Henry Forster Morley to H. Poincaré

The Royal Society

Burlington House, W.

December 5th, 1900

M. le professeur Poincaré, for Mem. R. S.

Dear professor Poincaré,

I do not think that difference between us is serious.

The scheme for the publication of the Catalogue agreed to in 1900 contemplates that the International Council shall be the financial authority for the publication of the Catalogue, subject to the regulations of the International Convention. Thus in section II (report 1900, p. 16) the duty of preparing a balance sheet, etc., is laid upon the Council. In section 42 it is the International Council which is authorized to use a surplus in one year to cover a deficit in another.

Again the resolution proposed by myself and carried unanimously (p. 76) prevented the Provisional Committee from ‘incurring financial responsibility’, and as this Provisional Committee was only appointed ‘pending the appointment of the International Council’ the right of incurring financial responsibility evidently belongs to the Council.

This right is subject to two safeguards:

(1) Resolutions of the Conference;

(2) Declarations of the representatives of various governments as to the conditions on which they join in the enterprise.

As an example of safeguard No 1 we may take sections 43 and 44 (report 1900, p. 24), the former of which says it down that the publication of the Catalogue shall not be undertaken unless the shares taken up cover the estimated cost of the Catalogue.

An example of safeguard No 2 is the declaration of Professor Darboux (report 1900, pp. 32 and 33). This was so clear that we have never had any doubt in England that the French government were only responsible to the extent of their subscriptions, and that that subscription could only be given when the books were delivered. If the French representative at the forthcoming conference wishes to make a further statement to this effect we shall make no objection as he will only be repeating conditions which you have clearly laid down from the first.

With great respect, it seems to me that you now wish to change the resolutions thus carefully arrived at.

In the first place, I doubt whether you and I have the power to settle the matter, and it may even be doubted whether the International Council can alter the decision of the Conference.

In the second place, the policy of any country guaranteeing a certain sum was definitely abandoned, and largely at the wish of the French delegates. The speech of Professor Darboux and my reply (Report 1898, pp. 101 and 102) clearly show that, instead of a guarantee, it was agreed that a promise to take so many volumes would be regarded as the equivalent of a guarantee. Both France and England (through the Royal Society) have fulfilled these conditions, and in addition to this the Royal Society has obtained a guarantee from the English government and has offered to sign the contracts; but in spite of this you now wish to put upon the Royal Society the responsibility of saying that it will guarantee the whole undertaking.

It is true that you offer the veto in exchange for the responsibility, but apart from the question that the veto can only be given by the consent of all concerned, it has two aspects.

Regulation 43 (report 1900, p. 24) lays it down that the publication of the Catalogue shall not be undertaken unless the shares taken up cover the estimated cost of the Catalogue. This condition is practically fulfilled, and with the guarantee of our government it is so much more than fulfilled that the question as to who is ultimately responsible is largely academic. If, therefore, the Royal Society were now to put forward your proposal it would be quite open to any representative to say that the Society was taking no risk but was asking for a very great power. We do not wish to put ourselves in that position.

On the other hand, we do not quite see in addition to our subscription, to our second subscription (guaranteed by Dr Mond), and to our government guarantee, we are asked to declare that, however serious and unforeseen loss may be, we are to have no moral claim whatever on such help as other countries might be willing to contribute. That we have no legal claim is clear from the fact that we secured our Government guarantee for the very purpose of meeting such difficulties, and in the case of France the declaration of Darboux clearly shows that you will recognize no claim.

The state of things then is this. Every condition laid down by the 1900 Conference has been fulfilled.

The position of France has been made clear by her representatives, and we have no idea that it will be necessary to ask her to do more than to take the volumes.

We are satisfied with the conditions of the Conference and with the declaration of M. Darboux. If you wish to modify the resolutions of the Conference and if the International Council decides that it can modify these resolutions, the Royal Society might be willing to yield to a general request that it should take a responsibility (which I do not personally think to be very great) in exchange for the veto; but in that event we must ask you to take such steps as may seem good to you to secure the adhesion of other countries to your views. We do not wish to ask for the veto. It should be offered to us.

In conclusion, I wish to point out that there is no fundamental difference between us and you. We do not want either fresh responsibility or the veto, though if we take one we think we ought to have the other. We will take them both if asked to do so by all the bodies concerned; but we ought not to be put in the position to have to ask for them.

My own position is that all that you want would be attained by a fresh declaration of your representative, in as precise terms as you please, that France does not intend to put more money into the enterprise than the annual subscription, and that you regard the financial control of the Council as being chiefly directed to seeing that the annual income is not exceeded.

If you desire something more, I can only say that while the Royal Society is not opposed to your wish, but would probably agree to it if the other countries join with you, we regard it as a matter to be discussed at the forthcoming meeting of the International Council, and not for private settlement between you and us. In the event of other countries not associating themselves with you in the matter, we shall raise no difficulty if you think it necessary to formulate the position of France more precisely. It would be a very grave disaster if the cordial cooperation of the French Government and of French men of science were not secured, and we are disposed to meet your wishes in every which does not trench upon the powers of the International Council. In particular we are quite ready to acknowledge that France has limited her responsibility to the amount of her subscriptions for the volumes.

I am, Yours very truly,

For A. W. Rücker,

M. Forster

Secretary R. S.

TLS 4p. F/17/17161, Archives nationales.

Last edit: 8.05.2016