Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Oldenburg, Henry

OLDENBURG, HENRY (1615?–1677), natural philosopher and man of letters, who sometimes signed himself anagrammatically as 'Grubendol,' born about 1615, was the son of Heinrich Oldenburg {d. 1634), a tutor in the academical gymnasium at Bremen, and afterwards professor in the Royal University of Dorpat. The date 1626, usually given as that of Oldenburg's birth, is incorrect (Dr. Althaus in Beilage zur Allgemeinen Zeitung, Munich, 1889, No. 212); and the statement, so often repeated, that he was descended from the counts of Oldenburg appears to have been merely a hasty inference from the fact that he is described in his Oxford matriculation certificate as 'nobilis Saxo.' Oldenburg was educated at the evangelical school at Bremen, which he left for the Gymnasium Ulustre in the same city on 2 May 1633. There ho took the degree of master in theology on 2 Nov. 1639, the subject of his thesis being 'De ministerio ecclesiastico et magistratu politico.' About 1640 he came to England, and lived here for some eight years, 'gaining favour and respect from many distinguished gentlemen in parliament,' After 1648 he seems to have travelled on the continent, returning to Bremen about 1652. In August of that year a property which had been held by his father and grandfather, but which was probably of small pecuniary value, the Vicaria S. Liborii, was confirmed to him 'free of all taxation.' In the summer of 1653 the council of Bremen sent Oldenburg as their agent to negotiate with Cromwell some arrangement by which the neutrality of Bremen should be respected in the naval war between England and Holland. His appointment was ineffectually opposed, on the grounds that during his former residence in England he had taken the king's side against the parliament, and that he had 'a peculiar temper, which prevented him from agreeing well with others,' His instructions were dated 30 June 1653. In a letter dated London, 7 April 1654, preserved in the 'Acts of the Senate 'at Bremen, he announced the conclusion of peace between England and Holland on 5 April, and offered his further services. This offer the council accepted when Sweden attacked Bremen in the summer of that year. Oldenburg's new letters to Cromwell were dated 22 Sept, While diplomacy occupied a part of Oldenburg's time in England, he chiefiy devoted himself to scientific study or to literature. In 1654 he made the acquaintance of John Milton, then Cromwell's Latin secretary. Several of Milton's letters to Oldenburg are Published in Milton's 'Epistolæ Familiares.' In the earliest of them (6 July 1654), Milton complimented Oldenburg on speaking English more correctly and idiomatically than any other foreigner that he knew. In May 1656 Oldenburg was in Kent. Later in the year he was acting as tutor to Henry O'Brien, son of Barnabas, sixth earl of Thomond [q. v.], and to Richard Jones, son of Catherine, lady Ranelagh, the sister of the Hon. Robert Boyle; and early in 1656 he arrived with his pupils in Oxford. In June he himself was entered a student of the university, 'by the name and title of Henricus Oldenburg, Bremensis, nobilis Saxo' (Wood, Fasti Oxon. pt. ii.) With Boyle, the uncle of his pupil Jones, Oldenburg enjoyed constant intercourse at Oxford. Wilkins, Wallis, and Petty were also among his friends there. Encouraged by their example, he devoted himself to 'the new experimental learning.' Writing to Milton early in 1656, he declared: 'There are two things I wish to study—Nature and her Creator.' And later in the year he wrote to another friend, Edward Lawrence, that he believed there were still some few who sought for truth, instead of hunting after the vain shadows of scholastic theology and nominalist philosophy—men who dared to forsake the old Aristotelian methods, and cherished the belief that the world is not yet too old nor the living race too exhausted to bring forth something better.

Oldenburg remained at the university until May 1667, when he accompanied his pupil Jones on a long journey to the continent. From Saumur, where they spent the first year, Oldenburg sent letters to Milton and Boyle. In the second year he and his pupil visited other parts of France and Germany, and in May 1669 he wrote from Paris, where they remained until their return to England in 1660.

