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Darwin's Notes and Thoughts Go Online

Apr 24, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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Studying Charles Darwin's documents has evolved from visiting the library at Cambridge University to accessing the information online. The British university has just made a trove of about 20,000 papers from Darwin's life and studies accessible on the Web.

Readers can even see his wife Emma Darwin's recipes for pea soup and heavy Victorian puddings.

"It's really unprecedented that so much new material by and about Charles Darwin is suddenly made available to the public," John van Wyhe, director of the Darwin Online collection, tells Renee Montagne.

The material has been available to scholars for years at Cambridge.

"What we've done is taken much of that material and made it available for free to the whole world," van Wyhe says. "The amount of material is so vast that you could click on it for months and not see all of the images."

The items range from tiny scraps of paper with Darwin's notes to entire books and pamphlets — there are 90,000 electronic images in all, van Wyhe says.

The collection includes Darwin's first pencil sketch of his species theory, from 1842.

"You notice that it's messy," van Wyhe says. "That shows that it's a working document. Darwin has crossed things out, changed his ideas."

And there are Darwin's "bird notes" from the voyage of the Beagle, including his first recorded doubts about the stability of species. They also include a sketch of his cabin aboard the ship.

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