Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

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Frontispiece to volume 1 of Philosophical Transactions

Philosophical Transactions later Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Phil. Trans.) is a scientific journal published by the Royal Society. It was established in 1665,[1] making it one of the world's longest-running scientific journals. Like the slightly earlier Journal des sçavans, it published some science but also contained subject matter from other fields of learning.[2][3][4] The use of the word "Philosophical" in the title refers to "natural philosophy", which was the equivalent of what would now be generically called "science".

Current publication[edit]

Magazine cover with photo of particle detector
Magazine cover with photo of trees
Philosophical Transactions A and B focus on respectively the physical and life sciences

In 1887 the journal expanded and divided into two separate publications, one serving the Physical Sciences (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Physical, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences) and the other focusing on the life sciences (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences). Both journals now publish themed issues and issues resulting from papers presented at the Discussion Meetings of the Royal Society. Primary research articles are published in the sister journals Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology Letters, Journal of the Royal Society Interface, and Interface Focus.

Origins and Early History[edit]

The first issue, published 6 March 1665, was edited and published by the Society's first secretary, Henry Oldenburg, four-and-a-half years after the Royal Society was founded.[5] Its full title of the journal as given by Oldenburg, "Philosophical Transactions, Giving some Accompt to the of the present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours of the Ingenious in many considerable parts of the World". The Society's Council minutes dated 1 March 1664 (in the Julian calendar, equivalent to 1665 in the modern Gregorian system) ordered that "the Philosophical Transactions, to be composed by Mr Oldenburg, be printed the first Munday of every month, if he have sufficient matter for it, and that that tract be licensed by the Council of this Society, being first revised by some Members of the same". Oldenburg published the journal at his own personal expense and seems to have entered into an agreement with the Society's Council allowing him to keep any resulting profits. He was to be disappointed, however, since the journal performed poorly from a financial point of view during his lifetime, just about covering the rent on his house in Piccadilly.[6]

The familiar functions of the scientific journal – Registration (date stamping and provenance), Certification (peer review), Dissemination and Archiving − were introduced at inception by Philosophical Transactions. The beginnings of these ideas can be traced in a series of letters from Oldenburg to Robert Boyle:[7]

  • [24/11/1664] We must be very careful as well of regist'ring the person and time of any new matter, as the matter itselfe, whereby the honor of the invention will be reliably preserved to all posterity' (registration and archiving)
  • [03/12/1664] '...all ingenious men will thereby be incouraged to impact their knowledge and discoverys' (dissemination)
  • The Council minute of 1 March 1665 made provisions for the tract to be revised by members of the Council of the Royal Society, providing the framework for peer review to eventually develop, becoming fully systematic as a process by the 1830s.

The printed journal replaced much of Oldenburg's letter-writing to correspondents, at least on scientific matters, and as such can be seen as a labour-saving device. Oldenburg also described his journal as "one of these philosophical commonplace books", indicating his intention to produce a collective notebook between scientists.[8]

Issue 1 contained such articles as: an account of the improvement of optic glasses; the first report on the Great Red Spot of Jupiter; a prediction on the motion of a recent comet (probably an Oort cloud object); a review of Robert Boyle's 'Experimental History of Cold'; Robert Boyle's own report of a deformed calf; A report of a peculiar lead-ore from Germany, and the use thereof; "Of an Hungarian Bolus, of the Same Effect with the Bolus Armenus; Of the New American Whale-Fishing about the Bermudas," and "A Narrative Concerning the Success of Pendulum-Watches at Sea for the Longitudes". The final article of the issue concerned "The Character, Lately Published beyond the Seas, of an Eminent Person, not Long Since Dead at Tholouse, Where He Was a Councellor of Parliament". The eminent person recently deceased was Pierre de Fermat, although the issue failed to mention the last theorem.[9]

Famous Contributors[edit]

Over the centuries, many important scientific discoveries have been published in the Philosophical Transactions. Famous contributing authors include Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin. In 1672, the journal published Newton's first paper New Theory about Light and Colours,[10] which can be seen as the beginning of his public scientific career. The position of editor was sometimes held jointly and included William Musgrave (Nos 167 to 178) and Robert Plot (Nos 144 to 178).[11]

Pirate Bay Episode[edit]

In July 2011 programmer Greg Maxwell released through the The Pirate Bay, the nearly 19 thousand articles that had been published before 1923, and were therefore in the public domain. They had been digitized for the Royal Society by Jstor, for a cost of less than USD100,000, and public access to them was restricted through a paywall.[12][13] In October of the same year, the Royal Society released for free all its articles prior to 1941, but denied that this decision had been influenced by Maxwell's actions. [12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oldenburg, Henry (1665). "Epistle Dedicatory". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1: 0–0. doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0001.  edit
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Special Collections | The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology". Retrieved 2010-04-17. 
  5. ^ "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London - History". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  6. ^ Bluhm, R. K. (1960). "Henry Oldenburg, F.R.S. (c. 1615-1677)". Notes and Records of the Royal Society 15: 183–126. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1960.0018.  edit
  7. ^ Royal Society Archives
  8. ^ 'Notebooks, Virtuosi and Early-Modern Science' – Richard Yeo
  9. ^
  10. ^ Newton, I. (1671). "A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors: Sent by the Author to the Publisher from Cambridge, Febr. 6. 1671/72; in Order to be Communicated to the R. Society". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 6 (69–80): 3075–3087. doi:10.1098/rstl.1671.0072.  edit
  11. ^ A. J. Turner, ‘Plot, Robert (bap. 1640, d. 1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  12. ^ a b Van Noorden, Richard Royal Society frees up journal archive, 26 Oct 2011
  13. ^ Murphy, y Samantha Guerilla Activist' Releases 18,000 Scientific Papers, July 22, 2011

External links[edit]