Untold lives blog

45 posts categorized "Science"

05 November 2020

Making gunpowder after the English method

A letter dated 2 February 1725 from the East India Company directors in London to their Council in Bengal contained sections on the manufacture and use of gunpowder.  The Company was concerned about the quality of saltpetre being sent from Bengal and sent instructions on how to improve it.  They were also keen to stop gunpowder being wasted.

Saltpetre was a key ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder.  The Company directors complained that the quality of saltpetre arriving in England had been declining for some years.  Very little had been bought at the London sale in March 1724, so they had decided to analyse samples from the 600 bags of saltpetre which had arrived from Bengal on the Lethieullier, Bridgewater, and Sarum.  The man who refracted the saltpetre reported that, although it looked white and good, there was a quantity of salt left in it.  The directors concluded that the Bengal Council must have employed unskilled people to refine the saltpetre, or their workers hadn’t been careful to separate the salt which was essential if good gunpowder was to be made.

Directions for refining saltpetre ‘Directions for Refining Saltpetre after the English manner, in order to make Gunpowder’ IOR E/3/102 f.240v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

They sent ‘Directions for Refining Saltpetre after the English manner, in order to make Gunpowder’ based on advice from experts.  The workers in Bengal were to use these in a trial on a small amount of saltpetre to see how they got on.
• Dissolve the saltpetre in fresh boiling water.
• As the scum rises, take it off and put it to one side.
• When no more scum rises, draw off the liquor into vessels and let it settle.  The remaining filth or earth which makes the petre look so dirty will sink.
• When the liquor is perfectly clear, draw it off and boil with a gentle fire until a thin film can be seen on the surface.
• Pour into large shallow coolers, no more than eight inches deep.  The saltpetre will shoot into crystals.
• Decant any surplus liquor.  Either start again with fresh saltpetre added to it or boil it down by itself for a second shooting.

 

View of a Fort St George Madras from the sea, with a church to the left, hill peaks behind and ships in the foreground, including one firing guns.View of Fort St George, Madras, 1782, with a ship firing guns © The Trustees of the British Museum


The letter also reported complaints from the owners of East India ships about the great expense of gunpowder lavished on salutes.  The directors ruled:
• No more than nine guns were to be fired when Company ships arrived at a port in India and had a fort to salute.  The forts were to return salutes with only that number.
• Nine guns when captains first came onshore from Europe or were leaving for Europe. Just seven guns for saluting captains at any other time.
• No more than five guns to answer country ships (except foreigners).
• No more than nine guns when the Governor, members of Council, or other Company personnel came on board or left the ship.
• Be as frugal as possible when using gunpowder at festivals, funerals and other occasions.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/3/102 ff.231-240 Letter from East India Company directors in London to Bengal, 2 February 1725

East India Company saltpetre warehouses at Ratcliff

27 October 2020

Wearing a face mask

With the coronavirus pandemic we are all getting used to wearing facemasks in a range of public spaces from shops to transport.  Yet whilst the wearing of masks feels very new to us it is not the first time that they have been employed as a form of protection during an epidemic.

Face masks have been worn as a form of protection from foul air, or miasma, since at least the early 17th century.  The miasma theory of infection, which was accepted by doctors from the 1st century BC until well into the 19th century, ventured that many diseases – such as plague and cholera – were caused and spread through populations inhaling bad air.  (Indeed, the disease malaria literally takes its name from bad (mal) air (aria) in medieval Italian.)  In order to be protected doctors, and the public alike, often carried posies of flowers to freshen the air around them or wore face coverings that both acted as a physical barrier against bad air and attempted to fragrance (and thus purify) the air that was breathed.

Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor wearing a mask- ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor entitled ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rome’, [trans. ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’], 1656. from Wikimedia Commons


One of the most striking and recognisable protective face masks from the past is the long beaked mask worn by plague doctors throughout the 17th century. The mask has been credited as being developed in 1619 by Charles de Lorme (1584-1678), the physician to the French kings Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV.  The mask, which was a form of early respirator, covered the doctor’s full face with glass openings for the eyes and two air holes for the nostrils.  The long beak contained a cavity into which was stuffed a variety of aromatic items intended to purify the foul air that passed through the mask.  It would typically be filled with dried flowers, herbs, spices or a sponge soaked in vinegar.  The mask’s grotesque features made the plague doctor an instantly recognisable and feared figure and it eventually became a popular costume for revellers at the Carnival of Venice – an event made famous for its elaborate masks.

