Transcribing Joseph Black’s Chemistry Lectures

Joseph Black (1728-1799) was one of the best known and most influential chemists during the second half of the eighteenth century.  Black’s correspondence, recently published by Jean Jones and Robert G W Anderson, included Antoine Lavoisier, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova to name a few.  Black lectured in chemistry, first at the University of Glasgow from 1756 and then at the University of Edinburgh from 1766 until 1797.  There are dozens of manuscript copies of his chemical lectures scattered throughout the libraries of not only Scotland and England, but also Ireland, America, Germany, and France.

After his death, Black’s lectures were published in 1803 by his friend John Robison.  However, Robison’s collation and editing were so extensive that he should be viewed as a joint author rather than editor of this work.  The differences between the 1803 lectures and the many manuscripts are extensive.

In researching my dissertation on chemistry during the Scottish Enlightenment, I photographed a full set of Black’s chemical lectures at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and photographed partial sets at the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Edinburgh.  I also acquired microfilms of full sets from the National Library of Medicine and Cornell.  An extensive comparison of the many existing copies of Black’s chemical lectures would provide a guide to the evolution of his chemical theories and a more granular understanding of the chemical lessons consumed by Scottish students who would go on to be influential doctors and professors.  However, while progress is being made in the field of handwritten optical character recognition (hOCR), the only means currently available for creating machine readable text files of these manuscripts is transcription by hand.

In teaching the Spring 2014 Introduction to the History of Science class (HSCI 1003) at the University of Oklahoma, I focused our historical content on chemistry.  While we covered a broad swath of history ranging from the 16th century to today, our class project was to transcribe some of these chemical lectures and analyze them.  I chose eight of Black’s lectures that related to our class discussions of carbon dioxide and heat and pulled .jpgs of those lectures from three lecture sets that I could acquire in time for the class:

  • The University of Cornell’s set from 1769-1770 (Film N4258)
  • The National Library of Medicine’s set from 1773-1774 (NLM MS B 2)
  • and The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s set from 1776 (QD14 .B533 1828)

Screen shot of

To allow the students to do the transcriptions, I set up a website ( running the Transribr [sic] distribution of Drupal.  The National Archives originally built this platform in 2012 to crowdsource the transcription and publication of historical documents.  This Transcribr distribution worked so well for me on an inexpensive BlueHost shared server, that the only significant time commitment was in uploading the images of the manuscript folios and inputting their meta-data.

Once all of the files were uploaded, I assigned each of the students a lecture from a particular lecture set.  After two weeks of transcribing, the students created text files of their transcriptions and shared them with the two other students transcribing the same lecture from the other lecture sets and me.  We then uploaded these transcription sets into another online program called JuxtaCommons.

JuxtaCommons is a set of tools which collates similar texts and provides analytical visualizations.  Using the histogram, heat map, and side-by-side comparisons, students compared their transcription with that of their teammates to identify possible errors in transcription.  They then returned to the manuscript images and cleaned their original transcriptions.

Students reuploaded their revised transcriptions into JuxtaCommons to identify the true similarities and differences between the lecture manuscripts.  In comparing three sets of Black’s lectures, we hope to address a variety of questions:

  • Did the chemical nomenclature in Black’s lectures change over time?
  • Did Black modify or extend his lectures to include new research?
  • Who did Black reference and did those references change?
  • Was there any meaningful shift in the subjects covered or the amount of coverage given?

[pullquote]The majority of the content in all three lectures is identical.[/pullquote]

While I hoped that the students would find these differences, what we found instead was a surprising level of continuity between the three lecture sets.  In fact, as one of my students wrote in her analysis, “The majority of the content in all three lectures is identical.” Not only are the structure of the lectures in terms of sequence and content unchanged over the seven year range of the lectures, the exact wording is often the same.

Black was described by both his students and peers as being an excellent lecturer and an active demonstrator, so the though of Black literally reading his lecture notes to his students is surprising. It is possible that Black reread lecture notes before classes and managed to present nearly verbatim repetitions with an unstudied air.  In either case, there were few meaningful changes to his lectures over a seven year span.

The students did identify several minor changes in the examples used by Black and the people referenced.  To read the students’ analytical papers, visit the site.  I hope in the future to extend this project to allow for the transcription of more manuscripts.  I would like to chart Black’s lectures to see when he created each set and how long he went between revisions.  I still expect that we would find some nomenclatural shift in his presentation of the constituents of airs and his conceptualization of heat, though perhaps only in the 1780s and 90s.


  1. JDP


    Whatever happened to the transcription of all these chemistry lectures by Joseph Black? The provided links seem to no longer be around.

    1. John Stewart

      I took down that site a while back. I’d like to renew that project at some point, but haven’t been working on it in a while. I’ve still got some of my transcriptions, and have thought about a couple of different ways of presenting them.

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