Sorrenson, Richard, Perfect Mechanics. Instrument Makers at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century, Boston: Docent Press, 2013, ix+240 pp. Amazon link.
Perfect Mechanics looks at the connections, and tensions, between the Eighteenth-Century mathematical instrument makers and the Royal Society. In this highly-readable and well-researched adaptation of a Princeton Ph.D., Sorrenson blends together over-arching themes with detailed case studies.
If the Royal Society was an elite club for philosophical gentlemen, what were mere artisans doing there? Sorrenson shows that both halves of this thesis are flawed. Although a Royal Society, and chartered by Charles II, the Society was largely neglected by indifferent sovereigns. While an interest in the workings of the society and sufficiently high rank was a guarantee of membership, the remainder of the fellows formed a more diverse group than might be imagined. While social status was an advantage, membership could be achieved through diligent study, patient observation, and significant contribution to the body of knowledge, regardless of class. While the Society depended for its continued existence on a group of (largely) landed gentry who paid their dues and took their copies of the Society’s journal of record, the Philosophical Transactions, but played little active part in the working of the organization, the active Fellows spanned a range of social class.
The Society’s mission was exploration of the modern experimental and natural philosophies, but in outlook they were more Baconian than Newtonian. Observation and experimentation were prized above abstract theorizing. “To the eighteenth-century Fellows of the Royal Society, the ideal scientific life was exemplified by those members who made careful observations of natural or artificial phenomena, gave them a mechanical explanation or demonstration where possible, avoided grand theory, and above all produced reliable and accurate facts” (35). Newton cast a long shadow. Sorrenson notes that pure mathematics makes up some 2% of all papers published in the Philosophical Transactions.
Behind the search for reliable and accurate facts lay the instruments, and the instrument makers. The eighteenth century saw the introduction of a host of observation instruments, and the refinement of others, from telescopes and microscopes, to vacuum pumps, barometers, hydrometers and clocks. Observations with these instruments greatly augmented natural human senses and as the facts became more accurate and precise, they uncovered new, unexpected phenomena. The gentlemen philosophers needed close interaction with the artisans, and here we come to the second part of Sorrenson’s analysis. While instrument makers for the regular trade could be seen just as craftsmen, working with their hands for commercial gain, those at the cutting edge of instrument design needed both a practical ability and theoretical background. A few instrument makers at the top of their profession made their own discoveries, published in the Philosophical Transactions, were awarded the Copley Medal, the Society’s highest honor, and were welcomed as Fellows. Sorrenson presents three case studies, for the early part of the century, the middle and the latter decades.
First is George Graham (1673—1751). Praised for the great mural quadrant he designed and made for Edmond Halley for the Greenwich Observatory, an instrument of unsurpassed accuracy, Graham regularly published his own astronomical observations in the Philosophical Transactions, and the great accuracy of his instruments allowed the discovery of the new phenomenon of the aberration of starlight, a discovery in which he himself played a significant part.
Graham also discovered the diurnal variation in the Earth’s magnetic field by the expedient of making a superbly accurate compass and taking careful measurements several times a day for two solid years. An exemplar of the governing philosophy of science. Graham had trained as a clockmaker under Thomas Tompion. The rate of a pendulum clock depends on the length of the pendulum, and this varies with temperature as the length of the pendulum increases in warmer weather and decreases in colder weather. Therefore a clock will not beat steady time over the year. Graham devised a way of attaching a mercury column to the pendulum to exactly counter this effect, and this is the instrument displayed behind him in the portrait above (from an engraving by J. Faber after Thomas Hudson).
Sorrenson’s second case is the Dollond family, especially John Dollond (1706—1761). The Dollonds were opticians, and, along with spectacles, the main optical instrument of the mid-eighteenth century was the telescope. Telescopes are either reflecting (using mirrors) or refracting (using lenses). When light passes through a lens, the material bends, or refracts, the light. However, the amount the light is bent depends on the wavelength, with the blue and red bending through different angles. This is the phenomenon that allows a prism to split up white light. However, in a telescope, it means that white starlight gets smeared with colored fringes, a problem known as chromatic aberration that limits the accuracy of observations. John Dollond found a way two put two lenses of different types of glass together (crown and flint) to cancel out the effect. Not only did this immediately make refractive telescopes better (and sweep the market), but Isaac Newton had investigated the issue and stated flatly that it could not be solved. Dollond had bested Newton.
