Category Archives: History of Technology

History of the little things

This is going to be one of those blog posts where I indulge in thinking out loud. I will ramble and meander over and through some aspects of something that has been occupying my thoughts for quite sometime without necessarily reaching any very definite conclusions.

As I said the topic I’m about to discuss has occupied my thoughts for quite sometime but this post was triggered by an interesting blog post by Rachel Laudan, one time historian of science, currently food historian and most recently the author of the excellent Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. In her blog post Rachel discusses the uses to which gourds have been put in the history of cooking. Depending on how you cut it the same gourd can become a spoon or a bowl or a flask (and much, much more. Read the article!). Although this is an article about the history of food and cooking it is at the same time an article about the history of technology. All of the things that Rachel describes are tools and the history of technology is the history of human beings as toolmakers and the tools that they have made.

Here, from Senegal on the west bulge of Africa, is a gourd cut in half to make a spoon, holding millet porridge with raisins. The tablespoon gives the scale.

 

The thought that Rachel’s post triggered is my answer to the oft stated question, what is the greatest, most important, most significant or whatever human invention? Most people answer the wheel, or the light bulb or the steam engine or the motorcar or the airplane or something else along those lines. Some sort of, for its time, high tech development that they think changed the course of history. My, I’ll admit deliberately provocative answer, is the sewing needle; a, for most people, insignificant everyday object produced in factories by the millions. An object that most people normally don’t really give any thought to, unless they are desperately searching for one to sew on that button that fell off their best jacket an hour before that all important interview.

So, how would I justify my chose of the sewing needle as the most important human invention? The sewing needle made it possible for humanity to make clothes way back in the depths of prehistory. The oldest known needles go back at least 50,000 years but they are arguably much older. Making clothes was a necessary prerequisite of early humans moving out of tropical Africa into less clement climes. Naturally before the invention of the needle humans could simply wrap themselves in animal skins or furs joined together by primitive buttons or toggles. However a tailored and sewn set of clothes allows the wearer to move easily, to hunt or to run when threatened, things that are difficult when simply wrapped in a heap of skins or furs.

Sewing is just one of the technologies that people don’t automatically thing of when the term history of technology is mentioned. Others from the same domestic area are weaving, crochet and knitting and yes crochet and knitting are technologies. I have a suspicion that such domestic technologies get ignored in the popular conception of the history of technology is because they are women’s activities. In the popular imagination technology is masculine; man is the toolmaker, woman is the carer. The strange thing about this essentially sexist view of the history of technology is that the domestic technologies, clothes making, cooking etc. play a very central role in human survival and human progress. Humans can survive without cars but a naked human being without cooked food in a hostile environment is on a fast track to the grave. These small, everyday aspects of human existence need to receive a much greater prominence in the popular history of technology.

It is not just in the history of technology that the small and everyday gets ignored in #histSTM accounts. A recent discussion on an Internet mailing list complained about the fact that the discussion of the 100th anniversary of the Mount Wilson Observatory Hooker telescope spent a lot of time discussing Edwin Hubble’s discoveries made with it but wasted not a single word on the technicians who built and installed it or those who operated it. Without the work of these people Hubble wouldn’t have discovered anything. In general in the popular accounts of #histSTM the instrument makers and technicians rarely if ever get mentioned, just the big name scientists. Most of those big name scientists would never have become big name without the services of the instrument makers and technicians but throughout history most of them don’t just remain in the background they remain nameless. We need to do more to emphasise the fact that developments in science and technology are not just made by big names but by whole teams of people many of whom remain, in our fame obsessed society, anonymous.

Another area where popular #histSTM falls down is in the dissemination and teaching of science and technology. People tend not to consider the teachers and the textbook authors when discussing the history of science. These people, however, play an important and very central role in the propagation of new developments and discoveries. Students of a scientific discipline tend on the whole to gain their knowledge of the latest developments in their discipline from their teachers and the textbooks and not from reading the original books and papers of the discoverers. Science is propagated down the generation by these background workers far more than by the “great” men or women who hog the headlines in #histSTM. A good example for such an important teacher and textbook author is Christoph Clavius, about whom I wrote my first actual #histSTM post here on the Renaissance Mathematicus. Another good example is Philipp Melanchthon, who as a teacher and textbook author introduced the mathematical sciences into the newly founded Lutheran Protestant education system; Clavius did the same for the Catholic education system.

