In the era of Enlightenment, books of knowledge, like Encyclopaedia Londinensis, published by English printer, bookseller and stationer John Wilkes in 1807, became more and more ambitious in their scope and scale.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the book’s full title: Encyclopaedia Londinensis; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Comprehending, Under One General Alphabetical Arrangement, all the Words and Substance of Every Kind of Dictionary Extant in the English Language. In which the Improved Departments of the Mechanical Arts, the Liberal Sciences, the Higher Mathematics, and the Several Branches of Polite Literature, are Selected from the Acts, Memoirs, and Transactions, of the Most Eminent Literary Societies, in Europe, Asia, and America.
Such expansive tomes exalted the pursuit of knowledge, building on the work of other popularisers of science such as James Ferguson and Benjamin Martin. Both these men promoted universal access to knowledge, Martin in particular advancing women’s education at a time when they still couldn’t attend universities.
But, as Richard Corbould’s illustrations from Encyclopaedia Londinensis demonstrate, science and society at the time were still struggling to extricate themselves from neo-Classical vocabulary, with female figures depicted semi-clad in Romanesque garments and allegorical settings – in the words of one antique prints seller.
The above watercolour was painted for the section on botany, while to the right is the image that accompanied the chapter on architecture and astronomy. Below is a another designed to illustrate the part about conchology – the study of seashells.
With the transit of Venus approaching, some believe that the world is entering a new, more feminine era. Regardless of one’s views on astrology, given the well-documented symbolism of the planet’s name it’s perhaps worth considering how perceptions of women and their involvement in science have changed in the centuries since the Enlightenment.
“It is more than likely that the transit this June will be seen by more people of female gender than any previous transit, and that the 2004 transit broke the record in its time,” writes Randall Rosenburg at the Transit of Venus blog.
Looking back to the transits of 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882, he asks the questions, “What can we know of female participation in pre-21st century transits?”
The answer seems to be very little, other than the occasional example such as that of Mary Heathcoate, wife of Thomas Parker, the third Earl of Macclesfield. He was son of George Parker, the second Earl of Macclesfield, a keen astronomer who was president of the Royal Society from 1752-64 and had his own observatory built at Shirburn Castle.
Lady Mary Macclesfield attended the castle during the 1769 Venus transit and made observations of her own using its refracting telescope. Her contributions were recorded in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions that year, albeit in a report written by the Reverend Thomas Hornsby.
While the inclusion of Lady Macclesfield’s data in the Transactions and other scientific papers of the time suggests she was considered equal, Rosenburg adds that some might choose to see her case otherwise, pointing to the fact that the entire record of her word was “mediated through a male authority figure, … effectively preventing her from speaking in her own voice to the learned world.”
The observations of her husband and his astronomical assistants were treated in exactly the same way, however. “Gender is not a factor,” Rosenburg concludes but goes on to note:
“It is admittedly a thin harvest, when only one woman’s observations are contributed to the serious literature. This does not mean that other female researchers did not observe with telescopes and record timings of contacts, or form parts of observing teams. To find them, it will be necessary to comb manuscript sources, such as letters, journals, and log books.
“In some important ways the history of the transits has yet to be written.”