Tracing Historical Scientific Networks Through Crowdsourcing

Lea Beiermann

Whereas images going viral may seem like a phenomenon of our digital age, scientific periodicals already thrived on copying, reprinting and circulating illustrations in the nineteenth century. Publications dedicated to microscopy were particularly prone to copying and republishing illustrations. In order to trace the travels of nineteenth-century microscopy illustrations, the MUSTS research group at Maastricht University have recently launched Worlds of Wonder, an online crowdsourcing project.

Whereas images going viral may seem like a phenomenon of our digital age, scientific periodicals already thrived on copying, reprinting and circulating illustrations in the nineteenth century. Since international copyright laws were only enforced after the signing of the Berne Convention in 1886 and the passing of the American Chace Act in 1891, mid-nineteenth-century publications frequently reused texts and illustrations. Journals and books dedicated to microscopy, often richly illustrated to recreate the “worlds of wonder” seen through the microscope, were particularly prone to copying and republishing illustrations. An anonymous reviewer in the North American Medico-Chirurgical Review complained in 1857 that almost every book on microscopy was, to some extent, a compilation of texts and illustrations published elsewhere. Plagiarised works, especially publications that did not credit the original authors and illustrators, often caused scathing reviews and public contempt. At the same time, however, the wide circulation of “pirated” images facilitated the international exchange of microscopic observations and opened scientific debates to a broader audience.

Illustration in Agnes Catlow’s Drops of Water (1851, left)) and reproduced in Joseph Henry Wythes’ Curiosities of the Microscope (1852, right). Images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In order to reconstruct the travels of nineteenth-century microscopy illustrations and the international network of people that made and (re)used them, the MUSTS research group at Maastricht University have recently launched Worlds of Wonder, an online crowdsourcing project. Worlds of Wonder, hosted by the Zooniverse citizen science platform, is part of a PhD project funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. It is accompanied by a blog and Twitter page. The MUSTS researchers behind Worlds of Wonder, Lea Beiermann, Cyrus Mody and Raf De Bont, invite citizen scientists to help classify microscopy illustrations. Citizen scientists are asked to assign keywords to illustrations in digitised microscopy publications – so all images can be searched for illustrations of particular items – and find out who made these illustrations. Sometimes illustrators would sign their contributions, making it possible to identify them. The citizen scientists are also asked to flag images that look very similar and were possibly reproduced.

Among the books and journals analysed so far, a bound collection of flyers distributed by the Birmingham microscopist Thomas Bolton (ca. 1830-1887) has been particularly helpful in uncovering a vast international network of microscopists. Sometime around 1878, Bolton established a Microscopist’s and Naturalist’s Studio, an agency for providing microscopists in Britain and abroad with technical equipment and living microscopic specimens. Each specimen, most often a microscopic animal raked from English ponds and puddles, was placed in a water-filled glass tube and then sent to microscopists through the post. Bolton’s specimens were circulated widely: they were sent to Paris, where they would then be distributed by Jules Pelletan, a physician and editor of the popular French Journal de Micrographie, and they were even advertised in the American Monthly Microscopical Journal.

One of Thomas Bolton’s handwritten descriptions in his Hints on the Preservation of Living Objects and Their Examination Under the Microscope (1879-1882). Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Subscribers to Bolton’s service included a broad range of naturalists, science educators and educational institutions – university professors, schoolteachers, museums and colleges. The popularity of Bolton’s studio reflected the rising interest in microscopy in the mid-nineteenth century. As microscopes became more affordable, microscopy societies were established, and numerous microscopy journals were launched and widely distributed. By inviting their readers to contribute inquiries and exchange observations, microscopy journals made it possible for geographically dispersed microscopists to work together. Bolton often copied illustrations published in these journals and reprinted them in his “flyleaves”, handwritten descriptions and illustrations accompanying the specimens sent to his subscribers. Bolton’s handwritten explanations were mocked by Pelletan’s Journal de Micrographie, which jokingly declared that Bolton had the worst handwriting in Europe [“l’homme d’Europe qui écrit le plus mal”]. His poor handwriting aside, Bolton very carefully reproduced texts, illustrations, and personal letters he received from other microscopists. Since he mostly acknowledged the original makers of the illustrations by copying their signatures, citizen scientists working on the Worlds of Wonder project have been able to reveal many of Bolton’s original sources, providing a glimpse into a far-reaching scientific network.

Illustration of Cristatella mucedo in Bolton’s flyleaves and on Wikipedia. Images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Wikimedia Commons.

Ultimately, Worlds of Wonder aims to better understand the formation of a community of European and American microscopists by investigating the publications that connected them. How did microscopists and illustrators collaborate to produce illustrations? Who could contribute illustrations to microscopy publications? Where did microscopy illustrations travel and how did they change along the way? Adapting and recombining published texts and illustrations may have made it easier for editors to tailor their publications to different groups of microscopists, who were, after all, a strikingly diverse community including researchers in many disciplines, medical practitioners, and engineers. And although copyright laws were not strictly enforced in the mid-nineteenth century, issues of ownership and the authenticity of reproduced materials were strongly debated. Considering that today many online platforms continue to recombine and distribute texts and illustrations published elsewhere, Worlds of Wonder may also allow us to contrast nineteenth-century debates with ongoing discussions about the use of participatory media in science communication. Notably, one of the illustrations reproduced in Bolton’s flyleaves, an image of the aquatic animal Cristatella mucedo, is still used by Wikipedia today.