Christopher Clavius (1538–1612)
Source: Wikimedia Common

 

 

Portrait of Philip Melanchthon, 1537, by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon, a major fan and supporter of the sciences, recognised the importance of good textbooks in the propagation of science. When he established new universities in Paris he insisted that the leading French scientists and mathematicians, whose very active patron he was, write the new textbooks for his new institutions. A model we could well copy.

If we are to progress beyond the big names, big event, hagiographic presentations of #histSTM, and we seriously need to do so, then we should not just look towards the minor, less well-known or completely unknown, scientists in the second row, as I have endeavoured to do over the years here, but even further down the fame tree to the instrument makers, technicians, teachers, textbook writers and others who assists the scientists and propagate and disseminate their discoveries, the facilitators. There are already scholars who have and do research and publish about these facilitators and the reviewers and science communicators need to do more to bring this work to the fore and into the public gaze and not just promote the umpteenth Newton biography.

 

 

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Filed under History of science, History of Technology, Myths of Science

Juggling information

One of the parlour games played by intellectuals and academic, as well as those who like to think of themselves as such, is which famous historical figures would you invite to a cocktail or dinner party and why. One premise for the game being, which historical figure or figures would you most like to meet and converse with. As a historian of mostly Early Modern science I am a bit wary of this question, as many of the people I study or have studied in depth have very unpleasant sides to their characters, as I have commented in the past in more than one blog post. However in my other guise, as a historian of formal or mathematical logic and the history of the computer there is actually one figure, who I would have been more than pleased to have met and that is the mathematician and engineer, Claude Shannon.

A young Claude Shannon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For those who might not know who Claude Shannon was, he was a man who made two very major contributions to the development of the computers on which I am typing this post and on which you are reading it. The first was when he at the age of twenty-one, in what has been described as the most important master’s thesis written in the twentieth century, combined Boolean algebra with electric circuit design thus rationalising the whole process and simplifying the design of complex circuitry beyond measure. The second was sixteen years later when he in his A Mathematical Theory of Communication, building, it should be added, on the work of others, basically laid the foundations of our so-called information age. His work laid out how to transmit digital signals through circuitry without loss of information. He is regarded as the über-guru of information theory, to quote Wikipedia:

 Information theory studies the quantification, storage, and communication of information. It was originally proposed by Claude E. Shannon in 1948 to find fundamental limits on signal processing and communication operations such as data compression, in a landmark paper entitled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”.

Given that the period we live in is called both the computer age and the information age, it is somewhat surprising that the first full-length biography of Shannon, A Mind at Play,[1] only appeared this year. Having somewhat foolishly said that I would hold a public lecture in November on Vannevar Bush, who was Shannon’s master’s thesis supervisor, and Shannon, I have been reading Soni’s and Goodman’s Shannon biography, which I have to say I enjoyed immensely.

 

This is a full length, full width biography that covers both the live of the human being as well as the intellectual achievements of the engineer-mathematician. Shannon couldn’t decide which to study as an undergraduate so he did a double BSc in both engineering and mathematics. This dual course of studies is what led to that extraordinary master’s thesis. Having studied Boolean algebra in his maths courses Shannon realised that he could apply it to rationalise and simplify electrical switching when working, as a postgrad, on the switching circuits for Bush’s analogue computer, the differential analyser. It’s one of those things that seems obvious with hindsight but required the right ‘prepared mind’, Shannon’s, to realise it in the first place. It is a mark of his character that he shrugged off any genius on his part in conceiving the idea, claiming that he had just been lucky.

Shannon’s other great contribution, his treatise on communication and information transmission, came out of his work at Bell Labs as a cryptanalyst during World War II. The analysis of language that he developed in order to break down codes led him to a more general consideration of the transmission of information with languages out of which he then laid down the foundations of his theories on communication and information.

Soni’s and Goodman’s and volume deals well with the algebraic calculus for circuit design and I came away with a much clearer picture of a subject about which I already knew quite a lot. However I found myself working really hard on their explanation of Shannon’s information theory but this is largely because it is not the easiest subject in the world to understand.

