THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

49 posts categorized "Innovation"

13 June 2019

Hidden Worlds in the Laboratory Notebooks of Anne McLaren

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Building on a recent Science blog post, this post focuses on a lab notebook belonging to developmental biologist Dr Anne McLaren (1927-2007). What hidden connections does this lab notebook contain and why might it interest scientists and non-scientists alike?

Title page of MacLaren's notebookFigure 1. Title page of the notebook (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

McLaren’s research on mice has contributed to many fields, including in vitro fertilization (IVF) and stem cell research. Laying the groundwork for such contributions, McLaren’s lesser-known research project from 1952-1959 explored the genetic effects that a mother’s uterus—not just the material contained in the egg—had on the development of an embryo. To study this, she and her then-husband Dr Donald Michie took two strains of mice, one genetically disposed to have 5 lumbar vertebrae (C3H) and the other to have 6 (C57), and developed a technique of transferring fertilized embryos from a donor of one strain to a surrogate mouse from the other strain. Surprisingly, the transferred babies predominantly took after their surrogate mother in number of lumbar vertebrae—and even today, the mechanisms by which this effect functions are not fully understood.

One notebook, Add MS 83844, contains most of the raw results from this embryo transfer research; however, it also contains a hidden connection. In the summer of 1958, while these experiments were underway, McLaren worked with Dr John Biggers (1923-2018) to culture 249 fertilized embryos for 48 hours in vitro (in glass) before transplanting them into surrogate mice. After 19 days of gestation, these transplants resulted in the birth of two mice, which McLaren called “bottled babies” and were the first mammals cultured outside of a uterine environment pre-implantation (McLaren and Biggers).

Add MS 83844 makes no mention of its relationship to this landmark discovery, and yet, without the embryo transfer work it documents, the bottled babies would not have been. Similarly, McLaren’s later work shows how she continued to use the processes developed during the transplant and in vitro experiments, such as in her experiments with chimeras, or mice made from mixing two different 8-cell eggs before implantation. The notebooks therefore provide unique insight into the interconnected nature of scientific exploration.

Open notebook displaying experiment notations

Figure 2. Two pages from the notebook showing experiment notations, vertebrae counts, and various stains. (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

The notebook also showcases for scientific and non-scientific readers alike the human, material, and even quotidian processes that scientific advancement relies on. Just a quick browse of the pages emphasizes the years of painstaking work required to arrive at a breakthrough like the IVF mice, as well as showing some of the ways that McLaren systematically managed the dense information produced over those years (lumbar vertebrae counts appear in the notebooks in pink ink, for example, to make them stand out). Each page contains detailed observations, small corrections, and sometimes even notes like this, which records a short tale of an escaped mouse.

Detail from notebook recording a mouse as 'escaped, prob lost'Figure 3. Detail from the notebook recording a mouse as 'Escaped, prob. lost.' (Add MS 83844).Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

In addition to the written material, the pages bear traces of marks, spills, and stains that result from the unpredictable realities of laboratory work. Collectively, this notebook’s mosaic of material traces helps document scientific processes in ways that can be overlooked when looking at polished published papers.

Bridget Moynihan

PhD student, University of Edinburgh

As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, Bridget Moynihan’s research focuses on archival ephemera and digital humanities. These same interests led Bridget to undertake a British Library internship, researching the notebooks of Dr. Anne McLaren.

Further reading:

McLaren, A. and Biggers, JD. “Successful Development and Birth of Mice Cultivated in vitro as Early Embryos.” Nature 182, 1958: 877-878.

11 June 2019

Writing with quills

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Where there’s a quill, there’s a way of telling how old it is; although not infallible it can give an idea.  The clue is by the way it is dressed – how the feathers are cut and shaped.  What many people do not realise is that there are left and right-handed quills depending on which side of the bird’s body the pinions come from.  The last quill in the image below is a left-handed one.

 

QuillsQuills  17thC   17th/18thC  18thC  18th/19thC    19thC
Photos courtesy of Museum of Writing Research Collection-University of London

It’s a feather!  So what?  You can pick them up all over the place.  Maybe, but those feathers charted the course of history and literature for about 1,800 years, when they competed with and eventually lost out to the steel nib.  Many scholars are almost certain now that it was the Romans who changed the feather from an instrument of flight to an instrument of writing with the goose as the main victim.  However, we have to wait half a millennium until we get visual evidence for the quill and that is from a mosaic in the church of San Vitale, Ravenna dating from around 547 AD.

