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Digitized minutes of Royal Society meetings taken between 1686 and 1711 (royalsociety.org)
214 points by gruseom on Jan 28, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

This is great news. I'm a historian and have gone to the Royal Society archives to read these draft minutes in the past (I was looking for references to experiments involving psychoactive drugs on one research trip, and on another I was researching the Royal Society's run-in with the infamous impostor George Psalmanazar).

Happy to answer questions about the meeting minutes or their historical significance if anyone is interested. Hans Sloane is pretty fascinating in his own right and was recently the subject of a biography: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674737334

Does any of the meeting minutes contain a reference to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottfried_Wilhelm_Leibniz that you know of ?

I never looked for it, but Leibniz was a member of the RS so he almost certainly shows up. He's mentioned frequently in the Philosophical Transactions. For example here's "the Answer of Mr. Leibnitz" in response to a letter from "clarissimis viris Newtono" (the most distinguished Newton): https://books.google.com/books?id=7uwyAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA186&dq=%...

First page of the 1707-1711 editions, I found this sentence, sure there's likely more ...

"A proposall was read by Dr. Papin concerning

a new invented [deleted] to be row'd with oars mov'd

by heat. The farther consideration of It was also referred to ye. next meeting.

A letter was read from Mr. Leibnitz concerning

Mr. Papin & this new boat."

Some context around Papin and his boat from wikipedia[1] for those interested:

> In 1705 he developed a second steam engine with the help of Gottfried Leibniz, based on an invention by Thomas Savery, but this used steam pressure rather than atmospheric pressure. Details of the engine were published in 1707.

> Papin returned to London in 1707, leaving his wife in Germany. Several of his papers were put before the Royal Society between 1707 and 1712 without acknowledging or paying him, about which he complained bitterly. Papin's ideas included a description of his 1690 atmospheric steam engine, similar to that built and put into use by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, thought to be the year of Papin's death.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Papin

Well? Did you find any references to experiments involving psychoactive drugs?

Tons! Some examples show up in my dissertation, which is available here [1]. Best way to find them is to search "royal society" in the PDF.

One of the more interesting examples is Robert Boyle's list of "desiderata" for future scientific discoveries which includes entries like "Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams" and "Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men."

[1] https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/46...

I find it interesting, the reference to tea, rather than coffee as a stimulant.

It looks like coffee houses became a thing around this time. [1]

I also like that that is basically a list of what we want from drugs today, other than curing disease. (would the concept of taking a pill to cure something have existed then???)

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/unite...

Coffee houses existed at that time but coffee itself was not thought of in quite the same way as today. It wasn’t taken for granted that it was a harmless stimulant, or even a stimulant at all.

The idea of taking a pill to cure a disease did exist; it would’ve been called a “specific.” Pills were handmade but were fairly common based on what I’ve seen, although cordials, electuaries, and other drinkables predominated.

Interesting, thanks.

"or even a stimulant at all"

Its strange that tea was thought of as a stimulant but not coffee?! I could drink 10 cups of tea, and only feel the urge to wee. That much coffee and I'd be up the wall!

But then the Victorians were shooting up opiates whilst warning of the dangers of alcohol so I suppose there is a lot of 'cultural conditioning' going on there (and here).

> I could drink 10 cups of tea, and only feel the urge to wee. That much coffee and I'd be up the wall!

This just looks like evidence that you don't drink tea and don't know what's in it, or that you've confused herbal tea with tea from the tea plant. Tea seems to have about half the amount of caffeine coffee does. For example, here are figures from the Mayo Clinic:


Coffee is more of a stimulant than tea, but tea is still very strong, so it's unsurprising that the British were aware of its effects. If you're trying to stay awake, tea will do the job.

It depends on the quality of leaves and style of preparation. The mental stimulation you get from black tea in a modern UK cafe is mild and very different from what you'd experience from Chinese Gong Fu Cha [0], or from Russian chifir [1]. Herbal infusions, which are still referred to as tea by many Americans and Europeans, will have almost no stimulant effect. It's quite likely that Boyle first drank tea in coffeehouses, where [2]:

> The whole of the day's tea would be brewed in the morning, taxed by a visiting excise officer, and then kept in barrels and reheated as necessary throughout the rest of the day.

