Marks of an Ancient King

I’m sitting at long desk in the MIT reading room, waiting for the librarian to kindly pull my research material. Like libraries, it’s quite – only the padding of muffled footsteps, clicking of laptop keys, and turning of fragile papers disturb the silence. I smile as the woman returns with a large blue box. While it’s just a fraction of the size of a TARDIS, I soon discover that the book inside the box reveals more than its binding can contain.

The front cover has completely fallen off. Leather crumbs stick to my Purelled hands as I help the woman move the tome to the foam supports. She tells me that I’ll want to clean my hands again once I’m finished because this book has red rot. I later learned that red rot is a condition that affects certain leathers when they are exposed to high humidity and temperature for extended periods of time. Chemically, sulfur dioxide from the atmosphere gets converted into sulfurous acid – or the acid was added originally during the tanning process – and that sulfurous acid produces hydrogen peroxide. Tannins in the leather precipitate proteins that the hydrogen peroxide then oxidizes, forming ammonium sulfate and ammonium bisulfate. By breaking down the proteins, red rot essentially leaves the leather crumbling. I hypothesized that at some point in this book’s history, the owner was either unaware of how to properly store it or could not afford to. From further digging into the reception of this book, I gleaned that the general public was very fond of it while scholars considered it of little historical value because it contained many inaccuracies.

On a hunch, I angle on of the blank pages at the very front towards the windows. A strangely shaped watermark meets my eyes! Back before people worried about digital copyright, paper mills immersed molds with unique wire frames into a stewing vat of linen or cotton rags. The resulting paper is thinner in the places where the wires touched the pulp. Researchers today can use watermarks to date manuscripts. Although the few watermark databases I searched did not contain these two, the book revealed information about its publishing in another way.

Carefully turning past a beautiful engraving to the title page, I discover that even its title is bursting with information and would fill a paragraph of its own. Suffice to say, A Chronicle of the Kings of England… was written by Sir Richard Baker and published in 1696. Curious as to which king the chronicle begins with, I page through the tome and first find a paternal pedigree that traces the lineage of the current king (King James II) to King Egbert. Just before the actual chronicle begins, it lists all the kings – the 5th being King Arthur! You know, with the Round Table and all the knights?

Turns out an index is pretty handy. There are actually two accounts of people finding Arthur’s bones – in different places of course! I also found reference to Merlin and Robin Hood.

I also discovered a passage about Malory, a Welshman, writing about Arthur. This book would have been Le Morte d’Arthur, which I’ve read for another class and would actually recommend. Of course, this note actually goes against the now commonly accepted identity of the author of Le Morte as Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel (not a Welshman). Upon further investigation, I learned that John Bale, a 16th century antiquarian, first proposed the Welsh identity and that the Newbold Revel argument did not exist until 1890, which is when H. Oskar Sommer published it. It consequently makes sense that A Chronicle of the Kings of England… would include this supposed inaccuracy.

In any case, through touching, feeling, and studying Sir Richard Baker’s A Chronicle of the Kings of England…, I have joined the ranks of scholars (or more likely laymen) from so many previous generations – and generations yet to come – that have enjoyed the tome. With careful preservation, I’m amazed and thankful that books allow for a once and future reader.

Written by Alexis Drake, MIT Class of 2017, Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Textual Commentary in Music

My piano teacher once told me that if I could sing something, I could play it. In other words, I may not be able to play something fast or technically correct, but if I can remember it (and hear it) enough to sing it, I could fiddle around on the piano enough until I heard it. We practiced playing songs by ear (often by listening to videos and maddeningly going back to the same spot over and over until I found the right notes). But ear training was important to my development as a musician.

I confess that I’ve neglected my musical skills as a student here at MIT, but this class project posed an interesting way for me to revive them. A librarian here at the Special Collections found a manuscript by Bohuslav Martinů of a piece “Trio in D Minor” that was commissioned for the opening of Hayden Library.

