, he referred in passing to using triangulation to measure sound.

Finally, Derham sent off his observations in February 1707/8. His letter hints at his relief, as well as his hope that the article would be published as soon as possible.

I have sent you my Observations about Sounds; which as it hath cost me some pains, so I hope will be acceptable to you, & the most illustrious Society. If you think it worth publishing in the Transactions, I desire you will be pleased to put it into one of the next.

A week later, Derham’s anxiety emerges more clearly when he wondered whether Sloane had even received the article: “Be pleased to let me know whether you recd my account of Sounds with my Packet of Lrs from Florence.”

The article was intended to be Derham’s Important Work (and it was), appearing as it did in Latin rather than the English he usually used for his Phil. Trans. submissions. It also took up a full thirty-three pages. With his careful measurements, increased distances, and use of instruments, Derham provided a more accurate assessment of the speed of sound than previous scholars.

It’s just a shame that Derham never mentioned his mysterious Japanese (?) co-author anywhere in his letters to Sloane…

According to a data entry howler error in the online Phil. Trans., Soni Motu was the first author on the article. How’s that for revisioning history?

Soni Moto

A Trip to the Canary Islands, 1699-style

Sunset, 22 June 2013: Costa Adeje, Tenerife. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

Sunset, 22 June 2013: Costa Adeje, Tenerife. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

Research is never really far from my mind, even when strolling along the seaside promenade or sipping mojitos as I did last week in Tenerife.

An idle thought crossed my mind as I basked in the sun, alongside the funky Tenerifan lizards and bright-red British tourists: are there any letters about the Canary Islands in the Sloane Correspondence?

Given the importance of the Canaries as an early modern stopping point for ships heading to Africa, or indeed the New World, I would have guessed that there would be several. At present, however, there are only two letters on Sloane’s correspondence that mention the Canary Islands. Both letters were written by the botanist and entomologist William Vernon. In 1699, Vernon was granted £20 by the Royal Society to visit the Canary Islands. He had recently returned from a successful visit to Maryland, where he had collected several specimens. With an eagerness to travel and an eye for collecting, Vernon would have been a good choice to make the trip.


The old port town of Garachico, Tenerife. In 1706, the port closed because of a lava flow from a volcanic eruption. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

But he missed the boat.

In February 1699, Vernon was waiting to hear of any ship bound for the Canary Islands. With the spring being later there, he hoped that he still might acquire spring plants—and, fortunately, the autumn would last until mid-November, allowing ample opportunity to collect summer and autumn specimens, too. In the meantime, Vernon remained busy trying to find more specimens of sea plants around Margate. This was tricky, since this time of year was the “barrenest” for sea plants.

By May, it was clear that Vernon would not be going to the Canaries after all. He reported that he had been unable to find a ship bound for the Canaries since he’d seen Sloane and thought it was now too late to make the funded voyage. Instead, he would travel around the countryside. He promised Sloane at least four or five curiosities that would be of interest to the Royal Society.

The English countryside: not really the same as the Canaries! But interesting all the same. And, as all funding bodies (and academics) know, good research plans often change along the way. Vernon never did take a trip to the Canaries, although he remained in regular contact with both Sloane and the Royal Society.

What I’m intrigued by, though, is why Vernon had such trouble finding a ship bound for the Canaries. Readers: any ideas?

Sloane: Part of the Family

By Alice Marples

When thinking about famous figures in the history of science, it can sometimes be easy to forget that they were not working in isolation. A lot of recent research has focused on exploring the domestic contexts of scientific production, and paints a picture of kitchen table-top experiments and hoards of curious visitors mucking up the carpet. Men of science were the heads of households, supported (and, likely, just about tolerated) by their families and servants, who were often called in to help.

Yet, when I first began reading through Sloane’s correspondence, I was still surprised by the extent to which wives and children featured in the letters. The broad geographical shape and intellectual form of the international Republic of Letters, linking scholars who had often never met, necessitated a certain contractual form of conduct in epistolary exchanges: elevated, polite and very, very formal. Though the letters in Sloane’s collection are polite, the business discussed within them flows easily from formal to familial, with the knowledge exchanged alternating between the scientific and the social.

