John Wilkins Day

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 (?) 14 February in 1614.

Greenhill, John, c.1649-1676; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659)

Greenhill, John; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659); Wadham College, University of Oxford;

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.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Small animals also make manure

15 responses to “John Wilkins Day

  1. Pingback: Christie on John Wilkins as “science fan” « a simple prop

  2. John Wilkins

    I want it known that I am not the same man as the 17th century polymath. I am much, much, older…

  3. rahere

    I’m now linking to the last post: my work on d’Ailly and van Eyck has produced a link to a diplomatic follower of d’Ailly, Nicholas of Cues (Cusanus) who links that early cosmology to Keppler – see for the van Eyck link, and for some constructional maths, and check his Wiki entry.
    However, that also takes us right back to the pure mysticism of Ruusbroec’s Sparkling Stone, and slap into the zone of pure theology, which was roughly the point under discussion with the ID crowd some months back…thank heavens for that Obama quote!

    • Jeb

      I am a bit out of my depth on the science side of things as I look at the relationship with popular belief and I no idea what you are doing. First link you posted rang a bell concerning a diffrent subject I have looked at.

      My not be relevant but I would have a glance at William Gilbert. Sir Thomas Brownes comments on Gilbert are also of interest as a way into the wider cultural play with possible related beliefs I suspect.

      But thats just a hunch at the moment. These themes get a bit slippery to deal with out in the wilder world of belief.

      • Thanks, we are – I’m working with Laura Smoller of Arkansas on the matter. The problem is that at around 1400 the subject disappears into some of the more extreme mystical forms of Catholicism, between Aquinus and à Kempis, which seem to have tried to tread the line between religion and Aristotelian logic. Then neo-Platonism came along from the Arabic translators of Greek sources not available in the West, complicating matters by adding in elements of Arabic and Indian thinking, not to mention the Mongol output of their Samarkand observatory. When we add in the work of people like Albertus Magnus in cologne and Ramon Llull, doubly confused because others ascribed their work to them to hitch a ride on the gravy train, then we get really crazy.
        Part of the problem is that we’re still bound by enlightenment orthodoxy, which was as bigotted in its own way as was Catholicism. This is why you’re still bound to the 1560s, which was, to be fair, a time of great change. In the Simancas Royal Archive outside Valencia, the notes between Phillip II and his secretary Pedro de la Hoya are preserved which document what appears to have been a successfuly alchemical transmutation of gold in Brussels, firstly in 1560-1 and then again later in the decade. This was done in full view of the imperial court, and sparked an alchemical furore across Europe, giving credibility to such people as John Dee and the jealous sponsorship of the other branch of the Hapsburgs in Rudolph II’s open competition in Prague in the decade which followed. This opened up the possibility of wider thinking, which led to the work of Kircher, Vincenzo Galileo and Puteanus in Brussels, still very esoteric as they were working on the boundaries of musical theory and astronomy: go read Craig Wright’s The Maze and the Warrior for a view from Yale’s professor of the History of Music on how some of this worked in the then-established academic norm of the quadrivium. And don’t be afraid of the more extreme religious claims – it’s just possible that something really out of the pages of Dan Brown gave Brussels success and Prague failure, in hard pragmatic terms.

  4. Jeb

    “Such people need to be studied as much as the scientists if we are to truly understand the history of science.”

    Tells us more about the history of culture and the origins of literacy as well as the history of science I suspect.

    The important role of Legal kindreds and legal text in the development of early Celtic literature is well understood and discussed from the 6th cen. onwards; the role of Medical kindreds and their textual sources are little explored in this regard but are as important and crucial to understand and interprete a range of key material that develops between the 6th to 12th cen.

  5. There is this small connection between John Wilkins (the bishop) and Darwin.

    And don’t let the non-episcopal Wilkins fool you … he’s younger than us all!

  6. Jeb

    hmmm. Still its not as if you can reject Darwin unlike Foucault’s laughter concerning the good Bishop and the uncertain Chinese encyclopedia of Borges.

    I thought post- modernisim might prove useful providing a more fluid and flexable approach before reading that part of his work.

    But I found that elsewhere, much to my amusment.

  7. Jeb

    I just strayed across “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan” (alive son of awake) by Ibn Tufail which goes under the latin name of “Philosophus Autodidactus” (the Self Taught Philosopher) or in English, “The Improvment of Human Reason”.

    An early example of the mixing of science and fiction and rather a hit in the late 17th cen. I find it fascinating for a number of reasons.

    A nice addition to Wilkins day as the novel opens
    with a somewhat popular, entertaining and not unfamiliar subject.

    “Our Ancestors, of Happy Memory, tell us, that there is an Island in the Indian Ocean, situate under the Equinoctial, where Men come into the world spontaneously without the help of Father and Mother.”

  8. Pingback: How I got to know Joseph Moxon: On Asking the right Questions. « The Renaissance Mathematicus

  9. Pingback: Monday Blast from the Past #1 | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  10. Pingback: If it hadn’t been for X there wouldn’t be a Y. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  11. Pingback: Christmas Trilogy 2016 Part 3: The English Keplerians | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  12. Pingback: Two views of the celestial spheres | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  13. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #27 | Whewell's Ghost

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s