In Defence of 'Stamp Collecting'

'That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting'. This quote (and variants thereof) is widely attributed to the Nobel prize-winning nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford. Like all the best one-liners, it is apocryphal, but nevertheless serves as a useful stand-point from which to consider the motivations of those who participate in citizen science, and attitudes towards them. The pursuit of natural history in particular is a branch of study that suffers most from the stigma of 'stamp collecting', as even during its heyday in the nineteenth century, those who assiduously amassed large collections of specimens were often subject to ridicule. William Kirby and William Spence, in their Introduction to Entomology, lamented that their chosen subject was one that 'in nine companies out of ten' would elicit 'pity or contempt'.

Attempting to understand the feelings that motivated the individuals who engaged in natural history during the nineteenth century is a difficult task, as you run the risk of projecting our present-day preoccupations onto historical actors who may have experienced the world very differently to us. To further complicate matters, even when these individuals appear to be telling us exactly why they pursued natural history, we of course cannot always take their word for it.

Ent. Annual 1855 Frontispiece

Claims that the study of nature brought one to a greater appreciation of God and his works was an oft cited justification, and although this was certainly a factor for some, it belies the complexity and diversity of individuals' motivations. Another reason frequently given is the simple pleasure of spending time in the countryside, and it cannot be considered a mere coincidence that natural history reached its height of popularity at a time of rapid urbanisation. The excursion culture of field clubs and natural history societies in the second half of the century was a predominantly middle-class movement that allowed white-collar workers to escape the cities and towns in preference for the woods and fields. Many of the working-classes - Lancashire handloom weavers and Sheffield cutlers - also seized any opportunity to get away from the drudgery of factory or workshop. This was generally encouraged by those who were more socially fortunate, because natural history was considered a 'rational recreation'. Particularly during the Chartist agitations, it was thought that if workers were busy collecting plants and insects, that left them far less time in which to plot revolution. Furthermore, as the entomologist J. O. Westwood pointed out, 'can it be denied that if, amongst the lower classes, the collecting of objects of nature, and such-like pursuits, were more general, the vice of drunkenness and the reign of gin-palaces would be over'.


Collecting was a nineteenth century passion, and almost anything could be subject to the period's acquisitive urge. Butterflies, ferns, fossils, coins, stamps - all were eagerly hunted down, though admittedly some objects, particularly those that could fly, required considerably more energy to capture than others. Exactly what drove many to this pursuit is described by the entomologist Henry Tibbats Stainton: 'each time that the collector of insects catches some species which he has not before met with, he receives a thrill of pleasure, which is difficult to render intelligible to those who have not felt it'. This feeling of adding to your collection, particularly if the specimen is rare, will sound familiar to those of us who collected Pokémon cards or football stickers as children. Charles Darwin was himself a keen insect collector in his youth, and later rediscovered the joy through his three sons, writing to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 'I am reminded of old days by my third boy having just begun collecting beetles', and related how 'my blood boiled with old ardour when he caught a Licinus - a prize unknown to me'.


We can only speculate what drove Thomas Galliers, the Liverpool policeman, to collect insects during the 1850s, just as we must guess as to what his superiors would have thought of his use of official 'Liverpool Constabulary Force' stationary to write letters to the Entomologist's Weekly Intelligencer. Galliers' correspondence with the editor of this periodical, Henry Tibbats Stainton, reveals that he was not content simply with amassing a collection. In August 1858, the policeman wrote to Stainton, enclosing 'a fair sketch of a beetle I captured when flying near the Dingle Wood about this time last year' (one can only presume that Galliers meant that the beetle, rather than himself, was flying when he caught it). Galliers hoped that Stainton might wish to give 'a representation of it in the shape of a woodcut in the Intelligencer', as he felt 'such a fine specimen might gratify your readers'. This is typical of many communications received by Stainton in his role as editor, with many correspondents hoping they had acquired an unusual specimen that would make a valuable contribution to the periodical, and possibly to science itself. Unfortunately for Galliers, it seems he was disappointed on this account, as his beetle was not published in the Intelligencer.

Talking to the people who run twenty-first century citizen science projects, I am struck at how they are constantly surprised at the number and diversity of those who participate in their projects. Present-day citizen scientists have as many different motives and approaches as their nineteenth century antecedents, each choosing to devote their leisure time to counting penguins, spotting exoplanets, or identifying images from nineteenth century periodicals. For some, it is simply more interesting way of passing the time than watching television or browsing social media, but for others, the burning desire to make a contribution to science lies at the heart of their enjoyment of such activities. Even Ernest Rutherford would surely approve of that.

--Matthew Wale