In November 1660 the society which afterwards became the Royal Society, and which had existed in a more or less nebulous condition since 1646, took definite shape. Among the first members proposed and elected (26 Dec.) were Oldenburg and his pupil Ranelagh. Oldenburg was elected a member of the first council and he and Dr. John Wilkins were appointed the first secretaries (22 April 1663); but he received no salary until 1669. In the Birch MSS. at the British Museum (4441, f. 27) is preserved, in Oldenburg's handwriting, an account of the duties of the 'Secretary of ye R. Soc' 'He attends constantly,' the paper recites, 'the meetings both of ye Society and Councill; noteth the observables, said and done there; digesteth ym in private; takes care to have ym entred in the Journal- and Register-books; reads over and corrects all entrys; sollicites the performances of taskes recommended and undertaken; writes all Letters abroad and answers the returns made to ym, entertaining a corresp. wth at least 30 psons [not fifty, as in Weld's 'History']; employes a great deal of time and takes much pains in satisfying forran demands about philosophicall matters, disperseth farr and near store of directions and inquiries for the society's purpose, and sees them well recommended, etc. Q. Whether such a person ought to be left vn-assisted?' It was with the intention that the sale should procure him a remuneration for his gratuitous services that he was authorised in 1664 to publish the ' Transactions of the Society;' but the net profit seldom amounted to 40l. a year. From June 1666 to the following March the sittings of the Royal Society were suspended, owing to the plague. Oldenburg and his family remained in London, but escaped the infection. In September 1666 the great fire of London ruined most of the booksellers, and greatly obstructed the publication of Oldenburg's 'Transactions.' Boyle made vain endeavours to secure for Oldenburg, who was suffering much pecuniary distress, the post of Latin secretary formerly held by Milton.

While he held the secretaryship of the Royal Society, Oldenburg's foreign correspondence grew very large. He could not have coped with it, he said, had it not been his habit to answer every letter the moment he received it. His aim is tersely expressed in his letter to Governor Winthrop (1667): 'Sir, you will please to remember that we have taken to taske the whole Vniverse, and that we were obliged to doe so by the nature of our Dessein. It will therefore be requisite that we purchase and entertain a commerce in all parts of ye world wth the most philosophicall and curious persons, to be found everywhere.' Among his correspondents was Spinoza. Oldenburg had visited Spinoza at Rijnsburg (Rhynsburg) in 1661, and numerous letters passed between them from that year to 1676. At first Oldenburg enthusiastically urged Spinoza to publish his writings: 'Surely, my excellent friend, I believe that nothing can be published more pleasant or acceptable to men of learning and discernment than such a treatise as yours. This is what a man of your wit and temper should regard more than what pleases theologians of the present age and fashion, for by them truth is less regarded than their own advantage.' But afterwards he became cautious, complaining that Spinoza confused God with nature, and that his teaching was fatalistic. In these letters Oldenburg defines his relations to both speculative philosophy and exact science.

The vastness of Oldenburg's foreign correspondence, which, though mainly scientific, was in part political, excited suspicion at the English court, and, under warrants dated 20 June 1667, he was imprisoned in the Tower (cf. Pepys, 28 June 1667). He was in the Tower for more than two months, and Evelyn visited him there on 8 Aug. On 3 Sept. Oldenburg wrote to Boyle that he had been stifled by the prison air, and had recruited his health on his release at Crayford in Kent, and was now falling again to his old trade.

The publisher threatened at the time to discontinue printing the 'Transactions,' and Oldenburg, in a letter to Boyle, expressed a wish that he had 'other means of gaining a living.' From the beginning of 1670 he accordingly undertook many translations. His 'Prodromus to a Dissertation by Nicholas Steno concerning Solids naturally contained within Solids,' 8vo, appeared in the following year. 'A genuine Explication of the Book of the Revelation,' by A. B. Piganius, 8vo, 1671 ; 'The History of the late Revolution of the Empire of the Great Mogol,' by F. Bernier, 8vo, 1671; and 'The Life of the Duchess of Mazarine,' followed rapidly. He also translated into Latin some of Robert Boyle's works.