St Matthew writing with a quillSt. Matthew writing with the quill arrowed. The Church of St. Vitale, Ravenna. Photo courtesy of Alan Cole

The quill continued to flourish with almost twenty-four million being imported into London alone in 1831, despite the plentiful supply of steel nibs that had been introduced about eight years earlier.  Quills were used in every walk of life including, of course, by authors and poets.  Among these was Alfred, Lord Tennyson who, whilst living on the Isle of Wight in the mid-1850s, bent the end of his quill and threw it down in disgust.  It was picked up by a local farmer, William Thomas, in whose family it was kept until its donation to the Museum of Writing.

Quill belonging to TennysonThe quill belonging to Alfred, Lord Tennyson showing its bent nib. Photo courtesy of Museum of Writing Research Collection-University of London


Alan Cole
Honorary Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection

Come and see Tennyson’s quill in our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark 

Exhibition poster for Writing - Making Your Mark

 

28 May 2019

The history of the pencil

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The British Library exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark tells the story of how writing flows through the last 5000 years of human history.  Visitors might easily pass by three little pieces of lead in one of the cases.   They are the predecessors of the pencil, one of the favourite writing tools of the last couple of centuries, used by generations of schoolchildren, note-takers, artists and, of course, librarians.

Leads for writing
Three lengths of lead drawn to a point for writing and drawing either specifically for that purpose or taken from stained glass windows and adapted.  Photo courtesy of Museum of Writing Research Collection - University of London

From earlier times, and in particular the Middle Ages, lumps of lead have been used for drawing or planning manuscripts.  Lead leaves a dense silvery line that can be overwritten in ink or paint.

The word ‘pencil’ comes from Old French pincel, and Latin penicillus or a "little tail" , and originally referred to an artist's fine brush of camel hair in the Middle Ages, although the use of a form of brush for drawing goes back to the early petrograph or cave paintings.  From that the stylus developed, sometimes being made of lead, hence our erroneous term for the writing core of a pencil. 

Representation of Philosophy with a brush and a pot in the History of Alexander the Great Representation of Philosophy with a brush and a pot in the History of Alexander the Great (England, 11th century) Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

Silverpoint is a drawing technique that dates back to the late Gothic/early Renaissance period.  It was used by artists including Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael.  Silverpoint is one variety of metalpoint, where a wire is drawn across the surface of the paper leaving a feint silver line, although lighter than a lead.  Using a stylus or silverpoint, it is not very easy to erase a sentence or even one character. This changed with the widespread use of graphite.

Pencil sketch for a painted initial in an 11th-century Gospel Book from Flanders Pencil sketch for a painted initial in an 11th-century Gospel Book from Flanders Stowe MS 3, f. 11v

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Conte’s original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround.  The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil’s intended use.  The hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture.

Oldest known pencil in the worldThe oldest known pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630.  Image courtesy: Faber-Castell

Graphite was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the 15th century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier.  The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick in the Lake District in 1564, which spawned a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area.  Appreciated for leaving a darker mark than lead, the mineral proved so soft and brittle that it required a holder.  Originally, graphite sticks were wrapped in string.  Later, the graphite was inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks and, thus, the wood-cased pencil was born.  During the 19th century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.  The first factory opened in 1832 under the name of Banks, Son & Co, now the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company.  Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite left no dust and marked the paper clearly.

Alan E. Cole
Hon Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London.

Come and see some of the first pencils and pens together with some brilliant examples of their use by everyday people as well as some famous hands of science, exploration and history in our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark

Exhibition poster for Writing - Making Your Mark

 

21 March 2019

Telephone Map of India 1934

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The files of the India Office contain many different kinds of maps of pre-1947 India, which give a fascinating visual representation of different aspects of the country.  One striking example is a telephone map of India from 1934, showing projects in progress and approved.

Telephone Map of India 1934 (Detail)IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934 (detail)

Telephone Map of India 1934IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934

The map is in a file in the India Office Records on the subject of a radio-telephone service between India and the UK.  Communications between Britain and India had always been challenging, with a six month sea journey during the era of the East India Company, being cut to six weeks with the opening of the Suez Canal.  The development of the telegraph and later aviation speeded things up further, allowing civil servants in London to more easily communicate with their counterparts in Calcutta and Delhi.

Telephone Map of India 1934 (Punjab detail)IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934 (detail - Punjab)

In today’s world of smartphones and almost instant global communication, it is interesting to think of the long road of technological development which has been travelled.  As the map shows, in India in the mid-1930s the telephone system only really linked the major urban centres, with most of the country not yet connected.  In a letter to His Majesty’s Postmaster-General, dated 29 September 1934, Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, stated that the development of the telephone was being slowed by a lack of demand, with Indians making comparatively little social use of the telephone, often due to the distances involved and the cost of a telephone being larger than the incomes of a large proportion of the population.  Despite this, progress was being made, with 36,000 miles of aerial trunk lines having been installed in the previous years to 1934.

