Oldenburg, Henry

views updated May 14 2018


(b. Bremen. Germany, ca. 1618; d. London, England. 5 September 1677)

scientific administration.

There were three eminent secretaries of seventeenth-century scientific societies; Lorenzo Magalotti, Henry Oldenburg, and J. B. du Hamel. Although both the Italian and the Frenchman left behind substantial memorials of the societies with which they were associated, Oldenburg alone made a profession of scientific administration. In his fifteen years of service to the Royal Society he founded a complete system of records (still extant), created an international correspondence among scientists, and furnished a monthly account of scientific developments.

The Oldenburg family, which had moved to Bremen from Münster in the sixteenth century, was long associated with education. Henry’s father, for whom he was named, taught from about 1610 to 1630 at the Paedagogium in Bremen; his last years were spent in the new university that Gustavus II founded at Dorpat (now Tartu), Estonia, where he died in 1634. The year of his son’s birth can only be deduced from the facts that the boy entered the Gymnasium Illustre of Bremen in May 1633 and, after proceeding to the degree of Master of Theology in November 1639, went on to the University of Utrecht in 1641. Moreover, it seems likely that at his second marriage in 1668 Oldenburg described himself as “about fifty” years old. There are no details concerning his early life, and the only known means for his support during his minority was a lease of some ecclesiastical property, acquired by his grandfather, which he retained all his life—although apparently not as a useful source of income. His studies at the Gymnasium were largely theological, with Hebrew, Latin, Greek, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics as other subjects. Again, there is no evidence to show how he acquired his mastery of modern languages.

After a brief appearance at the University of Utrecht, where he possibly became acquainted with the philosophy of Descartes, Oldenburg vanishes for twelve years. It is likely that he followed the plan indicated in his letter to G. J. Vossius (August 1641) of acting as a private tutor, for in these years he acquired, apparently, a wide knowledge of France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and possibly England, and command of their respective languages. It also seems likely that when Oldenburg reappears he had already been tutor to a number of young Englishmen (among them Edward Lawrence, Robert Honywood, and William Cavendish, later first duke of Devonshire); he had now (as Milton testified) a perfect knowledge of English. Hence it is likely that he had spent some period in England, a deduction confirmed by the next certain event in his life—his selection by the city government of Bremen, at a moment when he had returned to his birthplace, to go on a diplomatic mission to Oliver Cromwell, with the object of protecting the maritime interests of Bremen. Oldenburg arrived in England at the end of July 1653 and presented a memorial to Cromwell in December without achieving much result (partly owing to the state of confusion in the English government) before the conclusion of peace between England and Holland brought an end to the seizures at sea. Oldenburg remained in England, where he made new acquaintances or revived old ones, until a second call arrived from Bremen in August 1654 asking him to enlist Cromwell’s friendship in aid of Bremen’s resistance against a Swedish onslaught. This time Oldenburg (despite his laments of lack of money) achieved a partial diplomatic success. When this business was done—and possibly even before—Oldenburg returned to his tutorial employment, although there is no positive evidence of it before March 1656, when he was negotiating with the two Boyle families of Cork and Ranelagh.

By this time Oldenburg was certainly acquainted with John Dury, Samuel Hartlib, John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, the learned and pious Lady Ranelagh and her more famous brother, Robert Boyle, and no doubt many others who moved in the circles of persons who as yet were more inclined toward religion than toward philosophy or science and, insofar as they hoped for material progress in this life, saw it as dependent on the mysteries of technical invention. Like Boyle, Oldenburg did not figure in the Gresham College group; but his tutorship of Boyle’s nephew Richard Jones (later third viscount and first earl of Ranelagh, 1641–1712) took him to Oxford in 1656, and so to acquaintance with John Wilkins and, no doubt, others residing at the university and constituting its Philosophical Club. In the summer of 1657 Oldenburg took young Jones for a long stay in France, with excursions into Germany. In several cities, but in Paris above all, Oldenburg and his pupil participated in learned societies, while, under the simultaneous promptings of Boyle and Hartlib, his interests and his acquaintanceships moved steadily toward science and medicine, especially chemistry. On these travels Oldenburg began to learn his trade as a scientific intelligencer and to become the friend of scientists. His return to London with Jones slightly preceded that of Charles II, and he soon began to develop his correspondence with the Continent. On 29 November 1660, at the famous meeting of the Gresham College group, he was listed as a candidate member of a formal scientific society—later to be the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge—which he joined in January 1661.