John Smybert, The Bermuda Group (1728-1739), Yale University Art Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The first letter from John Ray (1627-1705) – a naturalist-parson and patron of Sloane’s, easily the single person with whom he corresponded the most – concludes his discussion of the state of the scientific community with the request that Sloane should come visit Ray in Black Notley, as he and his wife would love to see him. There is a great deal of affection communicated through these letters, giving the impression that Sloane was very much part of the furniture within the Ray household.

Sloane’s increasingly long absences as he became busier and more successful as a physician and collector are mourned by Ray, his wife, and their daughters. After a relatively big gap in their communication in which Sloane is almost entirely taken up with administering to the rather-troublesome Lady Albermarle and her frequent health issues, we have this from Ray:

Monday last I received your kind letter attended with a rich Present of sugar to my Wife: They were both very gratefull & acceptable…. You have so highly pleased & obliged my Wife, that she is much in commendation of your generosity, & returns you her humble service & hearty thanks; wishing that you were here to partake of some of the effects of your kindnesse.

This present of sugar to the Ray family to make up for his absence was one which Sloane returned to again and again:

My little family are, I thank God, at present all in health…. We often tast of your kindnesse, & as often remember you, & talk of you. My wife salutes you with the tender of her most humble service. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 256)

Certainly lots of letters were written by current or future members of the Royal Society on account of the health of their family, such as Sir Godfrey Copley’s wife or William Sherard’s mother. Similarly, Sloane’s wife is present in many of the letters, with doctors, botanists and lords courteously asking after her whenever she is ill.

But networks built by demonstrable medical expertise and social power did not exist within a void. They were supplemented by personal connections maintained through everyday exchanges among friends and associates, and their families, all of whom were present within the learned community. For example, Sir Godfrey Copley felt compelled to beg on behalf of his wife that Sloane send her the reciept of Making Bacon like that of Westphalia. (Sloane MS 4036, f.188)

Wives swapped housemaids, passed on recipes and recommendations, and actively sought positions for friends and servants through the epistolary exchanges. Sons began working for individuals and companies after being recommended to them by those who knew their parents. Daughters were introduced to improving elder ladies, and written about fondly in letters between fathers. All these interactions appear in the letters as part of the scientific and scholarly information. These letters offer rewarding traces of domestic life, friendship, the role of women in patronage, and the familial world of natural history.

Sloane existed at the centre of a world-wide network of letter-writers, yet it is important to remember that often Sloane’s correspondence was not quite the same sort of exchange as that of the virtuous Republic of Letters. Time and again, there is evidence within the letters of the personal, informal and integrated worlds of families and friends behind this polite language and professions of worthy enterprise.

On this note, I leave you with the warm but exasperated postscript written along the edges of Sir Arthur Rawdon’s letter to Sloane, dated 30th March 1692:

My wife has made me open my letter agen to tell you that she is much troubled that you should write word that you were afraid the cause of my silence was that you had disobliged either her mother or her, she hopes you have a better opinion of them. (Sloane MS 4036, f.115)

Sloane was sometimes so deeply involved with the extended families and friends of his correspondents, that even his patron’s mother-in-law (assisted by his wife) was able to tease him.

Making Sense of Hans Sloane’s Collections

When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, the British nation purchased his collection and established the British Museum. Over the next two centuries, the collection was dispersed as new institutions were formed. The Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881, acquired Sloane’s plant and animal collections. The British Library, established in 1973, laid claim to the manuscripts and printed books. If this sounds orderly, it wasn’t!

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Just to give a hint of the complexity, it’s worth noting that bits of Sloane’s correspondence appear on the backs of natural history drawings that are held in the British Museum and some of his reading notes appear in printed catalogues at the Natural History Museum.