Article from Daily Mail  28 August 1930Daily Mail 28 August 1930

The file records the establishment of an international telephone service between Britain and India. The Times newspaper reported that this service was inaugurated on 1 May 1933, with Big Ben sounding the quarter hour, followed by an exchange between Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India, and Sir Frederick Sykes, Governor of Bombay.  The service was initially restricted to Bombay and Poona, and a three minute call from anywhere in Great Britain was £6, and the other way from India to Britain the cost was 80 rupees!

List of telephone numbers 1933IOR/L/E/9/1348 List of telephone numbers 1933

The service rapidly expanded through the late 1930s, but was suspended with the outbreak of the Second World War due to security concerns over the danger of enemy eavesdropping.  The line was re-opened on 3 December 1945 by Sir Mahomed Usman, Member for Posts and Air, Government of India, who made a call to Lord Listowel, Postmaster-General, in London.

Document stating that the London-India Telephone Service had re-openedIOR/L/E/9/1348 London-India telephone service re-opened 1945

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Telegraphy - India-U.K. Radiotelephone Service and other long-distance services: inauguration and arrangements regarding official calls, 1929-1945 [Reference IOR/L/E/9/1348].

 

07 January 2019

Blanchard! Where are your trousers? The first crossing of the English Channel in a balloon

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On 7 January 1785 Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr John Jeffries took their lives in their hands and set off across the Channel in a balloon.  It’s no exaggeration to say this was a life and death moment.  French inventor Jean Francois Pilâtre de Rozier and his co-pilot proved this clearly when they crashed and were killed trying to cross the Channel in the opposite direction in June the same year.

Column erected to mark landing place of Blanchard and Jeffries' balloonColumn erected to mark landing place of Blanchard and Jeffries' balloon from A Narrative of the Two Aerial Voyages of Dr. J. with Mons. Blanchard

After a week of detailed preparations, and with the experience of a flight from London into Kent in the previous November, Blanchard and Jeffries prepared to set off from Dover.  With a keen eye on the winds, they first flew a kite, ‘a paper Montgolfier, and a small gaz balloon’, and then they felt sufficiently confident to launch.

During the crossing, they threw their ballast over the side to keep the balloon airborne.  By the time they were half way across, all of this was gone.  At about half past two, about three quarters of the way across, and as the French coast became clearer before them, the balloon started descending again.  This time they were obliged to throw food, fittings, and some of their equipment into the sea.  This included silk oars, constructed in the expectation that they might be able to ‘row’ through the air.  Still they did not rise.  They stripped off their jackets, and Blanchard even threw away his trousers.  Finally the balloon rose again, and onward they flew until they were over land.

The danger continued as they flew fast over dense woodland, dropping closer and closer to the trees.  Fearful that they would yet crash, they looked around for anything else they could do to lighten the load.  They threw off their life jackets made of cork, since they were no longer over the sea, but still they descended.  Finally, continuing to look for weight, Blanchard reflected: 'it almost instantly occurred to me that we could supply it from within ourselves … from the recollection that we had drunk much at breakfast, and not having had any evacuation, and from the severe cold, little or no perspiration had taken place, that probably an extra quantity had been secreted by the kidneys, that we might now avail ourselves of by discharging … we were able to obtain, I verily believe, between five and six pounds of urine; which circumstance, however trivial or ludicrous it may seem, I have reason to believe, was of real utility to us'.

Thus saved from crashing into the trees, as they slowed they were able to grab branches alongside and gradually lower themselves to the ground, at around 4.30 in the afternoon, when they were well met.  'In a short time, many persons made their way to us in the Forest, from whom we received every form of civility and assistance, particularly, in sparing from themselves clothing for us'.

Huw Rowlands
Project Manager, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard,, A Narrative of the Two Aerial Voyages of Dr. J. with Mons. Blanchard: With Meteorological Observations and Remarks. The First Voyage on the Thirtieth of November, 1784, from London into Kent: The Second, on the Seventh of January, 1785, from England into France (London, 1786) Online version

31 July 2018

Strong Foundations: Building the British Library – Structural Engineer Anthony Stevens

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This summer the British Library has been celebrating the 20th anniversary of the official opening of its St Pancras building.  One of the experts responsible for its construction was Anthony Stevens who died on 2 May 2018 at the age of 87.  His daughter Lexy has written this account of his life so that we can pay tribute to his work.

