“More Lively Counterfaits” Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

From infographics to digital renders, today's scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn't always so. Gregorio Astengo explores the innovations employed in early issues of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, the world's first scientific journal — new forms of image making which pushed the boundaries of 17th-century book printing.


September 17, 2020

Richard Waller table of colours

Detail from Richard Waller's “Tabula colorum physiologica …” [Table of physiological colours], from Philosophical Transactions, 1686 — Source.

One of the most demanding challenges for early modern scientists was devising how best to visually portray their discoveries to the public. In the absence of any sort of technology for automatic visualisation, like cameras or scanners, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosopher had to rely on drawings and subsequently woodcuts, etchings, or engravings to turn an experimental finding into a reproducible and publicly accessible demonstration. This was a laborious, expensive, time-consuming, and often problematic operation. Negotiated between several parties involved in the world of image-making, such as draughtsmen, engravers, and printers, the results were inevitably compromises between the intentions of the researcher and the possibilities of the printing press.1 For example, what a drawing could express with shading, washing, and chromatic nuances, printed illustrations could only approximate through a binary system of black and white, resulting from the pressure of an inked copper plate against a page.

The problem of efficient imaging was particularly felt during the early years of the Royal Society, a scientific institution founded in London in the early 1660s and today still regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions of scientific research in the world. In its early decades of activity, the Royal Society established itself as one of the central forces of the Scientific Revolution, with renowned members such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Members of the Society used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss ongoing research on a variety of subjects, such as physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, mechanics, geography, and antiquarianism.

Soon after its foundation, the Royal Society sought new ways to increase visibility and maximise its public reach. From this emerged the Philosophical Transactions, a monthly peer-reviewed journal, the first of its kind, featuring extracts from the Royal Society's weekly research meetings. Founded in 1665 by the Society’s Secretary Henry Oldenburg and still published to this day, the Transactions are regarded as the first and longest-running scientific journal in history, as contributions were the result of original explorative studies into natural and mechanical matters informed by the Society’s culture of experiment — part of what today we generally call science.2

The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions

The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions, 1665 — Source.

The Transactions were printed in small quarto format (about 17x22cm) with up to about a dozen articles per issue and could be purchased for the price of one shilling, about £5 today. The journal was a pioneering learned publication, with exceptional frequency and aimed at a diverse public of curious researchers. As such, especially in the early years, its contributors were often preoccupied with how best to communicate their ideas and discoveries through the immediacy of mass-producible visual media.3 A closer look into a selection of these articles demonstrates the extent to which natural philosophers were prepared to re-invent the production and consumption of images with new and often odd strategies for representing the world. This was a process of endless hands-on experimentation, often pushing beyond the traditional confines of the printing house.

The issue of accurate replication was effectively problematised in 1665 by art critic, writer, and Royal Society founding fellow John Evelyn. Evelyn was particularly sensible to the potentials and limits of engraving. He was an avid collector of prints and in 1662 published his own De Sculptura (here in a later edition), an adaptation of Abraham Bosse's classic Traicté des manieres de graver (Treatise on Line Engraving). Shortly after the Transactions’ launch, Oldenburg published an account forwarded to Evelyn from an anonymous correspondent in Paris. The article described “a Way of Making More Lively Counterfaits of Nature in Wax, Then are Extant in Painting”.4 The article briefly introduced the technique of wax-modelling and colouring to faithfully sculpt natural specimens and produce maps in relief. The resulting models, Evelyn argued, were much more convincing than figurative drawing and so lifelike “that they kill all things of this Art”. In his praise of the illustrative potentials of a plan-relief, Evelyn was pointing at the necessity of sophisticated research into scientific reproducibility, preserving important information, and at the same time inviting a more substantial engagement on the part of the viewer.

Evelyn was not alone in his concern for new and effective forms of imaging. In the early months of 1686, a large table of colour pigments appeared in the 179th issue of the Transactions. The foldable sheet, accompanying an article entitled “A Catalogue of Simple and Mixt Colours”, featured a total of 128 colour samples, each arranged in a large chart and categorised with its type and name in several languages.

Richard Waller table of colours

Richard Waller's “Tabula colorum physiologica …” [Table of physiological colours], from Philosophical Transactions, 1686 — Source.

The accompanying article offered a detailed description of each colour in the chart. “Smalt”, for instance, “is made of Zaffer and Pot-ashes, calcined together in a Glass-furnace” and “Ceruse is the Rust of Lead made by a vaporous Calcination”. The author of the article was Richard Waller, one of most active illustrators in the circle of the early Royal Society and himself editor of the Transactions from 1691 to 1693. Waller's objective with his table of colours was to establish a standardised system for the visual mapping of colours, bypassing the monochromatic limitations of engraving.

