Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

The approximately 11,000 volumes of rare books and the 1,600 manuscript groups in science and technology donated by the Burndy Library in 1974 form the core of the Dibner Library's collection. Over the years the collection has been supplemented by the Smithsonian's own holdings and gifts from individuals and institutions and now numbers some 35,000 rare books and approximately 2,000 manuscript groups. The Library's holdings are contained within and searchable via the Smithsonian Libraries' online catalog, SIRIS

Heralds of Science

The most widely recognized portion of the Dibner Library are the "Heralds of Science:" 200 works selected by Bern Dibner as the most significant titles in the formation and development of Western science and technology. They were presented (with apologies for other important works omitted) in his classic book, Heralds of Science (Norwalk, Conn.: Burndy Library, 1955; reprinted in 1969 by Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; revised edition in1980 by Burndy Library and Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution). Dibner came up with eleven general categories and briefly described his choices of the greatest works that represented those disciplines. The Heralds of Science website can be viewed here

The works described in Heralds of Science continue to stand as major milestones in the history of science and technology. The publication is frequently cited in rare book catalogs (a particular volume is always referred to by its Heralds number) and is a tribute to the vision of Bern Dibner.

A selection of the Heralds was featured in the Smithsonian Libraries exhibition, "Science and the Artist's Book (1993-94)."

Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Technology Rare Books

The heart of the Dibner Library's holdings is its rich collection of rare books from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The collection is strong in a number of fields:

  • General Science / Natural Philosophy. 

    The Dibner Library has significant rare book holdings in the works of the ancient, medieval, and pre-1500 natural philosophers. The works range from those of Aristotle, Plato, Lucretius, Archimedes, Galen, and Ptolemy, to those of Peregrinus, Roger Bacon, Avicenna, and Alhazen. The Library has a strong set of scientific journals, in which some of the most important scientific discoveries were announced. The collection extends from the earliest journals (of the Accademia del Cimento, the Royal Society of London, and the Academie Royale des Sciences in the 17th century) to the significant titles of the late nineteenth century (Philosophical Magazine, Annalen der Physik, etc.).

  • Mathematics. 

    The Dibner Library's rare book holdings cover the development of all mathematical subjects from the ancient authors such as Euclid, Apollonius, and Diophantus, through the development of algebra, logarithms, analytic geometry, calculus, and the classic works of the Bernoullis, Euler, and Lagrange, to the establishment of non-Euclidean geometry by Gauss, Lobachevsky, and Bolyai in the early 19th century (300 BC-1840).

  • Astronomy. 

    The astronomical books in the Dibner Library highlight the history of astronomy from the ancient works through the classics of the Copernican revolution by Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo, the 17th and 18th century works by Huygens, Hevelius, Halley, Herschel, and Laplace, up to the development of astrophysics at the end of the 19th century (200 BC-1900). The holdings are particularly strong in mathematical astronomy, tables and ephemerides, comets, sundials, and geodesy.

  • Physics. 

    Rare books in this category extend from the beginnings of modern physics, represented by works of Galileo, Stevin, Boyle, Pascal, Huygens, and Newton, to the early works of quantum physics by Planck, Bohr, and Einstein (1600-1930). A particularly important area in the collection is that of electricity and magnetism, from the early works of Norman and Gilbert to the landmark texts of Franklin, Coulomb, Galvani, Volta, Oersted, Faraday, Ampere, and Henry. Other subject areas of particular collecting interest are mechanics, dynamics, pneumatics and hydraulics, optics, thermodynamics, and early atomic physics including radioactivity.

  • Chemistry. 

    The Dibner Library's collections are strongest in the period when chemistry became a modern scientific discipline (1770-1840), from the early experimentalists like Priestley and Cavendish, to the classic works of Lavoisier and Dalton.

  • Technology and Engineering. 

    The holdings of the Dibner Library are strong in a large number of areas, particularly Ancient and Renaissance Engineering (Vitruvius, Valturius, Ramelli and other "theaters of instruments," and Fontana), Transportation Engineering (including works on steam engines, railroads, and roads), Civil Engineering (with classic works on hydraulics, bridges, and tunnels), Electrical Engineering (especially telegraphy, telephony, and radio), Industrial Engineering (works on technological processes developed by and for industry), and Scientific Instruments (from the development of the earliest optical and mathematical instruments to the more elaborate devices of the 19th century). The approximate time period covered by the holdings is from the years 1 AD to 1900.


Dibner Library's Incunabula Collection Web Site

Part of the Burndy Library's gift to the Smithsonian included one of the largest collections of scientific incunabula. Incunabula (from the Latin word meaning, figuratively, infancy) are European books printed with movable type during the fifteenth century, that is, during the very beginnings of Western printing. Incunabula represent the formative stages of printing practice when the transition from manuscripts to modern books occurred. The Dibner Library's 320 incunabula include such landmarks as:

  • Pliny's Historia naturalis, Venice 1469, considered the first printed science book 
  • Lucretius's De rerum natura, Verona, 1486, with his theories on the structure of matter 
  • Aristotle's Organon, Venice 1495-1498 (5 volumes in 6), the first edition of his complete works in the original Greek 
  • Schedel's Liber chronicarum, Nuremberg 1493, a history of the world 
  • Regiomontanus's Epytoma of Ptolemy's Almagest, Venice 1496, an astronomical classic 
  • Breydenbach's Peregrinatio, Mainz 1486, and Speyer 1490, an early travel book with its description of marine technology 
  • Theophrastus's De historia et de causis plantarum, Treviso 1483, a botanical milestone 
  • Brunschwig's Kleines distillierbuch, Strassburg, 1500, considered the first chemical work 
  • Euclid's Elements, Venice 1482, the first of over 1,000 printed editions of this work 
  • Valturius's De re militari, Verona 1472, the first printed book to contain scientific illustrations


The manuscripts in the Dibner Library are important research tools as they reveal aspects of the development of science and technology that do not surface in the printed literature. Whether hand-copied texts of ancient learning produced before the advent of printing, correspondence between scientists, lecture notes, or typewritten rough drafts, manuscripts are invaluable to scholarly research in the history of science and technology. Bern Dibner was very interested in scientific manuscripts and assembled a collection of over 1,600 groups of manuscripts that are now at the Dibner Library. This collection includes such diverse materials as:

  • More than a dozen manuscripts by Isaac Newton, written between 1660 and 1727, mainly on alchemical and chemical topics 
  • A late-13th-century bound manuscript (442 vellum pages) of Bartholomaeus Anglicus's De proprietatibus rerum 
  • A bound set of some 100 letters between Jean-Antoine Nollet and Etienne Dutour on electrical experimentation, written between 1742 and 1770 
  • A collection of materials (including some 80 letters and an early X-ray) by and about Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen (1845-1923) 
  • A 230-page manuscript (with 33 plates) on fortifications, written around 1700 by the engineer-general to Louis XIV of France, Sebastien Le Preste, comte de Vauban. Later published as De l'attaque et de la defense des places, this manuscript was a presentation copy to the Duke of Burgundy 
  • Manuscripts relating to the history of electricity, with materials by Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta, Michael Faraday, Giovanni Aldini, Hans Christian Oersted, and many others 
  • Over 100 letters, postcards, and other items by and about the physcist Ernst Mach (1838-1916)

The collection of manuscripts has been cataloged and is available through the Smithsonian's online catalog, SIRIS. A printed version with illustrations is available as Manuscripts of the Dibner Collection in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology... (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Libraries, 1985).

Portraits & Medals

The written works in the Dibner Library are the products of the efforts of numerous scientists, engineers, natural philosophers, inventors, voyagers, and other inquisitive sorts. As a nice juxtaposition to the written word, the Dibner Library has a collection of thousands of portraits of these individuals. The portraits come in a variety of formats: drawings, woodcuts, engravings, paintings, and photographs. The portraits have been digitized and are now available as the Scientific Identity Digital Collection. The portraits are now more easily accessible to those wishing to use them in various publications. The portrait collection is supplemented by a set of over 300 medals struck for special occasions that commemorate scientists or notable scientific events. Bern Dibner collected all of the portraits and medals.

World's Fairs

International expositions, or world's fairs, became an established feature of the modern world with the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in Great Britain (although there had been fairs as early as 1834). These fairs presented great opportunities for nations and industries to showcase themselves and their ideas for the future. Historical research on these fairs tells of fascinating stories about ideas of modernity in terms of science, technology, economics, and architecture, among other fields. Studying the fairs also can give insight into issues concerning gender, race, ethnic, cultural, and international relations.

The Smithsonian has had a great interest in international expositions. From 1851 up to World War I, the Institution was intimately involved in producing exhibits for fairs as well as acquiring materials for display after the fairs closed. After World War I, the Smithsonian stepped back from participation in world's fairs and other government institutions stepped in to fill the void. As a result of their earlier involvement, the Smithsonian acquired a great number of publications by and about the various expositions that now constitute a major collection of materials on world's fairs. These materials were augmented by the gift of the Larry Zim World's Fair Collection in 1989 that contained publications about fairs up to the 1986 Vancouver exposition. Over 2,000 items were microfilmed as part of a preservation project and the checklist of the microfilm was published with an introductory essay by Robert Rydell, several appendices and illustrations, as The Books of the Fairs: Materials about World's Fairs, 1834-1916, in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (Chicago and London: American Libraries Association, 1992). The 174 reels of microfilm are available for purchase through Research Publications, Inc., of Woodbridge, Connecticut; a set is in the collections of the National Museum of American History's branch library. The original materials are at the Dibner Library. Some items too fragile to be microfilmed or published after 1916 were not included in the project. We ask that library visitors use the microfilm whenever possible for research.

Comegys Collection

In 1966, the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) set up an exhibition which featured the 19th-century library room of Benjamin B. Comegys (1819-1900), president of the Philadelphia National Bank, with the original wall panels, books, objects, and other furnishings. The exhibition was taken down in 1984 and the books were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Dibner Library. The works in this collection reflect the particular interests of Benjamin Comegys: religious and moral subjects, titles in English literature, and youth education. As it gives insight into the social and cultural concerns of the era, the Comegys collection is an important research tool to Museum staff and historians in general. The collection also contains a number of extra-illustrated books: works containing illustrations bound into the existing pages that contained images relevant to the text. This interesting aspect of book collecting became quite popular in the 1800s.