Considering the scope of Sloane’s collections, it is surprising that relatively little scholarly work has been done on them. But the three institutions are trying to bring Sloane’s collections back together virtually in a fascinating project, Reconstructing Sloane. The first step was The Sloane Printed Books Project, a catalogue that allows researchers to get a sense of what Sloane’s original library looked like and how it changed over time. The second step is a grant that has allowed the institutions to partner with Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London to fund three collaborative doctoral awards. Alice Marples, Felicity Roberts and Victoria Pickering have all taken on the challenge of reconstructing parts of Sloane’s vast collections. To my delight, they will be occasionally sharing the fruits of their research on The Sloane Letters Blog.

Alice (KCL ), who has a background in Enlightenment coffee-houses, is researching Sloane’s correspondence and manuscripts at the British Library. In particular, she is looking at Sloane’s network of colleagues, commercial traders and contributors to understand Sloane’s public persona. Through his correspondence, he was able to construct a space for material exchange, scientific endeavour and social interaction.

Felicity (KCL) has degrees in English and eighteenth-century studies. She is looking at Sloane’s natural history drawings, primarily held at the British Museum, to discover how Sloane interpreted and visualized the natural world. Her study is situated within London’s wider philosophical and literary culture, which disucssed concepts of nature, natural order, truth, beauty and authenticity.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Victoria (QMUL) previously studied the early modern transatlantic slave trade. Her project, “Putting Nature in a Box” examines Sloane’s collection of 12000 small boxes of vegetable substances, which included seeds, bark and curios. Using Sloane’s hand-written, three volume catalogue, she is tracing who sent what items, the origins of the substances, and Sloane’s intended uses for the objects.

What is, perhaps, most exciting about these projects is that they are not undertaken in isolation. The students and their supervisors at all six institutions (and occasionally, me!) have regular seminars. Along the way, seminars have included discussions about readings, visits to the collections or guest speakers. The interdisciplinary collaboration is providing us with an appreciation of the sheer size of Sloane’s collections and how each part fits together.  The students’ individual projects are enhanced by a wider understanding of curation, cataloguing and collecting: how Sloane’s collection has been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time. With a collection so large and dispersed, collaboration is also the only way scholars will ever make sense of Sloane’s complete collections.

There are other advantages, too. “Working collaboratively”, writes Victoria, “provides a wonderful support network” and is “an interesting and exciting opportunity”—and besides, there is “nothing quite like being able to talk to another PhD student about your work and for them to know exactly what you’re talking about.” It is also, perhaps, the best way of studying a man who was a super-mediator in his own life, and one who valued the sharing of knowledge. As Alice puts it, this “collective engagement with knowledge production and diffusion is something that Sloane himself would no doubt appreciate!” 

No doubt.

Contracts and Early Modern Scholarly Networks

By Ann-Marie Hansen

In the face of such an extensive collection of correspondence as Sir Hans Sloane’s, one might well ask how a person could establish such a network of contacts in the days before electronic social-media. Each relationship tells its own story, of course, but Sloane communicated with many scholars within what was known as the Republic of Letters. This intellectual community had a set of rules governing the proper way of establishing a written exchange. (For recent commentary on the need for rules in online academic sociability today, see here, here and here!)

One such practice was the epistolary contract, which allows us to understand how such relationships were established. This was a formal agreement between correspondents that determined their respective responsibilities and subsequently formed the basis for all further communication. Such contracts were especially necessary in cases where the correspondents never met and so couldn’t discuss the details in person; as a result we find evidence of several such contracts in Sloane’s correspondence with French scholars.

Jean Paul Bignon. Engraving by C. Duflos after H. Rigaud, 1708. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In the crucial first letters of an exchange a relationship would be offered and, if accepted, the specific terms would be negotiated such that the ensuing “commerce de lettres” would suit both parties. The language used reveals a contractual nature of the proposed exchange, for example referring to conditions and obligation. There is, however, also a hint of the relationship’s commercial nature. The goods and services to be provided by one or both sides were discussed, as well as the fair compensation for these favours. This was ordinarily payment in kind, such as scientific news from France being traded for scientific news from England. This was the case in the exchange proposed by the Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, who wrote:


My wishes would be fulfilled if […] it would please you to enter into some sort of exchange with me, and from time to time send me news of what is happening in the learned world. […] To make an advance on the dealings that I am proposing, the principal gain from which will be mine, I am sending you literary news which particular reasons keep us from printing in our journals. (Sloane MS 4041, f. 324)

Epistolary contracts sometimes stipulated how often each person had to write, and if either party did not meet these obligations they could expect to be reprimanded for their silence. Sloane himself was scolded in November 1695 for neglecting his recently established correspondence with the journalist Henri Basnage de Beauval. Having heard of Sloane’s recent nuptials with Elizabeth Langley (in May 1695), Basnage admitted that taking a wealthy wife was sufficient reason for having lately been overly occupied, but insisted that Sloane’s new situation did not free him from his prior commitments.

But please, you are not henceforth excused from the obligation to which you committed yourself. It is time that I remind you that you offered me an epistolary exchange, and that is a commitment which I do not accept to have been annulled by the other duties that you have recently taken upon yourself. Be so good then as to fulfill what you promised me, and recognize that it is well that I should ask you to do so. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 219)

Sloane must have replied promptly enough after that, as the two men exchanged news for some years to come. Moreover, given how vast a network of contacts continued to communicate with Sloane, this temporary failing on his part seems to have been a rather rare occurrence. He did only marry the one time after all.

Original French Quotations

(1) Je serois au comble de mes souhaits si […] vous voudrés bien entrer dans quelque sorte de commerce avec moi; et me mander de temps en temps ce qu’il y aura de nouveau par rapport aux Lettres. […] Pour faire des avances du commerce que je vous propose, et dont le principal ­­fruit doit me revenir, je vous envoye les nouvelles Litteraires que des raisons particulieres nous empechent d’imprimer dans nos Journaux.

(2) Mais vous n’etes pas s’il vous plaist dispensé pour toujours de l’obligation oû vous vous estes engagé vous mesme. Il est temps que je vous fasse souvenir que vous m’avez offert un commerce de lettres, et c’est un engagement que je ne pretends point qui soit rompu par les autres soins dont vous venez de vous charger. Ayez donc la bonté d’executer ce que vous m’avez promis, et trouvez bon que je vous en sollicite.

An Eighteenth-Century Rogue

A letter that begins “Since the Unfortunate Affair in Kensington whereby I lost all my Substance, My Expectations and my friends” caught my attention while I was rooting through documents in the archives.

Botanist Richard Bradley found himself strapped for cash. He was managing to scrape by “at the publick Expence”, but publishing was an expensive business and all of his money had gone to paying off booksellers. He was even considering going abroad: “my Inclinations are for it, Even into the Most Dangerous country”. Bradley was unsure which was worse: “to live upon Expectations at home is as bad as it can be to venture one’s Life among Savages abroad”. What he truly wanted was “to have a Garden of Experiments for General Use”—something, no doubt, that Bradley hoped would capture Sloane’s attention, given his interest in and support of the Chelsea Physic Garden. He concluded that such a garden would allow him to “gain an Improving Settlement” and to “do my Country some Service without restraint of Booksellers”.

As a scholar, I was struck by his indebtedness to booksellers, but what on earth was his “Unfortunate Affair”? I just had to explore the letter’s background! A bit of digging revealed Bradley to be a bit of a rogue who constantly asked for (and received) money from his friends. Historian Frank Egerton has taken a sympathetic view; Bradley was a man who lived in an age when there was no government support for scholarship and, lacking personal wealth to support his investigations, he ended up in a cycle of constant debt. A fair point… though Bradley seems to have been particularly bad at managing his affairs.

Cannons Park, Middlesex (destroyed). Engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739), plate 24. From Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1688 to a middle-class London family, Bradley received a good education, but never attended university. He published widely on popular medical and scientific topics. He was known for his expertise in botany and managed to attract high-ranking patrons, including James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos (and husband of Cassandra Willughby). Brydges hired Bradley to oversee the planting of gardens at his estate, Cannons Parks, and even helped him out financially in November 1717, sending money to pay off personal debts. Then, in 1719, Brydges found that Bradley had mismanaged a substantial sum. It seems likely that this is the “Unfortunate Affair”. But he recovered and by 1724, William Sherard had recommended him for the position of Professor of Botany at Cambridge. As part of the Professorship, Bradley promised to found a botanical garden.