Thereafter Oldenburg’s whole life was devoted to the Royal Society. He made one more trip abroad, to Bremen in the summer of 1661; returning through Holland, he met both Huygens and Spinoza. He was twice married. On 22 October 1663 he married Dorothy West, a woman not much younger than he, who possessed an estate of £400 with which (in part) his house in Pall Mall, near Lady Ranelagh’s, was bought; she died early in 1665. In August 1668 Oldenburg married (with her father’s consent) Dora Katherina Dury, aged about sixteen, who had been his ward for some years. She brought him a small property in Kent, near Charlton, which was their summer home. There were two children of this marriage, Rupert, born ca. 1673, and a younger daughter, Sophia.

In the first royal charter granted to the Royal Society (15 July 1662), as in the second (1663), Oldenburg was named one of its two secretaries, although he had not hitherto played a great part in its affairs. Probably, like Hooke, he owed his position to Robert Boyle, his constant friend and occasional employer over many years. His obvious chief qualifications for this honorary office were his industry, knowledge of languages, and literary gifts. Few Englishmen at this time possessed close contacts with the learned men of the Continent or knew much about work being done abroad. Certainly neither John Wilkins nor any of his successors in the titular first secretaryship hesitated to leave all conduct of the Society’s affairs in Oldenburg’s hands.

Oldenburg thus defined (British Museum MS Add 4441, fol. 27) the secretary’s business as it had matured by the spring of 1668;

He attends constantly the Meetings both of ye Society and Councill; noteth the Observables, said and done there; digesteth ym in private; takes care to have ym entred in the Journal- and Register-books; reads over and corrects all entrys; sollicites the performances of taskes recommended and undertaken; writes all Letters abroad and answers the returns made to ym, entertaining a correspondence with at least 30. persons; employes a great deal of time, and takes much pain in inquiring after and satisfying forrain demands about philosophicall matters, dispenseth farr and near store of directions and inquiries for the society’s purpose, and sees them well recommended etc.

Query. Whether such a person ought to be left unassisted?

Besides the journal book, which held notes of meetings, and the register book, in which copies of important contributions were entered, Oldenburg kept the Council minutes and a letter book in which all the more important incoming and outgoing letters were extracted, as well as the files of original letters and papers, records of membership, and a cipher record of discoveries. Since he could pursue no regular career—although he did have earnings as an editor and translator, especially from the Philosophical Transactions—Oldenburg suffered increasing impoverishment until the Society allowed him an annual salary of £40 beginning in April 1668; also about this time he gained the assistance of an amanuensis.

Between them the Royal Society’s two permanent officers, Robert Hooke and Henry Oldenburg, provided a great part of the matter discussed at the weekly meetings, Oldenburg drawing upon his correspondence and the books presented to the Society through himself. Apart from the week-by-week business of the Society this correspondence was Oldenburg’s greatest burden, involving as it did receiving and answering an average of probably six or seven letters a week during the working period of the year, some of them long and difficult documents. The postal service to many points abroad was nonexistent or unreliable and, in any case, expensive; but in the last ten years of his service Oldenburg was able to exploit diplomatic channels by enlisting young men in embassies as his correspondents and agents. From 1666 he instructed correspondents to write by post to “Grubendol, London.” This was a code address; it seems that Grubendol letters were delivered to the office of the secretary of state (and there paid for); in return Oldenburg reported any news of events abroad his letters might contain. Despite the Royal Society’s privileges, maintaining correspondence with foreigners could be perilous, especially in time of war—as Oldenburg discovered when he was thrown in the Tower for some weeks during the summer of 1667. The probability is that in a letter to some foreigner that was seized he had expressed a patriotic but injudicious resentment that the English government had fallen down in its measures to protect England from the Dutch fleet. Thereafter he was very scrupulous in sticking to scientific matters.