Oldenburg's latter days were embittered by a disagreement with his colleague, Robert Hooke [q. v.], the curator to the Royal Society. Hooke complained that Oldenburg had not done justice in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ to his invention of the hair-spring for pocket watches. The quarrel lasted for two years, and was determined by a declaration of the council of the Royal Society, 20 Nov. 1676, that, ‘Whereas the publisher of the “Philosophical Transactions” hath made complaint to the council of the Royal Society of some passages in a late book of Mr. Hooke, entitled “Lampas,” &c., and printed by the printer of the said society, reflecting on the integrity and faithfulness of the said publisher, in his management of the intelligence of the said society; this council hath thought fit to declare, in the behalf of the publisher aforesaid, that they knew nothing of the publication of the said book; and, farther, that the said publisher hath carried himself faithfully and honestly in the management of the intelligence of the Royal Society, and given no just cause for such reflections’ (Ward, Lives of the Professors of Gresham College, pp. 178–82, fol., London, 1711). Oldenburg edited the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ Nos. 1–136 (1664–77). In Maty's ‘Index to the Philosophical Transactions’ his name is attached to thirty-four papers as author or translator. He also edited and wrote the Latin preface to M. Malpighi's ‘Dissertatio epistolica de Bombyce,’ 4to, London, 1669. In the archives of the Royal Society is a draft petition (undated) by Oldenburg for a patent for Huyghens's ‘New Invention of Watches serving as well for ye pocket as otherwise, usefull to find ye Longitudes both at Sea and Land,’ the right in which had been assigned to Oldenburg by the inventor.

Oldenburg died suddenly in September 1677, at Charlton in Kent, leaving a son Rupert, a godson of Prince Rupert, and a daughter Sophia. He married twice. His first wife, who brought him 400l., died in London in 1666. On 11 Aug. 1668 he obtained a license to marry in London a second wife, Dora Katherina, only daughter of John Durie (1596–1680) [q. v.] She brought him ‘an estate in the marshes of Kent,’ worth 60l. a year. In the marriage license Oldenburg's age is described as ‘about forty,’ clearly an understatement, and he is said to reside in the parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields (Chester, Marriage Licences, p. 993). The Royal Society possesses a half-length life-size portrait of Oldenburg, painted by John Van Cleef. He is represented in black coat, broad white bands, and plain sleeves sewed to the narrow armholes. The head is massive, and wears a long flowing peruke; the face clean-shaved except a short moustache, the mouth firm, but the expression somewhat anxious. The right hand holds an open chronometer case.

[The only connected account of Oldenburg's life of any length is that by Dr. Althaus, published in the Beilage zur Allgemeinen Zeitung (Munich), 1888 No. 229–33, 1889 Nos. 212–14. See also Weld's History of the Royal Society, 2 vols. 8vo, London, 1848; Masson's Life of John Milton, vols. v. vi. 8vo, London, 1877–80; Pollock's Spinoza: his Life and Philosophy, 8vo, London, 1880; Burnet's Letters, 1686, p. 244. In the archives of the Royal Society are 405 original letters and drafts by Henry Oldenburg, besides a guard-book containing ninety-four additional letters to Boyle, and a commonplace-book of 207 ff. written between 1654 and 1661. The Ellis, Birch, Sloane, Harleian, Ward, and Egerton MSS. in the British Museum, all contain letters by Oldenburg and other documents bearing upon his life. His correspondence with Spinoza is given in Van Vloten and Land's Benedicti de Spinoza Opera, vol. ii. 1883, and in Ginsberg's Opera Philosophica of Spinoza, vol. ii. 8vo, 1876. Milton's letters to Oldenburg are to be found in the various editions of the Epistolæ Familiares. Other letters in Rigaud's Correspondence of Scientific Men, printed from the Macclesfield papers; Edleston's Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton; Commercium Epistolicum D. Johannis Collins et aliorum de Analysi Promota; Correspondence of Hartlib, Haak, Oldenburg, and others of the founders of the Royal Society with Governor Winthrop of Connecticut, 1661–72, 8vo, Boston, 1878 (reprint from Proc. Massachusetts Hist. Soc.)]

H. R.