Henry Oldenburg ca.1619-1677

From Book Owners Online

Henry OLDENBURG c.1619-1677

Biographical Note

Born in Bremen, Germany, son of Heinrich Oldenburg, a teacher. Master of Theology from the Bremen Gymnasium, 1639. He spent the following decade or so travelling on the continent, often as tutor to the sons of English youths taking the grand tour. His appointment by Bremen as an envoy to England in 1653 strengthened his growing links with the English political and intellectual establishment. He became friendly with many scientists and natural philosophers, particularly Robert Boyle. Between 1656 and 1660 he travelled again on the continent as tutor to Richard Jones, the son of Viscount Ranelagh. He was a founder member of the Royal Society in 1660, and made one of its secretaries in 1662. His subsequent administrative energy directed at organising and recording meetings, and sustaining an extensive correspondence, was a key element in the Society’s early success and international recognition.

He founded the Philosophical transactions in 1665 as a journal bringing together news of Society activities, book reviews and other scientific intelligence, and ran it very successfully (though not to great financial profit) for the rest of his life. Money was always a problem, and he often had to rely on the patronage of Boyle and others; the Society voted him an annual salary from 1669. His effectiveness as a hub of communication among European scientists, and his skills in encouraging talent and scientific publication, were much respected by his contemporaries and have continued to be recognised.


The importance of print as a key medium of scientific communication was a central theme of Oldenburg’s activities. His continental travels enabled him to explore many libraries, and his extensive correspondence contains many references to books being published, bought, sought or sent between a wide range of contacts across Europe. He helped to translate and publish various works, and was briefly in 1676 a licensor of history books.

A “catalogue of my books” by Oldenburg, dated 3 October 1670, survives in BL Add MS 4255 (a collection of letters and papers made by Thomas Birch), fos. 228-235. It lists ca.250 titles, rather loosely categorised between theology, politics, philosophy, history and “humanistae”. A further 54 titles were added to the list, after his death, by his friend John Pell. The list includes books in several languages, including French and a scattering of other European languages as well as Latin and English. Next to the “Catalogue” are two further manuscript leaves headed “Catalogue of my best books and what they cost me”, below which are several lines of text, crossed out, indicating that these books were donated to the beneficiary Royal Society by Oldenburg, although this gift did not in fact take place as the Society’s building plans at that time fell through. This second list includes 70 titles, valued at £28 16s; the contents are largely scientific, medical or philosophical. A further brief, selective list of some of Oldenburg’s books made after his death by John Collins also survives as Royal Society ms Domestic V/43. This was made because there was some dispute, after Oldenburg’s death, about the return of some books and papers belonging to the Royal Society. Many, but not all, of Oldenburg’s books were then sold to Arthur Annesley, Earl of Anglesey, and can be identified in his 1686 sale catalogue.

Malcolm’s article on Oldenburg’s library, which includes transcriptions of the three lists, also includes a “consolidated catalogue” of all the books which are known to have been owned by Oldenburg, running to 331 items. This presents a rather small collection for someone of Oldenburg’s interests, but would accord with the accounts of financial exigencies. Examples: BL 524.c.30, 537.f.5; NLS RB.m.218; Sotheby’s 10.6.2004/483.

Characteristic Markings

Oldenburg sometimes, but not always, inscribed his books “H. Oldenburg” or “Henry Oldenburg” in the lower right hand corner of the titlepage, often with the price paid. He does not appear to have annotated his books.