Death of John Herschel, May 11th, 1871

1867 Photograph of Sir John Herschel by Julia Margaret Cameron
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art

On this day, May 11th, in 1871, John Herschel died at age 79. Herschel was a knowledgeable Englishman, known for his studies in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and various other areas. Herschel was educated in scientific practices at a young age, growing up under the influence of his father, astronomer William Herschel, and his aunt, astronomer Caroline Herschel.

John Herschel studied a variety of subjects, but his most prevalent work was in the field of astronomy. His first major astronomical publication was a continuation of his father’s studies on determining the parallax of a star. This work, published in Transactions of the Royal Society, cataloged systems of double stars and was recognized by the Paris Academy and the Astronomical Society. Today, Herschel is commemorated by a crater on Earth’s moon, named the J. Herschel Crater. See the crater via the following image/link:

J. Herschel Crater, from Google Moon


Another significant contribution by John Herschel were his experiments and developments in photography. He was able to produce photographs based on his knowledge and studies of chemical processes, and his studies led to multiple related publications. The term “photography” was coined and popularized by Herschel and he developed the first photographic fixer to preserve photographs.

One of John Herschel’s important publications was his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, an edition of which can be found in Lehigh University’s Special Collections. Published in 1931, this book explores the philosophy of scientific research and discovery. Herschel describes abstract science as being “independent of nature,” with artificial systems of creation, deemed to be language, notation, and rational. These systems were designed by humans to analyze and understand our world, and Herschel explains each one with examples in education. Early in the book, Herschel defines science as, “the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one.”
Lehigh University Special Collections also holds a number of letters and other publications written by John Herschel, mostly related to his astronomical research.


Trial and Execution of Antoine Lavoisier, May 8, 1794

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today is the anniversary of French scientist Antoine Lavoisier’s trial and execution by guillotine on May 8, 1794. Lavoisier is famous for his contributions to chemistry. He made many invaluable accomplishments: the naming of oxygen; analysis of the role of this element in combustion and respiration (instead of “phlogiston”); discovery of the conservation of matter in chemical reactions; and quantitative treatment of organic substances. He even worked on solar energy.

Special Collections at Lehigh University has a first edition of his of “Elementary Treatise on Chemistry” ¹, published in 1789, the year used when the French Revolution when described as the “Revolution of 1789”.   In his study of Lavoisier, Jean-Pierre Poirier², describes the book as “the crowning achievement of his undertaking” (192). Included in this wide-ranging work are “essential points of the new chemistry”; “the first modern list of the chemical elements”; and ”instruments and experimental methods of new chemistry”.  The work contains thirteen plates engraved by Madame Lavoisier. Some of these plates are depicted here.(193-195)

As Poirier notes, Lavoisier was only one of several scientists executed in the French Revolution (385-86).  Eventually, the political revolution ate its own; two of its major figures, Danton and Robespierre, were buried in the same area of mass graves as Lavoisier (382). On one account, “During the Reign of Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were arrested; 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial.”3

Lavoisier’s greatest contribution was to a different sort of revolution, one of the mind. Poirier quotes I. Bernard Cohen: “the chemical revolution has a primary place among revolutions in science in that it is the first generally recognized major one to have been called a revolution by its chief author” (197).

The Linderman Library exhibit “Daring Knowledge: Diderot’s Encyclopédie“, features more illustrations and information about 18th century chemistry. While the science of the Encyclopédie predates Lavoisier’s mature findings, it provides a snapshot of how chemistry and scientific study were understood in his era.





John James Audubon

Today, April 26th, is the birthday of ornithologist, artist and naturalist John James Audubon. Born an illegitimate child to his French plantation owning Father and Creole mother on the island of what is now considered Haiti, John James Audubon was an unlikely candidate to become one of the most prominent naturalists of his era.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” Self-portrait. From “Audubon’s America” by Donald Culross Peattie.

For the first half of his life there was arguably nothing to keep him grounded, quite literally. Upon the untimely death of his servant mother in Saint-Dominigue, he was shipped back to France and adopted by the wife of his father. Quickly, he developed a fascination with the natural world that followed him for the rest of his life. It was in France that he was versed in the knowledge and privileges of a good merchant’s son: art, music, science, history. He was also given ample time to explore the untamed green around him, a separate world that became his source of solitude, healing, wonder, awe and inspiration.

He once said, “In my deepest troubles, I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests.”

Plate 347: The Smew. Courtesy of

During the surge of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, Audubon, then 18 years old, was relocated again to one of his father’s estates in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. In time he honed his artistic talents and continued to observe nature, particularly birds. In 1824 he published one of the most influential bird books in history titled “Birds of America.” Subscribers to Audubon’s publications included the likes of King George IV and 7th U.S. President, Andrew Jackson.


Turning the pages of Lehigh’s “Birds of America.”

The book itself is a 39.5″ x 29.5″ cover to cover collection of life-size and incredibly detailed paintings of various bird species. The birds are depicted in their natural environment as Audubon might have observed them. Lehigh University is in possession of one of only 120 believed complete collections still in existence. It is on display year-round in the reading room of Linderman Library. View a complete digital exhibit about ornithology and Audubon through Lehigh Special Collections’ Omeka page: Home to Roost: Ornithological Collections at Lehigh University.

The book on display in Linderman Library.

Aptly, today is also National Audubon Day, a day sponsored by the National Audubon Society to commemorate his contributions to the field of ornithology. Use #NationalAudubonDay or #AudubonDay to tag your best bird photos on social media.


Canals Once Believed to Network Around Mars

7c497201e8a5afe6b022af5001c10b8eResearch and design projects on colonizing Mars have been a source of wonder for mankind since they began in the 1990s. But, there used to be a different reason that man would look up to the sky in awe. That reason was the belief that sentient intelligent extra-terrestrials lived on the Martian surface.

Percival Lawrence Lowell, a famous American businessman, mathematician, and astronomer fully believed that intelligent life was creating canals on Mars to sustain life on the dying planet. He wrote multiple books on his observations and conclusions on Mars. Shown here is one of his many maps detailing the canal structures included in his book Mars and its Canals, which was featured in Lehigh’s Cartographic Perspectives Exhibit. His views, though debated by industry professionals, took the interest of many people. Lowell and his claims were not well respected by those in the astronomical community of his time. However, he made his mark on history through his theory on Planet X. Lowell’s search for the mysterious planet that supposedly shifted the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, which was erroneously calculated, came up fruitless. However, he started a fourteen year search for the mysterious ninth planet which concluded in the discovery of the dwarf planet, Pluto, located where Lowell had theorized. Despite being a poor astronomer, making exaggerated conclusions about life on Mars, falsely identifying surface features on Venus, and failing to find the massive ninth planet that he theorized, he made a lasting mark on our knowledge of the Solar System and many of his books are available in the Lehigh University Libraries.