Down a mineshaft or why historians (must) become polymaths.

A few weeks ago I wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek post about The Ideal Historian of Science. I say somewhat because in reality a historian (and not just a historian of science), who is worth his or her salt, has to be a widely eclectic polymath prepared to mug up on a new discipline or field of human endeavour whenever and wherever the subject he is studying or researching demands it of him or her and believe you me such demands occur much more often than the non-historian would imagine.

I have, for example, over the years many varied reasons as to why I had to confront the subject of mining, mostly, in the early modern period. I have been led there by investigations into alchemy, geology, mineralogy, early European algebra, economics, astronomical instrument manufacture and physics amongst others. Also by people as diverse as Georg Agricola (mineralogist, *15th C), Adam Ries (reckoning master, *15th C), John Dee (alchemist, *16th C), Evangelista Torricelli (physicist, *17th C) and Alexander von Humboldt (polymath, *18th C). In what follows I will sketch one simple example from the history of science that if investigated more deeply leads unavoidably to a confrontation with the history of mining.

My example starts with a historical anecdote that is often used in school physics lessons. In 1648 the French polymath Blaise Pascal sent his brother in law, Périer, up the Puy de Dôme, a volcano in the Massif Central, carrying a primitive barometer. This experiment demonstrated that the level of the barometer’s column of mercury varied according to the altitude thus ‘proving’ that the atmosphere had weight that lessened the higher one climbed above the earth’s surface. This experiment provided a necessary building brick in the theory that the earth’s atmosphere doesn’t get blown away if the earth is moving because it is held in place by the force of gravity. Thus disposing of one of the most serious objections to heliocentricity. This proof had to wait, of course, for Newton to develop the theory of universal gravity, which still lay a few years in the future.

With his barometrical experiments Pascal was confirming and extending the results obtained earlier in the same century by the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli who is usually credited with having invented the barometer. Now at this point in the story a good historian will ask, what led Torricelli to invent the barometer? It’s here that we, so to speak, fall down a mineshaft for the first time. Torricelli was trying to find out why an air pump could only pump water to a height of approximately ten metres. The answer as we now know is because atmospheric pressure is only strong enough to support a ten-metre column of water. This was Torricelli’s great discovery. But why was Torricelli investigating this problem at all? The answer was mining. The Renaissance saw a vast increase in mining particularly in Middle Europe, which increased the necessity of pumping water out of mineshafts leading to attempts to improve the quality and efficiency of air pumps, thus Torricelli’s investigations. The question that now confronts our historian is why the increase in mining but having shown how a question about the history of the discovery of atmospheric pressure leads to mining I shall leave that question for another time and head in the other direction down times arrow.

As I’ve already indicated Torricelli’s and Pascal’s barometric experiments played an important role in establishing the heliocentric theory in cosmology but that was by no means their only scientific of technological consequence. These experiments, as is well known, also demonstrated the existence of the vacuum something that had been disputed since antiquity. In fact Pascal’s confirmation of the existence of the vacuum led to a dispute with Descartes, whose mechanical philosophy had no place for the existence of empty space. However other more open minded thinkers than Descartes seized upon this nothing and used it to further the progress of science.

Otto von Guericke invented the vacuum pump, which in the hands of the Roberts Boyle and Hooke, amongst others, proved a source for an apparently endless series of experiments that would eventually lead to the understanding of the function of respiration in animals as well as in plants and many other fascinating discoveries. However I wish to follow the vacuum in a different direction.

Leibnitz’s attempts to create a vacuum using explosions led his assistant Denis Papin to invent the first atmospheric steam engine. As an aside it should be noted that Papin worked on and improved Boyle’s vacuum pump. Papin’s steam engine never got beyond the model stage but in 1712 Thomas Newcomen either stole Papin’s idea or reinvented the atmospheric steam engine; it is not known whether he knew of Papin’s work or not. Newcomen’s engine was famously inefficient and it was first the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt who succeeded in making the steam engine a viable proposition.

Now Watt’s work was not something that happened overnight but was a long and weary process that took many years and a great deal of financial investment. Although he was a successful instrument maker Watt could not produce the type of finance necessary to see his steam engine project to fruition so he needed a powerful financial backer. He found the support he needed in the person of the industrialist and member of the Lunar Society, a group dedicated to scientific research, Matthew Boulton. Now we have to ask why was Boulton prepared to invest vast amounts of money to allow Watt to perfect his steam engine? Boulton needed a more efficient source of power to pump the water out of his tin mines in Cornwall, which takes us back down that mineshaft.

Anybody doing contextual history will, no matter what the starting point of his or her investigations, eventually run up against one or other field of human endeavour about which he or she is more or less ignorant. When this happens our intrepid historian has one of two choices he or she can either stop his or her investigations at that point and not answer the obvious questions that have popped up or he or she can buckle down and acquire a working knowledge of a new field thus increasing his or hers status as a polymath.

 

 

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Down a mineshaft or why historians (must) become polymaths.

  1. Someone once asked me what people needed to know in order to do history of philosophy; I replied, “Everything. That’s why it’s always a work in progress.” Trying to figure out what was going on in a dispute in epistemology leads to an academic controversy in Edinburgh which leads to trying to figure out what professors of medicine were expected to teach which (when brought back to the original topic) leads to the interaction between physicians and ministers in Scotland which leads to ecclesiastical politics in the Church of Scotland which leads to an earlier dispute in epistemology that (it turns out) everyone knew about but rarely did more than allude to… And then, of course, sometimes you’ll be looking into a question that’s apparently completely different and realize that you had misunderstood something that had come up previously, and then you’re off again.

