“More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

Detail from Richard Waller’s “Tabula colorum physiologica …” [Table of physiological colours], from Philosophical Transactions, 1686 / The Royal Society, Public Domain

Exploring forms of image making which pushed the boundaries of 17th-century book printing.

By Dr. Gregorio Astengo
Architect and Historian
Scientific Assistant
Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture
ETH Zurich

This article, “More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science, was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: https://publicdomainreview.org/legal/

From infographics to digital renders, today’s scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn’t always so. Gregorio Astengo explores the innovations employed in early issues of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, the world’s first scientific journal — new forms of image making which pushed the boundaries of 17th-century book printing.

One of the most demanding challenges for early modern scientists was devising how best to visually portray their discoveries to the public. In the absence of any sort of technology for automatic visualisation, like cameras or scanners, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosopher had to rely on drawings and subsequently woodcuts, etchings, or engravings to turn an experimental finding into a reproducible and publicly accessible demonstration. This was a laborious, expensive, time-consuming, and often problematic operation. Negotiated between several parties involved in the world of image-making, such as draughtsmen, engravers, and printers, the results were inevitably compromises between the intentions of the researcher and the possibilities of the printing press.1 For example, what a drawing could express with shading, washing, and chromatic nuances, printed illustrations could only approximate through a binary system of black and white, resulting from the pressure of an inked copper plate against a page.

The problem of efficient imaging was particularly felt during the early years of the Royal Society, a scientific institution founded in London in the early 1660s and today still regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions of scientific research in the world. In its early decades of activity, the Royal Society established itself as one of the central forces of the Scientific Revolution, with renowned members such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Members of the Society used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss ongoing research on a variety of subjects, such as physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, mechanics, geography, and antiquarianism.

Soon after its foundation, the Royal Society sought new ways to increase visibility and maximise its public reach. From this emerged the Philosophical Transactions, a monthly peer-reviewed journal, the first of its kind, featuring extracts from the Royal Society’s weekly research meetings. Founded in 1665 by the Society’s Secretary Henry Oldenburg and still published to this day, the Transactions are regarded as the first and longest-running scientific journal in history, as contributions were the result of original explorative studies into natural and mechanical matters informed by the Society’s culture of experiment — part of what today we generally call science.2

The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions, 1665 / The Royal Society, Public Domain

The Transactions were printed in small quarto format (about 17x22cm) with up to about a dozen articles per issue and could be purchased for the price of one shilling, about £5 today. The journal was a pioneering learned publication, with exceptional frequency and aimed at a diverse public of curious researchers. As such, especially in the early years, its contributors were often preoccupied with how best to communicate their ideas and discoveries through the immediacy of mass-producible visual media.3 A closer look into a selection of these articles demonstrates the extent to which natural philosophers were prepared to re-invent the production and consumption of images with new and often odd strategies for representing the world. This was a process of endless hands-on experimentation, often pushing beyond the traditional confines of the printing house.

The issue of accurate replication was effectively problematised in 1665 by art critic, writer, and Royal Society founding fellow John Evelyn. Evelyn was particularly sensible to the potentials and limits of engraving. He was an avid collector of prints and in 1662 published his own De Sculptura (here in a later edition), an adaptation of Abraham Bosse’s classic Traicté des manieres de graver (Treatise on Line Engraving). Shortly after the Transactions’ launch, Oldenburg published an account forwarded to Evelyn from an anonymous correspondent in Paris. The article described “a Way of Making More Lively Counterfaits of Nature in Wax, Then are Extant in Painting”.4 The article briefly introduced the technique of wax-modelling and colouring to faithfully sculpt natural specimens and produce maps in relief. The resulting models, Evelyn argued, were much more convincing than figurative drawing and so lifelike “that they kill all things of this Art”. In his praise of the illustrative potentials of a plan-relief, Evelyn was pointing at the necessity of sophisticated research into scientific reproducibility, preserving important information, and at the same time inviting a more substantial engagement on the part of the viewer.

