Innovative Oldenburg

A German scholar living in 17th-century London revolutionised the way scientists shared news of their latest advances.

Noah Moxham | Published 26 March 2015

Publishing pioneer: Henry Oldenburg by Jan van Cleve, 1668.
Publishing pioneer: Henry Oldenburg by Jan van Cleve, 1668.

Scientific discovery has shaped the world for four centuries. To make it happen, scientists needed an effective way to circulate knowledge, share ideas and establish new paradigms. One of the most important innovations of early science (natural philosophy to its 17th-century practitioners), therefore, was the scientific journal.

It owes its existence to an industrious German, Heinrich (Henry) Oldenburg. Educated in his native city of Bremen and in Utrecht, he was intended for a career in the Church or the academy but, in the early 1640s, he abandoned his studies in favour of experiencing the religious, political and intellectual life of Europe at first hand, seeking employment as tutor and travelling companion to the son of a nobleman or ‘some honest merchant’.

Oldenburg travelled extensively, mastered Dutch, French, Italian and English and made a wide acquaintance among the leading theologians and philosophers of Europe. His English contacts included many future members of the Royal Society, a like-minded knot of devotees of the new experimental science, which began meeting formally in London in November 1660. This well-travelled networker with eerily perfect English – the poet John Milton remarked that he had never heard a foreigner speak it better – was ideally equipped to address the learned of Europe in their own languages and made a natural choice for the Society’s first secretary.

Oldenburg filled the role with extraordinary dedication and energy, writing regularly to his contacts to inform them of the progress of science in England and to solicit news of their research in return. The Royal Society failed to match this commitment with a salary, however, and Oldenburg found himself overworked, unpaid and scratching out a living as a translator and publishing agent for the aristocratic pioneer of chemistry, Robert Boyle. In 1665 he proposed a new venture to the Royal Society, which he hoped would further the cause of scientific communication, promote the Society’s activity, save him the labour of copying the same news to dozens of correspondents in half a dozen languages and enable him to earn a decent living. It was to be a monthly periodical dedicated to natural philosophy, published by Oldenburg and printed with the Society’s authority.

The first issue was dated March 6th and it inaugurated a publication that continues down to the present: Philosophical Transactions, the oldest scientific journal in the world and the oldest English periodical of any kind still in production. Oldenburg’s innovation has been much imitated; estimates suggest that the number of scientific journal titles in publication today exceeds 30,000.  

The success of the scientific journal may not have seemed quite so certain at the time. The first years of the Transactions were subject to a Biblical catalogue of disruptions: pestilence, fire and war.  

Plague was the first to strike, in the summer of 1665. While much of the senior fellowship retreated to Oxford or the countryside to escape the disease, Oldenburg stayed behind and braved the epidemic. He continued to receive scientific news from the Continent, almost single-handedly kept up the impression through his correspondence that the Society was still active and arranged for the Transactions to be printed at Oxford. 

Fire came next. The disruption caused to the print trade by the Great Fire of September 1666 was little short of catastrophic. Many printers lost their stock and workshops and Oldenburg despaired of getting anyone to undertake to print the journal in its aftermath. To keep it going he was forced to surrender his stake in the journal’s profits for several months, which, as he wrote anxiously to Boyle, he was really in no financial position to do and to sweeten the deal for the booksellers with gifts of ‘some saleable books’ from the Continent.

War was last. The second Anglo-Dutch war had broken out within a few days of the Transactions’ first publication but had done little to disrupt Oldenburg’s communication with France and the Low Countries until the summer of 1667. The Dutch fleet’s attack on the Medway in June caused panic and indignation through all echelons of society. In the search for a scapegoat, the authorities ordered Oldenburg’s arrest and imprisonment in the Tower, apparently for being a foreigner who had used some unguarded expressions in his letters overseas.  

Initially denied writing materials and allowed few visitors, Oldenburg was in a miserable situation. Samuel Pepys, a fellow-member of the Society, reflected that Oldenburg’s imprisonment ‘for writing news’ to a colleague ‘in France with whom he constantly corresponds in philosophical [scientific] matters’ indicated the danger of the times. It also, Oldenburg observed bitterly to Boyle, taught him who his real friends were. Few tried to visit him; many of those who did left without seeing him upon learning what he was imprisoned for. It is not known how he eventually secured his release. It is likely that some highly-placed friends did in fact intercede for him, Boyle perhaps among them.  

He had work to catch up on when he got out at the end of August. Someone – perhaps an unscrupulous publisher, more likely a well-meaning friend – published a stop-gap issue of the Transactions reporting blood transfusion experiments from France. Oldenburg repudiated it and disqualified it from the journal’s sequence, not because it had not appeared under his stewardship but because it advanced French claims to priority in transfusion over English ones. Oldenburg had learned the value of asserting plainly whose side he was on and he vowed to stick to scientific matters in his future correspondence. (The accused poacher would later turn gamekeeper, working in the 1670s to translate intercepted letters and dispatches for the Secretary of State.)

Philosophical Transactions survived these disruptions and Oldenburg himself, who died suddenly in September 1677. It never made him an independent living; he observed in 1668 that it barely covered his Piccadilly rent and the Society voted him a salary in recognition of his services. But it had become a part of the scientific landscape and remains so to this day. The Society refused to let the journal die, badgering Oldenburg’s successors to keep it going. Others began to appear, in Britain and on the Continent, and by the time the Society took over the Transactions in 1753 over 150 titles had been started. The revolution in science communication was well under way.

Noah Moxham is a Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews. For details of the Royal Society’s celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions go to: royalsociety.org/publishing350 

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