The rest of the book contains much of interest about the man and his work and I came away with the impression of a fascinating, very deep thinking, modest man who also possessed a, for me, very personable sense of humour. One aspect that appealed to me was that Shannon was a unicyclist and a juggler, who also loved toys, hence the title of my review. As I said at the beginning Claude Shannon is a man I would have liked to have met for a long chat over a cup of tea.

An elder Claude Shannon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the whole I found the biography well written and light to read, except for the technical details of Shannon information theory, and it contains a fairly large collection of black and white photos detailing all of Shannon’s life. As far as the notes are concerned we have the worst of all possible solutions, hanging endnotes; that is endnotes, with page numbers, to which there is no link or reference in the text. There is an extensive and comprehensive bibliography as well as a good index. This is a biography that I would whole-heartedly recommend to anybody who might be interested in the man or his area of work or both.

 

 

[1] Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Simon & Shuster, New York etc., 2017

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Computing, History of Logic, History of Technology

The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

The title of this post is the subtitle of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, her mega bestselling account of the life and work of the eighteenth-century clock maker John Harrison; probably the biggest selling popular #histSTM book of all time.

I’m quite happy to admit that when I first read it I was very impressed by her account of a man I didn’t know from a period of history with which I was not particularly well acquainted. However, because I was very impressed, I went looking for more information about the history of John Harrison and the marine chronometer. I found and read quite a lot of academic literature on both topics and came to the realisation that Sobel’s account was not really the true story and that she had twisted the facts to make for a more exciting story but quite far removed from the true narrative.

P.L. Tassaert’s half-tone print of Thomas King’s original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library, London
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The next segment of the subtitle is also not true. Harrison was supported and encouraged in his endeavours by George Graham, possibly the greatest eighteenth-century English clockmaker, and James Short, almost certainly the greatest telescope maker in the world in the eighteenth century. Both men were important and highly influential figures in the scientific and technological communities of the period. Their support of Harrison rather gives the lie to the claim that Harrison was a lone genius.

George Graham
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The final segment of the subtitle is also highly inaccurate. The problem that Harrison and others were working on in the eighteenth century was a reliable method of determining longitude at sea. They were trying to solve a technological problem not a scientific one. The scientific problem had already been solved in antiquity. Scholars in ancient Greece already knew that to determine the difference in longitude between two locations, one ‘merely’ had to determine the local time difference between them; knowing this the problem was how to determine that time difference, as I said a technological problem.

In antiquity and up to the early modern period cartographers and astronomers (usually the same person) used astronomical phenomena such as solar or lunar eclipses. Observers determined the local time of the occurrence of a given astronomical phenomenon at two different locations and it was then possible to determine their longitudinal difference. Unfortunately eclipses are not very frequent occurrences and so this method has rather limited usefulness. Something else had to be developed.

In the early seventeenth century both Galileo Galilei and Simon Marius discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter and Galileo realised that the orbits of these moons and their appearances and disappearances as the circled Jupiter could, if tabulated accurately enough, be used as a clock to determine longitude. Towards the end of the seventeenth century Giovanni Domenico Cassini and Ole Rømer succeeded in producing the necessary tables and Galileo’s idea could be put into practice. Whilst this method was very successful for cartographers on land, on a rolling ship it was not possible to observe the Jupiter moons accurately enough with a telescope to be able to apply this method; something else had to be used.

The two solutions that came to be developed in the eighteenth century and form the backbone of Sobel’s book, the lunar distance method (lunars) and the marine chronometer, were both first suggested in the sixteenth century, the former by Johannes Werner and the latter by Gemma Frisius. Other methods were suggested but proved either impractical or downright impossible. For lunars you need accurate lunar orbit tables and an accurate instrument to determine the position of the moon. Tobias Mayer provided the necessary tables and John Hadley the instrument with his sextant. For the clock method you require a clock that has a high level of accuracy over a long period of time and which retains that accuracy under the often very adverse conditions of a sea voyage; this is the technological problem that Harrison solved. Sobel presents the two methods as in competition but for navigators they are in fact complimentary and they were both used. As my #histsci soul sister Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt constantly repeats, with the marine chronometer you can carry longitude with you, but if you chronometer breaks down you can’t find it, whereas with lunars you can find longitude, as James Cook did in fact do on one of his voyages.

