Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

5 posts from February 2014

28 February 2014

From telegrams to holograms

A recent enquiry about the Library’s telecommunications holdings led Ian Walker to investigate just how broad our collections in this area really are. In this blog post he shares some of his discoveries….

The beginning of the ‘modern’ telecommunications era is often associated with the optical telegraph line developed in France during the late 18th-century which allowed a semaphore message to be sent along a chain of signalling stations. But it is with an improved understanding of electromagnetism, and the subsequent development of electrical telegraphy during the mid-19th century, that the telecommunications ‘revolution’ really began. This technology allowed us to communicate vast distances - across oceans and continents – almost instantly. Further achievements in the field of telecommunications have been dramatic, and the past 150 years have witnessed progress which today has given us the world-wide web, mobile phones and - to the excitement of Star Wars fans everywhere – the prospect of holographic telephone calls.

The British Library offers rich resources charting the development of this technology and the major innovations which form the cornerstone of the modern telecommunications network. Although we do not hold a specific telecommunications collection (as relevant material is spread throughout the Library) our holdings on this topic encompass a broad range of materials. While books and journals make up the largest portion of the technical literature, our collections contain a wide variety of resources in both physical and digital formats.

For example, the Patent collection boasts a number of patent applications from some of the pioneers of the telecommunications era, including the American inventor Thomas Edison - who made significant improvements to Bell's telephone - and Guglielmo Marconi - the Italian inventor and electrical engineer.


Original letters patent, no.384 of 1875, granted to Thomas Alva Edison for improvements in duplex and multiplex telegraphs ; with great seal attached (British Library, London, Woodcroft Collection)

The recently launched Voices of Science website contains over 100 recordings which tell the story of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century. The collection includes interviews with a number of scientists and engineers associated with the field of telecommunications, including Steve Furber – the principle designer of the ARM chip which can be found in millions of mobile phones worldwide and George Hockham – one of the fathers of fibre optic telecommunications. The Library also holds recordings from the National Life Stories project  An Oral History of the Post Office  which includes interviews with a wide range of Post Office staff, including engineers and telegraph operators.

[Click here to listen to George Hockham talk about his work on fibre optics at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory, Harlow]

The Library’s trade literature collection contains numerous product catalogues, brochures and technical information from a wide range of telecommunications and engineering companies from the 19th-century to the present. The collection contains literature from many pioneering British companies, some of whom no longer exist, through to today’s large multinationals such as Nokia and Vodafone.

The British Library, in common with many other libraries throughout the world, acts as a depository for publications from the United Nations and holds numerous documents and statistics from the International Telecommunications Union – the UN agency responsible for issues relating to information and communication technologies.  As telecommunications plays an important role in nearly all social, economic and cultural domains of life, publications from other UN agencies such as UNESCO and the World Bank Group  also contain useful information in the form of statistics, surveys and reports. 

Finally, a wide collection of print and digital market research reports from leading figures such as KeyNote, Mintel and Frost & Sullivan are available at the Library.  These reports provide market intelligence on all aspects of the telecommunications industry, with coverage on a national and global level.


21 February 2014

Beautiful Science-- Now Open!

Johanna Kieniewicz can finally get some sleep, but not before she puts up this blog post!

With great fanfare and much twittering (#BeautifulScience), our Beautiful Science exhibition opened yesterday. Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight looks at the past and present of data visualisation in science, telling stories of both discovery as well as the way we think about the information that makes up our world.



 Thus far, the exhibition has received some wonderful coverage. Rather than repeating what others are saying about the things that the exhibition contains, we thought we'd highlight a few informative and interesting posts about the exhibition.


"An august institution, yes of course, our national library, so I suppose I was rather expecting a staid parade of the editiones principes of the great masters, leavened with the odd choice manuscript, and a morning of gentle savouring and genteel pleasure.  Not a bit of it.  The modern BL has fully embraced digital." 

We couldn't agree more. We are both a physical and digital library. Our science collections range from the depths of history to the present day, and we are keen to provide access to digital old things and physical new things (and vis versa of course!)


