About the Heralds of Science

In 1955 Bern Dibner, the noted science book collector and founder of the Burndy Library, published Heralds of Science as Represented by Two Hundred Epochal Books and Pamphlets Selected from the Burndy Library. Two things combined to inspire him to prepare this list. The first was the 500th anniversary of the invention of printing from moveable type ascribed to Johannes Gutenberg dating from approximately 1455. The second was a small exhibition, “First Editions in the History of Science,” prepared at the Library of the University of California in 1934 for the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One hundred and fourteen works were selected by the physiologist and book collector Herbert McLean Evans and the list was published in a small pamphlet, Exhibition of First Editions of Epochal Achievements in the History of Science (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1934). Evans exhibition included many of the great works of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, botany, and zoology. In his introduction, Evans stated that, “by consulting the first form of a scientific achievement…one can hope to observe the origin and change of ideas. But, more than this, it may be maintained that one cannot adequately understand any scientific subject without knowledge of the manner in which our present conceptions were established.”

Collage of images from the Heralds of Science

Bern Dibner had been collecting rare science works since the late 1930s and by 1955 he had amassed a collection of some forty thousand rare and modern works and housed them in a specially constructed library building in Norwalk, Connecticut, the Burndy Library. His collecting interests had expanded greatly from his earlier concentration on Leonardo da Vinci and electricity and magnetism to the full development of science and technology. In preparation for Heralds of Science, Dibner perused his collection and selected two hundred items he owned that “proclaimed new truths or hypotheses in science.” Two hundred titles, he felt, was an adequate number to represent the great achievements while not being too many to overwhelm the average layperson interested in science. Dibner also decided to extend the reach of his Heralds beyond that of Evans by including works in the fields of medicine and technology as well as those of “general science” and specific works related to electricity and magnetism.

In his introduction to Heralds, Bern Dibner acknowledged that his selection of great works in the history of science and technology was subjective and arbitrary and noted that other similar lists would have a number of differences. Perhaps the most arbitrary aspect of the 200 Heralds is that they were all contained in the Burndy Library and that very few were produced after 1900. Since the book was aimed primarily at non-historians, Dibner deliberately kept the bibliographic descriptions simple and followed by a short paragraph with a very basic story about each Herald. After many of the Heralds he also noted other important works of a similar nature at the Burndy Library. After the first appearance of Heralds of Science in 1955, a new printing with minor revisions was produced by the MIT Press in 1969.

In 1976 the Burndy Library donated some ten thousand of its rare books and manuscripts to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to establish the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology in what is now the National Museum of American History, Behring Center. Included in this transfer were most of the two hundred Heralds except for those already held by the Smithsonian. A few years after the Dibner Library opened, a new 25th Anniversary edition of Heralds of Science was published jointly by the Burndy Library and the Smithsonian in 1980. It included a new preface by Bern Dibner and an introduction by the Smithsonian historian of science Robert P. Multhauf. Even though it is now out of print, Heralds of Science is no less valuable than when it first appeared in 1955 for highlighting the great works of science and technology and the new discoveries, laws, and hypotheses that they represent.

About the digital version of Heralds of Science

With this digital Heralds of Science the Smithsonian Libraries hopes to extend the reach of the printed version and gain greater interest in the history of science and technology and in the collections of the Dibner Library. The descriptions of the Heralds come from our online catalog, SIRIS, and so should provide additional bibliographic information from that in the printed edition.

Some of the books described in Heralds of Science are significant copies that have some association with a famous scientist or engineer. Please note that some of these works are still at the Burndy Library since the Smithsonian Institution already had copies of a number of the Heralds and so did not take all of the Burndy Heralds.

A number of the Heralds are bound in as shorter articles in scientific journals or shorter works in a larger compendium. In general we have tried to use the journal or compendium title in the “Title” field and the actual Herald’s name as the “Journal Title.” In cases where the Herald is a separate journal offprint or has been physically removed from a journal, we have given the Herald’s title in the “Title” field. This has been done to conform more closely to the cataloging conventions of the Smithsonian Libraries. The following Heralds are physically part of a larger journal volume or compendium: 13, 40, 42, 45, 56, 60, 69, 70, 86, 93, 109, 116, 144, 151, 152, 158, 167, 177, 178, 181, and 189.

The city where the work was printed is the modern name of the city andnot necessarily the Latinized versions that appear in many of the earlier printed Heralds.

The subject fields and brief captions attached to the Heralds are those assigned by Bern Dibner in the printed version. Five of the Heralds are not physically located in the Dibner Library (Heralds 27, 36, 69, 192, and 193) so we have indicated in the “Location” field where the item can be found in the Smithsonian Libraries’ system.

Other Specific Notes

Herald 11 (Newton’s Principia, 1687) appears twice: in the Astronomy and Physics disciplines. We have therefore listed its appearances as Herald 11 (Astronomy) and Herald 145b (Physics; in the original print edition, it appeared between Herald 145 and 146).

Herald 55 (Guericke’s Experimenta nova, 1672) appears twice: in the Electricity & Magnetism and Physics disciplines. We have therefore listed its appearances as Herald 55 (Electricity & Magnetism) and Herald 144b (Physics; in the original print edition, it appeared between Herald 144 and 145).

Herald 81 (Descartes’ Discours de la methode, 1637) appears twice: in the General Science and Mathematics disciplines. We have therefore listed its appearances as Herald 81 (General Science) and Herald 107b (Mathematics; in the original print edition, it appeared between Herald 107 and 108).

Herald 84 (French Academy of Sciences publications) is actually a set of three different publications and we have designated them as Heralds 84a, b, and c.

Herald 162 (Röntgen’s articles on X-Rays) is actually a set of two separate articles. We have designated them as Heralds 162a and b.

Herald 200: There have been two works called Herald 200. In the first edition of 1955, Weismann’s 1885 article on germ-plasm was Herald 200 By the time of the revised edition of 1980, Bern Dibner replaced the Weismann article with the landmark 1953 papers on DNA by Crick and Watson. We have designated the Weismann article as Herald 200a and the Crick and Watson papers as Herald 200b.