In a recent post (here) I waxed lyrical on the subject of my first visit to the Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archives: “[sitting] at a desk surrounded by old wood with light filtering in through handmade glass, and to hear at one point the cathedral’s bells drifting through high ceilings”. I have now embarked on a six-session u3a course in the history of printing in Europe, led by Dr David Shaw, so get to spend even more time there. Such a joy.
The course itself, which is proving to be a delight, has thrown up several nuggets of information to be nestled in the memory, awaiting their time. For instance, did you know that the terms ‘lower case’ and ‘upper case’ derive from the days when a compositor – the person who set each letter of a font in place in order that a page might be printed using a manual printing press – had to select the next letter in a given word: their font cases were arranged such that the more common letters, ‘e’ for example, were close at hand (literally in the lower of the usual arrangement of two font cases) and those less commonly required, capital ‘Z’ perhaps, were in the more distant or upper case. When working with the speed allowed by ‘muscle memory’ this could save a lot of time and effort, rather like touch-typing – a skill I have, regrettably, never properly acquired. It’s no wonder the apprenticeship lasted seven years. This would often be followed by a period as a ‘journeyman’ during which the person would travel to various printing works in order to expand their experience and expertise. The size of a font was also defined at this stage, with 72-point corresponding to one inch (1″) – thus, a 12pt font corresponds to letter/number heights that fit within 1/6th of an inch or a little over 4 mm. This was, evidently, an early example of industrial standardisation; paper sizes were similarly standardised.
However, my principal focus in this post is to mention one of the books that David thoughtfully made available for us to marvel at during our mid-session break: Robert Boyle’s 1660 work on what we would now think of as air pressure and the like. Robert Boyle was a founding member of the Royal Society and made seminal contributions to the physical sciences; indeed, the slightly younger (but perhaps nowadays more famous) Isaac Newton used some of Robert Boyle’s work in order to derive an equation for the speed of sound in air. It is a personal pleasure to be able to turn the pages of this beautiful book; moreover, in a straw poll of the twelve other u3a members with me on this course, I discovered several people had retained a memory of hearing about ‘Boyle’s Law’ from their school days – a testament to his legacy.
Having discovered – whilst drafting the earlier blog post referred to above – the extent of the time and energy required of the Cathedral’s hard-pressed Archive & Library staff to generate and supply images of old documents in their collection, I was delighted to find online a ready-made image of another copy of the this very book. The above title page and example illustration comes courtesy of the Science History Institute and is made available under Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 Universal.
|Reproduced from a document on David's website (here).
The vicarage was situated just outside the boundary wall of Godmersham Park which, as her fans will know, has a close connection with the writer Jane Austin. It also commanded enviable views across the River Stour and as a result of this proximity and its age, suffered from damp at ground level; its library was accessed via an impressive spiral staircase. My parents-in-law lived in the Godmersham parish; indeed, my father-in-law served as churchwarden for fifty years. Moreover, my wife and I were married in Godmersham church in the late 1970s. The wedding was conducted by the then Vicar/Rector, Canon Graham Brade-Birks – who has been mentioned with affection in a previous post on this blog site, here. I’m pretty sure that he was already eligible for retirement when he conducted our wedding service but he was a man with the clear conviction of his calling, and retirement was postponed for as long as was practicable. However, after he eventually retired, the vicarage was sold (to ‘someone in television’ as I recall) in order to raise funds for the Church of England and there followed an extended interregnum: there was, therefore, no successor to whom the library’s contents could be passed. Thus, although non-stipendiary (unpaid, usually part-time) vicars/rectors were subsequently appointed, Canon Brade-Birks was indeed, in effect, the last of the line. Hoping to ensure the survival of the library’s contents, he left it to the nearby Wye Agricultural College where he had taught the odd course on soil science. (I have also written a post mentioning Wye College, where I was employed for a year after leaving school – see here). At the time, the College was a constituent part of the University of London. It was later subsumed into Imperial College and then closed and sold off; the collection that had been looked after by Canon Brade-Birks was eventually handed into the care of Canterbury Cathedral’s Archive & Library.
As I admitted, this is a tenuous link. For such links I am, however, grateful.