Evelyn was not alone in his concern for new and effective forms of imaging. In the early months of 1686, a large table of colour pigments appeared in the 179th issue of the Transactions. The foldable sheet, accompanying an article entitled “A Catalogue of Simple and Mixt Colours”, featured a total of 128 colour samples, each arranged in a large chart and categorised with its type and name in several languages.

Richard Waller’s “Tabula colorum physiologica …” [Table of physiological colours], from Philosophical Transactions, 1686 / The Royal Society, Public Domain

The accompanying article offered a detailed description of each colour in the chart. “Smalt”, for instance, “is made of Zaffer and Pot-ashes, calcined together in a Glass-furnace” and “Ceruse is the Rust of Lead made by a vaporous Calcination”. The author of the article was Richard Waller, one of most active illustrators in the circle of the early Royal Society and himself editor of the Transactions from 1691 to 1693. Waller’s objective with his table of colours was to establish a standardised system for the visual mapping of colours, bypassing the monochromatic limitations of engraving.

Thus to describe a Plant [Waller proposed] it may be seen which of the simple or mixt Colours come nearest to it, and then the Word affixt to that Colour may be made us of, which the reader, if desirous, may look in his Table and find together the Pattern thereof.5

In other words, with this table of colours, Waller was offering a portable chromatic lexicon for natural philosophers, a universally generalisable reference system for reproducing the nuances of coloration without ever actually having to use colours.

Waller was arguably the first in England to propose a descriptive account of natural colours, and his was the first and only article in the Transactions which made use of colour at all.6 Producing Waller’s chart must have been especially complicated, as each of the swatches had to be added manually to the several hundred copies of the journal’s issue.7 The last page of the issue also included explicit instructions for the printer:

The Table of Colours is to be inserted after this leaf, which ought to be done with Guard and a White-leaf between after the book is bound, lest otherwise the Colours by beating stick together.

The format of the learned periodical was substantially new to the printing world of seventeenth-century London, presenting image makers with novel problems and opportunities. Waller’s instructions then also evidence how the intellectual mission of the journal’s visual apparatus could only exist in a relationship with the printers, binders, and booksellers involved in its manufacturing. Another example of this cooperation is an illustration of the micrometer, an astronomical instrument invented by William Gascoigne to optimise focal magnification and measurability, presented in 1667 by mathematician Richard Townley for issue 29 of the Transactions.

The article, entitled “An Instrument for dividing a foot into many thousand parts”, was accompanied by an engraved plate, originally drawn by mechanical practitioner Robert Hooke . Hooke was another extraordinary seventeenth-century enquirer: curator of experiments at the Royal Society from 1661, he soon became widely renowned for his best-selling book Micrographia (1665), which gave us the first close look into the anatomy of the flea and other minute animals.

Illustration of a flea from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665 / Internet Archive, Public Domain

In his drawing of the micrometer, Hooke included an additional leaf printed at the bottom of the page, representing a flat wooden cover bolted with two long screws. This “moveable Cover” was

to be by the Bookseller cut off by the pricked Line (xxx) from the Paper, and to be fitly placed on Figure I. according to the pricked Line (yyyy) answering thereto; that by the taking off, as it were, or folding up of this Cover, the inward contrivance of the Screws and Sight may appear.8

The “cover” was to be fixed in position as a moveable flap by cutting it out and gluing it along one edge of the instrument. Hooke devised this cut-paste system which, once assembled by the bookseller, would allow the reader to “open” the micrometer. The drawing, then, operated very much as its own “paper instrument”, reproducing with increased realism the physical properties of the original.9

Left: Plate of Richard Townley’s micrometer with cover piece at the bottom, as supplied to the bookseller. / Wikimedia Commons; Right: The plate with the cover piece cut-out and glued in place; from the Philosophical Transactions, 1667 / The Royal Society, Public Domain

