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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

13 October 2017

Local Heroes: Alphonse Normandy. Pure water and impure food

Alphonse Normandy was born in Rouen in 1809 as Alphonse le Mire. He became a medical doctor but was more interested in chemistry, studying at Heidelberg University with the well-known chemist Leopold Gmelin (now famous for the database of inorganic compounds named after him, which grew out of an 1817 textbook he wrote). He moved to London in 1838. From the 1840s he changed his name to "Normandy" after the region where he was born. He lived for some time in Judd Street near the British Library, where he has a blue plaque at number 91. He died in 1864.

He is mostly remembered for his invention of desalination devices, distilling seawater to produce fresh water. He patented his still design as GB13714/1851 with one Richard Fell. The patent is not online but you can see it if you come to the British Library with a reader pass. It uses two-effect distillation where the heat released in the condensation of the initial steam boils a second load of water, using energy more efficiently and effectively doubling the output. The device also captures formerly dissolved air released during the heating of the water and reintroduces it to the steam, creating aerated distillate and reducing the "boiled" taste. In 1863 an Amendment to the Passengers Act of 1855 declared that passenger ships were allowed to reduce the amount of fresh water they carried if they had a desalinator of the Normandy or the rival Winchester-Graveley design.

Normandy still
Normandy's water still, illustrated in his patent

Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Co. was incorporated in 1858. After a few years it moved to a large building near Victoria Docks, which finally closed in 1910. During the later years of his life Normandy clashed with the directors and shareholders of the company due to his only assigning the GB patent to the company but retaining the US patent himself, forcing the company to use him personally as a sales agent for distribution overseas. His sons, however continued with the company. Alphonse's son Frank Normandy wrote what was probably the first book on desalination - A Practical Manual on Sea Water Distillation, which is held in our collections at 08767.aa.5, or 628.16 3395.


A surviving Normandy distiller has been found at Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West.

Normandy held many other patents, of which the most notable was hardening soap with sodium sulphate (GB9081/1841). He kept a private laboratory and taught chemistry. He was elected a fellow of the Chemical Society (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) and council member, and was a member of the Royal Institution.

In 1855 he was one of several chemists, doctors and activists to testify to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on food adulteration, a series of hearings that scandalised the British public and led to the first laws against it, although the fight would not truly succeed until much later in the century. Normandy reported that practically all the bread sold in London had been adulterated with alum to make it whiter and to absorb water and bulk it out. He described adulteration of various other foods, in particular the adulteration of coffee with chicory and beer with the neurotoxic tropical plant cocculus indicus. He also briefly described the grossly unhygienic conditions of many London dairies. Ironically, his hardened soap had been banned from sale for some years because the Excise considered the process to be adulteration, which was brought up during the Committee discussion.  

Cruikshank drinkers
Image from "The House that Jack Built" by George Cruikshank, 1853


In 1850 he wrote A Commercial Hand Book of Chemical Analysis (shelved here at 1143.h.26), a very interesting book covering most chemicals that were used or sold industrially at the time, and various procedures to check for food adulteration. The book notably described early quantitative colorimetric assays of dyes and spices, and microscopic examination of flour to determine adulteration with other products.

Further reading:
Birkett, J and Radcliffe, 2014, D. Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Company: a family business for 60 years, 1851-1910. IDA Journal of Desalination and Water Reuse, 6(1), pp.24-32. Available digitally in BL reading rooms.

House of Commons Reports from Committees, 1854-5, vol. 8, pp. 221-530. BS Ref 1. Also available digitally in BL reading rooms.

16 September 2017

Staff Visit to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Library

On 6 th September a group of staff from the British Library visited  ZSL and found a rich diversity of zoological collections that complements and overlaps with our own.

Contact: Ann Sylph/Emma Milnes, Library. The Zoological Society of London, Regents Park, London, NW1 4RY ( )

History of the ZSL: The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and London zoo was established by Sir Humphry Davy and Sir Stamford Raffles and founded in 1826.