As I said above, I began to seriously doubt the veracity of Sobel’s account through my own study of the academic accounts of the story, these doubts were then confirmed as I began to follow the blog of the Longitude Board research project set up by Cambridge University and the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, of which Becky Higgitt was one of the lead researchers. For a more balanced and accurate account of the story I recommend Finding Longitude the book written by Becky and Richard Dunn to accompany the longitude exhibition at the Maritime Museum, one of the products of the research project.

Recently I have become fully aware of another aspect of the Harrison story that Sobel does not cover. I say fully aware because I already knew something of it before reading David S. Landes’ excellent Revolution in Time: Clocks and the making of the Modern World (Harvard University Press, 1983). Landes covers the whole history of the mechanical clock from the Middle Ages through to the quartz wristwatch. One of his central themes is the increasing accuracy of clocks down the ages in which the invention of the marine chronometer played a central role, so he devotes a whole chapter to Harrison’s endeavours.

Landes quite correctly points out that after a lifetime of experimentation and ingenious invention John Harrison did indeed produce a solution to the technological problem of determining longitude with a clock. An astute reader with a feel for language might have noticed that in the previous sentence I wrote ‘a solution’ and not ‘the solution’ and therein lies the rub. Over the years that he worked on the problem Harrison produced many ingenious innovations in clock making in order to achieve his aim, an accurate, reliable, highly durable timepiece, however the timepiece that he finally produced was too complex and too expensive to be practicable for widespread everyday service at sea. Harrison had, so to speak, priced himself out of the market.

Harrison’s “Sea Watch” No.1 (H4), with winding crank
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Harrison was by no means the only clock maker working on a viable marine chronometer in the eighteenth century and it is actually his competitors who in the end carried away the laurels and not Harrison. Two clockmakers who made important contributions to the eventual development of a mechanically and financially viable marine chronometer were the Frenchman Pierre Le Roy and Swiss Ferdinand Berthoud, who were bitter rivals.

Pierre Le Roy (1717–1785)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plans of Le Roy chronometer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ferdinand Berthoud (1727–1807)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Berthoud marine clock no.2, with motor spring and double pendulum wheel, 1763
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Neither of them can be said to have solved the problem but the work of both of them in different ways led in the right direction. Another contributor was George Graham’s one time apprentice, Thomas Mudge, his highly praised marine chronometer suffered from the same problem as Harrison’s too complex and thus too expensive to manufacture.

The two English clock makers, who actually first solved the problem of a viable marine chronometer were John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw, who also became bitter rivals. This rivalry involved accusations of theft of innovations and disputes over patents. In the end it was John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw, who became the most successful of the early clock makers, who worked on the development of the marine chronometer.


Chronometer-maker John Arnold (1736–1799) (attributed to Mason Chamberlin, ca. 1767)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Earnshaw (!749–1829)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earnshaw chronometer No. 506
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I don’t intend to go into the details of which innovations in clock manufacture each of the man listed above contributed to the development of the marine chronometer that would go on to become an essential navigation tool in the nineteenth century. What I wish to make clear is exactly the same point as my essay on the history of the reflecting telescope for AEON made. From its first conception by Gemma Frisius in the sixteenth century, through the failure of Christiaan Huygens to realise it with his pendulum clock in the late seventeenth century (not discussed here), over its first successful realisation by John Harrison and on to the creation of a viable model by a succession of eighteenth-century clock makers, the marine chronometer was not the product of a single man’s (John Harrison’s) genius but a tool that evolved through the endeavours of a succession of dedicated inventors and innovators. Scientific and technological progress is teamwork.

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Filed under History of Navigation, History of Technology, Myths of Science

Recipes in the Wild By Paul Engle June 1, 2017

The Recipes Project blog is, starting today, running a Virtual Conversation on the theme, “What is a Recipe?” I featured this in the editorial of the latest edition of Whewells Gazette the Weekly #histSTM Links List. Inspired by a comparison that I made between algorithms and recipes and a question that I posed, Paul Engle, author of the very excellent Conciatore: The Life and Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri and writer of the Conciatore Blog, sent me the following essay stating, “Feel free to do with it what you will.” So what I will is to post it here as a very welcome guest blog post from an excellent historian of technology who really knows what a recipe is.  