The micrometer was one of the many pieces of technology occupying the Royal Society’s research agenda, alongside more notable examples like the telescope or the microscope. Similarly, instruments for automating the accurate visual recording of nature were also key in solidifying the Society’s empirical mission. In a preface to the Transactions from 1670, Oldenburg paraphrased philosopher Francis Bacon by using the metaphor of instrument making to express the progress towards universal knowledge:

any vulgar hand may draw a Circle more perfectly by a compass, than the most perfect Penman can do by hand alone. […] we may find how to draw in Perspective any Object both accurately and dispatchingly, by an instrument.10

At the time Oldenburg was probably referring to the perspectograph, a drawing machine invented by Christopher Wren in the 1650s and recently presented in the Transactions.11 Wren was himself a virtuoso draughtsman: he was one of the first in England to experiment with the technique of mezzotint and soon turned out to be an exceptionally skilled architect, authoring an extraordinary amount of projects, St. Paul’s cathedral among them. His device, a vertical board with a pen attached to a tracer, allowed anyone to draw in perspective by following the contours of an object through a pinhole.

Christopher Wren’s perspectograph, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1669 / Internet Archive, Public Domain

Wren’s intent with this device was to optimise visual representation, perhaps even for use in printmaking. In his outstanding drawings of the human brain for Thomas Willis’ Cerebri Anatome (1664), Wren is thought to have used his own perspectograph to draw directly on a copper plate.12

Christopher Wren’s engraving of the lower side of the brain from Thomas Willis’ Cerebri Anatome, 1664 / Internet Archive, Public Domain

Similar to this device was the “Prosopographical Parallelogram”, an instrument for reproducing objects using parallel lines and published in the Transactions in 1673.13 The machine consisted of a vertical board, mounted on a tripod, with a pantograph (a hinged parallelogram) attached to it. A pointer was attached to one end of the pantograph, while on the opposite end a pencil would draw on the board. By moving the pointer around the contours of the model, an inverted image would be automatically outlined on the board as its 1:1-scaled “elevation”.14

George Sinclair’s parallelogram for parallel drawing, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1673 / Internet Archive, Public Domain

While Wren’s perspectograph assisted the automatic rendering of perspectival views, as in modern photography, the Parallelogram operated like an early modern scanner and produced measurable drawings. As such, the intention of these instruments was not at all dissimilar from Waller’s table of colours. At the heart of these projects was the search for convenient yet precise methods of reproduction — to make, in short, “more lively counterfaits”.

In fact, even the distinct and longstanding traditions of perspective and parallel drawing, which these instruments were supposed to mechanise, could become intertwined for the sake of graphic exegesis. A case in point is an illustration of Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, the first one ever published, which appeared in 1694 for the 212th issue of the Transactions.15 The image was produced by engraver Edwin Sandys and based on an on-site drawing made by Dubliner Christopher Cole. It depicted a bird’s eye view of the famous promontory in Northern Ireland, detailed with its characteristic forest of natural rocky formations in the foreground.

Christopher Cole’s illustration of the Giant’s Causeway, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1694 / The Royal Society, Public Domain

What immediately appears odd is the off-centred, strangely tilted viewpoint of the picture, some way between a mid-view landscape and a large vista. Cole’s drawing, in fact, was a collection of separate views put together into one single drawing. Clergyman Samuel Foley, who wrote a short account accompanying the illustration, commented that Cole

has not drawn the Causway as a Prospect, nor as a Survey or Platform, which he thought would not answer his Design, and that he has no other name for it but a Draught, which he took after this sort: He supposed the Hills and Causway, & c. Epitomized to the same height and bigness the Draught shews them, and this he fancied the most Intelligible way to express it.16

In order to obtain this flattened image, it has been suggested that Cole produced two, perhaps three separate panoramas of the landscape, subsequently merging them into his final composition.17 This was neither a “Prospect”, nor a “Survey” nor a “Platform”, it was neither diagrammatic nor pictorial, neither a map nor a perspective view, but rather something in between, an odd collection of selected viewpoints rearranged to express the topographical qualities of the landscape as synthetically as possible, even to the detriment of realism.