Thus to describe a Plant [Waller proposed] it may be seen which of the simple or mixt Colours come nearest to it, and then the Word affixt to that Colour may be made us of, which the reader, if desirous, may look in his Table and find together the Pattern thereof.5

In other words, with this table of colours, Waller was offering a portable chromatic lexicon for natural philosophers, a universally generalisable reference system for reproducing the nuances of coloration without ever actually having to use colours.

Waller was arguably the first in England to propose a descriptive account of natural colours, and his was the first and only article in the Transactions which made use of colour at all.6 Producing Waller's chart must have been especially complicated, as each of the swatches had to be added manually to the several hundred copies of the journal’s issue.7 The last page of the issue also included explicit instructions for the printer:

The Table of Colours is to be inserted after this leaf, which ought to be done with Guard and a White-leaf between after the book is bound, lest otherwise the Colours by beating stick together.

The format of the learned periodical was substantially new to the printing world of seventeenth-century London, presenting image makers with novel problems and opportunities. Waller’s instructions then also evidence how the intellectual mission of the journal’s visual apparatus could only exist in a relationship with the printers, binders, and booksellers involved in its manufacturing. Another example of this cooperation is an illustration of the micrometer, an astronomical instrument invented by William Gascoigne to optimise focal magnification and measurability, presented in 1667 by mathematician Richard Townley for issue 29 of the Transactions.

The article, entitled “An Instrument for dividing a foot into many thousand parts”, was accompanied by an engraved plate, originally drawn by mechanical practitioner Robert Hooke . Hooke was another extraordinary seventeenth-century enquirer: curator of experiments at the Royal Society from 1661, he soon became widely renowned for his best-selling book Micrographia (1665), which gave us the first close look into the anatomy of the flea and other minute animals.

Illustration of a flea from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665 — Source.

In his drawing of the micrometer, Hooke included an additional leaf printed at the bottom of the page, representing a flat wooden cover bolted with two long screws. This “moveable Cover” was

to be by the Bookseller cut off by the pricked Line (xxx) from the Paper, and to be fitly placed on Figure I. according to the pricked Line (yyyy) answering thereto; that by the taking off, as it were, or folding up of this Cover, the inward contrivance of the Screws and Sight may appear.8

The “cover” was to be fixed in position as a moveable flap by cutting it out and gluing it along one edge of the instrument. Hooke devised this cut-paste system which, once assembled by the bookseller, would allow the reader to “open” the micrometer. The drawing, then, operated very much as its own “paper instrument”, reproducing with increased realism the physical properties of the original.9


Left: Plate of Richard Townley’s micrometer with cover piece at the bottom, as supplied to the bookseller. Right: The plate with the cover piece cut-out and glued in place; from the Philosophical Transactions, 1667 — Source (left and right).

The micrometer was one of the many pieces of technology occupying the Royal Society’s research agenda, alongside more notable examples like the telescope or the microscope. Similarly, instruments for automating the accurate visual recording of nature were also key in solidifying the Society's empirical mission. In a preface to the Transactions from 1670, Oldenburg paraphrased philosopher Francis Bacon by using the metaphor of instrument making to express the progress towards universal knowledge:

any vulgar hand may draw a Circle more perfectly by a compass, than the most perfect Penman can do by hand alone. [...] we may find how to draw in Perspective any Object both accurately and dispatchingly, by an instrument.10

At the time Oldenburg was probably referring to the perspectograph, a drawing machine invented by Christopher Wren in the 1650s and recently presented in the Transactions.11 Wren was himself a virtuoso draughtsman: he was one of the first in England to experiment with the technique of mezzotint and soon turned out to be an exceptionally skilled architect, authoring an extraordinary amount of projects, St. Paul’s cathedral among them. His device, a vertical board with a pen attached to a tracer, allowed anyone to draw in perspective by following the contours of an object through a pinhole.

Christopher Wren’s perspectograph

Christopher Wren’s perspectograph, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1669 — Source.

Wren's intent with this device was to optimise visual representation, perhaps even for use in printmaking. In his outstanding drawings of the human brain for Thomas Willis' Cerebri Anatome (1664), Wren is thought to have used his own perspectograph to draw directly on a copper plate.12

Christopher Wren’s engraving of the brain

Christopher Wren’s engraving of the lower side of the brain from Thomas Willis’ Cerebri Anatome, 1664 — Source.

Similar to this device was the “Prosopographical Parallelogram”, an instrument for reproducing objects using parallel lines and published in the Transactions in 1673.13 The machine consisted of a vertical board, mounted on a tripod, with a pantograph (a hinged parallelogram) attached to it. A pointer was attached to one end of the pantograph, while on the opposite end a pencil would draw on the board. By moving the pointer around the contours of the model, an inverted image would be automatically outlined on the board as its 1:1-scaled “elevation”. 14

George Sinclair’s parallelogram

George Sinclair’s parallelogram for parallel drawing, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1673 — Source.