It has been suggested at Whewell’s Gazette in a recent editorial that in considering recipes, particularly technical recipes and their relation to algorithms, that, “the two words are in their essence synonyms and there isn’t really a difference.” [1] With all due respect to the author of this passage, I do not think that is quite right.

A recipe is much more than an algorithm, in fact I propose that while algorithms are quite powerful tools, they occupy a rather distinct niche in the universe of recipes. We do agree on some things however,

“For me a recipe is quite simply a set of instructions, which describe how to complete successfully a given task. The task does not necessarily have to have anything to do with cooking, the first thought that pops up when we hear the word recipe.” [2]

I have thirty-odd years of empirical experience writing and following technical recipes in a laboratory setting; I have several shelves full of them that I am looking at right now. I have been programming computers and dealing with algorithms, dare I say it, since the days of punch cards and paper tape. This is a subject particularly dear to me and besides, I sense an irresistible opportunity to make a fool of myself, so here goes.

In the realms of mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a set of instructions that enjoy several conditions favorable over recipes; a well-defined environment where it does not matter if it is raining or sunny outside and an output or result that is usually unambiguous. For recipes, not so much; even the lowly baker known that on humid days, a prized and tested bread recipes must be adjusted to produce an edible product. These adjustments do not always take a form that can easily be measured or quantified and this starts to get at the heart of the matter.

Any day of the week, rain or shine, a computer running a straightforward algorithm can generate the first million digits of pi, (yes, the millionth digit is 1). While there may be a certain amount of difficulty in verifying a result, it is something that is done quite routinely. While some simple recipes fall into this form, many others do not. Consider that some technical recipes seem to work even if we do not know how. Others require “experienced” practitioners, not because of anything magical going on, but simply because the most reliable results are obtained by one who has done it before. Even with seemingly simple, well-documented tasks like polishing a material, there can be an enormous number of variables involved, some unknown, others that are not practical or possible to control.

An algorithm generally lives in an artificially constructed, tightly controlled environment, recipes, on the other hand, operate in the wild. An aspect of technical recipes often missed by outsiders is the level of attention that must be paid to the interaction of your “product” with its environment. This may mean frequent observation and testing, or, in the kitchen, it may mean tasting the gumbo every few minutes and making appropriate adjustments. No matter if the result is a well-polished sample in a materials laboratory, or a well-seasoned bowl of soup in the French Quarter, what makes the result “good” is not necessarily easy to define. We can calibrate our equipment and take great care with our materials. We can scrutinize the results, and take measurements until the cows come home, but in many instances, this is only a starting point; learning to perform a recipe “well” can be like a mini-education. Writing that down stepwise can be like trying to capture everything you learned at cooking school.

It is in this setting, where there are many variables to keep track of, many unknowns, and even the results may be hard to characterize, that we step into the realm of “art.” A successful outcome depends as much on what you bring to the table as what is written on the page. A recipe becomes like a roadmap for threading your way through a complex maze of decision points. Here is where I get passionate about my subject. Practicing a recipe, in a sense, can be viewed as the purest form of empirical science. And this can take place in a laboratory or in a kitchen. If science is the study of the way the world actually behaves, then going through a series of steps and paying close attention to what is happening, is as good as it gets. It is not a matter of imposing ones will on the world, but of interacting with nature and moving toward a result given the constraints of reality; there is a give and take. A scientific experiment can be viewed as the act of developing a new recipe toward a specific result. Writing that recipe down is an exercise in determining the important variables to pay attention to and capturing a method in a way that is repeatable by others.

As computer algorithms move into the realms of artificial intelligence, driverless cars and the like, they will start to encounter the same difficulties as our baker does on a humid day. Perhaps a true test of machine intelligence will be how well an algorithm negotiates real-world recipes.

[1] Christie, Thony 2017. Whewell’s Ghost blog, “Editorial, Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #41” 31 May 2017.
[2] Op. Cit.

