Regular readers of my meanderings on the history of science will have noticed that I fairly often refer to John Wilkins author of that excellent fount of biological wisdom Evolving Thoughts. The John Wilkins of my title however, is not the Internet’s beloved Aussie Anthropoid but his 17th century namesake the good Bishop of Chester who was born on the 1st of January in 1614.
Wilkins is one of those figures in the history of science who whilst making no real contributions to science itself succeeded in their work and writings in furthering the cause of science in a significant way. In his early writings Wilkins can be compared to a Martin Gardner or an Isaac Asimov. In fact the second comparison is more apposite as Wilkins wrote both science fiction and popular science books. One major difference is that whereas Asimov and Gardner are reacting to and reporting on the actual science of their age Wilkins is writing propaganda in an attempt to interest his readers in the new science of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Mersenne which was still rejected by the majority of educated people in England at the time that he was writing.
Wilkins’ The Discovery of a World in the Moone was one of a series of stories published in the 17th century that use a fictitious journey to the moon as a means of presenting the Copernican world view. The first was Kepler’s Somnium published posthumously by his son-in-law in 1634. The second was Francis Godwin’s (another Anglican bishop) The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage thither, by Domingo Gonsales written earlier but first published in the same year as Wilkins volume, which it had strongly influenced, 1638. The last was Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, which borrowed heavily from both Wilkins and Godwin and appeared in 1657. Wilkins followed this work with another piece of Copernican propaganda his A Discourse Concerning a New Planet in 1640. Of course all of these tales owe a debt to Lucian’s satire A True Story and Plutarch’s The Face on the Moon whilst at the same time anticipating Verne and Wells by more than two hundred years. Wilkins’ books were highly influential in spreading the heliocentric astronomy but he is also guilty of having started a scientific myth. In his work he claimed that Christoph Clavius, Europe’s most important astronomer in the first decade of the 17th century and a staunch defender of Ptolemaic geocentricity, had been converted to heliocentricity shortly before his death in 1612 by his institutes confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries. This claim is simply not true but in Wilkins’ defence it must be said that he was extrapolating from a deliberate false quote, published by Kepler, designed to imply the same.
In 1648 Wilkins published the 17th century’s equivalent of The Boy’s Own Book of Engineering Wonders his Mathematical Magick. The first half of this book was a description of the machines of antiquity as presented by Archimedes whilst the second half was more in the style of Leonardo and describes fantasy machines of the future. Leonardo and Wilkins were not alone in their fascination for machines both real and fantastic and this fascination was one of the driving forces behind the development of science in the Renaissance, but that is a subject for another post.
Wilkins was also the author of two related works on artificial languages. The first his Mercury or the Swift and Secret Messenger published anonymously in 1641 was the first book printed in English on cryptography. Interestingly one of Wilkins’ closest friends and fellow founding member of the Royal society, the mathematician John Wallis, gained his early reputation as a mathematician as a cryptographer for Cromwell in the English Revolution. His second book on languages An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, published in 1668 was an attempt at the establishment of an artificial universal language for the communication between natural philosophers i.e. scientists. This was part of a much larger interest in such projects throughout the 17th century, amongst others in the work of Bacon, Descartes and Leibniz, which is disgust briefly but informatively by the other John Wilkins in his book Species: A History of the Idea, (UCP, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2009) pp. 57 – 65. As a foot note Wilkins’ Essay contains what appears to be the first ever proposal for a purely metric measuring system.
I have already briefly alluded to Wilkins main claim to fame the founding of the Royal Society. Wallis says that the Royal society had its origins in meetings of scientists organised by Wilkins in London beginning in 1645. After various diversions over Oxford and Cambridge this group came together formally in London in 1660, with Wilkins as their first Secretary, and gained their Royal Charter in 1662.
Wilkins is typical of a certain type of science fan who through their enthusiasm and active support do as much to further the cause of science as any scientist and in fact more than most. Such people need to be studied as much as the scientists if we are to truly understand the history of science.