Heralds of Science (25th Anniversary, Revised Edition)

Heralds of Science (25th Anniversary, Revised Edition)

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Dibner, Bern, 1981


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" (University of California Press, 1934). Evans's 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.”

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 nonhistorians, 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.

Excerpt from the Smithsonian library