If I was a coffeehouse owner, I would brew that tea for a long time to get as concentrated a drink out of it as possible.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gongfu_tea_ceremony

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chifir

[2] https://www.tea.co.uk/a-social-history

Impressive knowledge displayed in the document linked. I wonder what your opinion is from a historic perspective on drug legislation. Is the war on drugs a phase we experienced like the alcohol prohibition in the 1920-1930 era or are we just getting started?

Short answer is that, on a very long time horizon, I think drug laws probably are just a phase that will go away. But socially- or religiously-enforced policing of conduct is as old as human culture itself, so even if drugs become decriminalized, the tendency to proclaim some substances or actions "taboo" is unlikely to ever disappear. The specific actions/substances in question can change fairly quickly, however.

Maybe criminalizing religions would be an answer. It is fascinating how perception of drugs changes over time. Even the Dutch royal family had a cocaine manufacturing site last century.


Even if you destroy religion, the underlying drives that created religion in the first place will persist. The religions will just be less recognizable as religion, taking on a more secular flavour. Instead you'll end up with stuff like conspiracy theories, political ideology and pseudo-science taking over.

One of the nice things about science is that its members keep their religion and their scientific work separate. It's particularly noticeable when you look through the history of science. There's a long tradition of secularism that has benefited the religious and the non-religious alike.

Issac Newton, for example, had very unorthodox opinions about God and the Trinity. To become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, he needed a get a special exemption from King Charles II, as traditionally the chair had required that you be an ordained Anglican priest. It's that very same exemption that Newton got for his unusual religious views that allowed Stephan Hawking to hold the chair as an atheist.

... because restricting peoples freedom of association would be great revenge for restricting drug use?

There are different practices on which different organized religions depend to keep the "count of the believers" steady and their influence strong which could actually be criminalized when there were enough consciousness and willingness (without disallowing individuals believers to believe). But there surely isn't enough willingness, especially not in the US where publicly "non-believing" more or less excludes you from the politics (shouldn't that be changed for the start?) and the religion organizations have the status of the... sacred cows.

Looking back, there were many very good reasons why the religions were not put in the constitution.

Criminalizing religion would be like criminalizing sex. It's a behavioral pattern based on instincts of the majority of the population, furthered by social proof and the political necessity of controlling the populace.

I supposed you could try to create a better religion. Do what thou whilst as the basic creed basically - which, incidentally, is what the church of satan preaches :)

This is absolutely fascinating. There is a handy transliteration available by clicking on the sheet of paper icon. Some bloke called Mr Hook gets around a bit in the 1680s at least:

Mr Hook gave an account of the book recommended to him affirming that the Author had well determined the problem of the pressure of a body upon an enclined plain; the second part about the separation of the gall in the Liver to which he could not so readily asset Mr Hook affirmed that the manner of evacuating Damps at Leige is after the manner of the engine for consuming smoke (17 Nov 1686) At that time (~November 1686) body preservation is a pretty hot topic, interspersed with say Mr Hook Shewed to the Satisfaction of the Company the Shells in & on the Nautilus

This is a window on the past that is absolutely priceless. The minutes are terse and have the feel of being hastily scribbled at times but that adds to their charm. You keep on finding gems:

the Magnitudes et cet of London and Paris; - so et cet is perhaps the original abbreviation of et cetera, before the modern etc. etc is very much a feature in modern English usage and to see it in use back in the 1680s shows a pretty deep continuity within some aspects of English (yes, I know it is really Latin).


I bet that was Robert Hooke[1]. They were less exacting about spelling back then.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hooke#Royal_Society

Is there a version that lets you look at the pages without forcing you to use that disastrously slow Turning the Pages application? The page turning animates like a tortoise crawling through molasses under a strobe light.

For me the page turning itself doesn't seem to be slow but choosing this gimmicky mechanism as a delivery vehicle for this kind of content is, well, a silly choice.

I can't zoom in enough and when I do zoom in I can't pan around when the page doesn't fit my browser window. Both left and right click turn the page.


Whom ever is behind this, can we just have images please? Thank you.

...has anyone ever taken video of such a thing? For research purposes, of course...

Is it only me? I think I lost the ability to read cursive handwriting. I tried reading a few pages, and it is really hard for me to follow what is written.