In fact, as a consequence of its limited verisimilitude, the result in the end was not convincing. For Irish physician Thomas Molyneux, who would soon be elected Fellow of the Royal Society for his precise drawings of the elk-horns published in the Transactions, Cole was “no extraordinary Artist”, and the distinctive rocky formation still remained to be properly represented.18 In order to set the record straight, in 1694 Edwin Sandys was commissioned with a new, much larger “True Prospect” of the Causeway.19

Edwin Sandy’s prospect of the Giant’s Causeway, from the Philosophical Transactions, 1694 / The Royal Society, Public Domain

In Sandys’ illustration the natural environment appeared more conventional, with rocky cliffs, buildings, and inhabitants in a more traditional landscape view. However, it was precisely through its unconventional technique that Cole’s first drawing was able to successfully introduce the physical distinctiveness of the Causeway’s basalt columns, something that gets partly lost in Sandys’ version. Cole’s unusual composition attracted the attention of natural philosophers such as Molyneux, who continued his enquiry by sending a further account of his observations on the Causeway to the Transactions a few years later.20

Historian of science Steven Shapin has argued that in the world of late seventeenth-century science “the transformation of mere belief into proper knowledge was considered to consist of the transit from the perceptions and cognitions of the individual to culture of the collective”.21 As a channel explicitly designed to foster a network of learned scholars in the pursuit of cumulative knowledge, the early Philosophical Transactions were an ideal arena to explore this “transit” of information between experimenter and public. Unconventional visual products such as colour tables, foldable flaps, or panoramas with multiple viewpoints offered “more lively counterfaits” than traditional visual aids because they proposed new paradigms to effectively collect, synthesise, and communicate visual data. In doing so, they also challenged and advanced the technologies necessary for their production and dissemination, like engraving and printmaking. They can be seen as early instances of a tradition of innovative scientific imaging which expresses itself nowadays in a wide range of important technologies, such as infrared or ultraviolet photography used to enhance astronomical and microscope imaging; photogrammetry and 3D-scanning used in surveys, topography, and geology; and infographics, like isochrone maps, graphs, and diagrams, to name a few.22



