Heinrich Oldenburg revolutionised the way scientists shared news of their latest advances

Scientific discovery has shaped the world for four centuries. To make it happen, scientists needed an effective way to circulate knowledge, share ideas and establish new paradigms. One of the most important innovations of early science (natural philosophy to its 17th-century practitioners), therefore, was the scientific journal.

It owes its existence to an industrious German, Heinrich (Henry) Oldenburg. Educated in his native city of Bremen and in Utrecht, he was intended for a career in the Church or the academy but, in the early 1640s, he abandoned his studies in favour of experiencing the religious, political and intellectual life of Europe at first hand, seeking employment as tutor and travelling companion to the son of a nobleman or ‘some honest merchant’.

Oldenburg travelled extensively, mastered Dutch, French, Italian and English and made a wide acquaintance among the leading theologians and philosophers of Europe. His English contacts included many future members of the Royal Society, a like-minded knot of devotees of the new experimental science, which began meeting formally in London in November 1660. This well-travelled networker with eerily perfect English – the poet John Milton remarked that he had never heard a foreigner speak it better – was ideally equipped to address the learned of Europe in their own languages and made a natural choice for the Society’s first secretary.

Oldenburg filled the role with extraordinary dedication and energy, writing regularly to his contacts to inform them of the progress of science in England and to solicit news of their research in return. The Royal Society failed to match this commitment with a salary, however, and Oldenburg found himself overworked, unpaid and scratching out a living as a translator and publishing agent for the aristocratic pioneer of chemistry, Robert Boyle. In 1665 he proposed a new venture to the Royal Society, which he hoped would further the cause of scientific communication, promote the Society’s activity, save him the labour of copying the same news to dozens of correspondents in half a dozen languages and enable him to earn a decent living. It was to be a monthly periodical dedicated to natural philosophy, published by Oldenburg and printed with the Society’s authority.

The first issue was dated March 6th and it inaugurated a publication that continues down to the present: Philosophical Transactions, the oldest scientific journal in the world and the oldest English periodical of any kind still in production. Oldenburg’s innovation has been much imitated; estimates suggest that the number of scientific journal titles in publication today exceeds 30,000.  More here – Source: Innovative Oldenburg

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