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Senate House Library

Experiencing science: ten scientific illustrations from Senate House Library's collections


Written by
Argula Rublack, Academic Librarian: History

For History Day 2022, we explore ten of our favourite scientific illustrations in Senate House Library's collections in this mini-gallery blog post

This blog is part of a series of posts on the theme 'Human Discovery: Experiencing Science' for History Day 2022.

History Day is an annual event, organised collaboratively between Senate House Library and the Institute of Historical Research, that brings together libraries, museums, archives and history organisations to share their collections and resources with history enthusiasts. This year the theme is "Human Discovery: Experiencing Science" with the aim to examine the history of science and technology in its broadest sense, including the everyday experiences and impacts of science and technology on ordinary people.

Scientific illustrations are a fundamental part of science education. They supplement texts with further explanation by visualising abstract ideas and make them easier for readers of scientific books to grasp and conceptualise. Although these visual aids can act as a very simple and straightforward support to convey scientific concepts to their readers, they can also be striking and innovative examples of art in their own right. The mini-gallery featured in this post shows a selection of ten scientific illustrations from Senate House Library's collections.

Two pages of a book depicting stages of a solar eclipse with black and gold diagrams

Johann Müller's (1436-1476, known as Regiomontanus in Latin) Calendarium was one of the earliest and most detailed printed European books with calculations for the calendar. This included information on the phases of lunar and solar eclipses, illustrated on several pages throughout the text.


A book with black ink text on both pages. The left page has a decorative border and mathematical diagrams on the right margin.

The first printed edition Euclid's Elements in Europe, produced by the German printer Erhardus Ratdolt (1442–1528). Ratdolt is known as one of the first European printers to tackle the problem of printing geometric diagrams.

Two pages of a book with text with a diagram of the solar system on the left page.

The first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' famous De reuolutionibus orbium coelestium. The diagram illustrates one of the book's central arguments, that the earth orbits the sun rather than the other way around.

Two pages from a book. The left is an illustrated title page, featuring a castle on land next to the sea with several ships, three of which are connected by a triangle. The right shows an illustration of a geometrical quadrant.

The title page of A geometrical practise, named pantometria, compiled Thomas Digges (1546-1595), shows that it is concerned with offering real-life applications of mathematical concepts, including how to measure the heights of towers, the distance of ships to the shore or how to calculate shooting distances for military purposes.

A page in a handbook on plants featuring an illustration of a type of flower called Eupatorium. Next to the illustration is a specimen of the leaves of the flower inserted in the page.

This page from English edition of Rembert Dodoens' (1517-1585) A nievve herball or historie of plantes (Dutch: Cruydt-boeck), a guide to botanical and medicinal plants, includes one of numerous woodcuts supporting the identification of plants. In this copy, a former owner has inserted a pressed sample of a leaf from the plant depicted on the same page.

Two pages of a book. The left page features a coloured illustration of a woman standing on a pedestal with a book in each hand, representing books on arithmetic by Boethius and Pythagoras. On her two sides are two men at tables engaging in mathemtical calculations, one with arabic numerals, one with an abacus.

This page from the colourful 16th-century university student handbook Margarita philosophica cu[m] additionibus nouis by Gregor Reisch (c. 1467-1525) represents the art of arithmetic. The central figure holds copies of both Boethius' and Pythagoras' works on the subject, while the two characters to the side are busily working on their calculations with Arabic numerals and an abacus.

Two pages of a book with printed and handwritten text on the left describing the illustration on the right in Latin and English. The right page depicts a yellow and green coloured illustration of a cocoa plant, with several insects crawling upon its leaves.

Seventeenth-century German artist, scientific illustrator and naturalist, Anna Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717), created her Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium during her travels and research in Dutch Suriname in South America. On this page her drawing of the cocoa plant is accompanied by its Latin description alongside a handwritten English translation of the text.

A colour wheel indicating the annual average temperature in London, UK.

This diagram from The climate of London by Luke Howard (1772-1864) visualises the cycle of temperature variations in London throughout the year. The book was one of the first studies documenting the 'urban heat effect' or the effect of air pollution on urban climate.

Two illustrated pages of sea-anemons and corals

As a populariser of natural science Philip Henry Gosse's (1810-1888) books, such as A history of the British sea-anemones and corals, specialise in translating his meticulous observation of marine life into vivid illustrations.

Two pages of a book. The left page has text, the right page depicts a diagram of a school room and its ventilation system.

This item from the Family Welfare Association Library, titled A danger to the public health, addressed an important public health and social issue in Victorian Britain. It debates the relative merits of different ventilation systems in school classrooms and their impact on the health of the pupils sitting inside them, supplemented by explanatory diagrams.

To find out more about Senate House Library's collections in the history of science, medicine and technology, take a look at our history of science guide. Many of the images selected for this gallery are part of one of our printed special collections, the De Morgan Library, a collection of thousands of volumes related to the history of mathematics, printed between 1474 and 1870, many of which were annotated by the Victorian mathematician Augustus De Morgan. Several items from these collections are available to Senate House Library members through the electronic database The Augustus De Morgan collection.

To discover over 40 contributions from libraries, archives and history collections from across the UK and beyond take a look at the Discover Collections gallery and follow the day's activities on social media using the hashtag #HistDay22.