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Filed under History of science, History of Technology

On an excursion

If you wish to read the latest words of wisdom, this time on the conception and invention of the reflecting telescope, then you will have to take an excursion to AEON magazine, where you can peruse:

How many great minds does it take to invent a telescope?

Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope of 1671. Photo ©The Royal Society, London

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Technology, Newton

The problem with Jonathan Jones and #histSTM

It cannot be said that I am a fan of Jonathan Jones The Guardian’s wanna be art critic but although I find most of his attempts at art criticism questionable at best, as a historian of science I am normal content to simply ignore him. However when he strays into the area of #histSTM I occasionally feel the desire to give him a good kicking if only a metaphorical one. In recent times he has twice committed the sin of publicly displaying his ignorance of #histSTM thereby provoking this post. In both cases Leonard da Vinci plays a central role in his transgressions, so I feel the need to make a general comment first. Many people are fascinated by Leonardo and some of them feel the need to express that fascination in public. These can be roughly divided into two categories, the first are experts who have seriously studied Leonardo and whose utterances are based on knowledge and informed analysis, examples of this first group are Matin Kemp the art historian and Monica Azzolini the Renaissance historian. The second category could be grouped together under the title Leonardo groupies and their utterances are mostly distinguished by lack of knowledge and often mind boggling stupidity. Jonathan Jones is definitely a Leonardo groupie.

Jones’ first foray into the world of #histSTM on 28 January with a piece entitled, The charisma droids: today’s robots and the artists who foresaw them, which is a review of the new major robot exhibition at the Science Museum. What he has to say about the exhibition doesn’t really interest me here but in the middle of his article we stumble across the following paragraph:

So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer [my emphasis]. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.

Now I have no doubts that amongst his many other accomplishments Leonardo turned his amazingly fertile thoughts to the subject of automata, after all he, like his fellow Renaissance engineers, was a fan of Hero of Alexandria who wrote extensively about automata and also constructed them. Here we have the crux of the problem. Leonardo was not “one of the first recorded inventors of robots”. In fact by the time Leonardo came on the scene automata as a topic of discussion, speculation, legend and myth had already enjoyed a couple of thousand years of history. If Jones had taken the trouble to read Ellie Truitt’s (@MedievalRobots) excellent Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) he would have known just how wrong his claim was. However Jones is one of those who wish to perpetuate the myth that Leonardo is the source of everything. Actually one doesn’t even need to read Ms. Truitt’s wonderful tome, you can listen to her sketching the early history of automata on the first episode of Adam Rutherford’s documentary The Rise of the Robots on BBC Radio 4, also inspired by the Science Museums exhibition. The whole series is well worth a listen.

On 6 February Jones took his Leonardo fantasies to new heights in a piece, entitled Did the Mona Lisa have syphilis? Yes, seriously that is the title of his article. Retro-diagnosis in historical studies is a best a dodgy business and should, I think, be avoided. We have whole libraries of literature diagnosing Joan of Arc’s voices, Van Gough’s mental disorders and the causes of death of numerous historical figures. There are whole lists of figures from the history of science, including such notables as Newton and Einstein, who are considered by some, usually self declared, experts to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. All of these theories are at best half way founded speculations and all too oft wild ones. So why does Jonathan Jones think that the Mona Lisa had syphilis? He reveals his evidence already in the sub-title to his piece:

Lisa del Giocondo, the model for Leonardo’s painting, was recorded buying snail water – then considered a cur for the STD: It could be the secret to a painting haunted by the spectre of death.

That’s it folks don’t buy any snail water or Jonathan Jones will think that you have syphilis.

Let’s look at the detail of Jones’ amazingly revelatory discovery:

Yet, as it happens, a handful of documents have survived that give glimpses of Del Giocondo’s life. For instance, she is recorded in the ledger of a Florentine convent as buying snail water (acqua di chiocciole) from its apothecary.

Snail water? I remember finding it comical when I first read this. Beyond that, I accepted a bland suggestion that it was used as a cosmetic or for indigestion. In fact, this is nonsense. The main use of snail water in pre-modern medicine was, I have recently discovered, to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis.

