Death masks and Franklin’s guide on how to be struck by lightning

Apparently death masks were all the rage in the past…especially for highly important people like Isaac Newton. The one that I saw last week was taken as a guide for the artist who had been commissioned to make Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. This wasn’t the only Newton goodie (if you can call it that!) on display when I was taken on a tour of the Royal Society’s Library and Archive last week. There was also a lock of his hair, the original manuscript of Principia, a diary detailing the first recorded version of the famous apple story and even a piece of bark from that fateful apple tree. They even let me touch it all! Crazy people.

Newton goodies

The death mask

Original manuscript of Principia (mostly written by Newton’s clerk BUT features amendments by the man himself)

Anyway, the Newton memorabilia was just the start of the excitement. I was shown various other cool things like the ballots for the election of Charles Darwin into the Fellowship, letters written by William Herschel and Benjamin Franklin (…not to each other) and the minutes of the first ever meeting of the Royal Society.

Franklin’s letter thanking the RS for awarding him the Copley medal.

Minutes of the first ever RS meeting from 1660.

And then in the depths of the climate controlled stores I got to see the very first editions of the PhilTrans journal. These literally used to be made up from all of the separate hand written letters from each of the submitting scientists, bound together into a single book. Something I found really striking was that the figures were also all hand-drawn and were beautiful with exquisite detail. Enlightment era scientists had some serious skillzzzz.

These early journal submissions were actually pretty topical for me because as part of my internship I’m helping to put together a list of key publications from the journal for the 350th anniversary celebration. The publishing division is planning to bring out a special issue in 2015 featuring the most significant/interesting of these articles alongside their original manuscripts. It’s been a great opportunity for me to embrace my (not so inner) geek. It’s pretty funny reading through some of the early contributions. They range from the bizarre like the one describing «An Account of a Monstrous Birth» to the DIY instructions by Franklin recommending how best to charge a metal rod with lightning whilst holding it and standing in a doorway during a thunderstorm.

Another item I spotted in the archive stores…the archivist had no idea what it was. Any guesses?

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