The manuscript was hard to read, but I wanted to get a digital version of it. Martinů has idiosyncratic handwriting practices, as seen by an image beside of about the twenty-fourth measure. (All images courtesy of MIT Special Collections) So, when a note was ambiguous, I turned to a recording MIT had of the piece’s performance at Hayden Library’s opening. I would simply listen to the recording to elucidate the manuscript wherever it was unclear.martinu1

However, this also posed a problem: This was a draft. How was I to know that the notes would be the same or sufficiently similar that the recording would act as an authority? This required a closer scrutiny of the text. Martinů dates this manuscript to February 26 and the piece was performed in May, but we know little about Martinů’s work habits or speed. After listening to the recording, examining a published version, and reading over the manuscript, however, I hypothesize that this was a late draft. I did the digitization on the assumption that the recording was a close approximation to the manuscript. (Namely, I assumed that no changes to the melody line or harmonic changes outside of the original chord were made.)martinu2.png

For instance, in the very first measure, the last note in the violin part appears to be an A, whereas when this motif recurs in the piece, it is a G, and is so in the first measure in both the recording and the published version. Most anomalies in the text seem to be of this nature, easily confusable handwriting errors or physical deteriorations of the paper, which lends credibility to my claim that this is a late draft.

The other (paratextual) annotations Martinů made were also of interest. There were in English, in contrast to his usual French and seemed to betray foreknowledge of the music. He knew where the movements would begin and end, for instance, and he numbered the pages. I posit that these were likely a later annotation, perhaps done for the sake of the gifting of the manuscript to MIT.

Although the work of squinting through Martinů’s work was at times tedious, it was also very rewarding. It reprised my ear-training which I had so long neglected. And I did not expect to find so much textual richness in a largely musical set.

Popular Science — 1873 to Now

This story begins with the August 1873 edition of The Popular Science Monthly, a journal that eventually became the modern Popular Science magazine. In 1873 the top science reflected in the journal was telegraphy, the new field of sociology, and the newest breakthrough in nutrition: evaporated milk.


The cover of the August 1873 issue of The Popular Science Monthly

The telegraphy article contains some great illustrations of telegraph and printing mechanisms. This article is actually why the August 1873 edition is included in MIT’s special collections, since it is part of a subcollection focused on telegraphy.

Though telegraphy got the journal into MIT’s special collections, I found other aspects of the journal to be even more interesting. First was that, despite its intended popular audience, most of the articles were entirely text with no pictures or illustrations. Second was the format and paper type of the journal, which was more like an academic journal (smaller, and with thicker, matte paper) than a modern popular magazine.


An illustration from another article in the August 1873 issue, “Footprints on the Rocks”

I began to wonder how this bare-bones journal became the colorful magazine it is today, and learned that the publication was sold in 1915. So I looked for the first copy from 1916, but MIT did not have it. There was a gap in MIT’s collection from 1916-1933, and I was determined to find out why. MIT does have two bound volumes from 1915, but one looked to be in poor shape so I only flipped through one, which gave me no clues.


The cover of the January 1933 edition of Popular Science

I took my search to Harvard next, but they also did not have the 1916 volume. Michael Leach, Head of Collection Development at Harvard’s Science Library, helped me search Harvard’s catalog and WorldCat. Harvard did not have any copies of the magazine from 1916 to 1921, but more interestingly neither did any other university in New England. HathiTrust does have scans of the 1916 editions online, sourced from University of Michigan — a little too far from MIT to bike. Though we did not find anything concrete, Leach did advise me to look closer at the first magazine that MIT had after the gap, but there did not seem to be anything special about the 1933 issue, to MIT or otherwise.

These scans revealed an editorial in the January 1916 issue of The Popular Science Monthly, lauding the magazine founder’s E.L. Youman’s vision, but also issuing a new “first law: It must be interesting”. This editorial explains the 1916 volume’s short articles and abundance of illustrations and pictures.

