Making Visible: the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society

Dr Felicity Henderson (English) is a co-investigator on this AHRC-funded research project, running from 2015-2019.


How and when did science become visual? How did drawings, diagrams and charts come to be used alongside words and objects by a group of people who hoped to reform and establish a new form of knowledge of nature, based on collaboration, experimentation and observation in the second half of the century? Who made those drawings and diagrams, and what made them ‘scientific’?  The aim of this project is to understand the roles visual resources and practices played in the development and dissemination of scientific knowledge in the first fifty years of the Royal Society. As one of the earliest institutions dedicated to collective investigation of nature, the Royal Society had few precedents to follow, and faced challenges in forming and presenting a new kind of collaborative knowledge to its audience. Many of the publications sponsored by the Royal Society such as Robert Hooke’s Micrographia or Francis Willughby’s Historia piscium, as well as the institution’s journal, 'Philosophical Transactions', contained extensive illustrations. These were important projects, as the Society grappled with various strategies to present a new form of knowledge and establish its own authority in scientific matters.  The archives of the Society contain a rich variety of images that has not yet received much attention by historians of science. This project proposes to undertake a systematic investigation into the visual and graphic practices of the Royal Society during its first fifty years, and examine the roles the Society played in the emergence of a scientific visual culture in the early modern period.