Daily Occurrences:  The Library includes items on the history of ZSL, the most fascinating is a series of volumes called “Daily Occurrences” that record the comings and goings of animals at both London and Whipsnade Zoos, from both of the zoos foundation to the present day.

 These early daily zoo diary entries in print and more recently e-format, document the life and professional practice of the zoos. Dr Beryl Leigh, a ZSL member and former BL curator has recently sponsored the digitization four of these early print records that could become a valuable data set for future researchers to analyse. ZSL are seeking funding to digitise more to make them available online.

Role of the ZSL: librarians, curators and scientists work together on research projects across the globe to advance our knowledge of wildlife, nature conservation and zoo management.

The ZSL has published it’s zoological research since 1830 in the proceedings of  the Zoological Society of London, along with other key titles and reports:

Historical semina papers are available free at;

Building: ZSL Library moved from a central London site to its present location in 1910 and this shell was refurbished in the 1960s and includes the main library and 2 floors of basements with rather precarious rolling shelves.

Collections: focus on zoology and animal conservation, comprises 200,000 items on our shelves, including 40,000 books, 5000 journal titles, the archives of ZSL. The  collections include rare books, illustrated folios, lithographs, paintings and these historical and descriptive type specimen  information remain of great scientific value even today. More about the ZSL archives can be found at:

Online Catalogue: many prints, drawings  and paintings are digitised as thumbnail images on the catalogue in order to enhance the records : Books, journals and archives can be searched using the online catalogue. It also contains links to digitised resources

Social media: Library maintains a monthly blog and tweets about events and new acquisitions of note and the diverse blogs created by the library staff and curators illustrate the wide range of work carried out by the ZSL. For further details see: and follow @ZSLLibrary

Library services: ZSL Library is one of the major zoological libraries in the world, along with the zoological collections of the Natural History Museum (  )and British Library (  )

There is a free access (with proof of address and photo ID on your first visit), and free scanning and copy service after researchers agree to sign a copyright form.


Ann gave an erudite talk on the library and its collections and shared with us representative examples of their historical and contemporary collections. The watershed date for the historicals is prior to 1940 and are reference only while members can loan the modern collection items.

The library is also open for visiting scholars:

the library online catalogue at:

Some memorable items from the show and tell display included the following:


1560 Historiae animalium by Konrad Gessner (1516-1565).

Conrad Gessner: a Swiss naturalist, who attempted to describe all of the animals, actual and mythological at the time, and his 5 book work, Historiae animalium, is one of the oldest in the collection.  These books describe mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, some accurate, but some hybrid, like this ‘giraffe’ below. This is also one of our oldest books in the library includes the unicorn.

The US National Library of Medicine has digitized these texts online under historical anatomies on the web at:

One of the first librarians, a Mr Fish of the ZSL Library organised its collections using an adapted BLISS classification scheme ( ) These eary items need to be brought out of storage so we felt very privileged to be able to survey these illustrations and leaf through the pages. An appointment is needed to view such rare items.


1560 Historiae animalium: Giraffe’ picture by Konrad Gessner (1516-1565).

Brian Houghton Hodgson: (1800-1894),spent most of his life investigating and drawing the birds and mammals of Nepal, the Himalayas in general and Northern India. He wrote more than 140 zoological papers, ranging from descriptions of single species to checklists of the fauna and donated most of these to the ZSL. Further details at:

The British Library curated and offers public access to the Hodgson’s papers through the Asian and African Studies reading room , papers can also be found at the Royal Asiatic Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Hodgson papers preserved in the African and Asian Studies Reading Room of the British Library were deposited in the India Office Library in 1864 following earlier deposits (between 1838 and 1845) of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts and the complete Tibetan Kanjur and Tanjur.


