A History of Science


The period from 1637 to 1687 affords a good illustration of the value for the progress of science of the coöperation in the pursuit of truth of men of different creeds, nationalities, vocations, and social ranks. At, or even before, the beginning of that period the need of coöperation was indicated by the activities of two men of pronouncedly social temperament and interests, namely, the French Minim father, Mersenne, and the Protestant Prussian merchant, Samuel Hartlib.

Mersenne was a stimulating and indefatigable correspondent. His letters to Galileo, Jean Rey, Hobbes, Descartes, Gassendi, not to mention other scientists and philosophers, constitute an encyclopedia of the learning of the time. A mathematician and experimenter himself, he had a genius for eliciting discussion and research by means of adroit questions. Through him Descartes was drawn into debate with Hobbes, and with Gassendi, a champion of the experimental method. Through him the discoveries of Harvey, Galileo, and Torricelli, as well as of many others, became widely known. His letters, in the dearth of scientific associations and the absence of scientific periodicals, served as a general news agency among the learned of his time. It is not surprising that a coterie gathered about him at Paris. Hobbes[Pg 100] spent months in daily intercourse with this group of scientists in the winter of 1636-37.

Hartlib, though he scarcely takes rank with Mersenne as a scientist, was no less influential. Of a generous and philanthropic disposition, he repeatedly impoverished himself in the cause of human betterment. His chief reliance was on education and improved methods of husbandry, but he resembled Horace Greeley in his hospitality to any project for the public welfare.

One of Hartlib’s chief hopes for the regeneration of England, if not of the whole world, rested on the teachings of the educational reformer Comenius, a bishop of the Moravian Brethren. In 1637, Comenius having shown himself rather reluctant to put his most cherished plans before the public, his zealous disciple precipitated matters, and on his own responsibility, and unknown to Comenius, issued from his library at Oxford Preludes to the Endeavors of Comenius. Besides Hartlib’s preface it contained a treatise by the great educator on a Seminary of Christian Pansophy, a method of imparting an encyclopedic knowledge of the sciences and arts.

The two friends were followers of the Baconian philosophy. They were influenced, as many others of the time, by the New Atlantis, which went through ten editions between 1627 and 1670, and which outlined a plan for an endowed college with thirty-six Fellows divided into groups—what would be called to-day a university of research endowed by the State. It is not surprising to find Comenius (who in his student days had been under the influence of Alsted, author of an encyclopedia on Baco[Pg 101]nian lines) speaking in 1638 on the need of a collegiate society for carrying on the educational work that he himself had at heart.

In 1641 Hartlib published a work of fiction in the manner of the New Atlantis, and dedicated it to the Long Parliament. In the same year he urged Comenius to come to London, and published another work, A Reformation of Schools. He had great influence and did not hesitate to use it in his adoptive country. Everybody knew Hartlib, and he was acquainted with all the strata of English society; for although his father had been a merchant, first in Poland and later in Elbing, his mother was the daughter of the Deputy of the English Company in Dantzic and had relatives of rank in London, where Hartlib spent most of his life. He gained the good-will of the Puritan Government, and even after Cromwell’s death was working, in conjunction with Boyle, for the establishment of a national council of universal learning with Wilkins as president.

When Comenius arrived in London he learned that the invitation had been sent by order of Parliament. This body was very anxious to take up the question of education, especially university education. Bacon’s criticisms of Oxford and Cambridge were still borne in mind; the legislators considered that the college curriculum was in need of reformation, that there ought to be more fraternity and correspondence among the universities of Europe, and they even contemplated the endowment by the State of scientific experiment. They spoke of erecting a university at London, where Gresham College had been established in 1597 and Chelsea College in[Pg 102] 1610. It was proposed to place Gresham College, the Savoy, or Winchester College, at the disposition of the pansophists. Comenius thought that nothing was more certain than that the design of the great Verulam concerning the opening somewhere of a universal college, devoted to the advancement of the sciences, could be carried out. The impending struggle, however, between Charles I and the Parliament prevented the attempt to realize the pansophic dream, and the Austrian Slav, who knew something of the horrors of civil war, withdrew, discouraged, to the Continent.

Nevertheless, Hartlib did not abandon the cause, but in 1644 broached Milton on the subject of educational reform, and drew from him the brief but influential tract on Education. In this its author alludes rather slightingly to Comenius, who had something of Bacon’s infelicity in choice of titles and epithets and who must have seemed outlandish to the author of Lycidas and Comus. But Milton joined in the criticism of the universities—the study of words rather than things—and advocated an encyclopedic education based on the Greek and Latin writers of a practical and scientific tendency (Aristotle, Theophrastus, Cato, Varro, Vitruvius, Seneca, and others). He outlined a plan for the establishment of an institution to be known by the classical (and Shakespearian) name “Academy”—a plan destined to have a great effect on education in the direction indicated by the friends of pansophia.

In this same year Robert Boyle, then an eager student of eighteen just returned to England from residence abroad, came under the influence of the[Pg 103] genial Hartlib. In 1646 he writes his tutor inquiring about books on methods of husbandry and referring to the new philosophical college, which valued no knowledge but as it had a tendency to use. A few months later he was in correspondence with Hartlib in reference to the Invisible College, and had written a third friend that the corner-stones of the invisible, or, as they termed themselves, the philosophical college, did now and then honor him with their company. These philosophers whom Boyle entertained, and whose scientific acumen, breadth of mind, humility, and universal good-will he found so congenial, were the nucleus of the Royal Society of London, of which, on its definite organization in 1662, he was the foremost member. They had begun to meet together in London about 1645, worthy persons inquisitive into natural philosophy—Wilkins, interested in the navigation of the air and of waters below the surface; Wallis, mathematician and grammarian; the many-sided Petty, political economist, and inventor of a double-bottomed boat, who had as a youth of twenty studied with Hobbes in Paris in 1643, and in 1648 was to write his first treatise on industrial education at the suggestion of Hartlib, and finally make a survey of Ireland and acquire large estates; Foster, professor of astronomy at Gresham College; Theodore Haak from the Pfalz; a number of medical men, Dr. Merret, Dr. Ent, a friend of Harvey, Dr. Goddard, who could always be relied upon to undertake an experiment, Dr. Glisson, the physiologist, author in 1654 of a treatise on the liver (De Hepate), and others. They met once a week at Goddard’s in Wood Street, at the Bull’s Head Tavern in Cheapside, and at Gresham College.

From An Introduction to the History of Science, by Walter Libby, available free at Gutenberg. To be continued


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