History of science mini-marathon
Going to London for the 2012 Olympics? Keen to see more than back-to-back sporting events?
Grab your camera and walking shoes, and check out these history of science hot spots, all within a short distance of Piccadilly Circus. If you’re really keen, you can get this mini-marathon done in a single day. Be sure to check the opening times of museums and galleries, and be aware that some places require advance booking for entry or tours, or may be accessible only when public lectures are scheduled.
Using Piccadilly Circus as the starting point, head down Piccadilly, staying on the right-hand side. After about 300 meters, you will come to the first stop, Burlington House.
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1. Burlington House, Piccadilly
Since 1874, Burlington House has been home to five learned societies – the Linnean Society, Geological Society, Royal Astronomical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Society of Antiquaries - as well as the Royal Academy of Arts. Note the small fountains in the courtyard – they are said to represent the position of the planets in relation to the stars at the time of artist Sir Joshua Reynolds‘ birth in 1723. Reynolds, whose statue stands before the entrance to the Royal Academy, was its first president. Read more about the history of the Royal Academy here.
Although the antiquaries run something of a closed shop, the other societies hold regular, free public events (with complimentary tea, coffee and biscuits). All have libraries, archives, portraits, and items of interest on display, and while it’s best to see these things in conjunction with an event, it is usually possible to gain entry during normal office hours, in order to see a portrait or a lobby display. A proper tour of each society, access to special collections, and use of their libraries, must be arranged in advance.
a) The Royal Academy
Start by heading straight for the Royal Academy’s main entrance, noting the statues of artists and scientists on the building’s exterior as you go. Once inside, climb the stairs and head right until you come to the Reynolds Room. This was the early home of the Linnean Society, and it was here that the first reading of Charles Darwin‘s and Alfred Russel Wallace‘s joint paper on evolution - On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection - was first read, on 1st July 1858, although neither man was present. A gold plaque under the front window commemorates the event. This room is free to visit, but its opening times are restricted so it’s best to check ahead. While photography is often not allowed in art galleries and museums, you should be able to snap the plaque without difficulty.
- Charles Darwin, Vol.1: Voyaging by Janet Browne
- In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace by Michael Shermer
- The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
The Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820, to promote ‘the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science’. Important holdings include the Herschel Archives, rare books and manuscripts, and a piece of wood from Isaac Newton’s famous apple tree, which you will have to persuade the librarian to fetch from his office. The society was the setting for the confirmation of Albert Einstein‘s theory of general relativity - as measured by astrophysicist Arthur Eddington on his solar eclipse expedition - on November 6th, 1919. Read more about the society’s history here.
- Einstein’s Jury: The Race to Test Relativity by Jeffrey Crelinsten
- The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Hoskin
The Linnean Society, founded in 1788, was named after the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy (the scientific naming of species). The society holds many of Linnaeus’ books and specimens in its archives, and its motto - ‘Naturae Discere Mores’ – means ‘to learn the ways of nature’.
Highlights of the Linnean Society’s collections include the microscope that botanist and society vice-president Robert Brown - the naturalist on Captain Matthew Flinders‘ 1801 Investigator voyage to Australia - used to observe Brownian Motion. Find out more about microscopes and Brownian Motion here. Original portraits of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, hang in the Linnean Society’s meeting room, with historical plaques (view the virtual tour and online collections).
d) The Geological Society
The Geological Society, the world’s oldest such organisation, was founded in 1807. While much of its collection is now housed in the Natural History Museum, it still has a large archive, a library with over 300,000 volumes, and papers of prominent geologists such as Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. The society’s collection of images, busts, and photographs includes a portrait of Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning, which hangs in the entrance lobby, near the fossil skull of an ichthyosaur. Among other things, Anning discovered the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton in about 1811, and the plesiosaur in 1820.
- Start a Geological Society for Your School
- Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier
- The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World by Deborah Cadbury
e) The Royal Society of Chemistry
The Royal Society of Chemistry began life in 1841 as the Chemical Society, ‘for the communication and discussion of discoveries and observations’, and is heavily involved in education, publishing, and scientific conferences. You will find many busts and portraits of scientists and chemists lining the society’s rooms and corridors. The lavish library was originally designed for the Royal Society (which now occupies buildings on Carlton House Terrace), and is home to the Chemistry Centre, a forum for public lectures, demonstrations and other events.
- Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age by Cathy Cobb & Harold Goldwhite
2. John Murray Publishers, 50 Albemarle St
John Murray Publishers was founded by John Murray I in 1768, and has produced many influential books in the arts and sciences – notably, Romantic poet Lord Byron‘s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812; geologist Sir Charles Lyell‘s Principles of Geology in 1830; and naturalist Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species in 1859. The business is now owned by Hachette UK and operates from Euston Rd, but the Albemarle St office remains as an archive. The lovely John Murray VII gave us a personal tour on the day we visited (advance booking essential). To see his excellent video guide on the building and its archives, click here. Author and conservationist Randal Keynes, a descendant of Charles Darwin, helps explain Darwin’s theory of natural selection using pigeons in the video below.
3. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Brown’s Hotel, 33 Albemarle St
The five-star Brown’s Hotel, which opened in 1837, claims to be London’s first hotel, but its other claim to fame is much more interesting. Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell made Britain’s first successful phone call from here in 1876, and the phone he used still exists in the hotel’s Graham Bell meeting room, at the rear of the lobby. If the room hasn’t been booked for a private conference, a staff member will be happy to show it to you.
- Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention by Charlotte Gray
- Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World by David Bodanis
4. The Royal Institution of Great Britain, Albemarle St
The Royal Institution of Great Britain (sister organisation of RiAus) was created in 1799 at a gathering in Sir Joseph Banks‘ Soho Square home. The organisation’s purpose was ‘diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.’ Two scientists who made the Royal Institution famous were Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. Davy, the flamboyant Professor of Chemistry, drew such enormous crowds that Albemarle St was turned into London’s first one-way street, in order to cope with the traffic. Faraday began as Davy’s Chemical Assistant in 1813, before progressing to the role of Director of the Laboratory, and Fullerian Professor of Chemistry. For a history of the Royal Institution, click here. The interactive Faraday Museum has free entry, and tours of the building and the museum are available. The Royal Institution holds a plethora of events for members, schools, professionals and the public, such as the one featuring physicist Brian Cox (below).
- Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and place by J. M. Thomas
- Humphry Davy: Poet and Philosopher by T. E. Thorpe
5. Sir Isaac Newton plaque, 87 Jermyn St
Physicist, alchemist, astronomer, mathematician, and author of Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton pops up several times on this walking tour. He moved to London following his appointment to the Royal Mint, where he initially served as Warden, and later as Master. The position came with lodgings at the Tower of London, but Newton found them far from satisfactory, and moved to No. 88 Jermyn St in 1696. In 1700, he moved next door to No. 87, and lived here until 1709. His niece, Catherine Barton, lived with him in Jermyn St for a time. One of the beauties celebrated by the Kit-Kat Club, she married John Conduitt, who succeeded Isaac Newton as Master of the Mint. Be sure to check out the wonderful Paxton & Whitfield cheese shop nearby at No. 93.
- Isaac Newton by James Gleick
- Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer by Michael White
- Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson
6. Ada Lovelace plaque, 12 St James’s Square
Ada Lovelace, the intellectually brilliant daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, is best known for her association with inventor Charles Babbage, who first came up with the idea of a programmable computer. Babbage called Ada ‘the Enchantress of Numbers’, and she is sometimes cited as the first computer programmer. She was born at what is now 139 Piccadilly. In 1835 she married the Earl of Lovelace, and moved with him to No. 10 St James’s Square (now No. 12). Look out for the unassuming entrance to the London Library - the prestigious private lending library founded in 1841 – a few doors away from Lovelace’s plaque.
- Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter by Benjamin Woolley
- Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers by Betty A. Toole
7. The Royal Society, 6 – 9 Carlton House Terrace
The Royal Society was created by a group of natural philosophers in 1660 as, ‘a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’. Founding members included architect Sir Christopher Wren, chemist and physicist Robert Boyle, and mathematician William, 2nd Viscount Brouncker. The polymath Robert Hooke was the first Curator of Experiments, and the roll call of presidents includes diarist Samuel Pepys, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joseph Banks, Sir William Henry Bragg and Baron Howard Florey. The current President is Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse. Read more about the history of the Royal Society here. The best way to gain access is by attending one of the regular free events, conferences or exhibitions, or by asking to see and/or use the library. There are several portraits and objects of interest throughout the building, and an exhibition space downstairs hosts changing displays. Discreet photography is tolerated, and non-flash photography of books and manuscripts from the archive is allowed. The society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition will be held from 3 – 8 July this year.
- Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society by Bill Bryson (ed)
- The Fellowship: The Story of the Royal Society and a Scientific Revolution by John Gribbin
8. Yuri Gagarin statue, Spring Gardens
This monument to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was unveiled in July 2012, a gift from Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. Gagarin became the first person to enter outer space when he orbited the Earth in 1961. He died in a training jet crash, aged only 34, a year before the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Read more about the statue here.
- Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran & Piers Bizony
9. Captain James Cook statue, The Mall
Across the road from Gagarin is a monument to another great explorer, Captain James Cook, who is famous for three great voyages which took place between 1768 and 1779. On the first voyage, he observed the transit of Venus, mapped the entire coastline of New Zealand, and charted the east coast of Australia (claiming it for Britain). On his second voyage, he disproved the existence of a great southern continent, a theory popular at the time. On his third voyage, he attempted to find the North-West Passage, and became the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands, the scene of his death. The Cook statue stands a stone’s throw from Admiralty Arch.
10. Benjamin Franklin house, 36 Craven St
Benjamin Franklin first visited London as a young printer in 1725. In 1757 he was back, as a diplomat for the Pennsylvania Assembly. His third visit, a long stay beginning in 1764, was to petition King George III on Pennsylvania’s behalf. During his second and third London sojourns, Franklin lived in Craven St. Benjamin Franklin House charges an entry fee, and offers both an Historical Experience tour (45 mins) and an Architectural tour (25 mins). Last time we visited, the house was very sparsely furnished and decorated, making it a real ‘bare bones’ experience. If you don’t feel like paying for entry, the black historical plaque is free to admire from the street. There are regular lectures about Franklin and his circle, held both on and off-site. Read more about the house here, and about the history of Craven St here.
- Autobiography and Other Writings by Benjamin Franklin
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
11. Sir Robert Boyle’s grave, St-Martin-in-the-Fields
The cafe in the 18th century crypt of St-Martin-in-the-fields church is a good place to stop for a snack. Chemist, physicist, and founder of the Royal Society Robert Boyle is among those buried here, although the exact location of his grave is now lost. Boyle is best known for Boyle’s Law, which states that if the volume of a gas is decreased, the pressure increases proportionally. Read a comprehensive overview of his life and work here. Some of the tablets underfoot in the crypt still have legible epitaphs carved into them, so be sure to look down as you’re sipping your coffee or tea. Nell Gwynne, actress and mistress to King Charles II, is also buried here. For more information on the history of the church, click here.
- The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest by Lawrence Principe
- Boyle: Between God and Science by Michael Hunter
12. An Experiment with a bird in an air pump, The National Gallery
The National Gallery is one of the world’s leading art museums, and contains important works ranging from the 12th century Virgin and Child with Two Angels, to Paul Cezanne’s Bathers, c. 1900. You could easily spend an entire day wandering its many rooms, but this time, your target is a single picture in room 34 - Joseph Wright of Derby‘s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). Wright painted during the scientific enlightenment and industrial revolution, and many of his works deal directly with natural philosophy and investigations into the unknown. Click here for a short podcast on the painting by historian Jenny Uglow. Entry to the gallery is free, but photography is not allowed – our shot, below, was taken when the room attendant was looking the other way.
- The Lunar Men: The Men Who Made the Future 1730-1810 by Jenny Uglow
13. Science portraits, The National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery, right behind the National Gallery, also has free entry. Its collection, arranged by period, includes the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, said to be the only portrait of the poet and dramatist actually painted from life. Figures from the sciences and the history of exploration are well represented here, including Sir Joseph Banks, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Michael Faraday, Captain James Cook, Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Humphry Davy, William Dampier, Sir Hans Sloane, and Alexander Fleming. The collection is rotated every now and then, so even if you’ve visited before, you’re likely to see new works displayed on subsequent visits. Once again, photography is not allowed, so be quick and discreet with your camera.
14. Sir Isaac Newton plaque, 35 St Martin’s St
Isaac Newton lived here from 1711 until his death in 1727. He worked on revisions of his Principia Mathematica here, and engaged in stargazing in a small observatory at the top of the house. The building was pulled down in 1913, and the Westminster Reference Library now stands in its place. As well as the commemoration on the library’s exterior, there is a plaque inside, which reads:
‘Here stood the house of Sir Isaac Newton in which he lived from 1710 to 1727 and was visited by his friends Addison, Burnet, Halley, Swift, Wren and other great men. Later it became the home of Dr Charles Burney and his daughter Frances and was the resort of Johnson, Reynolds, Garrick and many others. The library also covers the site of the Leicester Fields chapel, built for the Huguenots in 1693.’
There is also a bust of Isaac Newton in Leicester Square, at the top of the street.
15. Dr John Hunter bust, Leicester Square
In 1783, surgeon and anatomist Dr John Hunter bought a house on the eastern side of Leicester Square, at No. 28. Behind the house stood his Museum of Comparative Anatomy, completed in 1785, which contained a dissecting room, and curiosities such as a whale skull and the skeleton of ‘giant’ Charles Byrne.
