Sir Francis Ronalds and his Family

The Ronalds Library

A portion of the Ronalds Library collection

Sir Francis Ronalds loved learning and collected books on his favourite subject of electricity almost all his life.

Completing his library was a special focus for him during his long sojourn on the Continent after he retired from the Kew Observatory. He visited libraries and bookstores wherever he went and spent time with many scientists. He also purchased works from the deceased estates of esteemed academics like Alessandro Volta, Fran├žois Arago and Michael Faraday, in part to support their families and to show his respect.

He documented his growing knowledge and acquisitions in a card catalogue. This became a popular system in the late nineteenth century and remained at the core of most substantial libraries until the digital age. Sir Francis' collection has been denoted as the first practical use of the card catalogue.

The library amounted to 2,000 books and 5,000 pamphlets, while his bibliography had 13,000 entries.

His overall goal was to make the collection available to those who wished to study electricity. The newly-formed Society of Telegraph Engineers (STE) proved to be a good home - the STE evolved into the Institution of Electrical Engineers and is now the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

Sir Francis' brother-in-law Samuel Carter managed the bequest. The STE bound the books and pamphlets and published the catalogue as a comprehensive bibliography of the discipline.

The trust overseeing the library was in place for a century. Family trustees included Samuel, his son and son-in-law, Sir Francis' nephew Dr Edmund Ronalds and, later, Sir Francis' great- and great-great-nephews. Other initial trustees included Lord Kelvin, Sir William Siemens and Latimer Clark.

The library and catalogue were well received internationally and gave the new Society considerable gravitas. The library was described in the early 20th century as "the glory of electrical engineers". The catalogue was probably the first published bibliography of a physical science subject and was republished by Cambridge University Press in 2013.


Further Information

Catalogue of the Ronalds Library (1880), (2013)

Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph (2016) - published by Imperial College Press