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May 2, 2008
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Bern Dibner's Heralds of Science
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Heralds of Science

In 1955, Bern Dibner, the noted science book collector and founder of the Burndy Library, published Heralds of Science as Represented by Two Hundred Epochal Books and Pamphlets Selected from the Burndy Library.

Two things combined to inspire him to prepare this list. The first was the 500th anniversary of the invention of printing from moveable type ascribed to Johannes Gutenberg dating from approximately 1455. The second was a small exhibition, “First Editions in the History of Science,” prepared at the Library of the University of California in 1934 for the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One hundred and fourteen works were selected by the physiologist and book collector Herbert McLean Evans and the list was published in a small pamphlet, Exhibition of First Editions of Epochal Achievements in he History of Science (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1934). The Evans exhibition included many of the great works of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, botany, and zoology.

In his introduction, Evans stated that, “by consulting the first form of a scientific achievement…one can hope to observe the origin and change of ideas. But, more than this, it may be maintained that one cannot adequately understand any scientific subject without knowledge of the manner in which our present conceptions were established.”

Bern Dibner had been collecting rare science works since the late 1930s and by 1955 he had amassed a collection of some forty thousand rare and modern works and housed them in a specially constructed library building in Norwalk, Connecticut, the Burndy Library. His collecting interests had expanded greatly from his earlier concentration on Leonardo da Vinci and electricity and magnetism to the full development of science and technology. In preparation for Heralds of Science, Dibner perused his collection and selected two hundred items he owned that “proclaimed new truths or hypotheses in science.”

In 1976 the Burndy Library donated some ten thousand of its rare books and manuscripts to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to establish the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology in what is now the National Museum of American History. Included in this transfer were most of the two hundred Heralds except for those already held by the Smithsonian.

Even though it is now out of print (the last edition was published in 1980), Heralds of Science is no less valuable than when it first appeared in 1955 for highlighting the great works of science and technology and the new discoveries, laws, and hypotheses that they represent.
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