On March 6, 1665, England’s Royal Society published the first issue of Philosophical
Transactions, an unassuming, printed pamphlet that became the world’s first scientific journal. This publication’s birthday actually predates the modern use of the word “science” – its title refers to what was then called “natural philosophy” (Philosophy, which means “love of wisdom” in Greek, was used in past centuries to refer to almost all academic inquiry. If you are studying to become a Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D., you’ve encountered this meaning.)
What is perhaps most amazing about this anniversary is not that this journal is still around today, but how closely it resembled modern scientific journals at its outset. Submissions were carefully dated and registered to ensure fairness, and members of the Royal Society were expected to peer review every paper published.
That first issue contained, among other things, the first account of Jupiter’s “Big Red Spot,” an obituary for influential mathematician Pierre de Fermat, and an introduction that summarizes very well the importance of scientific publishing. Addressing the benefits of communicating discoveries to other scientists, founder Henry Oldenburg wrote:
To that end, that such Productions being clearly and truly communicated, desires after solid and usefull knowledge may be further entertained, ingenious Endeavours and Undertakings cherished, and those addicted to and conversant in such matters, may be invited and encouraged to search, try, and find out new things, impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving Natural knowledge, and perfecting all Philosophical Arts, and Sciences.
The journal survived financial hardships, fierce critics, wars and a split into two journals to make it to 2015, and it published some amazing works along the way. From Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s first observations with a microscope (“In the year 1675, I discover’d living creatures in Rain water”), to the 1919 photograph of a solar eclipse that confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the pages of Philosophical Transactions and its two successors (one for physical sciences, the other for biological sciences) are a window into the history of scientific progress.
Luckily for those of us “addicted to and conversant” in science, the entire archive of Philosophical Transactions and every other Royal Society journal is freely available for the month of March.