Aerial view of The British Library at St Pancras The British Library at St Pancras © Arup

Anthony Stevens was born to parents Edward Cecil and Gladys on 28 November 1930 at Wharncliffe Gardens in north-west London.  With his younger sister Betty, he spent his early childhood growing up in St John’s Wood.  When war broke out the family moved out to Hertfordshire, where he attended Watford Grammar School for Boys.
 
University education was not a possibility for him, so on leaving school aged 16, Tony initially worked as a draftsman for British Rail at Watford and then at Euston.  Inspired by the skills of his railway colleagues, he studied at night school for a civil engineering Higher National Certificate.  In 1955 he started work as a Chartered Engineer for Sir William Halcrow, and then joined Arup in 1958. He went on to become a Fellow of both the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Structural Engineers.

Tony Stevens at work in his officeAnthony Stevens – photo courtesy of Lexy Stevens

 Tony took over the structural design of the Barbican Estate in the early 1960s and led the group that developed the design for the Barbican Arts Centre. With its location close to the previously-constructed tall residential tower blocks, it was necessary to limit ground movements to avoid damage to their foundations.  The Arup group designed a thick diaphragm wall, supported below by stiff props built inside tunnels. 

  Interior of The Barbican Arts Centre The Barbican Arts Centre © Daniel Imade/Arup

The Barbican Arts Centre received the Institution of Structural Engineer’s Special Award in 1981, acknowledging “the importance of ground engineering works in the successful construction of works of structural engineering”.

   Anthony Stevens receiving the Special Award to Ove Arup and Partners for the Barbican Arts Centre 1981 Anthony Stevens receiving the Special Award to Ove Arup and Partners for the Barbican Arts Centre – from The Structural Engineer vol. 60A No. 3 (March 1982)
 
His work on the Barbican made the new British Library at St Pancras a natural follow-up project for Tony.   He and colleagues decided that a design life of 500 years for certain structural elements of the building would not be unreasonable.  The book storage was planned in four basements with an overall depth of 25m, making this the largest civilian excavation in London.  Advanced analytical techniques showed only limited effects to surrounding properties, including St Pancras Station and the London Underground tunnels.  Techniques devised for the Barbican and British Library projects remain common practice. Tony was proud to learn that the British Library had been granted Grade I listing in 2015.

Photogrpah of Construction of the British Library at St Pancras  showing the basement excavationsConstruction of the British Library at St Pancras © Arup

   Photograph of construction of the British Library at St Pancras Construction of the British Library at St Pancras © Arup

  Photograph of construction of the British Library at St Pancras Construction of the British Library at St Pancras © Arup

  Photograph of construction of the British Library at St Pancras - interior of buildingConstruction of the British Library at St Pancras © Arup

At 62, Tony retired so that he could fulfil a long-held ambition. He studied for a degree at the Open University, attaining Bachelor of Science in Mathematical Sciences and Master of Mathematics, both with First Class Honours. Interviewed by a local newspaper, he said:
"Everybody can do it if they are determined to do the work, but there's quite a lot to do - at least 20 hours a week. People were amazed that I was ready to do it. During my career, there was quite a lot of maths in structural engineering, but I never really understood it. It was ever so interesting - I was finding out about a lot of things I had been taking for granted."

Tony combined an understanding of structure, materials, mathematics (despite his quote in the local paper!), and physics in order to solve problems from first principles, without having the benefit of today’s computers.  He was a leader with responsibilities for some of Arup’s most technically demanding projects, and set high standards. Everybody who worked with him will remember his support and advice, always given with a touch of humour.
 
Lexy Stevens
Architect, Tony’s daughter
with Peter Evans, who led the engineering of the British Library Completion Phase, containing the King’s Library, when Tony retired in 1992. 

Further reading:
A Stevens, B O Corbett, and A J Steele, ‘Barbican Arts Centre: the design and construction of the substructure’ in The Structural Engineer Vol. 55 No. 11 (November 1977).
The Structural Engineer vol. 60A No. 3 (March 1982).
P J Ryalls, R Cather, and A Stevens, ‘Aspects of design for durability at the British Library’ in Ravindra K Dhir and Jeffrey W Green (eds.), Protection of Concrete – Proceedings of the International Conference held at the University of Dundee 11-13 September 1990 (1990).

 

16 April 2018

The Library of Ideas: Undercurrent at the British Library

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To announce our upcoming special event, The Library of Ideas: Creative Use of the British Library presented by Undercurrent Theatre and the British Library we present a blog post by the Artistic Director of Undercurrent Theatre, Laura Farnworth reflecting on her time here at the Library as Artist-in-Residence.

Laura at a desk examining archive materialPhotographs by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts team.