The 1916 scan did not explain the libraries’ subscription gaps, but the explanation was actually in MIT’s library all along: in the second, degrading 1915 volume. An editorial there announced the upcoming change in The Popular Science Monthly, while the original magazine was to be carried on under the name The Scientific Monthly, which would continue to be sent to subscribers. MIT did continue to receive The Scientific Monthly from the magazine’s inception in 1916 to the end of its publication in 1957. The answer turned out not to be in the issue just after the gap, but the one just before it.

I had a fantastic time tracking down the history of this magazine, and learned a lot in the process: mainly, to look closer at what’s right in front of you. The answer might be right there.

Never a Dull Moment

milk drop

“Milk Drop Coronet”, 1957.

A photo hangs in the third floor hallway of a building in MIT. “Milk Drop Coronet”, one of Doc Edgerton’s most famous works, illuminates the drab brick background and hallway behind the print. The photo shows an image of a milk drop falling onto a reflective surface, perfectly timed so that the drops are visible and at their peak before breaking apart from the mass of milk on the plate. Sadly, few students will travel this hallway and see this striking photo. Fewer still will learn about the long and extraordinary history behind this photo, and the incredible man who captured it.


Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton was born in 1903 in Nebraska. He attended MIT for graduate school, where he became familiar with photography and stroboscopes when he used stroboscopes to study the motion of motors and other quick-moving objects. Edgerton was very interested in teaching future generations about photography and his life experiences in general.

While he never finished or published an autobiography, he planned out sections and chapters and wrote preliminary versions of chapters. We can see in these early outlines of his book how his idea of his autobiography changed just in the months between these outlines. The second version is more condensed and basic than the first, which appeared to cover nearly every aspect of Edgerton’s life. He also included some possible titles, including “What’s up, Doc?”, “Teach Teach Teach”, “Never a Dull Moment!”, “Keep Going!”, and “Just one time more”. In these titles we get a glimpse of Edgerton’s character. He was very passionate and eager about teaching his students and others, evident from “Teach Teach Teach” and “Keep Going!”. Even just in these titles, he seems to be encouraging readers to pursue their passions and dreams, showcasing the caring professor and educator he was.

Exploring the introductory chapter of his autobiography, we can note a few aspects of both his writing and the physical objects. Looking at drafts of his introduction from 1975, 1984, and 1988, his introduction changed drastically between the first two drafts. He significantly shortened and simplified the introduction, which continued as a trend throughout the other drafts. The introduction always starts in a similar manner by stating that Edgerton’s friends had encouraged him to write down his life story, and he thought it would be a good idea and may prove helpful to future family and students. However, as the iterations progress, the physical copies change from being written on a typewriter and then edited by hand using whiteout and cutting portions of the papers out to being typed on a computer.

long edit

One example of Edgerton’s detailed editing.

Edgerton’s edits were comprehensive and often, showing his dedication to forming a complete and polished autobiography. While Edgerton sadly passed away before finishing a final copy of his autobiography, these drafts serve as a fantastic way to see his thoughts and process while he was compiling his experiences. If anything, these drafts show more of Edgerton’s personality than a finalized, polished book could have.

Doc Edgerton was a pioneer of the photography field, being one of the first to take aesthetic images of bullets in flight, nuclear explosions, and milk drops hitting a surface. Many of his photographs and works went on to become well-known; he had many photographs featured in Life Magazine because they were so beautiful, and other photographs earned him medals and awards from both art and science institutions. In addition to his photographs, all of the documents he wrote throughout his long tenure help paint a beautiful picture of his devotion to teaching others. The window this collection opens displays Edgerton’s love of teaching and learning, and hopefully continues to be a part of his legacy for years to come.

SACC Archives: Lessons for MIT Activists Today

As someone with a strong interest in the history of activism and involvement with activism on MIT’s campus, choosing my project for Media in Cultural Context was easy: there is a huge archive of one of MIT’s student activist groups, the Science Action Coordinating Committee (SACC), which mobilized in 1968 in response to military research on MIT’s campus and the Vietnam War. As my research on SACC progressed, I realized that much of the conclusions I had drawn could be of use for activists on MIT’s campus today.