Bradley was, perhaps, generally unreliable. The Royal Society notes that “his ignorance of Latin and Greek and his failure to perform his duties caused great scandal”. Yet, despite his many problems, Bradley was still able to persuade people to invest in him. If his relationship with Sloane is typical, I can understand why. Bradley comes across as likeable in his correspondence. Starting in 1714, he occasionally sent Sloane news (e.g. of a hermaphroditic horse) and illustrations (e.g. a lizard from Sloane’s cabinet). In return, he sometimes asked Sloane for advice or employment recommendations.

Bradley again found it difficult to make ends meet by 1726. He had not founded his botanical garden and had trouble attracting students (whose fees were needed to support him). He wrote to Sloane offering him a saffron kiln in return for a favour: help in—of course—getting free from the “booksellers’ hands”. The following year, Sloane noted at the bottom of another letter from Bradley: “Sent him a guinea”. In 1729, Bradley’s financial problems appeared to have been sorted he married a wealthy woman. But within a short time, Mary Bradley’s money had gone to pay off his many debts, and the unlucky couple was forced to sell off household furnishings and move into more modest lodgings.

Bradley died as he lived in 1732, after a long and expensive illness that left his wife and child in debt. The last letter about Bradley was from his widow, asking Sloane for support. And, given his history with Bradley, Sloane likely provided the widow with assistance.

Perhaps Mrs Bradley was better than her husband at money management, as she was never heard from again.


F. N. Egerton, “Richard Bradley’s relationship with Sir Hans Sloane”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 25 (1970), 59–77.

F.N. Egerton, “Bradley, Richard (1688?-1732)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005.

An International Community of Scholars

By Melanie Racette-Campbell

Latin was the international language for academics and intellectuals during Sloane’s lifetime; an Englishman and an Italian might not share a common modern language, but if they were educated they both knew Latin. Many of the Latin letters were published in whole or in part in the Philosophical Transactions, but Latin was also used for personal correspondence, requests for patronage, and medical consultation – in other words, for the same range of purposes as Sloane’s correspondence as a whole.

Most of Sloane’s Latin correspondents were either professional or amateur scientists of some sort, especially botanists, anatomists, and naturalists. Many of the writers of Latin letters either were or would become fellows or foreign members of the Royal Society, and the content of the letters reflects this: they were almost always on scholarly matters, at least in part. These were generally short reports on a specific incident or findings, as for example the report sent by a certain Dr. Bullen about an unusually large bladder stone or barometric records sent from Switzerland by Jacob Scheuchzer, a physician and naturalist. A particularly frequent correspondent, Pieter Hotton of Leiden, sent catalogues of recently published books or else the books themselves to Sloane. Along with scholarly matters, the Latin correspondents (as Hotton did here) often included messages to mutual friends in England, requests for news about these friends, and announcements about significant personal events. The Latin letters were social as well as scholarly, and show us a tightly knit international community of scholars.

But the Latin letters came not only from continental Europe: more of Sloane’s Latin correspondents wrote from the United Kingdom than any single other country, and one letter included text copied from a letter from a Jesuit priest in Japan. When residents of the British Isles wrote in Latin, they were generally writing for scholarly purposes, just like the European letter writers. In fact, two letters written in Latin by an English speaker, the Scottish surgeon/apothecary Patrick Blair, outline a plan for a scientific book on medicinal plants to be written in Latin. This suggests that even between those who shared the same language, Latin was often still considered the right language for intellectual matters.


Melanie Racette-Campbell, who is just finishing her Ph.D. in Classics at the University of Toronto, worked as a research assistant on the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence Online Project. She received her B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology and M.A. in Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies from the University of Saskatchewan. Her research interests include Latin poetry and gender and sexuality in the classical world.