It is almost a year since our residency, funded by the Arts Council, began here at the British Library as their First Associate Theatre Company. During my time I have been able to rationalise what is important for me as an artist and I have learnt that I love research and it is integral to my artistic process. The better you understand material, the more distinct and original it will make your artistic work. So, spending time in and with personal archives gives you the rare opportunity to really go deep into a subject. It is about making unexpected and surprising connections between remote pieces of research. The result of these connections is where you start to create something new.

As an artist I am always looking to gather as much ‘fuel’ for my process as possible, stimulus, data, information, knowledge and details. The British Library is the optimum resource for this. Not only does it have ‘everything’(!), it also enables you to approach a topic through various ways, sound, image, digital, manuscript, maps… and all these approaches can inspire you in a different way. It really makes you think about the ‘how’ of your work, in other words, not just what your project will say and contain, but how it will be made, crafted, the form it will take.

Manuscript material from the Ballard archive, arranged across a tableManuscript material from the J G Ballard archive (Add MS 88938)

A particular highlight of my time here has been researching the archive of the author J G Ballard. The archive is extensive and a fantastic overview and introduction can be found here. Whilst it does not contain as much personal material as some authors’ archives - it holds very little in the way of private correspondence - it does provide a brilliant insight into the creative process of a great artist. Ballard wrote a lot of his novels by hand and many of his typescripts are heavily annotated. As you start to work through the archive you begin to stitch together a sense of his process. You can learn so much from seeing his choices of what to edit or reword. It is unusual to have such private access to the earliest thoughts of a great artist and it’s quite special to unpick how he works through his ideas and begins his projects. 

The culmination of Undercurrent’s residency will be the The Library of Ideas: Creative Use of the British Library  The aim of this event is to encourage early-career artists into the British Library so that they can discover how they can use the Library to develop their own artistic projects. It’s a rare opportunity to meet curators and get up close to some of the collections - everything from sound to manuscripts to digital.

Laura Farnworth

Artistic Director,

Undercurrent Theatre

Associate Theatre Company of the British Library

Posted on behalf of the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts team.

12 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who became famous for his research on plants

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In the last blog post we left our fictional hero, the astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and his real-life counterpart, Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, on the fringes of Western sciences. The former fails to get international recognition for his discovery of the Little Prince’s asteroid because of his traditional Turkish clothes, the latter fails to get international recognition for his invention of a coherer that would enable wireless telegraphy because of his reluctance to patent his invention. It is now the year 1920, and things are about to change for both our heroes.

Eleven years after the astronomer’s disappointment at the International Astronomical Congress in 1909, a Turkish dictator passes a law that requires all Turkish citizens to dress in European clothes. So the astronomer returns to the congress in 1920 and repeats his demonstration, but this time “dressed with impressive style and elegance”; and this time round, “everybody accepted his report”. Also in 1920, Bose becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society. Eleven years after he was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention that paved the way for the radio, Bose has now arrived at the heart of Western scientific institutions.

Print of Burlington HouseBurlington House, which housed the Royal Society 1873-1967. Via Wikimedia commons.

As Patrick Geddes writes, this “formal acceptance and recognition by his European peers” came to Bose as “the culmination of a series of discussions and incidents spread over two decades”. One such incident happened in 1901, when Bose presented his results on “Responses in the Living and Non-living”, which he published as a book in 1902, to the Royal Society. In his talk, Bose showed that external stimuli, such as poison or electricity, have a similar effect on living tissue, such as plants or muscle, and inorganic matter, such as iron oxide or tin. Bose recorded response curves for muscle, plant, and metal and was thus able to show comparable effects of external stimuli on animals, plants, and metals alike.

This was not only revolutionary, but also unacceptable to parts of his audience. Bose, the physicist, was crossing disciplinary boundaries to chemistry, biology, and physiology, and neither the chemists, nor the biologists nor, particularly, the physiologists were happy. He was asked to revise his paper and negate his own results about the electric response of plants, not because his experiments were scientifically unsound, but because Sir John Burdon Sanderson, a famous professor of physiology, did not believe what he had seen with his own eyes. After all, he had tried to obtain these results in his experiments, but never managed. How could a physicist from India possibly achieve what he had not?

Botanical illustration of the MeadiaNice plant image, nothing to do with the text. Via the British Library Flickr Commons.

At this point of the story, it might come as no surprise that Bose refused to alter his paper, which was consequently not published in the Royal Society’s “Proceedings”. As before, Bose had to rely on time (and his colleagues) to catch up with him; and they did. Eventually. As Geddes writes about Bose’s award of the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1920: his experiments, which were “questioned and belittled in the first stage, have since added a marvellous new province to the empire of human knowledge”.

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library