So she bought some snail water from an apothecary, she was the female head of the household and there is absolutely no evidence that she acquired the snail water for herself. This is something that Jones admits but then casually brushes aside. Can’t let ugly doubts get in the way of such a wonderful theory. More importantly is the claim that “the main use of snail water snail water in pre-modern medicine was […] to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis” actually correct? Those in the know disagree. I reproduce for your entertainment the following exchange concerning the subject from Twitter.

Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner)

Hello, you may have read that the Mona Lisa had syphilis. This thread points out that is probably bollocks

 Dubious theory – the key evidence is her buying “snail water”, but this was used as a remedy for rashes, earaches, wounds, bad eyes, etc…

Greg Jenner added,

Seen this ‪@DrAlun ‪@DrJaninaRamirez ? What say you? I’ve seen snail water used in so many different Early Modern remedies

Alun Withey (@DrAlun)

I think it’s an ENORMOUS leap to that conclusion. Most commonly I’ve seen it for eye complaints.

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @DrJaninaRamirez yeah, as I thought – and syphilis expert @monaob1 agrees

 Alun Withey

‪@greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez @monaob1 So, the burning question then, did the real Mona Lisa have sore eyes? It’s a game-changer!

Mona O’Brian (@monaob1)

‪@DrAlun @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez interested to hear the art historical interpretation on the ‘unhealthy’ eyes comment!

Alun Withey

‪@monaob1 @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez doesn’t JJ say in the article there’s a shadow around her eyes? Mystery solved. *mic drop*

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @monaob1 @DrJaninaRamirez speaking as a man who recently had to buy eye moisturiser, eyes get tired with age? No disease needed

 Mona O’Brian

@greg_jenner Agreed! Also against the pinning of the disease on the New World, considering debates about the disease’s origin are ongoing

Jen Roberts (@jshermanroberts)

‪@greg_jenner I just wrote a blog post about snail water for @historecipes –common household cure for phlegmy complaints like consumption.

Tim Kimber (@Tim_Kimber)

‪@greg_jenner Doesn’t the definite article imply the painting, rather than the person? So they’re saying the painting had syphilis… right?

Minister for Moths (@GrahamMoonieD)

‪@greg_jenner but useless against enigmatic smiles

Interestingly around the same time an advert was doing the rounds on the Internet concerning the use of snail slime as a skin beauty treatment. You can read Jen Roberts highly informative blog post on the history of snail water on The Recipes Project, which includes a closing paragraph on modern snail facials!

 

 

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Filed under History of medicine, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Why Mathematicus?

“The Renaissance Mathematiwot?”

“Mathematicus, it’s the Latin root of the word mathematician.”

“Then why can’t you just write The Renaissance Mathematician instead of showing off and confusing people?”

“Because a mathematicus is not the same as a mathematician.”

“But you just said…”

“Words evolve over time and change their meanings, what we now understand as the occupational profile of a mathematician has some things in common with the occupational profile of a Renaissance mathematicus but an awful lot more that isn’t. I will attempt to explain.”

The word mathematician actually has its origins in the Greek word mathema, which literally meant ‘that which is learnt’, and came to mean knowledge in general or more specifically scientific knowledge or mathematical knowledge. In the Hellenistic period, when Latin became the lingua franca, so to speak, the knowledge most associated with the word mathematica was astrological knowledge. In fact the terms for the professors[1] of such knowledge, mathematicus and astrologus, were synonymous. This led to the famous historical error that St. Augustine rejected mathematics, whereas his notorious attack on the mathematici[2] was launched not against mathematicians, as we understand the term, but against astrologers.

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome
Source: Wikimedia Commons

However St. Augustine lived in North Africa in the fourth century CE and we are concerned with the European Renaissance, which, for the purposes of this post we will define as being from roughly 1400 to 1650 CE.

The Renaissance was a period of strong revival for Greek astrology and the two hundred and fifty years that I have bracketed have been called the golden age of astrology and the principle occupation of our mathematicus is still very much the casting and interpretation of horoscopes. Mathematics had played a very minor role at the medieval universities but the Renaissance humanist universities of Northern Italy and Krakow in Poland introduced dedicated chairs for mathematics in the early fifteenth century, which were in fact chairs for astrology, whose occupants were expected to teach astrology to the medical students for their astro-medicine or as it was known iatro-mathematics. All Renaissance professors of mathematics down to and including Galileo were expected to and did teach astrology.

