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.