Royal Society launches online archive, Trailblazing, to celebrate 350th anniversary

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited London in 1764 at the age of 8, he was a musical sensation. Crowds flocked to see the harpsichord and organ recitals of the boy with two symphonies to his name.

To Daines Barrington, however, the prodigy’s visit was less of a musical spectacle than a scientific opportunity. A lawyer and amateur scientist, he was sceptical that such accomplishments were possible in one so young and determined to investigate the boy’s talent.

After scrutinising Mozart’s birth certificate, he subjected him to an array of difficult musical tests, such as asking him to sight-read a complex score. The scientist emerged so impressed that when he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1770 he published a paper in its journal describing this phenomenon.

Barrington’s Account of a Very Remarkable Young Musician is among the highlights of Trailblazing (, a new online resource introduced today by the Royal Society at the start of a year of celebrations to mark the national academy of science’s 350th anniversary.

The collection tells the story of many of the seminal moments in the history of science through the archives of the Royal Society’s journal. It includes Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA, Benjamin Franklin’s investigations of lightning, Isaac Newton’s discovery of the spectrum of light, and Stephen Hawking’s early work on black holes.

Each paper is accompanied by a commentary by a current Royal Society Fellow explaining the significance and context of the advance. “The scientific papers on Trailblazing represent a ceaseless quest by scientists over the centuries, many of them Fellows of the Royal Society, to test and build on our knowledge of humankind and the universe,” said Lord Rees of Ludlow, the President of the Royal Society.

“Individually they represent those thrilling moments when science allows us to understand better and to see farther.”

In Barrington’s 1770 paper, he wrote to Mathew Maty, the secretary of the Royal Society, in amazement at what he witnessed six years previously.

“If I was to send you a well- attested account of a boy who measured seven feet in height when he was not more than eight years of age, it might be considered as not undeserving the notice of the Royal Society,” he wrote. “The instance which I now desire you will communicate to that learned body, of as early an exertion of most extraordinary musical talents, seems perhaps equally to claim their attention.”

Barrington’s first test asked the young Wolfgang to sight-read a duet in five parts. “The score was no sooner put upon his desk than he began to play the symphony in a most masterly manner, as well as in the time and stile [sic] which corresponded with the intention of the composer. I mention this circumstance, because the greatest masters often fail in these particulars on the first trial.”

Barrington next asked the boy to compose a love song in the style of the popular singer Manzoli and then a “song of rage”. Once again, the scientist was mightily impressed. During the latter, Mozart “had worked himself up to such a pitch, that he beat his harpsichord like a person possessed”.When Mozart was asked to play an exercise, his “execution was amazing, considering that his little fingers could scarcely reach a fifth on the harpsichord”.

Barrington also noted that for all the boy’s abilities he was still very much a child. “For example, whilst he was playing to me, a favourite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time. He would also sometimes run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of horse.”

Lord Rees said that the paper was a “nice informal record” of the sort of studies that the gentleman amateur scientists of the day would routinely perform. Trailblazing includes 60 papers from the Royal Society’s journals chosen by a panel of scientists, historians and science communicators chaired by Michael Thompson, a former editor of its most famous journal, Philosophical Transactions.

The Royal Society was founded on November 28, 1660, by a group of 12 natural philosophers, including Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle. It was granted a royal charter by Charles II.

Trailblazing begins a year of celebrations running up to the official 350th anniversary date next November. Other events will include a nine-day summer science festival at the Southbank Centre in London, the publication of a book telling the story of science, and the opening of the Kavli Royal Society Centre for the Advancement of Science at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire.

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