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Oldenburg, Henry

1. Dates
Born: Bremen, Germay, c.1618 Oldenburg's birth used to be given as c.1615. In the Oldenburg Correspondence the Halls set it between 1617 and 1620. Elsewhere they point out that in 1668 he described himself as "about fifty" years old. The only established date is his entry into the Gymnasium of Bremen in 1633.
Died: Charlton, near Greenwich, 5 Sept. 1677
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 59
2. Father
Occupation: Schoolmaster
Heinrich Oldenburg taught in the Paedogogium of Bremen. Later he became a professor in the newly established University of Dorpat, in what is now Estonia.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: German
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Bremen, D.D.; Utrecht, Oxford
Gymnasium Illustre of Bremen (which appears to have been the equivalent of a university, 1633; I assume a B.A.; Master of Theology (listed as D.D.), 1639.
University of Utrecht, 1641.
He matriculated in Oxford in 1657-8.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist, Anglican
Bremen, which initially accepted the Lutheran reformation, turned to Calvinism about 1600. Oldenburg is universally desribed as devout, and I assume that he conformed to the established religion of his city.
There is almost no evidence about his religion in England, except that in 1677 (the year of his death), in seeking naturalization, he attached a certificate affirming that he had taken the Anglican sacrament.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Scientific Organization, Scientific Communication
Oldenburg made a profession of scientific administration. He founded a system of records in the Royal Society that is still followed, created an international correspondence of scientists, and founded the first scientific journal.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Schoolmastering, Scientific Society, Publishing
Secondary: Personal Means, Patronage, Miscellaneous
He inherited some property (which does not appear to have been of much value) from his grandfather.
It is known that Oldenburg matriculated in the University of Utrecht in 1641. Nothing is known with assurance about what he did during the following twelve years, but there is presumptive evidence that he was a tutor during these years. It was probably during his travels as a tutor that he acquired his command of most of the Western European tongues. In 1656 he became tutor to Boyle's nephew, Richard Jones, later the third Viscount Ranelagh and first Earl of Ranelagh.
Member of a diplomatic mission from Bremen to England, 1653- 6. He became a permanent resident of England, but never a citizen.
Secretary of the Royal Society, 1663-77. Though initially unremunerated, the position came to carry a salary of 40.
Oldenburg collected intelligence (not as a spy) from Europe, which he supplied to the Office of the Secretary of State. One letter implies that he also supplied the intelligence to subscribers. Bluhm calls this writing newsletters. He also translated intercepted letters for the State Paper Office. I list this activity as Miscellaneous.
Oldenburg published the Philosophical Transactions, beginning in 1665, which were his personal enterprise, to make money, although he never made as much as he hoped to. He also translated printed papers for the London Gazette, apparently with regular remuneration. He also translated and published works from abroad. He translated at least two of Boyle's works into Latin, and he appears to have functioned effectively as the publisher for a number of Boyle's works.
He received some dowry with each of his two wives. With his second wife, the daughter of John Dury, whom Oldenburg married when he was about fifty and she fourteen, he received an estate in Kent worth about 60 per annum.
Given his long relationship with Boyle and also his service as a tutor to aristocratic families, I also list patronage as a means of support.
Oldenburg made his living from a miscellaneous variety of activities, as the list above suggests. He never felt financially secure; he never got the position with a sufficient salary that he wanted.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Scientist, Government Official, Court Official
The government of Bremen sent him on a diplomatic mission to Oliver Cromwell.
Employed by the Earl of Thomond in 1656 as tutor of his son.
Employed by Cavendish family as a tutor.
Tutor to Richard Jones, Boyle's nephew.
He owed his position in the Royal Society to Boyle. He functioned as Boyle's agent in London while Boyle was in Oxford, seeing several of Boyle's works through the press, and translating at least two of them. When Oldenburg's wife died just a few days after he did, Boyle looked after the two small children at least for a time, and he paid for the two funerals. Nevertheless Boyle does not seem to have sponsored him for any other position that Oldenburg sought.
Through most of the restoration, up until Oldenburg's death, he supplied Sir Joseph Williamson with foreign intelligence. The Halls call Williamson Oldenburg's patron. In 1676 Williamson procured for him a warrant to be a licenser of books, but in fact the warrant produced more trouble than income so that he eventually returned it.
Prince Rupert was the godfather of Oldenburg's son Rupert.
Oldenburg dedicated volume 4 of the Philosophical Transactions to Seth Ward, Bishop of Salisbury. He dedicated vol. 5 to Boyle, and one volume (I don't know which) to Lord Arlington. Most of the volumes were not dedicated.
Hall suggests that Oldenburg, a foreigner like Papin and DeMoivre (and like a French mathematician, Girard I think, in the Netherlands), though he was always pursuing preferment and hoping, never received any. Note that in 1677 his name was removed from a naturalization bill.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: None
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Informal Connections: Connection with John Dury, Samuel Hartlib, John Milton, and Thomas Hobbes, beginning in 1653.
Friendship with Boyle, John Wilkins, and Oxford philosophical club, beginning in 1656.
Correspondence with Huygens, Spinoza and many others.
Royal Society, 1661; Secretary, 1662-77. Oldenburg was not at the meeting in Nov. 1660 at which it was decided to organize a society. His name was mentioned there, however, as one likely to be interested. He became a member in Jan. 1661.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 14, 988-90. R.K. Bluhm, "Henry Oldenburg, F.R.S. (c.1615-1677)," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 15 (1960), 183-97.
  2. A.R. Hall & M.B. Hall, "Some Hitherto Unknown Facts about the Private Career of Henry Oldenburg", Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 18 (1963), 94-103.
  3. _____, "Further Notes on Henry Oldenburg," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 23 (1968), 33-42.
  4. _____, "Introductions" to successive volumes of The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, 13 vols. (Madison, WS [first 9 vols.], London [last 4 vols.], 1965-86). T. Birch, History of the Royal Society, 4 vols. (London, 1756-7).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Dr. Althaus, a collection of materials about Oldenburg, Beilage zur Allgemeinen Zeitung (Munich), Nos. 229-33 (1888) and Nos. 212- 14 (1889).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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