Kid skin face mask with silk ribbonsKid skin mask with silk ribbons, worn as a prophylactic against the plague, c. 1660. Add MS 78428 B Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Although not as dramatic as those worn by the plague doctors, the British Library holds a face covering from the mid-17th century that has some similar features to shield against the plague.  The Library’s covering is made from fine kidskin leather and comprises a pouch into which the wearer could place scented materials to protect the nose and mouth from foul air.  The Library’s intriguing face covering is found in the archive of the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) and was possibly worn by him as a form of protection during the London plague epidemic of 1665-1666; the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England.

It is not clear how much protection these plague masks afforded, but both de Lorme and Evelyn lived through years of plague to survive well into old age.  Masks can clearly help support public health and though it feels strange at first, we should remember wearing them in an epidemic is nothing new.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts and Archives

 

30 July 2020

Sir Andrew Scott Waugh and the naming of Everest

In a letter from Charles Canning, Governor General and Viceroy of India to Lord Elgin, dated 2 October 1861, he writes that Lady Canning has set out on a trip to Darjeeling and that she talks of going into Sikkim to see the highest mountain in the world – ‘Deodunga or Mount Everest as the Surveyors have barbarously christened it’.

Guarinsankar  or Mount Everest  in the Himalaya of NepalGuarinsankar, or Mount Everest, in the Himalaya of Nepal from Results of a Scientific Mission to India and High Asia, undertaken between the years 1854 and 1858, by order of the Court of Directors of the Honourable East India Company, by H., A. and R. de Schlagintweit Shelfmark1899.a.8  BL - Images Online 

How did ’Mount Everest’ get its name?

The surveying of Everest was carried out under the auspices of Major General Sir Andrew Scott Waugh, Sir George Everest’s successor as both Surveyor General of India, and Superintendent of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.  Waugh was born into an Indian military family in 1810. He was appointed a cadet in the East India Company in 1827, and joined the Bengal Engineers.  He was assigned to the GTS in 1832.

Page from Andrew Scott Waugh's East India Company cadet application papers - a glowing report from his schoolmasterPage from Andrew Scott Waugh's East India Company cadet application papers - a glowing report from his schoolmaster IOR/L/MIL/9/166 f.239 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Trigonometrical Survey had been instituted in 1802 by the East India Company to survey scientifically the entire Indian subcontinent.  Initially it was thought that India could be surveyed in five years: in reality, it was to take seventy.  From 1823, the GTS was under the superintendence of George Everest, and he appointed Waugh to the service.  When Everest retired in 1843, he nominated his protégé to succeed him.

By the late 1830s, the Great Trigonometrical Survey reached the Himalayan region.  Foreigners were not allowed to enter Nepal, so observations were taken from Terai.  By 1847, Waugh and his team had noted that a mountain known as ‘Peak B’ appeared higher than Kangchenjunga, the then ‘highest mountain in the world’.  Calculations and observations continued, with the mountain rechristened ‘Peak XV’.  By 1852, the GTS’s talented mathematician or ‘Chief Computer’ Radhanath Sikdar established beyond doubt that the peak was indeed the highest mountain.  It was normal for the GTS to use local names as far as possible when naming peaks.  In this instance, Waugh stated “But here is a mountain, most probably the highest in the world, without any local name that we can discover, or whose native appellation, if it have any, will not very likely be ascertained before we are allowed to penetrate into Nepaul and to approach close to this stupendous snowy mass”.  He went on to suggest ‘Mount Everest’ as a suitable epithet, a name that was finally confirmed by the Royal Geographical Society in 1865.

Photograph of Sir George EverestPhotograph of Sir George Everest by Camille Silvy, 28 July 1862. NPG Ax60654 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence


So, was the mountain ‘nameless’?  It is true that it was difficult to establish a definitive local name.  However, its Tibetan name Qomolangma (or Chomolungma) had been recorded in 18th century maps.  In Darjeeling, it was called Deodungha, meaning Holy Mountain, a name championed by Brian Houghton Hodgson, the naturalist and previous Resident to Nepal.  Even Sir George Everest made objections.  He had never seen the mountain, was not involved in its discovery, and pointed out that his name was difficult to pronounce in Hindi.  Interestingly, he appears to have pronounced his name ‘E-vrest’ rather than ‘Ever-est’.