From 6 March 1665 selected portions of the letters submitted to him were published in the Philosophical Transactions: Giving Some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies and Labours of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World, which were interrupted only twice in Oldenburg’s lifetime: once by the plague, when a few issues were printed at Oxford although Oldenburg remained in London, attentive to the Society’s concerns, and again when Oldenburg was imprisoned. The PhilosophicalTransactions formed the first purely scientific journal containing both formal contributions and short notes about work in progress, as well as book reviews that were often long and of critical value. They became the principal vehicle of interchange between English and Continental science, supplementing Oldenburg’s correspondence; and for some investigators of whom Leeuwenhoek is the most obvious example—they were their sole vehicle of publication. Oldenburg also encouraged the Royal Society to undertake, and personally managed, the publication of separate works: those of Malpighi are best known in this category. He both translated and published Steno’s Prodromus; and generally through his letters and the open pages of the Transactions he gave encouragement to all the younger English scientists of the decade 1667–1677, including Isaac Newton, as well as many on the Continent.

As a scientific journalist and administrator of the Royal Society, Oldenburg has been accused of over-enthusiasm. At a time when the line between a private letter and a paper for publication was dubious, he committed some errors of discretion; but he was never guilty of a breach of confidence. He tended to regard everything disclosed at an ordinary meeting of the Royal Society as public, unless a special request was made—and, indeed, the Society was opposed to secrecy about discoveries. He can hardly be censured for communicating accounts of meetings to absent fellows, whether native or, like Huygens and Hevelius, foreign. Oldenburg perhaps had an excessive faith in the power of the process of critique-and-rebuttal to elicit truth, but this was often for the sake of enhancing English prestige in a manner that his contemporaries expected of him. There is no evidence that Oldenburg (who was careful not to claim English nationality, which he sought only in the last months of his life) favored foreigners; the accusations on this score leveled against him by Hooke were without foundation, and he was fully vindicated by the Royal Society’s Council. Hooke was Oldenburg’s sole enemy, and then only after the Huygens’ spring-balance watch patent application of 1675.

Oldenburg’s conception of the Royal Society’s function was consistently and simply Baconian; it was the task of the learned and the well-endowed of his age to compile an authentic natural history from which posterity would elucidate a sound natural philosophy. “Natural history’” included, besides passive investigation of flora and fauna, minerals, the heavens, and even wonders and prodigies, active experimentation, such as blood transfusion and medical injection, with which he was much concerned. All this Oldenburg regarded as an international enterprise, in which the efforts of established societies should be strengthened by individual zeal in every nation. He regretted the poverty of the Royal Society, contrasting it with the lavish resources enjoyed by the Academic Royale des Sciences. Like Boyle and Newton he distrusted a priorist systems of nature and sometimes, like Bacon, spoke of the amelioration of human life as a major object of the scientific movement. But in practice he gave a warm welcome to any piece of solid work, whether in scientific description, pure mathematics, experimental physics, or astronomical calculation. As an editor he had a sound instinct, although (like his age) distorted by an excessive preoccupation with medical curiosities and teratology. If Oldenburg’s approach to the advancement of science was not greatly ahead of that general in his time, it did not lag behind.

Oldenburg remained steadily active until the last months of his life. He died on 5 September 1677 after a brief illness and was buried at Bexley, Kent; his wife died on 17 September. Since Oldenburg was intestate, letters of administration were taken out to make provision for the children; Boyle probably had a hand in the arrangements. Rupert Oldenburg, then serving as a lieutenant, committed suicide in 1724; of the fate of Sophia no trace remains. Oldenburg’s considerable library was bought by the earl of Anglesey, whose vast collection was in turn dispersed in 1686. Some of Oldenburg’s books are now in the British Museum, and others appear on the antiquarian market.