The third case is Jesse Ramsden (1735—1800), who married John Dollond’s daughter, Sarah. At the height of his career, Ramsden made the best instruments available. Orders poured in from observatories and kings across Europe. His extreme accuracy was matched only by his extreme dilatoriness. If you wanted a Ramsden instrument, you had to wait. He made enormous vertical circles, one seen in the background, used by astronomers to create improved star catalogs, and he designed and built the enormous theodolite used for the first Ordnance Survey of England. Ramsden’s other claim to fame, also shown in his portrait, is the dividing engine. This apparatus allowed and journeyman or apprentice, to divide a surveying instrument with the accuracy previously only available to the most skilled craftsmen. With this, he could produce cheaper and better sextants and other instruments for the insatiable navigational market, but the price for the profession was a loss of status. From experts mixing theoretical philosophy with practical mechanics, they became machine-tool users. The delicate social balance between gentlemen and instrument makers was being lost.
Sorrenson’s argument for how the instrument makers achieved social status, and how they lost it, is carefully made. The book contains a wealth of detail (and characters) not touched on here, all told with an ease that litle academic scholarship attains. Perfect Mechanics is an important account of a crucial period of development in British science and industry showing how philosophy, economics, social manners and technology blended together.
Joshua Kirby had a deep and abiding interest in mathematical instruments, especially those connected with architectural and perspective drawing, and he had close relationships with several of the instrument makers in London, including John Bennet and George Adams. He designed several instruments and, indeed, wrote a book on a sector he designed. I have been digging into the world of the London instruments and instrument makers, which was going through something of a golden period when Kirby was involved, and I am giving a talk on the subject at the Canadian Mathematical Society Winter Meeting in Ottawa on December 7. Here’s my abstract:
DUNCAN MELVILLE, St. Lawrence University
Dividing to rule: Precision mathematical instruments in mid-18th century England
Development of mathematical sciences in the 18th century, especially in the interwoven strands of astronomy, navigation, and surveying, was driven by measurements of ever-increasing exactness. The mathematical instrument makers who designed and reﬁned instruments of exquisite precision had to be experts in both theory and practice. In this talk I will explain some of the problems faced, and techniques used, by the leading practitioners of the day to produce such accurate measurements.
Detailed bibliographic information for the talks in this conference proceedings does not seem to be easily available and since there are quite a variety of papers there, I thought I would offer up a table of contents. The conference ran for three days, and the papers for each day have an introduction I have omitted from the contents.
Bart Grob and Hans Hooijmaijers (eds.), Who Needs Scientific Instruments. Conference on Scientific Instruments and their Users, 20–22 October 2005. Leiden: Museum Boerhaave, 2006, 272 pp. (plus CD-ROM).
van Lunteren, Frans. ‘”Beati possidentes”: The Royal Dutch Academy and the standard metre’, 17—27.
von Lünen, Alexander. `Who needs scientific instruments? Philosophers! Physiology and philosophy in the fin e siècle’, 29—35.
Gaulke, Karsten. `Scrutinising a legend: A new look at the mathematical instruments and clocks of Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel and the `Wissenschaftskammer”, 37—46.
Hauschke, Sven. `Scientific instruments, the ‘Kunstkammer’ and the invention of the renaissance ‘Kunstschrank”, 49—55.
Le Guet Tully, Françoise; and Davoigneau, Jean. `The 19th-century observatory today: From astronomical instrument to cultural and scientific symbol’, 57—64.
Pettersen, Björn Ragnvald. Astronomy in a shipping nation: harbor observatories in Norway 1850—1900′, 67—72.
Dupre, Sven; and Korey, Michael. `The use and re-use of optical instruments: Creating knowledge in the Dresden Kunstkammer’, 75—80.
Morrison-Low, Alison. “It was a dark and stormy night,: Instrument makers and the Northern lights’, 89—97.
Baker, Alexi Shannon. ‘The London instrument trade, from Culpeper to Cole’, 99—105.
Huisman, Tim. `The Leiden Theatrum Anatomicum: An instrument of encyclopaedic knowledge in a changing world’, 107—113.