Andrew Scott WaughPortrait of Andrew Scott Waugh by William Glynn c. 1857 British Library Photo 139/1(3)

Andrew Scott Waugh received the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal in 1856, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1858.  He retired in 1861, having been promoted to Major General and knighted in the same year.  He died in South Kensington in 1877.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles Canning and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning:
Mss Eur F699/1/3/2/53, item 2623 - correspondence from Sir Andrew Scott Waugh, including his memorials, and letters in praise of Sir George Everest; Mss Eur F699/1/1/2/1, letter 31 - Charles Canning to Lord Elgin, 2 October 1861.
IOR/L/MIL/9/166/232-39: Cadet papers of Andrew Scott Waugh.
Paper read by Andrew Scott Waugh to the Royal Geographical Society on 12 May 1857, reported in Illustrated London News, 15 August 1857, p.170.
John Keay, The Great ARC: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named (2000).
General J. T. Walker, ‘A Last Note on Mont Everest’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, Vol. 8, No. 4 (April 1886), pp. 257-263.

 

16 July 2020

Researching Women in Science in the Modern Manuscript Collections Part 2: 1849-1950

The 19th century saw women in Britain campaigning for the right to the same access to education as men.  In 1849, Bedford College became the first higher education college for women and more colleges would be set up in its wake.  Women would soon study for degrees in the sciences.  Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake became some of the first women to qualify as doctors in the country.  An increase in formal education across scientific subjects meant an increase of women in the fields of chemistry, engineering and biology.  Among the correspondence within the Stopes Papers (Add MS 58447 – 37201) we find countless letters of professional women across many spheres in the early 20th century, including letters from surgeon Dr. Ethel Vaughan-Sawyer and engineer Hertha Ayrton.

Bedford College in York Place LondonThe second home of Bedford College in York Place, London - Illustrated London News 21 May 1949 British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast

Prospects for finding manuscripts relating to women working within the sciences improve as time goes on, but it is not a level playing field for all women.  Opportunities evidently improve for some women within the 20th century as more women gain qualifications, but there are very few collections relating to BAME women in science before the later 20th century.  On top of the combined pressures of both sexism and racism within society which denied the opportunities of many professional careers to BAME women, the scientific arena itself engaged in theories of racial superiority.  Just as opportunities were opening up for women in science, eugenic theories first postulated in the 19th century became mainstream. Physicians like Marie Stopes actively engaged in eugenic societies and with ideas of racial purity.

This systemic racism from both inside and outside of science meant opportunities to break through into professional scientific research were few and far between for many women of colour.  However, in the field of medicine, we can find some collections relating to BAME women.  Dr Rukhmabai travelled from India to gain a degree in medicine from the London School of Medicine for Women and went on to practise in India.  There is a file concerning her early life in the India Office Records (IOR/L/PJ/6/202, File 729) which concerns her seminal legal case contesting her arranged marriage.  The London School hosted many Indian students providing scholarships to exceptional students to train in London.

Newspaper article on the hostel for Indian medical students from Vote 16 July 1920
Newspaper article on the hostel for Indian medical students from Vote 16 July 1920. British Newspaper Archive

There are also papers within the Sylvia Pankhurst Papers (Add MS 88925) concerning the legacy of Princess Tsahai Haile Selassie who trained as nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Princess Tsahai in nursing uniform at Great Ormond Street with two other nursesPhotograph of Princess Tsahai in nursing uniform at Great Orm0nd Street Hospital - Illustrated London News 5 September 1936 British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast

The collections explored over these two blog posts demonstrate how factors of gender, wealth and race have affected how different women have been able to contribute to science in Britain up until 1950.  Despite the evident, and varied, obstacles women faced over the centuries – which have influenced the type of material we hold in our collections – there is still a lot to explore.  Buried within the archives, the collections relating to women in science contain many examples of ingenuity against the odds, many accounts of controversy, innovation and discovery, and many more stories yet to be told.

Jessica Gregory.
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts.