Perhaps my most encouraging finding was that MIT students draw disproportionate press attention simply by being MIT students. The most striking case of this occurred when SACC proposed its first action, a campus-wide voluntary research stoppage to take place on March 4, 1969, and received extensive coverage in the Boston Globe, the New York Times and other nationwide publications. Further, when this tactic was reported at MIT, it quickly caught on at other universities across the nation, making March 4 a nationwide event to raise awareness of Department of Defense funding for potentially harmful military research on campus. The influence of SACC is even more striking when the size of the group is taken into account: most listings of the group’s members contain no more than five or six people.

Thus, MIT student activists find themselves in a peculiar position: it is certainly unfair that student activists receive increased media attention merely because they attend an “elite” institution, but it is perhaps useful to take advantage of this fact to amplify the impact of collective actions.

Like many activist groups, SACC stagnated short after its initial success. Below is the beginning of letter to SACC members, dated just a little over a year after the March 4 movement, which cites low participation and “discouragement with organized activity” as SACC’s plight:


In my experience with activism on MIT’s campus, these concerns are exceedingly relatable. MIT students are notoriously busy and lacking in political engagement. However, we can benefit from the efforts of SACC by learning from their experiences. In this case, the letter goes on to propose possible solutions, such as implementing a more formal group structure or coalition building with Boston-based groups that share similar goals, like Science for the People. It is unclear whether or not these efforts were successful, but, in any case, there is a clear consolation: in the short time that SACC was active they were able to reach many students who became “sympathetic with SACC’s goals” and “shifted towards more socially oriented careers.”

As a final note of encouragement, I will merely point to the fact that activists on MIT’s campus today have one clear advantage over SACC—the Internet. SACC’s mailing lists were actual paper lists of addresses, they had to write letters and wait for responses, and they could only publicize their events with posters and leaflets. With the use of the Internet, activists today can reach a wider audience with less effort, which might help in overcoming struggles with low participation.

The Wonders of Plants and Fungi Across the Centuries

Alissa Borshchenko

In investigating three wonderful pieces containing botanical illustrations in the MIT Special Collections library, I wanted to highlight the progression of printing and coloring technique and how that paralleled the deepening of scientific understanding over time. From wood cuts and simple coloring schemes at the end of the 16th century (John Gerard’s Generall Historie of Plantes) to black and white copper engraved plates (Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants) and finally to richly colored engraved plate images of mushrooms in Bavaria (Schäffer’s Fungorum qui in Bavaria et Palatinatu) towards the end of the 18th century, it is clear the evolution of printing technology played a crucial role in advancing scientific understanding of the natural world. Needless to say, it is true that once you get hooked on a book, you can’t look away, and for me, that was Schäffer’s three-volume collection of mushrooms. Mesmerized by the beautiful, hand colored illustrations, I became fascinated by the level of detail and the pigmentation of the colors used in the volumes.

Some of my favorite mushroom illustrations.

One aspect of my investigation that was particularly exciting was meeting with Stephen Skuce, Jana Dambrogio and Ayako Letizia from the MIT conservation lab to investigate some mysterious paper damage I had observed in the first few pages of the first volume of Schäffer’s mushrooms. It was a great experience talking with book conservators and “reverse engineering” the damages to the book as well as observing how the repairs were done. It was clear the large tear was not due to mold, water or insect damage and that it, in fact, was mechanical. On the back side of the first seven leaves affected by the tear, a paste was applied to keep the pages intact. The paste contributed to the increased stiffness and yellow discoloration of the pages, and likely interfered with the water-based pigments, as there is some color smudging near those illustrations. However, a good quality paste was probably used because the pages have not turned dark brown, which is what would have happened if a low quality repair was attempted.

The large two-way branching tear from the first few pages (left) and the smudges of illustrations covered by the repair paste (right)

Other small tears in the top center corner of the first couple of pages of the volume show that the conservator took great care in matching the chain lines and paper quality for the mend.


