This year is the 350th anniversary of The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. In celebration, Royal Mail has today released ten 1st class commemoratives featuring significant Royal Society figures whose portraits are paired with dramatic and colourful imagery representing their achievements.
The “brainstorming” design was the idea of Hat-trick Design, responsible for the interlocking “jigsaw” approach used for the 2009 Darwin stamps. But with more than 1,400 Fellows and Foreign Members to choose from, how were ten significant scientific figures to be selected?
Fittingly, it was The Royal Society itself which suggested the solution: a case of basic division. It was agreed to split the 350-year history into ten 35-year “blocks” in which it could be demonstrated how, through the work of its Fellows, The Royal Society has had a major impact on the World.
Royal Mail consulted with experts from the Society to determine the ten Fellows, and due to the global nature of the organisation, non UK citizens were included, such as one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, and the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford.
Science, scientific achievement and scientists have long been featured on British stamps. It could be argued that the British Empire Exhibition (1924 and 1925) or Festival of Britain (1951) commemoratives in part marked scientific and industrial achievement, as both events featured scientific displays. Even the National Productivity Year commemoratives (1962) hint at the business imperative behind much scientific research. However, the first British stamp issue explicitly celebrating scientific achievement was the Lister Centenary stamps (1965). Fittingly, Sir Joseph Lister, who first developed antiseptic surgery, is also commemorated on the new Royal Society stamps.
Other notable scientists commemorated on the Royal Society issue are appearing on British stamps for the second or even third time. The 300th anniversary of astronomer Sir Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking Principa Mathematica was celebrated in 1987. Newton’s achievements were again celebrated in 1990 as part of the Astronomy issue.
A bust of Benjamin Franklin (commemorated here for developing electricity) appeared on the 1976 stamp marking the Bicentenary of American Independence, and Edward Jenner’s development of the smallpox vaccine was commemorated in 1999 as part of The Patients Tale issue. The birth bicentenary of Charles Babbage, who pioneered the computer, was commemorated in 1991 as part of the Scientific Achievements issue, and crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin was previously featured in the Women of Achievement issue (1996).
Newcomers to British stamps are chemist Robert Boyle, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford and earth scientist Sir Nicholas Shackleton.
One Royal Society Fellow not present on this issue is Rowland Hill, although from a philatelic point of view Hill’s work has been celebrated many times. You can find out more about Rowland Hill and the Royal Society by reading the speech given by Philip Parker, Head of Stamp Policy at Royal Mail, at last night’s launch of this stamp issue, which is now on our website.
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