Further Reading:
Subhadra Das, Bricks and Mortals: A History of Eugenics Told Through Buildings
Voices of Science 

Women in Science: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

 

14 July 2020

Researching Women in Science in the Modern Manuscript Collections Part 1: 1601-1848

The British Library modern manuscript collections contain a substantial volume of papers that concern the history of science in Britain.  There is, however, a notable absence of women authors among these scientific manuscripts that date from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  Women had been excluded from formal scientific training until the birth of women’s colleges in the 19th century, but it is not the case that women did not make contributions to science before this.  Examining women’s contribution to science offers us an alternative history of science, one that encompasses more informal approaches, cross-disciplinary perspectives, and involves a concerted effort on behalf of women to carve out a space for themselves in an establishment that often suppressed or even appropriated their work.

Before the scientific revolution many women were practising medicine and herbalism in their homes and communities.  This tradition didn’t drop away immediately with the rise of modern medicine.  The Sloane manuscripts contain many medicinal recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries and many of these were authored by women.

Sloane MS 3849An example of a medicinal recipe in the Sloane Collection, 17th Century. Anonymous. Sloane MS 3849 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In aristocratic homes of the 17th and 18th centuries, women were more likely to be taught to read and write; their position in society meant that they could attain modern scientific publications and then engage in their own personal studies, translations and writings.  The British Library holds some manuscripts authored by the polymath, Margaret Cavendish.  Cavendish was tutored at home and pursued her own intellectual interests across subjects, writing a treatise on natural philosophy which was a field of early modern science.  Her achievements meant that she became the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in May 1667.

Engraving of Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon TyneMargaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, by William Greatbach, published 1846 - NPG D5346 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Another aristocrat with a formidable legacy is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who educated herself through the household library.  Lady Montagu witnessed smallpox inoculation among groups of women during her travels in the Ottoman Empire.  Learning from these women, she brought the process to Britain, successfully inoculating her family and others.  She wrote in favour of inoculation in an article defending the process, and ultimately, the processes she learnt from women in Turkey and developed in Britain would be built upon by Edward Jenner in the development of the vaccine in 1796.  The British Library holds items of her prose and correspondence across collections, including in the Portland, Egerton and P.A. Taylor papers.

Add MS 61479
A poem manuscript by Lady Montagu addressing a woman advising her on retirement. Add MS 61479  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Several women working in science in the early 19th century similarly benefitted from educational opportunities available to them owing to their class and connections.  Mary Somerville was educated at home, had the benefit of access to books and a sympathetic uncle who worked with her to improve her studies.  Her formidable intellect meant she wrote and published on the subjects of maths, physics, and geology.  Somerville in turn tutored Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage on the first mechanical computer.  There are items of correspondence from both women in the Babbage Papers (Add MS 37182 - 37201).

Add MS 37192Letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage, 1843, Add MS 37192 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The next blog in this series will examine women in science after the birth of women’s colleges and related archives in the collections.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Devoney Looser, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1620-1829 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000)

Women in Science: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

12 May 2020

Lady with the Lamp at 200: Florence Nightingale’s Bicentenary

Florence Nightingale was an icon of the Victorian era and her name still inspires confidence today.  It was the name given to the seven temporary intensive care hospitals set up by the NHS in response to the Covid-19 epidemic in recognition for her work to the nursing profession.  It is interesting to note that the origins of pre-fabricated temporary hospitals come from the Crimean War, when Isambard Kingdom Brunel was directed to design a temporary hospital for use at Renkioi in the Dardanelles.  Despite arriving late in the war, the hospital proved a success with a lower death rate than the hospital in Scutari, Turkey.

Photograph of Florence Nightingale about 1860Photograph of Florence Nightingale c.1860 British Library Add. MS 47458, f.31 Images Online

Nightingale is best known for her nursing work during the Crimean War.  At the request of her friend Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, she led a party of 38 nurses to work at the hospital in Scutari.  This was an unprecedented decision by Herbert as women had never been officially allowed to serve in the army and Nightingale reported directly to the Secretary of State. Reports had reached Britain of a shortage of nurses, medicine and a lack of hygiene that meant that soldiers were not just dying from battle wounds but from poor conditions.

Hospital ward at Scutari One of the wards in the hospital at Scutari. Image from The Seat of War in the East - British Library 1780.c.6, XXXIV  Images Online

Scholars disagree over the impact of Nightingale’s work in Scutari but essentially she implemented basic hygiene and sanitation practices such as cleaning the wards and hand washing.  These practices alongside the additional nurses began to have a significant impact on the survival of soldiers.

