Science made visible: drawings, prints, objects

Discover how making and seeing images was essential for 17th-century science. From the exhibition 'Science made visible: drawings, prints, objects', which ran at the Royal Society

Yellow flag iris (1689/1713) by Richard Waller (d. 1715)The Royal Society


From the founding of the Royal Society in 1660, images and objects were an important part of science. The first Fellows created images to communicate new discoveries to their colleagues around the world, as well as to the British public. They also used graphic methods to explore and develop their ideas. Many of these beautiful and striking pictures can still be found in the archives of the Royal Society. 

Stones from the heart of the Earl of Balcarres (1663-08-19) by Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703)The Royal Society

Human anatomy

The Fellows were interested in explaining various functions of the human body like reproduction, as well as wanting to explain abnormal phenomena, such as unusually shaped bladder stones or anomalous births. They regularly performed dissections as part of their anatomical studies. Some of these were performed within the Royal Society, others were reported in letters, where pictures played a vital role in standing in for the absent specimen.

Bladder stone of Sir Thomas Adams (1668) by Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703)The Royal Society

In 1668, the Mayor of London Sir Thomas Adams (1586-1668) died and a large bladder stone was removed from his body weighing 22 3/8 oz (ca. 630 grams).

Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the Royal Society's Curator of Experiment, drew the stone for the records of the Society. He executed it with particular attention to depth.

Woman with swollen breasts (1669-07-16) by William DurstonThe Royal Society

In 1699, Dr William Durston wrote to the first President of the Royal Society, William Brouncker (1620-1684), to describe the case of Elizabeth Travers. Her breasts had become very swollen overnight, and she would soon die. Before her death, Durston had a drawing made, which he sent to the Society.

Hoopoe bird by Henry Hunt (d.1713)The Royal Society

Natural history

The early Royal Society investigated all aspects of the natural world, including plants and animals. Fellows compared the anatomy and morphology of different species, sometimes performing dissections to compare internal structures. 

Egyptian chameleon (1686-11) by Richard Waller (d. 1715)The Royal Society

Richard Waller (1655-1715), who was both a natural philosopher and an artist, painted this chameleon in watercolour.

The branch bears a Latin inscription in gold:

‘Hanc chamaeleonsis AEgyptiaci Iconem Delineabat R.Waller ad vivum quem possidebat Not: R.Boyl. Nov: 1686.’

[Richard Waller drew the image of the Egyptian Chameleon after the life, which the Honorable Robert Boyle kept, November 1686].

Two dragonfly sketches (1680-11-12) by Unknown artist, for Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)The Royal Society

Small and middle flea-bane (1689/1713) by Richard Waller (d. 1715)The Royal Society


In botany, the Fellows studied domestic and foreign plants, often examining them with microscopes. Using a microscope allowed Fellows to compare external structures (such as leaf or petal shape) of a plant and to analyse the internal structure and vasculature. 

Knap-weed and bluebottle (1689/1713) by Richard Waller (d. 1715)The Royal Society

This is one of a series of botanical studies of flowers and grasses painted by Richard Waller. In this image, he depicts not only the plants in their entirety, with leaves and roots, but also several details, with the aid of a microscope.

He includes a cross-section of the stem, showing the internal structure...

...and draws the structure of the head of the flower, without the petals.

Two fruits by Henry Hunt (d. 1713)The Royal Society

Reflecting telescope, designed and made by Isaac Newton (c. 1671) by Isaac Newton (1643-1727)The Royal Society

Instruments and inventions

Fellows of the Royal Society invented, modified, and used new instruments and devices. Some, such as microscopes and telescopes, aided the human eye to see farther, or more closely, than ever before. Others such as airpumps, barometers, and thermometers tested the composition, pressure, and temperature of the air.

Underwater breathing apparatus (1692-04-06) by UnknownThe Royal Society

This sketch depicts the invention of astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) to provide air and light to a diver underwater.

A cart with legs (1663-03-11) by Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703)The Royal Society

Seeds from the Kapok-Tree (1686-06-10) by Unknown artist, for Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)The Royal Society


Many of the drawings discussed by the Fellows of the early Royal Society were depicted after specimens, and were used for further study. This case brings together examples of natural phenomena that were not yet fully understood in the 17th century. 

Fossils from Sicily and Malta by Agostino Scilla (1629-1700)The Royal Society

In his book, paleontologist Agostino Scilla (1629-1700) observed fossils from Sicily and Malta and compared them with living animals from the sea. At the time it was not clear what fossils were, and many scholars thought that they simply grew in stones.

Rat testicle in glass jar (1680-04-05) by Unknown artist, for Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)The Royal Society

Burins and copper plates (2018) by Making Visible projectThe Royal Society

Making images

The Royal Society created, circulated, and used many different types of images. Some were drawn with ink, pencil, or chalk on paper. Others were created through relief (woodblocks) or intaglio (etching and engraving) printing processes. Occasionally pigments or watercolours were used.

Microscopic view of a flea (1665) by Robert Hooke (1635-1703)The Royal Society

This is the famous image of the flea, as seen through a microscope, from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. This image was made through the technique of engraving.

To make an engraving, a tool called a burin is used to cut lines into a copper plate.

The plate is rubbed with ink, and then put through a press where paper “grabs” the ink to make the final image.

Jost Amman, The Printer's Workshop, a woodcut (1568/1568)British Museum

Model of a ship designed by William Petty (1623-1687) Model of a ship designed by William Petty (1623-1687) by Stephen WorlidgeThe Royal Society


In the 1660s, William Petty (1623 – 1687) started his experiment of the ‘Double bottom’d boat’ (an early form of a catamaran). The Fellows discussed the various possible constructions, they had models built of the boat, and they sailed various real double bottom boats between Holyhead (Wales) and Dublin, through the Channel to Portsmouth and Dover. 

William Petty's twin-hulled ship (1662-01-28) by UnknownThe Royal Society

This draught of a double-bottomed boat, together with a now-lost model of this ship, and a report from the Dublin Philosophical Society, were discussed by Fellows of the Society at their meeting in January 1663.

On galls - four figuresThe Royal Society

Circulation of images

The Royal Society had an impact on British and European science outside the weekly meetings in London. For example, from 1665 onwards the Secretary of the Society published a journal. These Philosophical Transactions were read by early modern scientists all over Europe.  The Royal Society also financed the publication of printed books, such as, for example, the works of the Italian naturalist Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694). 

On galls - four figuresThe Royal Society

This drawing, from the section on galls in plants

 shows the worm that grew in the bud of an oak tree.

On galls in buds in trees (1679) by Marcello Malpighi (1628 - 1694)The Royal Society

Marcello Malpighi sent all of his original manuscripts with drawings and written observations to the Royal Society. The Society financed the publication of these books written in Latin and had all the images engraved.

This drawing, from the section on galls in plants, shows
the worm that grew in the bud of an oak tree.

Second frontispiece to the Royal Society Charter Book by UnknownThe Royal Society

Credits: Story

This online exhibition is a collaboration between the Royal Society and the AHRC-funded project "Making visible: the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society, 1660-1710", based at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.

Curated by: Dr Sietske Fransen & Dr Katherine Reinhart

All rights reserved © The Royal Society 2018

For more information about the Royal Society Library and Archive please visit our website:

For more information about the Making Visible project please visit our website:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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