  • On the Guardian H-Word blog, Rebekah Higgit asks the very valid question of what makes a science exhibition. After all, science has been embedded in various guises in previous library exhibitions. She picks up on the fact that this is not really a history of science exhibition-- but something that comes from a contemporary perspective, looking back. She notes:

"The British Library is the perfect institution for discussions between science, arts and the humanities to take place. While defined as a “science exhibition”, visitors to the display and participants in the accompanying events programme should be encouraged to see the aethestic and the historical in it too – just as the science of the Tudor or Georgian eras should be recognised as part of their history."




  • In The Observer, Nicola Davis highlighted how data visualisation has changed life and saved lives. Touching on exhibits, such as Florence Nightingale's Rose Diagram and John Snow's Cholera Map, she highlights the very tangible importance of data visualisation.

"From scientists to consumers, there's no escaping the onward march of big data. But as Beautiful Science shows, if we embrace the power of graphics, fresh insights to modern challenges may be glimpsed. And that could be massive."


  • Writing for Forbes Magazine, Jonathon Keats takes interest in the works by John Snow and William Farr highlighted in the exhibition.  He argues that

"Technological advances clearly distinguish the new visualizations, many of which are interactive and all of which benefit from stores of data that Victorian scientists could scarcely have imagined. Yet the older charts and maps ­– especially those of William Farr and John Snow – remain pertinent in the age of cloud computing precisely because they are more limited in scope. While Google Flu Trends is vast and ever-changing, we can easily assess what Farr and Snow were doing. Their successes and failings can help inform how we produce and consume contemporary data visualizations."


  • Similarly, on the Nature Of Schemes and Memes blog, Alex Jackson latches on to what I said about the parallels between today's explosion of infographics and something similar that happened in the Victorian era.

Informative pieces featuring some of the fantastic graphics from the exhibition have also been featured in The Independent, The Daily Mail and The Londonist. If you are not UK-based, you can also take a look at this piece that featured on the BBC World Service.

So far, it has been fascinating to see the exhibition through the eyes of others. Those of us involved in the exhibition have been so immersed in it for so long that it sometimes seems as though we can't see the forest for the trees. It is really interesting to see fresh perspectives on the exhibits we've selected that provide new insights on the exhibition as a whole, as well as individual displays. We do hope you come along to Beautiful Science-- and be sure to let us know what you think!


Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight is on display in The British Library until 26 May 2014. The exhibition is free, and is sponsored by Winton Capital Management

14 February 2014

Scientists in Love

In honour of St. Valentine’s Day, Rebecca Withers shares three romantic tales of important scientists of the past.

Charles Darwin celebrated his 205th birthday on 12 February. Largely known for his observational and reflective skills which inspired his theory of evolution and natural selection, he was also a prolific letter writer, and entirely enamoured with his wife, Emma Wedgewood. The extracts below, taken from The Correspondence of Charles Darwin include letters that reveal Darwin’s thoughts and feelings on love and marriage.

In July 1838, Darwin had returned from his voyage aboard the Beagle and in this note weighs the pros and cons of marriage:


By November that same year Charles was convinced of his love for Emma and his desire to marry. She readily accepted his marriage proposal. The two continued to live apart and exchange lengthy, detailed letters before settling down in London:

“… there never was anybody so lucky as I have been, or so good as you. …I have thought how little I expressed, how much I owe you; and as often as I think this, I vow to try to make myself good enough somewhat to deserve you.-”

And then two weeks later:

“… I positively can do nothing, & have done nothing this whole week; but think of you & our future life.-”

Emma’s response two days later:

"There were several things in your last letter that pleased me uncommonly."

Writing to Emma on the 30th of November, 1838, Darwin pens:

“what a strict good wife, I am going to be married to, who will send me to my lessons, & make me better, I trust, in every respect, as I am sure she will infinitely happier and happier, the longer I live to enjoy my good fortune.-”

Charles and Emma married on 29 January 1839 and soon after settled into a home in London where they began their long, happy life together.


Marie Curie (née Sklodowska) was 15 when she moved from Warsaw to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Two years later, in 1894, she met Pierre Curie through her research professor who invited them both to dinner at his house.

In Pierre Curie, the biography written by Marie Curie (1924), she describes their first meeting:

“As I entered the room, Pierre Curie was standing in the recess of a French window opening on a balcony. He seemed to me very young, though he was at that time thirty-five years old. I was struck by the open expression of his face and by the slight suggestion of detachment in his whole attitude. His speech, rather slow and deliberate, his simplicity, and his smile, at once grave and youthful, inspired confidence.”