Repair in the top corner.

Looking at the volume in this way illuminated its history as the pages were restored and unbound and rebound for their repair. It brought many insights to the question of “How did this book come to be?” Each book’s materiality tells us an enormous amount about the reader experience, and the quirks of each rare, old book challenge us to come up with explanations and search for answers beyond its leaves. I’m sure there is no limit to amount of treasures you can find in the MIT Special Collections Library, and it was a joy to have the opportunity to discover some of them this semester.

A Leaf of the Polychronicon, Edited and Printed by William Caxton

Cathleen Nalezyty


The Leaf

The item is a single leaf from the Polychronicon, written by Ranulf Higden and translated by John Trevisa. The Polychronicon was supposed to be a history of the entire world. In 1482, printer William Caxton recognized the popularity of the manuscript versions of the Polychronicon, and took it upon himself not only to issue a print version, but also to update the “ rude and old englyssh” of Trevisa’s original translation. The end result is a printed volume that is mostly readable to modern readers.

 Unfortunately, the MIT collection does not have a complete printed version of the Polychronicon. Instead, we have only a single leaf (one front and back page). This leaf is from the fourth book and contains the end of chapter 13, during the time of Emperor Trajan, and the beginning of chapter 14. We have very little information to date it, or to know who previously owned the material. This is particularly unfortunate in light of one of the leaf’s features: marginalia.

The Marginalia

The leaf consists of three forms of text: the text of the Polychronicon printed in black ink, red inked notational marks likely done at the time of printing, and and handwriting in brown ink in the margins. It is these marginalia which originally caught my interest.

This is where an understanding of the leaf’s history would have come in handy. It may have told us who made these markings and when. Without knowing through whose hands this leaf has passed, answering these questions becomes much harder.


The Process

Because the original text was written in Middle English, the hope was that the marginalia would also be in English. Additionally, there was one word of the marginalia which was easy to read: golde. Working off of this idea, and not knowing much else about the piece, I begin to look at manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries. Although the exact date of the printed leaf is not known, since Caxton produce the first edition of the Polychronicon in the late 15th century, the handwriting could be no earlier than that. While it is possible that the marginalia was written much later, it seems best to start as early as possible and work my way later if needed.

While looking at these manuscripts, I paid attention to which ones had letters that looked similar to the ones on my leaf. In doing so, I found that the manuscript hand which looks most similar to the handwriting on the piece was written in something called Secretary Script. From there, I was able to research the forms of letters in secretary script in order to decipher the letters which I did not immediately recognize. Even know and what kind of script was used, I had to study the particular handwriting in order to be able to read the text, because there are many forms of each letter. Only after learning which forms and the particular quirks of the handwriting was I able to decipher what was written.

Learning that the marginalia was in secretary script, help me approximately date the marginalia. Secretary script was mostly used in the 16th century, though it was found in some earlier fifteenth-century works as well. In particular, some of the letter forms used by the writer reforms that were more common in the early days of secretary script. This means the handwriting is likely from the late 15th or early 16th century, which means it may have been written by one of the first few owners of Caxton’s printed book. At this point, I can say a lot more certainly that it seems the writing was done by a single person, rather than several people. I say this because several letter forms are the same between the three marginalia. While there were several letter forms that could have been used for the same letters, the fact that the three marginalia use only specific letterforms makes it more likely that the same person wrote all three.

The Result

I transcribed the three marginalia as below:


Now understanding what the marginalia says, I can begin to speculate why they may have been made. All three pieces relate back to the main body of the text. They seem to be drawing out specific words that meant something to the reader, or acting as subject placemarks so the notator can quickly go back to the spot in the text. This medieval reader appears to be practicing active reading making notes in the text of important or particularly interesting things. Instead of merely drawing a pointing finger as was sometime common, this commenter took the time to write out notes. Without the rest of the text however, we cannot know why he may have chosen the specific instances to take note of.