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Scientific manuscripts

Paul White

The use of manuscripts in historical research presents special challenges and also unique advantages. Such materials are often more difficult to access and to search. Sometimes they are hard to read. Yet because one is often looking at material that few others have seen, material that has not been written for public consumption, one is rewarded with serendipitous discoveries, and may gain a sense of uncovering a new history.

The University has a rich store of manuscripts of considerable interest for the history of science. Details of some of these collections follow. In many cases, catalogues are available which describe the contents of collections in varying levels of detail. It is still important, however, to make contact with the persons in charge of a given collection, because they may be able to offer valuable assistance in locating items of use. They may also know of other material of potential interest, as yet uncatalogued.

Those interested in consulting a manuscript collection should look at the website for the Department of Manuscripts at the University Library. This gives guidance on the use of manuscript materials, information on the particular classmarks of various collections, and useful links to other manuscript catalogues. Undergraduates wishing to consult manuscripts may do so with a letter of permission, requested on their behalf by their Tutor, Supervisor or Director of Studies, writing in advance to Dr Katrina Dean, Curator of Scientific Collections (kjd32).

University Library

For topics in the history of natural philosophy, astronomy, physics, geology and zoology, and the teaching and study of science at Cambridge, the Library contains large collections of private papers, including those of:

  • Isaac Newton
  • Baron Kelvin (Sir William Thomson)
  • Ernst, Lord Rutherford
  • Sir Joseph John Thomson
  • James Clerk Maxwell
  • Sir George Gabriel Stokes
  • Adam Sedgwick
  • Alfred Newton

See the University Library's list of scientific manuscripts for details.

The Charles Darwin papers

An exceptionally large collection, including correspondence, experimental notes, drafts of publications, specimens, photographs, family letters, annotated scientific library and pamphlet collection. A detailed printed catalogue of the whole collection is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Information on the correspondence can be found in a searchable electronic database.

Advice on the use of the collection can be obtained from members of the Darwin Correspondence Project (333008).

Royal Greenwich Observatory archives

This collection contains all the surviving historical records of the Royal Observatory from 1675 until circa 1980, including papers of the Astronomer Royal (from John Flamsteed to Richard van der Reit Woolley), Royal Observatory reports, materials pertaining to various departments, including the Nautical Almanac Office, Time Department, Meridian Department, Solar Department, and Instrumentation Science Department, the Board of Longitude, and the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope; also included are the private papers of various astronomers, such as Francis Baily and Richard Sheepshanks.

Contact: Adam Perkins, RGO Archivist

The Royal Commonwealth Society archive

Extensive holdings documenting the British Empire, the Commonwealth and member countries (together with smaller collections on the empires of other nations), including books, pamphlets, periodicals, official publications, diaries, correspondence, pictures, cine films, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings, and over 100,000 photographs.

Excellent online catalogues are available for much of this material, including the photographs. See the Royal Commonwealth Society archive website.

The Society for Psychical Research

The library and archives of the Society for Psychical Research contains about 3000 volumes on the occult, psychic phenomena and hypnotism, ranging from 16th–20th century.

Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company

A large collection including drawings, photo albums, catalogues, and patents chart the history of this important engineering firm established by Charles Darwin's son, Horace, in 1878. See M.J.G. Cattermole and A.F. Wolfe, Horace Darwin's shop: a history of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company 1878 to 1968, Bristol, 1987.

A handlist to the collection is available from the Manuscripts Reading Room counter. For more information contact John Wells (jdw1000).

Joseph Needham Papers

The papers of the former Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, founder and director of the Needham Research Institute, and author of Science and Civilisation in China, include important records of Needham's family background, his career as a biochemist, his work with the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office and UNESCO, his political and religious interests, and the development of history of science at Cambridge. A three-volume typescript catalogue is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. For more information contact Peter Meadows (pmm1000).

University archives

Contains surviving records of the administration of the University from the thirteenth century to the present day. Substantial, catalogued holdings exist for the University Press, the Botanic Garden, the Department of Geology, the University Appointments Board/Careers Service, the Course on Overseas Development and the Department of Education. A proportion of the catalogues of the University Archives are available to browse and search online as part of Janus. In addition, for detailed lists of the holdings see D.M. Owen, Cambridge University Archives: a classified list, Cambridge University Press, 1988; H.E. Peek and C.P. Hall, The archives of the University of Cambridge, CUP 1962; and the card index in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

College and department archives

A vast range of collections. These may be searched by topic using Janus. Some examples:

  • Addenbrooke's
    The hospital archive includes administrative records from 1766 onwards, including annual reports, minutes of the Governors, committee records and financial records; patient records (from 1876 owards); nursing records; press cuttings; photographs; and staff magazines.
  • Zoology Department
    Large collection of papers of the naturalist Hugh Strickland.
  • Churchill
    Various materials on the links between modern science, technology and war; electron microscopy (papers of Alan Agar).
  • Trinity
    Papers of William Whewell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Dawson Turner, Henry Sidgwick.
  • Girton
    Science education for women.
  • Scott Polar Research Institute
    Scientific expeditions.