Explore an Interactive, Online Version of the Beautifully Illustrated, 200-Year-Old British & Exotic Mineralogy

What if I said the prob­lem with STEM edu­ca­tion is that it doesn’t include near­ly enough art? For one thing, I would only echo what STEAM pro­po­nents have said for years. This does­n’t only mean that stu­dents should study the arts with the same seri­ous­ness as they do the sci­ences. But that sci­ence should be taught through the arts, as it was in the 19th cen­tu­ry when Nat­u­ral­ists relied on fine art illus­tra­tion.

Maybe increas­ing com­plex­i­ty demands charts and graphs, but there are rea­sons oth­er than hip anti­quar­i­an­ism to cher­ish 19th cen­tu­ry sci­en­tif­ic art, and to aim for some­thing close to its high aes­thet­ic stan­dards. Humans seem to find nature far more awe-inspir­ing when it’s medi­at­ed by paint­ing, poet­ry, nar­ra­tive, music, fine art pho­tog­ra­phy, etc. We want to be emo­tion­al­ly moved by sci­ence. As such, few guides to the nat­ur­al world have ele­vat­ed their sub­jects as high­ly as British & Exot­ic Min­er­al­o­gy, a mul­ti­vol­ume ref­er­ence work for… well, rocks, to put it vul­gar­ly, pub­lished between 1802 and 1817.

Dur­ing these years, “notable nat­u­ral­ist, illus­tra­tor, and min­er­al­o­gist James Sower­by drew intri­cate pic­tures of min­er­als in an effort to illus­trate the topo­graph­ic min­er­al­o­gy of Great Britain and min­er­als not yet known to it,” writes Nicholas Rougeux. “These illus­tra­tions were some of the finest on the sub­ject and are still con­sid­ered by some to be to this day.” Though he was sure­ly com­pen­sat­ed for his work, Sowerby’s detailed draw­ings come across as labors of devo­tion.

Rather than just print­ing them on post­cards or tote bags (though he does sell posters), Rougeux has done for Sowerby’s min­er­als what he had pre­vi­ous­ly done for oth­er clas­sic text­books and tax­onomies from the past, such as the 200-year-old Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours and Euclid’s Ele­ments from 1847. Dig­i­tiz­ing the 718 illus­tra­tions on one sprawl­ing inter­ac­tive page allows him to retain their edu­ca­tion­al val­ue: click on any indi­vid­ual min­er­al and you’ll bring up an enlarged image fol­lowed by excerpts from the text.

You have nev­er seen such rocks as these, no mat­ter how many uncut gems you’ve held in your hand. Because these illus­tra­tions turn them into some­thing else—crystalline palaces, alien organs, pet­ri­fied explo­sions, moldy loaves of bread… all the many shapes that time can take in rock form. They aren’t all beau­ti­ful rocks, but they are each beau­ti­ful­ly-ren­dered with lines that might remind us of the most skilled com­ic artists, who are per­haps some of the last inher­i­tors of this kind of graph­ic style. Sower­by him­self illus­trat­ed sev­er­al oth­er sci­en­tif­ic works, includ­ing series on biol­o­gy, mycol­o­gy, and a col­or sys­tem of his own devis­ing.

“We feel much plea­sure in pre­sent­ing our friends with a fig­ure and account of the most per­fect and rare spec­i­men yet found of this sub­stance,” begins the text accom­pa­ny­ing Hydrargillite, above, which resem­bles a small, mis­shapen moon or aster­oid. Rougeux also takes quite a bit of plea­sure in his work of recov­er­ing these ref­er­ence books and mak­ing them beau­ti­ful­ly use­ful once again for 21st cen­tu­ry read­ers. You can read his detailed account of the orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions and his adap­ta­tion of them for use on the web here.

While appre­ci­at­ing the fin­er points of col­or, line, and com­po­si­tion in Rougeux’s tapes­try of vin­tage min­er­al illus­tra­tions, you might just inad­ver­tent­ly expand your knowl­edge and appre­ci­a­tion of min­er­al­o­gy. You can also read the entire British & Exot­ic Min­er­al­o­gy, if you’ve got the time and incli­na­tion, at the Inter­net Archive.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library Makes 150,000 High-Res Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al World Free to Down­load

Explore an Inter­ac­tive, Online Ver­sion of Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours, a 200-Year-Old Guide to the Col­ors of the Nat­ur­al World

A Beau­ti­ful­ly-Designed Edi­tion of Euclid’s Ele­ments from 1847 Gets Dig­i­tized: Explore the New Online, Inter­ac­tive Repro­duc­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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