First page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert
Letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert dated 19 February 1855, Add MS 43393 f.164

In this letter from 19 February 1855, Nightingale writes to Herbert to inform him of the falling death rate at the hospital in Scutari.  Nightingale was a talented statistician becoming the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Statistical Society in 1858 and a pioneer of data visualisation as seen in the diagram below, which shows the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East.  The diagram corroborates the falling rate of deaths, mentioned in her letter, from preventable causes.  The number of deaths had climbed since the start of the war and reached a peak in January 1855.  Nightingale arrived in Scutari in November 1854 and once her efforts began to take affect within a couple of months the death rate began to fall.  The diagram will be on display in the Treasures Gallery once the British Library has reopened.

Diagram of the causes of mortalityFlorence Nightingale, 'Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East', Add MS 45816, f1 Images Online


Nightingale continued to advocate the importance of good sanitation and environmental conditions for patient health throughout her life.  A letter from 1860 describes how she believed that ‘open air’ and ‘ventilation’ could help a patient to recover.  Using these methods, Nightingale set out to professionalise the occupation of nursing for women and eventually set up a nursing training school at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.  She was keen to end the stereotype of the ‘fat drunken old dames’ previously employed as nurses, such as the character of Mrs Gamp used by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit.  Nightingale was prominent in promoting sanitation reform to the wider British Empire, especially in India. Documents about her work in India can be found in the British Library’s India Office Private Papers.

Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert

 

Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Edwin Chadwick dated 8 September 1860, Add MS 45770

The two letters and diagram by Nightingale form part of her significant personal archive of correspondence, reports, accounts and administrative papers held as part of the Library’s modern archive and manuscript collections.  This collection guide created for her anniversary provides more detail on these collections.


Laura Walker
Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

13 March 2020

John Maynard Smith: evolutionary biology and the Logic of Animal Conflict

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Have you ever wondered why animals often fight in ritualised ways, not killing each other outright even though they have the weapons to do so?  Just think of how easy it would be, with all the teeth, claws, horns and antlers.


If you currently visit the British Library’s Treasures Gallery, you’ll find a small exhibit of material from the evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith’s archive.  In the 1970s, Maynard Smith gave one answer to the question above that proved highly influential and successful.  It even won him the Crafoord Prize, biology’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize.  And it made to number 61 of 87 in the Great British Innovation Vote, in which you were asked about ‘the most important innovation of the last 100 years’: evolutionary game theory.

John Maynard Smith standing amongst wild flowers 1989John Maynard Smith. Sussex, 1989. Copyright © Anita Corbin and John O’Grady. Courtesy of the estate of John Maynard Smith.

In the exhibition, next to some of his very early work on animal flight, you’ll spot some line printer output with purple annotations.  This particular printout dates from 1972 and is part of a series showing the crucial computer simulations based on which Maynard Smith and his then collaborator George Price wrote “The logic of animal conflict”.  This paper, published in 1973, is the basis for evolutionary game theory.
 

Maynard Smith’s personal copy of ‘The Logic of Animal Conflict’Maynard Smith’s personal copy of ‘The Logic of Animal Conflict’, 1973. Courtesy of the estate of John Maynard Smith.

Maynard Smith, born in 1920 (died in 2004), would have turned 100 this year.  He was one of Britain’s leading evolutionary biologists, a “puzzle-solver” with mathematical intuition whose research career spans almost half a century.  The exhibited printout and others of the same series were sent back and forth between Maynard Smith at the University of Sussex and Price in London.  The two of them had met in 1970 and later started collaborating on what became evolutionary game theory: the application of game theory – which originated in economics – to evolutionary biology and animal behaviour in particular.

By pitting animals against each other as in a game, supplied with strategies like “probing” and “retaliating”, Maynard Smith and Price showed why animals fight in almost ritualised ways, without full use of their weapons: because it is evolutionarily beneficial.  To underline their idea, they ran a series of computer simulations, having two “animals” A and B “fight” round after round.  A and B had the options to escalate the fight or not to.  The simulations showed that the risk of retaliation is too great: if A escalates the fight, B may follow suit and injure, even kill, A.

Hawks and Doves - Computer printout (‘Hawks and Doves’) - Computer printout for 'B31 L – run 2'; 11 April 1972. (Add MS 86749). Copyright of the estate of John Maynard Smith.