  1. Roger Gaskell, “Printing House and Engraving Shop: A Mysterious Collaboration”, The Book Collector 53, no. 2 (2004): 213–34.
  2. David A. Kronick, “Notes on the Printing History of the Early Philosophical Transactions_”, _Libraries & Culture 25, no. 2 (1990): 243–68; Charles Bazerman, “Reporting the Experiments. The Changing Account of Scientific Doings in the Phil. Trans. 1665–1800”, in Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000); Edward Neville da Costa Andrade, “The Birth and Early Days of the Philosophical Transactions”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 20, no. 1 (1965): 9–27.
  3. See for example Alan Cook, “Edmond Halley and Visual Representation of Natural Philosophy”, in The Power of Images in Early Modern Science, ed. Wolfgang Lefèvre, Jürgen Renn, Urs Schoepflin (Basel: Birkhauser, 2003), 251–262; Domenico Bertoloni Meli, “Visual Representations of Disease: The Philosophical Transactions and William Cheselden’s Osteographia”, Huntington Library Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2015): 157–86; Alexander Wragge-Morley, “‘Vividness’ in English Natural History and Anatomy, 1650-1700”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 66, no. 4 (December 20, 2012): 341–56, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2012.0045; Sachiko Kusukawa, “The Early Royal Society and Visual Culture”, Perspectives on Science 27, no. 3 (June 2019): 350–94, https://doi.org/10.1162/posc_a_00311.
  4. John Evelyn, “An Advertisement of a Way of Making More Lively Counterfaits of Nature in Wax, Then are Extant in Painting [. . .]”, Philosophical Transactions 1, no. 6 (1665), 99–100.
  5. Richard Waller, “A Catalogue of Simple and Mixt Colours”, Philosophical Transactions 16, no. 179 (1686), 25. See also the account on Public Domain Review.
  6. For example, “A Scientific History of Colours”.
  7. Kronick, “Notes on the Printing History of the Early _Philosophical Transactions_”, 252–54.
  8. Richard Townley, “An Instrument for dividing a foot into many thousand parts [. . .]” Philosophical Transactions 2, no. 29 (1667), 543.
  9. This case has been investigated in detail by Matthew C. Hunter in Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London (University of Chicago Press, 2013), 69–79. This was not the first instance of a foldable printed page, as demonstrated by Remellin’s anatomical “flap-book” (here in Public Domain Review). Hooke’s however was the first to be produced in large numbers and for a vast readership.
  10. Henry Oldenburg, “A Preface to the Sixth year of these Tracts”, Philosophical Transactions 5, no. 57 (1670), 1148.
  11. Oldenburg (?), “The Description of an Instrument Invented Divers Years Ago by Dr. Christopher Wren, for Drawing the Out-Lines of Any Object in Perspective”, Philosophical Transactions 4, no. 45 (1669), 898–99.
  12. Nathan Flis, “Drawing, Etching, and Experiment in Christopher Wren’s Figure of the Brain”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 37, no. 2 (June 2012): 145–60, https://doi.org/10.1179/0308018812Z.00000000011.
  13. George Sinclair, “Parallelogrammum Prosopographicum [. . .]”, Philosophical Transactions 8, no. 96 (1673): 6079–85.
  14. Gregorio Astengo, “Parallelogrammum Prosopographicum”, Nexus Network Journal 22, no. 3, 2020, 135-153. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00004-020-00497-x.
  15. Samuel Foley and Thomas Molyneux, “An Account of the Giants Caus-Way in the North of Ireland: By the Reverend Dr. Sam. Foley”, Philosophical Transactions 18, no. 212 (1694): 170–82.
  16. Samuel Foley, “Answers to Sir Richard Bulkeley’s queries relating to the Giant’s Causway [. . .]”, in “An Account of the Giants Causway in the North of Ireland [. . .]”, Philosophical Transactions 18, no. 212 (1694), 175.
  17. Alasdair Kennedy, “In Search of the ‘True Prospect’: Making and Knowing the Giant’s Causeway as a Field Site in the Seventeenth Century”, The British Journal for the History of Science 41, no. 1 (2008): 19–41.
  18. Alasdair Kennedy, “In Search of the ‘True Prospect’: Making and Knowing the Giant’s Causeway as a Field Site in the Seventeenth Century”, The British Journal for the History of Science 41, no. 1 (2008): 19–41.
  19. William Molyneux, “A True Prospect of the Giants Cawsway near Pengore-head in the County of Antrim”, Philosophical Transactions 19, no. 235 (1695).
  20. Thomas Molyneux, “A Letter [. . .] Containing Some Additional Observations on the Giants Causway in Ireland”, Philosophical Transactions 20, no. 241 (1698): 209–23.
  21. Steven Shapin, “The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-Century England”, Isis 79, no. 3 (September 1988): 375, https://doi.org/10.1086/354773.
  22. See for example Horst Bredekamp, Vera Dünkel, and Birgit Schneider, eds., The Technical Image: A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019); Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire: Graphics Press, 1983).

Public Domain Works

Further Reading

  • The Technical Image: A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery, Edited by Horst Bredekamp, Vera Dünkel, and Birgit Schneider. The images used to depict ideas and data in science can be as striking and explosive as the concepts and processes they embody — both works of art and generative forces in their own right. Drawing on a close dialogue between the histories of art, science, and technology, this book explores these images not as mere illustrations or examples, but as productive agents and distinctive, multilayered elements of the process of generating knowledge.
  • Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London, By Matthew C. Hunter. The first book to use the physical evidence of Royal Society experiments to produce forensic evaluations of how scientific knowledge was generated, Wicked Intelligence rethinks the parameters of visual art, experimental philosophy, and architecture at the cusp of Britain’s imperial power and artistic efflorescence.
  • Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650-1720, By Alexander Wragge-Morley. By underscoring the importance of subjective experience to the communication of knowledge about nature, Wragge-Morley offers a groundbreaking reconsideration of scientific representation in the early modern period and brings to light the hitherto overlooked role of aesthetic experience in the history of the empirical sciences.



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