This blog post is from Surrey Heritage as part of a series of posts on the theme of ‘Human Discovery: Experiencing Science’ for History Day 2022. This post picks out particular examples of scientific developments which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was the world’s first magazine, in the modern sense of the word, presenting readers with a monthly offering of news & short articles on an enormous range of topics. Printed every month between 1731 & 1922 it included details of births, marriage, and deaths long before the coming of civil registration in 1837. The Gentleman’s Magazine also regularly published news about the latest scientific discoveries, developments, and advancements and here are a few:

Telegraph erected on the Admiralty Office

In January 1796 The Gentleman’s Magazine reported the erection of a telegraph station at the Admiralty in London which formed part of the Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph line and established a crucial line of communication between the capital and the southern coast. Very different to the telegraph poles of today, shutter telegraph machines were vertical wooden frames, housing 6 shutters within them. The signal was made by opening and closing the shutters in order to spell out individual letters. Workers would watch through telescopes and write down the message, passing it on by pulling the ropes attached to the back of the shutters to spell out the message to the next station. On the Portsmouth Shutter line the message would have passed through the Surrey stations of Putney, Chessington and Haslemere. According to the magazine, ‘The nearest telegraph to London has hitherto been in St. George’s Fields; and to such perfection has this ingenious and useful contrivance been already brought, that one day last week information was conveyed from Dover to London in the space of only seven minutes…The importance of this speedy communication must be evident to every one; and it has this advantage, that the information conveyed is known only to the person who sends, and to him who received it.’ (Vol. LXVI. Pt.1, p.161)

Telegraph erected on the Admiralty Office

Image: Telegraph erected on the Admiralty Office, Charing Cross, in February 1796.


‘Aerial Marine Voyage’ from Dover Castle to France in a Grand Balloon

The French Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, had discovered that hot air could make a balloon fly and had given the first public demonstration at Annonay in June 1783. In Britain the Italian Count Francesco Zambeccari, a sailor and adventurer, worked with Michael Biaggini, an artificial flower maker, to construct a hydrogen balloon. It was flown on 4th November 1783, and then a larger example was launched from the Artillery Ground. The balloon descended on a farm in Sussex, where the farmer kept it in his barn, and charged a fee to see it. The development of balloon flight sparked a new craze particularly in Britain, France and Italy for ‘Balloonomania’ a term coined by the English writer and politician Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Such was the enthusiasm for this new technology, that the balloons and the aeronauts who experimented with flying them, were covered extensively by the magazine throughout the mid-to-late 1780s, resulting in various reports referred to by the magazine’s publishers as ‘Ballooning Intelligence’ or ‘Aerostation’. On the 26 November 1783 the magazine reported, ‘M. Biaggini launched an air balloon in the Artillery-ground, in imitation of those so much spoken of in France. It is certainly a most curious discovery, but what practical use may result from it cannot yet be foreseen. Its first ascent was about one o’clock. It rose very slowly, and continued its progress towards the South, still rising as it went, and apparently increasing in velocity, till quite out of sight. Its fall will probably be in the counties of Kent or Surrey. The number of people who went to the Artillery-ground, and its environs, to see it launched, was almost incredible. It was made of yellow taffety, appearing as if gilt with gold, and when illuminated by the sun made a most beautiful appearance; at other times it presented a dusky object, not unlike a paper kite.’ (Vol. LIII. Pt.2, pg.977)

Balloon illustration

Sketch of Mr Blanchard and Dr. Jeffries ‘Aerial Marine Voyage’ from Dover Castle to France in a Grand Balloon (7th January 1785 from The Gentleman’s Magazine, February issue, 1785).


The Smallpox Vaccination

Smallpox, now eradicated, was a worldwide disease particularly prevalent in the 17th – 19th century. A process known as variolation had at first been used as an attempt to control the disease which involved exposing previously uninfected people to matter from Smallpox sores. This was done via scratching it into the arm or inhaling it through the nose. The basis for vaccination against Smallpox began in 1796 when Edward Jenner, an English doctor, discovered that milkmaids who had suffered from the Cowpox disease were seemingly naturally protected from Smallpox. Jenner knew about variolation and its success with preventing severe illness from Smallpox, and believed that a similar exposure to Cowpox could be used to protect against it entirely. To test his theory, Dr. Jenner took material from a Cowpox sore on milkmaid Sarah Nelmes’ hand and inoculated it into the arm of James Phipps, the 9-year-old son of his gardener. Months later, Jenner exposed Phipps several times to variola virus (the virus that causes Smallpox), but he never developed the disease.

The Reverend Rowland Hill, a Surrey pastor, was a strong advocate of vaccination and inoculated many of his own congregation. In January 1806 another minster called Thomas Eisdell had corresponded with Reverend Hill asking for supplies of the vaccine. His letter was submitted to the Gentleman’s Magazine for publication in that month’s circular. Perhaps it was hoped that the publication of this letter would help to promote confidence in Smallpox vaccination. It was published under the heading ‘VACCINATION VINDICTED’ and reads:

Reverend and dear Sir,

At the time of your being at Andover in the summer of 1804, you kindly inoculated three of my children with Vaccine matter, from whose arms I inoculated a number of persons, aged and young; and watching the different stages of the complaint, I found the appearance of their arms to correspond with the same on the arms of my children; and with some copper plate prints which have been engraved to illustrate its progress.

Having left my situation at Andover, I have been some time preaching to a congregation in this place, of which one of its members has this day expressed to me his alarm on account of the Small Pox breaking out near to his dwelling. His wife and three children are exposed. I have recommended the Vaccine Inoculation, to which he is desirous his family should submit. Sincerely and respectfully yours,

Thomas Eisdell.

 [Addressed to] Rev. Rowland Hill, Surrey Chapel, London’

The Reverend’s response to Eisdell was also published in the magazine (Vol. LXXXVI. Pt.1, pgs 25-28). He confirmed the dispatch of some ‘vaccine matter’ and informed Eisdell that he had inoculated 4,600 persons himself.

It took time, but as public confidence grew the vaccination process became widely accepted and replaced variolation altogether.

Portrait of Edward Jenner

Image: Edward Jenner by James Northcote, 1803, NPG 62 © National Portrait Gallery, London