Pierre quickly took an interest in Marie, as she describes:


“Pierre Curie came to see me, and showed a simple and sincere sympathy with my student life. Soon he caught the habit of speaking to me of his dream of an existence consecrated entirely to scientific research, and he asked me to share that life.”

And when Marie returned to live with her father in Poland in 1894, Pierre wrote to her frequently. She includes the contents of one such letter in the biography:

“We have promised each other (is it not true?) to have, the one for the other, at least a great affection. Provided that you do not change your mind! For there are no promises which hold; these are things that do not admit of compulsion. It would, nevertheless, be a beautiful thing in which I hardly dare believe, to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science. …” 

When Marie returned to Paris their relationship grew and they were married the next year. They really were an ideal match, as she writes of their work and her opinion of her husband on two separate occasions after their marriage:


“We lived together entirely united, we were interested in all the same things: theoretical work, laboratory experience, preparing courses or exams.”


“He was everything and more than I had dreamed of from our encounter. Constantly increasing my admiration for his exceptional qualities, to such a great extent, that he sometimes seemed to me to be almost, a unique character…”

The research that Pierre and Marie Curie did together on the spontaneity of radiation was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, along with Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her further research on radioactivity. Marie Curie was the first woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize and is the only woman, so far, to have been awarded two.


Thomas Edison, who celebrated his 167th birthday on 11 February, was a remarkable man who greatly changed the world with his inventions. Despite his brilliant mind, Edison was not a well-groomed man. While unappealing to many, he did appeal to Mina Miller. The two fell in love. Edison taught Mina Morse code so the two could communicate in secret whilst in the presence of others. Edison eventually proposed to Mina as follows:

.-- --- ..- .-.. -.. -.-- --- ..- -- .- .-. .-. -.-- -- .

to which she replied:

-.-- . ...

(A guide to translate the code above)

(And if you need a last minute sciencey Valentine’s day card)

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Science Team at the British Library!


note: Translations taken from

Article written under a CC BY 4.0 unported licence.

12 February 2014

Is Necessity The Mother of Invention?

Scientific discovery and invention. What drives them? What connects them? Allan Sudlow and Katie Howe delve into the Library’s collections to uncover some answers.

Scientists have long used patents to protect their inventions and allow them opportunities to commercialise their work. Recent controversies in cancer and stem cell research have highlighted the social and ethical, as well as the economic implications of biomedical patents. We will be exploring these issues in our forthcoming TalkScience event on 4 March: Patently Obvious?

In the meantime, we have been taking a look back at what distinguishes a scientific discovery from an invention – and asking – is necessity really the mother of invention?

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first printed usage of the proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ to Richard Franck in his tome Northern Memoirs, first published in 1694:

“Art imitates nature, and necessity is the mother of invention; science also invites to study and practicks, but theory gives the prospect, and operation finishes the project.”

  Northern Memoirs
Frontispiece from Northern Memoirs, Calculated for the Meridian of Scotland, Richard Franck. (1694)

At the turn of the last century, the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead took a different view on the origins of invention, and its relationship to scientific discovery, noting in The Aims of Education:

“…inventive genius requires pleasurable mental activity as a condition for its vigorous exercise. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is a silly proverb. ‘Necessity is the mother of futile dodges’ is much nearer the truth. The basis of the growth of modern invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.”

This insight from the past provides a rallying call to those that support the idea of ‘blue skies’ research and feel that scientific discovery and invention should be driven by curiosity rather than a strategy or a set of pre-defined rules. In contrast, O.T. Mason describes, very precisely, what he believes underpins the nature of invention in an article The Evolution of Invention from 1895, published in the first volume of the journal Science:

  1. Of the thing or process, commonly called inventions.
  2. Of the apparatus and methods used.
  3. Of the rewards to the inventor.
  4. Of the intellectual activities involved.
  5. Of society

Fast-forward to the present, and the European Patent Convention defines – or rather doesn’t define - invention in terms of:

 “…a non-exhaustive list of things which are not regarded as inventions. It will be noted that the items on this list are all either abstract (e.g. discoveries or scientific theories) and/or non-technical (e.g. aesthetic creations or presentations of information). In contrast to this, an "invention" … must be of both a concrete and a technical character”

So we see some distinction between discovery and invention: the abstract vs the concrete. But what – I hear you cry – about necessity?