Jorink, Erik. “These wonderful galsses’. Dutch humanists and the microscope, 1620—1670′, 115—122.
Roberts, Lisa. `Running in place: Location and identity in the history of Dutch steam engines’, 125—132.
Brüsch, Björn. `The technical sphere of the garden: uses of instruments and garden devices in 19th-century gardening’, 135—141.
Sichau, Christian. `Making science modern by setting up an experimental observatory in Victorian Britain’, 143—148.
van Delft, Dirk. `The blue-collar boys: The school of instrument makers at the Leiden Physics Laboratory of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes’, 151—156.
Soubiran, Sebastien. `From scientific instrument to technical efficiency: British Royal navy technological testing process, 1913—1940′, 159—167.
Erlingsson, Steindor J. `The Plymouth laboratory of the Marine Biological Association and the rise of experimental zoology in Britain’, 169—174.
Camerota, Filippo. `Admirabilis Circinus: The spread and improvement of Fabrizio Mordente’s compass’, 183—192.
Zik, Yaakov. `Theory and practice of early telescopic observation: Galileo and the telescope’, 195—200.
Raposo, Pedro. `Down-to-earth solutions for celestial purposes: Remarks on the life and works of the astronomer/instrument maker Campos Rodrigues (1836—1919)’, 203—207.
Débrabat, Suzanne. `From sea to land: From Hadley’s octant to Danjon’s astrolabe’, 209—216.
de Hilster, Nicolàs. `Reconstruction of the Spiegelboog‘, 219—225.
Caplan, James. `Reduction procedures and the development of the meridian circle in the 19th century’, 227—233.
Ratcliff, Marc. `Forms shaped by functions? Using, improving and conceiving microscopes during the 1740s’, 235—244.
Fournier, Marian. `From the laboratory to the factory: Le Poole and the electron microscope’, 247—251.
Kremer, Richard. `Inventing instruments and users: Harold Edgerton and the General Radio Company, 1932—1970′, 253—262.
Care, Charles. `The analogue computer as scientific instrument’, 265—271.
Do look the papers up if there is something that interests you.
Alexi Baker published a short paper, “The London instrument trade, from Culpeper to Cole”, in the proceedings of the conference `Who Needs Scientific Instruments’ held October 20—22, 2005 at the Museum Boerhave in Leiden. Although she was concerned with the whole spectrum of scientific instrument makers, I just want to pick out a couple of comments she made about the mathematical ones. The conference proceedings were published with an accompanying CD giving the speakers slides, so you can see the maps she is referring to in the text. She gives a spatial distribution across London of the different kinds of instrument makers, noting the wide dispersion of the mathematical instrument makers:
The locations of the mathematical, philosophical and tri-class instrument trades also shifted westward [over time], with the mathematical instrument makers and sellers covering the most ground. Their core concentration extended from St. James and especially from Covent Garden east to the Royal Exchange and then reappeared in clusters in the Minories and near the Tower, with the northernmost point at Moorfields. The locations expanded in all directions and slightly to the south bank over time, before largely consolidating in the west, reflecting the economic range of the mathematical instrument trade from the higher end from St. James to the Royal Exchange, to the lower end on the periphery.
I find her description interesting and reasoning compelling. Mathematical instruments spanned the spectrum from high-end productions for royalty and the massive, expensive, and extremely accurate instruments for observatories, down to the basic toolkit of every surveyor, navigator, and mathematician. Baker continues with a comparison of the philosophical instrument makers being more concentrated on their elite patrons in the west.
I also found her analysis of the wide spread of backgrounds (especially guild backgrounds) interesting.
Baker, A. ‘The London instrument trade, from Culpeper to Cole,’ in Bart Grob and Hans Hooijmaijers (eds.), ‘Who Needs Scientific Instruments: Conference on scientific instruments and their users 20-22 October 2005’ (Leiden, 2006), 99-105.
Campbell’s London Tradesman naturally does not include mathematician as a trade, but he does, in Chapter 55, get around to mathematical instrument makers. We will have occasion to look at mathematical instruments, and, in particular, sectors, later on, so herewith is his brief chapter on the subject.
CHAP. LV. Of the Mathematical and Optical Instrument, and Spectacle-Maker.
