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Newly cataloged collection of science materials now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.
A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

A collection of science materials from the family of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792–1871) is now open for research after a grant enabled staffers to rehouse the collection and to create an online inventory.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Herschel, the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their ground-breaking achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time, and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers. The Ransom Center’s Herschel collection is exceeded in size only by the collection at the Royal Society in London.

The cataloging project was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

Ransom Center receives $10,000 grant to catalog collection of science materials

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has received a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics to rehouse and rearrange its holdings of the Herschel family papers and to create an online finding aid.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792-1871), the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in several individual fields, such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their pioneering achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers.

The Herschel family papers will be closed to scholars during the duration of the grant, which runs through Dec. 31, 2011.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

From blue skies to blue print: Astronomer John Herschel’s invention of the cyanotype

By Courtney Reed

For Sir John Herschel, science and art were inextricably linked. Son of the celebrated astronomer William Herschel—who, with the discovery of the planet Uranus, revolutionized the modern day conception of the universe—science was in John Herschel’s blood. Following in his father’s footsteps, Herschel himself became a renowned astronomer. Herschel also applied scientific exploration to art and participated in some of photography’s earliest experimentation.

An accomplished chemist, Herschel discovered the action of hyposulfite of soda on silver salts, which lead to the use of “hypo” as the most effective fixing agent for silver-based photography. Herschel also endorsed and encouraged the term “photography” and coined the terms “negative” and “positive” to refer to photographic images.

John Herschel not only searched the dark blue skies, but also searched for ways to introduce color into photography. A child of Newtonian science, Herschel knew that white light is composed of the color spectrum. The trick was to separate the white light and pinpoint specific colors: “By using the prism first to separate all but the pure prismatic tint of given refrangibility and then re-analyzing this by media I conceive it possible to obtain rays totally exempt from any colour but the elementary one wanted” Herschel theorized in a letter, dated July 6, 1839, to Henry F. Talbot, another scientist interested in experimental photography.

During his quest for color, Herschel carefully documented his experiments with hundreds of variations of chemical formulas, using engravings as source imagery to create negatives on paper. In 1842, Herschel invented the cyanotype.

The cyanotype process uses light-sensitive iron salts produced by brushing solutions of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, also known as Prussian blue, onto paper, which is then dried in the dark. Cyanotypes were not widely used until 1880, when they became popular because they required only water for fixing the image.

The cyanotype is one of Herschel’s most influential contributions to the art of photography. Not only does it lend itself to strikingly beautiful photos, but the cyanotype is also the originator of the architect blue-print.

One of Herschel’s cyanotypes is featured in the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection. Closing in just a few weeks, the exhibition can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays. Free docent-led tours of the Gernsheim exhibition are offered at 2 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Fellow uses astronomy collection to research novel

By Courtney Reed

John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.