While Wren’s perspectograph assisted the automatic rendering of perspectival views, as in modern photography, the Parallelogram operated like an early modern scanner and produced measurable drawings. As such, the intention of these instruments was not at all dissimilar from Waller’s table of colours. At the heart of these projects was the search for convenient yet precise methods of reproduction — to make, in short, "more lively counterfaits".

In fact, even the distinct and longstanding traditions of perspective and parallel drawing, which these instruments were supposed to mechanise, could become intertwined for the sake of graphic exegesis. A case in point is an illustration of Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway, the first one ever published, which appeared in 1694 for the 212th issue of the Transactions.15 The image was produced by engraver Edwin Sandys and based on an on-site drawing made by Dubliner Christopher Cole. It depicted a bird's eye view of the famous promontory in Northern Ireland, detailed with its characteristic forest of natural rocky formations in the foreground.

Christopher Cole illustration of the Giant’s Causeway

Christopher Cole’s illustration of the Giant’s Causeway, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1694 — Source.

What immediately appears odd is the off-centred, strangely tilted viewpoint of the picture, some way between a mid-view landscape and a large vista. Cole's drawing, in fact, was a collection of separate views put together into one single drawing. Clergyman Samuel Foley, who wrote a short account accompanying the illustration, commented that Cole

has not drawn the Causway as a Prospect, nor as a Survey or Platform, which he thought would not answer his Design, and that he has no other name for it but a Draught, which he took after this sort: He supposed the Hills and Causway, & c. Epitomized to the same height and bigness the Draught shews them, and this he fancied the most Intelligible way to express it.16

In order to obtain this flattened image, it has been suggested that Cole produced two, perhaps three separate panoramas of the landscape, subsequently merging them into his final composition.17 This was neither a “Prospect”, nor a “Survey” nor a “Platform”, it was neither diagrammatic nor pictorial, neither a map nor a perspective view, but rather something in between, an odd collection of selected viewpoints rearranged to express the topographical qualities of the landscape as synthetically as possible, even to the detriment of realism.

In fact, as a consequence of its limited verisimilitude, the result in the end was not convincing. For Irish physician Thomas Molyneux, who would soon be elected Fellow of the Royal Society for his precise drawings of the elk-horns published in the Transactions, Cole was “no extraordinary Artist”, and the distinctive rocky formation still remained to be properly represented.18 In order to set the record straight, in 1694 Edwin Sandys was commissioned with a new, much larger “True Prospect” of the Causeway.19

Edwin Sandy illustration of the Giant’s Causeway

Edwin Sandy’s prospect of the Giant’s Causeway, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1694 — Source.

In Sandys’ illustration the natural environment appeared more conventional, with rocky cliffs, buildings, and inhabitants in a more traditional landscape view. However, it was precisely through its unconventional technique that Cole’s first drawing was able to successfully introduce the physical distinctiveness of the Causeway’s basalt columns, something that gets partly lost in Sandys’ version. Cole’s unusual composition attracted the attention of natural philosophers such as Molyneux, who continued his enquiry by sending a further account of his observations on the Causeway to the Transactions a few years later.20

Historian of science Steven Shapin has argued that in the world of late seventeenth-century science “the transformation of mere belief into proper knowledge was considered to consist of the transit from the perceptions and cognitions of the individual to culture of the collective”.21 As a channel explicitly designed to foster a network of learned scholars in the pursuit of cumulative knowledge, the early Philosophical Transactions were an ideal arena to explore this “transit” of information between experimenter and public. Unconventional visual products such as colour tables, foldable flaps, or panoramas with multiple viewpoints offered “more lively counterfaits” than traditional visual aids because they proposed new paradigms to effectively collect, synthesise, and communicate visual data. In doing so, they also challenged and advanced the technologies necessary for their production and dissemination, like engraving and printmaking. They can be seen as early instances of a tradition of innovative scientific imaging which expresses itself nowadays in a wide range of important technologies, such as infrared or ultraviolet photography used to enhance astronomical and microscope imaging; photogrammetry and 3D-scanning used in surveys, topography, and geology; and infographics, like isochrone maps, graphs, and diagrams, to name a few.22

Gregorio Astengo is an architect and historian. He holds a Ph.D from the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and is currently Scientific Assistant at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at ETH Zurich. He is currently working on a Postdoctoral research project on construction manuals and speculative housing in early modern London.

If You Liked This…

Prints for Your Walls

Explore our selection of fine art prints, all custom made to the highest standards, framed or unframed, and shipped to your door.

Start Exploring

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
The latest wonders from the site to your inbox.
Once every two weeks.
You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking on the provided link in our emails.