The Mathematics-Instrument-Maker makes all kind of Instruments constructed upon Mathematical Principles, and used in Philosophical Experiments: He makes Globes, Orrerys, Scales, Quadrants, Sectors, Sun-Dials of all Sorts and Dimensions, Air-Pumps, and the whole Apparatus belonging to Experimental Philosophy. He ought to have a Mathematically turned Head, and be acquainted with the Theory and Principles upon which his several Instruments are constructed, as well as with the practical Use of them. He employs several different Hands, who are mere Mechanics, and know no more of the Use or Design of the Work they make, than the Engines with which the greatest Part of them are executed; therefore the Master must be a thorough Judge of Work in general.
The Optical-Instrument-Maker is employed in making the various sorts of Telescopes, Microscopes of different Structures, Spectacles, and all other Instruments invented for the Help or Preservation of the Sight, and n which Glasses are used. He himself executes very little of the Work, except the grinding the Glasses: He grinds his Convex-Glasses in a Brass Concave Sphere, or a Diameter large in proportion to the Glass intended, and his Concave-Glasses upon a Convex Sphere of the same Metal: His Plane-Glasses he grinds upon a just Plane, in the same Manner as the common Glass-Grinder, mentioned Chap. XXXII, Sect. 4. He grinds them all with Sand and polishes them with Emery and Putty. The Cases and Machinery of his Instruments are made by different Workmen, according to their Nature, and he adjusts the Glasses to them.
It is a very ingenious and profitable Business, and employs but a few Hands as Masters. The Journeymen earn a Guinea a Week, and some more, according as they are accurate in their Trade. Such a Tradesman designed for a Master ought to have a pretty good Education, and a penetrating Judgment, to apprehend the Theory of the several Instruments he is obliged to make, and must be a thorough Judge of such Work as he employs others to execute. A Youth may be bound to either of these Trades any time between thirteen and fifteen Years of Age, and does not require much Strength.
From the dry text, I get the impression that he does not know much about this business, nor care very much. You might argue that he was just tired by Chapter 55, but he is back to form in the following Chapter, on shagreen, trunk, and box makers.
So, I hear you ask, who were these instrument makers? Fortunately, Mortimer’s Universal Director of 1763, has the answer: Optical and Mathematical Instrument Makers
- Adams, George, Mathematical Instrument-maker to his Majesty. Fleet-Street.
- Ayscough, James, Optician. Ludgate-Street.
- Bennet, John. Crown-court, near Golden-square
- Bird, John. Strand, near the New Exchange-buildings. This ingenious Artist has improved several Astronomical Instruments; and the new Astronomical Instruments in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich were made by him.
- Dollond, Peter, Optician to his Majesty and the Duke of York, and sole Maker of the Refracting Telescopes, invented by the late Mr. John Dolland, who obtained his Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent for the said invention. Strand, near Exeter-‘change.
- Gilbert, John, Tower-hill.
- Gregory, Henry, Mathematical Instrument-maker. Leadenhall-street, near the East-India-house.
- Heath and Wing, Mathematical and Optical Instrument-makers; inventors of the new Theodolite for Surveying of Land; and of the Pantographer for Copying of Drawings. Strand, near the Savoy-gate.
- Hill, Nathaniel, Globe-maker and Map-engraver. Chancery-lane, Fleet-street.
- Johnson, Samuel, Optician. Ludgate-street.
- Lincoln, Charles. Cornhill, near the Poultry.
- Manning, Charles. Wapping-wall.
- Martin, Benjamin, Optician and Mathematical Instrument-maker; inventor and improver of several Mathematical Instruments, and author of “The General Magazine.” Fleet-street. This Artist reads Lectures on Experimental Philosophy.
- Nairne, Edward, Optical and Mathematical Instrument-maker. Cornhill, opposite the Royal Exchange.
- Scarlett, Edward, Optician. Near St. Anne’s Church, Soho.
- Short, James, A.M. F.R.S. and Acad. Reg. Suec. Soc. Optician, solely for Reflecting Telescopes. Surry-street, Strand. The six-feet Newtonian Telescope, In the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, was made by this Artist.
- Sisson, Jeremiah. The Corner of Beauford-buildings in the Strand.
- Stedman, Christopher. Leadenhall-street.