I. Original Works. Besides the Philosophical Transactions and the literary activities already mentioned, Oldenburg translated several of Boyle’s books into Latin and probably acted as a literary assistant to John Evelyn. He also published an English translation of François Bernier’s History of the Late Revolution of the Empire of the Great Mogul and was possibly the translator of some other works published over the initials “H.O.” For his correspondence see A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, eds., The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, I-IX (Madison Milwaukee-London, 1965–1973), a work that is still continuing.

II. Secondary Literature. Friedrich Althaus in the Munich Beilage zur Allgemeinen Zeitung no. 212 (2 August 1889), pp. 1–3, gave an account of Oldenburg’s family and early life in Bremen. For the rest, see A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, “Why Blame Oldenburg?” in lsis, 53 (1962), 482 491; “Some Hitherto Unknown Facts About the Private Career of Henry Oldenburg,” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 18 (1963), 94–103; “Further Notes on Henry Oldenburg,” ibid., 23 (1968), 33–42; M. B. Hall, “Henry Oldenburg and the Art of Scientific Communication,” in British Journal for the History of Science, 2 (1964–1965), 277–290; and A. R. Hall, “Henry Oldenburg el les relations scientifiques au XVII siecle” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 23 (1970), 285–304. See also T. Sprat, History of the Royal Society (London, 1667); T. Birch, History of the Royal Society (London, 1756–1757; repr. 1968), and Robert Hooke, Diary, 1672–80% H.W. Robinson and W. Adams, eds. (London, 1935).

A. Rupert Hall

Oldenburg, Henry (c. 1618–1677)

views updated Jun 27 2018

OLDENBURG, HENRY (c. 16181677)

OLDENBURG, HENRY (c. 16181677), secretary to the Royal Society of London. Henry Oldenburg was born in Bremen, Germany, around 1618. After graduating with an M.A. from the Gymnasium Illustre in Bremen in 1639, he traveled in Europe until 1653, when he went to England on a diplomatic mission for Bremen. Thereafter he resided in London, where he made the acquaintance of John Dury, Samuel Hartlib, John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and Boyle's sister Lady Ranelagh, to whose son, Richard Jones, future earl of Ranelagh, he became tutor. In 1660 he was associated with Boyle's circle at Gresham College. In 1661 he joined the newly founded Royal Society, to which he was appointed as one of two secretaries in 1662. Oldenburg was twice married, first to Dorothy West (d. 1665), whom he married in 1663, and secondly to his ward, Katherina Dury, whom he married in 1668 and with whom he had two children, Rupert and Sophia.

As secretary to the Royal Society, Oldenburg was responsible for keeping records of the Society's meetings and for maintaining its correspondence with thinkers and scientists throughout Europe, including such figures as Johannes Hevel, Christiaan Huygens, Marcello Malpighi, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and Nicolaus Steno. In this capacity, Oldenburg played an important role as publicist, promoter, and information gatherer for the new science. The success of this owed much to him personally, to his wide command of languages, his broad range of contacts, and his personal interest in the new science. He established the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (first published in 1665) as an important vehicle for scientific interchange that helped to shape the Baconian and experimentalist character of Royal Society science.

See also Boyle, Robert ; Hartlib, Samuel ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Huygens Family ; Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van ; Malpighi, Marcello ; Milton, John ; Steno, Nicolaus .


Primary Sources

Oldenburg, Henry. The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg. Edited by A. Rupert Hall and M. Boas Hall. 13 vols. Madison, Wisc., 19651986.

. Philosophical Transactions. London, 16651677.

Secondary Sources

Boas Hall, M. "Henry Oldenburg and the Art of Scientific Communication." British Journal for the History of Science 2 (19645): 277290.

. "Oldenburg, the Philosophical Transactions and Technology." In Uses of Science in the Age of Newton, edited by J. G. Burke, 2147. Berkeley, 1976.

Hall, A. R. "Oldenburg, Henry." Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York, 1974.

Hall, A. R., and M. Boas Hall. "Philosophy and Natural Philosophy: Boyle and Spinoza." In Mélanges Alexandre Koyré. Paris, 1964.

Sarah Hutton