As the purple annotations on the exhibited printout show, the computer simulations were useful but not necessarily straightforward.  Some results were ‘v[ery] puzzling’.  Once everything was resolved, the results were published, stimulating much research on animal behaviour.  In 1976, evolutionary game theory joined several other ideas forming the basis of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In fact, Dawkins credits Maynard Smith’s work as a ‘major stimulus that led me to […] write the whole book.’  If you would, please turn to Chapter 5, ‘Aggression: stability and the selfish machine’…

Anyway, that’s where you can read Dawkins’ description of evolutionary game theory – without any of the maths that was in the original paper of Maynard Smith and Price.

Helen Piel
Postdoctoral fellow at the Research Institute for the History of Science and Technology at the Deutsches Museum, working on the relationship between artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

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The John Maynard Smith exhibition is on display at the British Library Treasures Gallery until April 5.

 

11 March 2020

Within a hair’s breadth of failure: John Houghton and the climate change report

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Among the papers of the climate scientist Sir John Houghton, (Add MS 89409) is a record of one of the most significant moments in either Houghton’s career or the history of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body set up by the United Nations in order to observe and respond to changes in the world’s climate.  It is a transcript of a meeting in Madrid, in late 1995, of Working Group I, the IPCC’s division for assessing the ‘physical science of climate change’.

At the time, the IPCC was preparing its second major report.  The contribution of Working Group I already existed in draft form, but its summary still needed finalising.  Did its phrasing – especially in its central assertion, that human activity is affecting the climate – reflect the scientific evidence?  As co-Chairman, Houghton was to oversee this fine-tuning, and, if possible, to guide the meeting towards a consensus.  This could never come at the cost of scientific integrity, but it seemed within reach, and worth striving for.

Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995. (Add MS 89409/4/23), Copyright 2020 The British Library.

Houghton was prepared for robust debate, but admits that he had not anticipated the direction actually taken by the discussion, which the transcript records in a 238-page slab of twelve-point text (Add MS 89409/4/23).  On the first day, Houghton noticed a representative of the Global Climate Coalition, one of the invited non-governmental organisations, engaging certain delegates in conversation.  That this organisation was generally critical of the IPCC’s conclusions was not in itself a problem, but its being backed by ‘powerful parts of the US and international energy industry’ suggested certain non-scientific interests.  The next day, Houghton found that some of these delegates ‘wanted to weaken the statements about the extent of climate change’ and emphasise the ‘uncertainties about [its] causes’.

Houghton was frustrated because it was clear to him that their motives were political, not scientific.  Indeed, one main representative was not a scientist but a lawyer.  Time was ticking on, objections were now being raised over individual words, and he was being cast in the role of a political negotiator.  Could some concessions be made in exchange for others? ‘I’m keeping no score sheet,’ he insisted.  The science could not be bartered.

John Houghton speaking at a conference 2005John Houghton speaking at a conference in High Wycombe, UK, 2005. Photo credit: Kaihsu Tai. Reproduced under the terms of Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0, (cropped and lightened).

The third afternoon wore on.  Time was running out.  The planned evening meal was abandoned; at 9 pm the translators left.  The meeting agreed to continue without them, and Houghton pressed on.  Only at twenty past midnight, minutes before the building closed, did they finish.  But a consensus, albeit sobering, had been reached: ‘The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate’.

Houghton has written that if it had not been for the last-minute success of this meeting, the major Kyoto Protocol climate treaty would not have been adopted two years afterwards.  He has also observed that all the opposition actually resulted in a better, stronger document.  ‘It was a stimulating and exciting time’, he reflected later, ‘but we had come within a hair’s breadth of failure’.

Dominic Newman
Manuscripts Cataloguer

The Papers of John Houghton were gifted to the British Library in 2015.  At present a single series ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’ consisting of correspondence, notes, offprints and published material, is available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89409/4.

The British Library would like to thank the American Institute of Physics (AIP) for their generous support in enabling the cataloguing of this material.

Further reading:
John Houghton, ‘Madrid 1995: Diagnosing climate change’, Nature, 455 (2008), 737-738
John Houghton et al. (eds.), 'Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
John Houghton, with Gill Tavner, In the Eye of the Storm: the autobiography of Sir John Houghton. (Oxford, Lion, 2013)

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