‘Between the smart four-storey townhouse fronting Leicester Square and the inconspicuous, dowdy-looking house at its rear, facing Castle Street, stretched a spectacular brick and glass structure providing a lecture theatre, grand reception room and a purpose-built museum. Accommodating Hunter’s myriad businesses as surgeon, anatomist, teacher and researcher while fostering his continuing connections with London’s underworld, the dual-fronted house would later inspire Robert Louis Stevenson when he was writing his horror story ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Although the plot for the story came to Stevenson in a dream, he is said to have based Dr Jekyll’s house – the setting for the melodramatic transformation from good to evil – on Hunter’s Leicester Square home.’ (Wendy Moore)
Hunter’s medical and anatomical collections are now part of the Hunterian Museum.
16. John Logie Baird plaque, 22 Frith St
John Logie Baird was a Scottish engineer and inventor who perhaps deserves the same iconic pioneer status given to Tim Berners-Lee - both men invented new forms of communication that literally changed the world. In the case of Berners-Lee, it was the world wide web. With John Logie Baird, it was television. Baird rented rooms here on Frith St, where he lived and had a laboratory.
‘It was weird and wonderful … I was amazed at what he [Baird] had improvised …string, cardboard, and pieces of rough wood with Meccano parts, bits of bicycles and strange scraps of government surplus stores all combined to make a television machine … When he started it up I expected to see the whole crazy contraption fly to pieces or else go up in a flash of blue flame. Nothing happened beyond a grunting and groaning as the various ill-assorted pieces worked together. After adjusting a number of rheostats Mr Baird said: “Now look in there and I will put my head in front.” I watched and sure enough when he had threaded a perilous way to the other end of his apparatus I saw a pale mask of a face appear floating as it were on a whirling black background.’ (R. W. Burns)
- John Logie Baird: A Life by Antony Kamm & Malcolm Baird
- Television and Me: The Memoirs of John Logie Baird by John Logie Baird
17. Dr John Snow plaque, 53 Frith St
Physician John Snow is famous for tracing an 1854 cholera outbreak to a particular water pump in Soho. Despite believing the miasma theory of disease prevalent at the time, Snow used innovative statistical methodology to study the population, analyse patterns of death and disease, and isolate the outbreak to a specific source. Over 500 people died from the fast-acting infection. Today, John Snow is recognised as one of the fathers of the modern science of epidemiology. Watch author and historian Mike Jay‘s short video summary of John Snow and the Broad St pump, below.
18. Sir Joseph Banks / Robert Brown / David Don plaque, 32 Soho Square
Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist on Captain Cook’s first great voyage, and later the long-serving President of the Royal Society, lived in a house on this site. It housed an extensive library, and an enviable collection of natural history specimens. It was an intellectual salon, and the birthplace of the Linnean Society, who met here for the first time in May 1821. The original fireplace, with its Wedgwood detail, is now installed in the Royal Institution. Read more about the history of the original building, and Banks’ residency, here. The location is now home to 20th Century Fox. Look out for the information panels in Soho Square, which tell the history of the site.
‘Every Sunday evening Banks opened his house for informal meetings of thirty of so friends and acquaintances; on Thursday mornings, at ten o’clock, he hosted breakfasts in his library – a tradition that he later extended to every day of the week. The panelled room at the back of the house was lined from floor to ceiling with overflowing bookcases holding almost 20,000 natural history titles, while nearly 200 different newspapers, literary journals and scientific publications from societies around the world were laid out on tables and low shelves. Presided over by the portrait of Captain Cook that hung above the fireplace, Banks assembled the greatest minds of his age, providing a platform for natural history and other scientific subjects … The house was always filled with people, talk and laughter … several artists and engravers … worked in the workshop at the back of the house, as well as scholars who used Banks’ books and collections for their studies. [Daniel] Solander walked every day from the British Museum … to Soho to help Banks with the library and herbaria.’ (Andrea Wulf)
- Sex, Botany and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks by Patricia Fara
- The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf
19. Dr John Snow’s water pump replica, Broadwick St
A replica pump stands near the original site of the Broad St (now Broadwick St) pump. Look out for the silver information plaque at its base. The pump steps are a popular seat for locals and tourists.
20. The John Snow pub, Broadwick St
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the final destination! The John Snow pub is a stone’s throw from the replica pump, and actually stands at the site of the original 19th century water pump. Look for the red granite curbstone outside the pub, which pinpoints the old pump’s exact location. Inside the pub are photographs and information panels which tell the John Snow story. The John Snow society, which promotes the work of Snow and the science of epidemiology, stipulates a visit to this pub as a pre-requisite for membership.
Photos by S. Klinge
- The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
- London Science: Museums, Libraries and Places of Scientific, Technological and Medical Interest by Dennis & Sylvia Rosen
- Walking London’s Medical History by Nick Black
- Scientific London by Bernard H. Becker
By Melinda Murphy, London Bytes