Ephemera For Ever!

Syl front

We were recently asked by the University’s Development Office for an example of a donation with a striking story. What could be nicer than drawing out the extraordinarily detailed implications of a single piece of throwaway paper from the 18th century, and celebrating the generosity of a remarkable but modest benefactor?


John R. Millburn (1925-2005) originally trained as an engineer, reading for a degree in Mathematics and Physics at King’s College London, before becoming involved in astronautics and orbiting communications satellites in the 1960s. This focus on satellites and their orbits fired his interest in orreries – mechanical solar-system models – and led him to produce a range of innovative geocentric orreries dealing with satellite orbit. In turn, this inspired his interest in the history of scientific instruments.

Millburn went on to become a well-respected and devoted amateur historian with a long-standing focus on the life and times of Benjamin Martin, an entrepreneurial 18th-century instrument maker, author, publisher and public lecturer on experimental science. Millburn’s various works on Martin still add up to one of the most detailed studies of such a creative tradesman.

A rare piece of ephemera: Benjamin Martin's lecture syllabus.

A rare piece of ephemera: Benjamin Martin’s lecture syllabus.

In 2004, a previously unknown Benjamin Martin lecture syllabus came onto the market. John Millburn immediately acquired this rare piece of ephemera and generously donated it to the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. A single half-sheet, printed on both sides and intended to be folded to form eight pages, the small piece of paper was never intended to survive for 250 years, and yet it did.

The contents are simple: a title page followed by an outline of fourteen lectures. The merest glance at the opening lecture gives an instant and accurate flavour of Martin’s enterprise. We move immediately from the most grand and abstruse elements of Newtonian philosophy – the laws of attraction and repulsion, the universal power of nature – to the extremely particular and concrete: the nature of glues, cements and soldering. The remainder of the course ranges widely over electricity and magnetism, pneumatics, astronomy, optics, hydrostatics and hydraulics, mechanics, gunnery and fortification, and the use of the sphere and terrestrial globe, illustrated wherever possible with improved apparatus of Martin’s own design.

Millburn’s donation was, entirely characteristically, accompanied with a more substantial paper of his own research on Benjamin Martin’s Lecture Courses and Syllabuses. This ten page ‘publication’ is now accessioned and catalogued in the museum’s library, along with several other of Millburn’s privately printed and distributed texts.

lecture 1 notes

These tiny annotations (left) in shorthand provided new evidence for the date of Martin’s establishment in London.

The single-sheet syllabus contained its own hidden gems, in the form of annotations to some of the lecture titles. Although tiny, these notes provided dates, and through careful calculation of 18th-century leap years, along with a reckoning of the number of Sundays in February, Stephen Johnston (Assistant Keeper, MHS) was able to establish that the first owner of the syllabus attended a course of lectures by Benjamin Martin in February and March 1756. This evidence provided a new and earlier date for Martin’s establishment in London, and Johnston afterwards further pushed back the date of Martin’s arrival in the capital (not to mention working out the weather on the morning of Wednesday 3 March 1756!). Published online, these details continued Millburn’s legacy of meticulous research into Benjamin Martin’s life and the scientific community of London in the 18th century.

Millburn had been a long-time supporter of the Museum during his lifetime. When he died in 2005 it seemed that the syllabus would be his last gift. But, unknown to the Museum, he had made arrangements for a significant bequest and there is now a John R. Millburn Fund which provides vital ongoing help for the Museum’s work.

See the full syllabus below:

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