Digitised catalogues of these collections can be traced through the Digital Himalaya project designed in 2000 by Alan Macfarlane and Mark Turin as a strategy for archiving and making available ethnographic materials from the Himalayan region and based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.  From July 2014, the project has relocated to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and is engaged in a long term collaboration with Sichuan University,


Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae, or parrots, the greater part of them species hitherto unfigured… / by Edward Lear (1812-1888). – London : Lear, 1832. Labelled as Platycercus stanleyi (Stanley parrot)

 Edward Lear: is better known for his nonsense poems, including “How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear” “There Was An Old Man in a Tree” , “The Owl And The Pussy-Cat” , “The Jumblies, ”The Pobble Who Has No Toes etc  yet he was a renowned zoological artist and created numeruos lithographic prints to be found in the ZSL collections. As a talented artist his skills influenced the style of others, such as the ornithologist John Gould and his wife Elizabeth.  One of Lear’s most beautiful works is his volume on the family of parrots, of which the illustrations were based on the birds in ZSL’s parrot house

 Further details and illustrations by Edward Lear can be found at:


Lions by Joseph Wolf

John Gould FRS (1804–1881), the artist, scientist, ornithologist, taxidermist and collector, collaborated with Charles Darwin in identifying the birds from the second voyage of HMS Beagle and from the Galápagos Islands. His work was published between 1838 and 1842 as part 3 of “Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle”, edited by Charles Darwin and held in the library.

Gould was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, son of a gardener and in 1818 Gould became foreman in the Royal Gardens of Windsor.He visited Australia with his wife in 1838-40 which led to the publication of “The Birds of Australia that included 600 plates in seven volumes, describing 328 species new to western science and named by Gould himself. He also published “A Monograph of the Macropodidae”, Family of Kangaroos (1841–1842) and “The Mammals of Australia (1849–1861) in 3 volumes.

Gould’s links to Austrialia are honoured by the Australian Museum based in Sydney, itself part of the google digital and virtual  tour platform which explores natural history artifacts and specimens  in museums around the world, including the Natural History Museum, London, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin. Further details can be found at:,

A contemporary book in the show and tell display was the book entitled “Women in science: 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world” by Rachel Ignotofsky, published by Wren & Rook, London available in print and online, which focused our attention on the interesting role of women scientists at the ZSL.

A leading light was Joan Procter, curator of the zoos reptiles from 1923, who died very young at 34.  Dr Joan Beauchamp Procter (1897-1931) was a brilliant student who kept exotic reptiles as pets, including a crocodile and later contributed to the design of ZSL London Zoo’s aquarium and Reptile House and discovered and described a new species, namely the Peninsula Dragon Lizard. She adopted and tamed one Komodo dragon as a pet and would walk around the zoo with it greeting visitors.

These examples show case the wealth of knowledge and biographical stories hidden in the archives and collections of the ZSL which I would encourage researchers and students of the biosciences to explore further.

 Photographs and text by Paul Allchin,

Reference specialist,

British Library, Science reading rooms

31 August 2017

Edgar Burr and the grooved golf club head

Golf Grooves Twitter

Today's GREATforImagination patent is GB19988 of 1902, the grooved golf club head by Edgar Burr (1866-1908). The grooves allow water and debris to slip away from the ball, so that it can be spun as effectively as a clean and dry one. Adding spin to a golf ball can change its trajectory and cause it to roll in a specific direction once it hits the ground. According to the golfer Edward "Ted" Ray, in his 1922 book "Golf Clubs and How to Use Them", grooved clubs did not become truly popular until the early 1920s, and there was considerable argument in both the UK and USA as to whether they were permitted under the laws of the game. Burr freedom

Very little about Burr's life is recorded in golf history books, but our curators have searched census and births, marriages, and deaths records, and digitised newspapers, to discover some details. Burr described himself on the patent as a stockbroker, but he was also an amateur golfer at the Bushey Hall Club, and wrote a column on the game for the Globe newspaper. His father was a leather worker, and he married in 1896. He was granted the Freedom of the CIty of London in 1900. Unfortunately, his invention does not seem to have made him much money, as he was declared bankrupt in 1906. He died suddenly from gastritis in Sandwich, where he had gone to compete in a golf event.

Thanks to Margaret Makepeace of our East India Company Records team and Untold Lives blog, for her work in researching Burr's life.

Philip Eagle