Episode 2: Dr Lee Macdonald, The History of Science Museum

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Episode 2: Dr Lee Macdonald, The History of Science Museum - Unknown Artist

This recording can be listened to in isolation, or you can scroll through the pictures of the objects and locations we’re discussing below.

In this episode of the Living Libraries podcast, we interviewed Dr Lee Macdonald, librarian of the History of Science Museum.

At the start of the interview, Lee talks us through his career progression and the focus of his studies during his History of Science degrees. Lee tells us about his enduring love of history of astronomy, and his MPhil looking at the enormous (and poorly placed) Isaac Newton Telescope at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Herstmonceux, East Sussex. In 1979, this telescope was dismantled and moved to the far more temperate Canary Islands. The empty dome which housed the telescope still remains in the Sussex countryside.


Image: The dome still stands in Herstmonceux, photograph taken my Ian Macaulay https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/67765 

The museum was established in 1924, and was based on the collections of equipment and rare books of Lewis Evans, donated to the University of Oxford. Robert Gunther displayed the collection in the top floor of the Old Ashmolean, adding other donated historical equipment which had been rendered obsolete by scientific development.


‘It is often hard to draw hard and sharp boundaries between what is a text and what is an object […] we also have things which are neither books nor objects’

The Old Ashmolean Building on Broad Street, which now houses The History of Science Museum

Lee explains that the Library is known for its collection of early scientific texts, specific collections of scientific papers from important scientific such as Sherwood Taylor and Howard Florrie, and letters, such as those of Harold Knox Shaw. The collection ranges from 14th-century to the 20th-century, and are mainly British and European in provenance.


Lee’s ‘Librarian’s Choice’ is the Selenographia (1647) by Johannes Hevelius, containing woodcuts of Hevelius’ hand-drawn observations of the moon. This text was created less than thirty years after the invention of the telescope. 

Lee’s ‘Wild Card’ is the world’s earliest photograph of a scientific instrument. Taken in 1839 (the very first year photography was used as a commercial process) by John Herschel, the son of William Herschel, this negative shows William’s telescope in Slough, which later became the logo of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Above: Lee sits with his Librarian's Choice, the Selenographia. 

Left: A close up of a crescent moon wood-cut from the text. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Living Libraries podcast.  The History of Science Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 12 midday to 5pm. You can visit their website at www.hsm.ox.ac.uk, where you can also find the details for arranging research visits to the library.