A Renaissance Horoscope Kepler's Horoskop für Wallenstein Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Renaissance Horoscope
Kepler’s Horoskop für Wallenstein
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, to teach astrology they also had to practice and teach astronomy, which in turn required the basics of mathematics – arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry – which is what our mathematicus has in common with the modern mathematician. Throughout this period the terms Astrologus, astronomus and mathematicus – astrologer, astronomer and mathematician ­– were synonymous.

A Renaissance mathematicus was not just required to be an astronomer but to quantify and describe the entire cosmos making him a cosmographer i.e. a geographer and cartographer as well as astronomer. A Renaissance geographer/cartographer also covered much that we would now consider to be history, rather than geography.

The Renaissance mathematicus was also in general expected to produce the tools of his trade meaning conceiving, designing and manufacturing or having manufactured the mathematical instruments needed for astronomer, surveying and cartography. Many were not just cartographers but also globe makers.

Many Renaissance mathematici earned their living outside of the universities. Most of these worked at courts both secular and clerical. Here once again their primary function was usually court astrologer but they were expected to fulfil any functions considered to fall within the scope of the mathematical science much of which we would see as assignments for architects and/or engineers rather than mathematicians. Like their university colleagues they were also instrument makers a principle function being horologist, i.e. clock maker, which mostly meant the design and construction of sundials.

If we pull all of this together our Renaissance mathematicus is an astrologer, astronomer, mathematician, geographer, cartographer, surveyor, architect, engineer, instrument designer and maker, and globe maker. This long list of functions with its strong emphasis on practical applications of knowledge means that it is common historical practice to refer to Renaissance mathematici as mathematical practitioners rather than mathematicians.

This very wide range of functions fulfilled by a Renaissance mathematicus leads to a common historiographical problem in the history of Renaissance mathematics, which I will explain with reference to one of my favourite Renaissance mathematici, Johannes Schöner.

Joan Schonerus Mathematicus Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joan Schonerus Mathematicus
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schöner who was a school professor of mathematics for twenty years was an astrologer, astronomer, geographer, cartographer, instrument maker, globe maker, textbook author, and mathematical editor and like many other mathematici such as Peter Apian, Gemma Frisius, Oronce Fine and Gerard Mercator, he regarded all of his activities as different aspects or facets of one single discipline, mathematica. From the modern standpoint almost all of activities represent a separate discipline each of which has its own discipline historians, this means that our historical picture of Schöner is a very fragmented one.

Because he produced no original mathematics historians of mathematics tend to ignore him and although they should really be looking at how the discipline evolved in this period, many just spring over it. Historians of astronomy treat him as a minor figure, whilst ignoring his astrology although it was this that played the major role in his relationship to Rheticus and thus to the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. For historians of astrology, Schöner is a major figure in Renaissance astrology although a major study of his role and influence in the discipline still has to be written. Historians of geography tend to leave him to the historians of cartography, these whilst using the maps on his globes for their studies ignore his role in the history of globe making whilst doing so. For the historians of globe making, and yes it really is a separate discipline, Schöner is a central and highly significant figure as the founder of the long tradition of printed globe pairs but they don’t tend to look outside of their own discipline to see how his globe making fits together with his other activities. I’m still looking for a serious study of his activities as an instrument maker. There is also, as far as I know no real comprehensive study of his role as textbook author and editor, areas that tend to be the neglected stepchildren of the histories of science and technology. What is glaringly missing is a historiographical approach that treats the work of Schöner or of the Renaissance mathematici as an integrated coherent whole.

Western hemisphere of the Schöner globe from 1520. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Western hemisphere of the Schöner globe from 1520.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The world of this blog is at its core the world of the Renaissance mathematici and thus we are the Renaissance Mathematicus and not the Renaissance Mathematician.

[1] That is professor in its original meaning donated somebody who claims to possessing a particular area of knowledge.

[2] Augustinus De Genesi ad Litteram,

Quapropter bono christiano, sive mathematici, sive quilibet impie divinantium, maxime dicentes vera, cavendi sunt, ne consortio daemoniorum animam deceptam, pacto quodam societatis irretiant. II, xvii, 37

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Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of science, History of Technology, Renaissance Science