The Human Genome Project (HGP), the world’s largest biological project to date, is a great example of necessity being a spur for collaborative discovery. The HGP’s aim was to determine the sequence of the three billion chemical building blocks that make up human DNA – the entire human genetic code. Many of the scientists involved saw the HGP as a race between public and commercial research interests. In particular: Craig Venter, an American genomic researcher
and entrepreneur; and John Sulston, an English Nobel Prize winning scientist and campaigner against the patenting of human genetic information.


Sir John Sulston, who oversaw the UK's contribution to the Human Genome Project.
© Wellcome Images, made available under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his book The Common Thread, Sulston describes the moment when he realised that Venter’s company (Celera Genomics) parallel work to sequence the human genome with greater speed than academic efforts: “…had made everyone realise the absolute necessity of the publicly funded teams working together”. Thus, necessity drove greater international effort, and on the 26 June 2000, the HGP consortium announced that it had assembled a working draft of the sequence of the human genome.

Competing public and commercial interests persist in scientific discovery and invention, especially in relation to genetic information. Recent attempts to patent human gene sequences have raised questions over whether a sequence of DNA is an invention or a discovery and have highlighted some of the challenges in assessing the patentability of biomedical developments. Witness the recent legal battle involving diagnostics company Myriad Genetics in the US over predictive genetic testing for susceptibility to breast cancer. The US Supreme Court judged that human DNA was a ‘product of nature’, a basic tool of scientific and technological work, thereby placing it beyond the domain of patent protection. Amongst other caveats, this judgment declared that certain forms of DNA (cDNA) were patentable.  

Will there always be a necessity to patent in this area of bioscience? Undoubtedly, but a balance needs to be struck. Necessity may drive invention but when it comes to Mother Nature, who decides? Come to TalkScience on 4 March to voice your opinion.


07 February 2014

Visualising Research – let the competition begin

At a workshop held on 24 January at the British Library people from a variety of backgrounds came to hear more about the Visualising Research competition and to be inspired. My previous post explains the background to the competition.

Our interest in data and visualising it is all coming together in Beautiful Science, an exhibition opening on 20 February in the Folio Gallery of the British Library. But this competition gives everyone a chance to visualise research for the public.

At the workshop we had presentations from the sponsors and organisers, which are available from the competition website. It was useful to hear how the Gateway to Research data (the vital data required for a competition entry to be considered) is both supplied by and used by the Research Councils and informs their decision making by providing a picture of the research funding landscape in the UK.

Richard Jones from Cottage Labs gave us the technical lowdown on the Gateway to Research data and how to get it. Anyone deciding to enter will need a fair degree of technical know-how to get at this data and manipulate it in order to reveal the story they want to tell the public. So we encourage all the designers and artists to find themselves a techie partner for this competition!

Tobias Sturt and Adam Frost from the Guardian Digital Agency gave a great joint presentation on how to develop a visualisation. The key messages from them were:

  • Data - everything rests on the data.
  • Story - think about the audience, what do they care about, what will resonate with them?
  • Charting - what is the best way to represent the data? You may need an analyst to explore different ways of representing the data (and not all bar charts are boring!).
  • Design - although everything is about design, once you have the basis of your visualisation, you need to consider how you will use colour, what layout works best, and how to make it beautiful.

And they reminded us again that collaboration is key to successful data visualisation. 

Some inspirational examples were shown:

The True Size of Africa - it’s bigger than you thought!


Bloomberg billionaires - a bit addictive this one.

Nathan Yau's blog and Flowing Data web site was recommended.

And for some examples of dynamic visualisations, the following are worth checking out:

Kepler’s Tally of Planets

If the earth were 100 pixels wide

Then for a view of how data can be used to give reality to the sometimes extraordinary inconsistencies of our world –  particularly in the way that money is distributed - we were enlightened by Andrew Steele physicist, TEDx presenter and instigator of  Rather than summarising his talk – have a look at him presenting his findings here.

The competition is open now. The closing date is 21 March. You could win £2,000. There are great judges who will see your work. And there will be kudos for the winners. 

Lee-Ann Coleman