The handwriting is pretty sloppy on at least the first few pages from what I see. A lot of the letters become so small that they're little more than bumps on a line. Being in cursive certainly doesn't help either. Some of the words use alternate spellings which makes them a little more difficult to recognize.

But really, cursive is optimized for reducing the possibility of failure (inkblots) on primitive quill pens, not for readability. Even the best most precise cursive tends to be more difficult to read than modestly competent print.

> Even the best most precise cursive tends to be more difficult to read than modestly competent print.

That's purely a practice effect, like the fake finding that lowercase text is easier to read than all-caps text. (People you pull off the street do indeed read lowercase text faster. After a minor amount of practice, this advantage disappears.)

There are a lot of cases here where a series of letters appears to have been reduced to just a wave pattern. But the biggest problems I have at first glance are

- You can't zoom in far enough

- Some letters are written in an unexpected (consistent, but not modern) way. Look at how e is always written like you'd expect a cursive o or a σ to look. This difficulty will be easily overcome if you spend any time reading the text, but as of now I have a lot more trouble identifying what letters have been written than identifying what word a sequence of known letters is supposed to represent.

On the other hand, a lot of it looks perfectly fine. "This occasioned much discourse of the cause of Fountaines, and Dr Robinson was of opinion that (stormes?) occasiond by a subterraneall heat, either of fire or" (eighth bullet point at the beginning of 1686).

There's actually an entire thing that historians need to learn called Paleography since old documents tend to be nearly incomprehensible to laypeople. Its not just you!

This kind of stuff is a good candidate for Zooniverse. Have a look at some of the ship log projects, for example.

Thank you for mentioning this! I'd never heard of Zooniverse, but it looks very interesting.

Have you used Zooniverse in the past? If so, what was the outcome/experience like?

I've played with a few of the projects. It can be very addictive and often a lot of fun - for example Snapshot Serengeti where you classify camera trap photos. You get lots of nothing and then suddenly an animal. I did try the log transcription tasks but they're pretty difficult and evidently some more enthusiastic people had been there first.

My research group actually has a project in beta at the moment on there: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/rossmcwhirter/astro-ecol...

We're asking people to tag animals in infrared images. There isn't much data on there yet while we figure out the simplest way to get people involved (feedback driven). The site engine is pretty good, it's very easy to set up your own data campaign. It's quite challenging to frame your problem in a way that people with no domain knowledge can label your data accurately.

The only disadvantage (from a research perspective) is that you need exposure and traction to really succeed, because you need a huge number of classifications (multiple times per image) to get good results. If you look, there are a lot of projects with quite a lot of classifications but 0% completion. Certain categories are just popular - e.g. exoplanet detection and astronomy always gets a lot of interest.

The vocabulary and sentence structure was different, spelling was different, you have no idea of the context, and if these were meeting minutes it was probably written in haste and full of abbreviations.

There's a transcription available if you click the page-looking button in the sidebar.

Even if you can read it, the language of the time can be hard to understand.

For those that are interested in what else the Royal Society archives hold, I wholly recommend the Objectivity YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtwKon9qMt5YLVgQt1tvJKg) created by Brady Haran (of Periodic Videos, Numberphile, Computerphile, etc.)

I second that recommendation. I've watched a number of Objectivity videos and the content is amazing and fascinating for those interested in the history of science and people at the Royal Society (and occasionally other scientifically historical places).

It looks like even the brightest scientific minds of the past forgot to increment the year after January 1. Even as late as March and April in some years.

Might be using the 'official' 25th March date for new year? [1]

The will probably be a 'readme' somewhere on the site about old style dates.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar#Beginning_o...

> In common usage, 1 January was regarded as New Year's Day and celebrated as such,[40] but from the 12th century until 1751 the legal year in England began on 25 March (Lady Day).[41] So, for example, the Parliamentary record lists the execution of Charles I on 30 January as occurring in 1648 (as the year did not end until 24 March),[42] although later histories adjust the start of the year to 1 January and record the execution as occurring in 1649.[43]

Super interesting, thanks!

Today I learned.

The book, "The Fellowship", references these meeting minutes, along with other research from this period in time: https://www.amazon.com/Fellowship-Gilbert-Newton-Scientific-...

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle also covers the Royal Society at this time in history.

Unfortunately not early enough to have covered Margaret 'Mad Madge' Cavendish's [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Cavendish,_Duchess_of...] attendance in 1667.

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