  2. As I prepare to write a historical essay I descend into a colloidal state, reading widely around the edges of whatever my topic is. I’m writing now about “space weather” and its journey from ho-hum science to something that worries FEMA and electronics users. So I have read about shortwave radio in the 1930s, the FCC, spy satellites, cell phones, and plasma physics. The connection to mining came ca. 1948 with Runcorn, Blackett, and magnetometers down a British mine shaft. I hope to crystallize soon.

  3. This is part of what I love about the history of science — it just keeps opening up new things I didn’t realize were linked — but also what scares me away from the field. I realize I’d let myself get caught in an ever-widening circle of context-searching.

  4. Jeb

    History, “its character, and the probable mode of its continuance in depth”

    I used a technique from the start of my studies that came from Stuart Piggot, that he termed grazing.

    When entering the library at Edinburgh (size of four football pitches) go to the section you need get the suggested books then just wander around randomly into other subject areas see what comes up.

    Hours and hours of endless fun.

  5. Pingback: Weekly List Bookmarks (weekly) | Eccentric Eclectica @ ToddSuomela.com

  6. ErikC

    Reblogged this on Erik Champion and commented:
    My thoughts, yes..

  7. You said, Watt could not produce the type of finance necessary to see his steam engine project to fruition so he needed a powerful financial backer. He found the support he needed in the person of the industrialist and member of the Lunar Society, a group dedicated to scientific research, Matthew Boulton. Now we have to ask why was Boulton prepared to invest vast amounts of money to allow Watt to perfect his steam engine? Boulton needed a more efficient source of power to pump the water out of his tin mines in Cornwall, which takes us back down that mineshaft.

    Now, I’ve been down a Cornish mineshaft (2,600 ft). Boulton borrowed all the money and worried Watt to death. Boulton didn’t have any tin mines. Sorry to be nerdy but Watt did not perfect a steam engine; he perfected an atmospheric engine. The steam engine that you are thinking about, the high-pressure one we all recognise, the one that drove the Industrial Revolution and all the transport, was invented by a Cornishman called Richard Trevithick.
    Savery came historically between Papin and Newcomen, but I’ve said enough! I’ll happily meet the historians down those shafts. happy days!

    • Obviously in your partisan fanaticism you forgot to learn to read. I wrote:

      …led his assistant Denis Papin to invent the first atmospheric steam engine.

      and

      …Thomas Newcomen either stole Papin’s idea or reinvented the atmospheric steam engine…

      I was in no way thinking of Trevithick’s high pressure steam engine, which was indeed superior to the atmospheric steam engine but is a product of the 19th and not the 18th century.

      Boulton may not have personally owned a tin mine but the Cornish tin mines, of which Boulton as one of the worlds leading manufacturers of metal products was certainly a major customer, were the first major market for Boulton-Watt steam engines.

      Also if you wish to advertise your book on my website it would have been polite to ask first.

    • Philip M Hosken

      Boulton had considerable interests in Cornish copper mines; he required the copper for his mint and the manufacture of ormolu. Something else missed when you were reading history was Savery’s patented ‘Miners’ Friend’ steam engine. Newcomen probably didn’t steal Papin’s idea as you suggest; Savery did. Then Newcomen had to pay royalties to Savery for the use of his patent. That was in spite of the fact that the second (high pressure) stage of Savery’s engine didn’t work.
      Trevithick’s engine, unlike its predecessors was driven by steam. It first saw the light of day in the C18th and was developed in the C19th.
      Would it be in order to advertise the extensive Denis Papin celebrations at Chitenay this coming July?

      • Newcomen probably didn’t steal Papin’s idea as you suggest; Savery did.

        Savery’s steam engine had no piston and functioned on a completely different physical principle to the Papin/Newcomen engines. However the patent granted to Savery by the English Parliament covered all engines that raised water by fire forcing Newcomen to pay royalties to Savery for the use of his patent and eventually to go into partnership with him.

  8. DCA

    Actually, Newcomen’s engine was a (qualified) success: there were several hundred of them, at least, at work by Watt’s time. Most of them were pumping from coal mines, for which there was free fuel (coal too small to sell), but some were used elsewhere, even in some cases to drive a factory (by pumping water to turn a waterwheel).

    And I think it is fair to call Watt’s engine “steam”, since that was what was on both sides of the piston–at low pressure. Trevithick (and Evans) introduced high pressure, which made for much more power for a given size–and also, handled properly (this is when the Cornish mines came to play their most important role), even higher efficiency (not that anyone knew why). [I’ve drawn on Rolt for Newcomen, Dickinson for Watt and after, and also Barton and Hunter for high pressure and Cornwall].

    Actually, I’m not sure (looking at Middleton’s History of the Barometer) that mines were involved at all. Torricelli was the first to use mercury, but had been preceded by Berti, using water–and the references to the problem of finite suction for water all seem to be to wells around Florence, or to siphons. Italy was not much of a mining area compared to the Harz.

    But I completely agree about the merits (and the pleasures) of being a polymath.

  9. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #56 | The Dispersal of Darwin

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