The Swinging 1660s

Readers of my occasional autobiographical posts will know that I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970s and was a fully-fledged member of the drug freak generation. Indulging freely in a wide range of illicit substances, something I neither regret nor overly value; it was how it was. However, always the born historian, when my drug freak colleagues were busy lighting up that spliff or dropping that tab, I was also busy reading up on the report of the 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission or the Scythian shamans use of cannabis or Albert Hofmann’s synthesis of LSD at Sandoz or the medieval outbreaks of St Anthony’s Fire caused by ergot-based drugs. In other words I didn’t just want to get high but also to discover the history of humans getting high.

Later in my life during the time that I managed the monthly #histsci blog carnival On Giants’ Shoulders and then ran the weekly #histsci journal Whewell’s Gazette I regularly read a lot of blogs and one blog that I very much enjoyed was Benjamin Breen’s Res Obscura. Though not strictly a #histsci blog Res Obscura is a wonderful cornucopia of erudite, entertaining, enlightening and educational essays about, well, obscure things as the blog name says.

Given this two rather disparate aspects of my life I was delighted when I discovered that Benjamin Breen had written and published a book with the title, The Age Of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade*. I knew that this was a book that I wanted to read and read it I have and it has fulfilled all my expectations.


Now it might seem at first glance that my youthful adventures in the age of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll and Breen’s academic opus about the beginnings of the global drug trade in the early modern period would have little or nothing in common but appearances can be deceptive and in this case they are. One of Breen’s central themes in his book is that the dichotomies that characterised the world of drugs in the 1960s and 70s, medical–recreational, legal–illicit, natural–synthetic were in fact created during the European confrontation with exotic new drugs from South America and Asia during the Early Modern Period, which shaped the way we see intoxicants today.

Early in his book Breen explains to the reader, or in my case reminds him, that the word drug originally meant dry goods, as is still obvious in the North American drugstore or the German Drogeriemarkt. This meant that the “drugs” that the early European trader–explorer brought back home from all over the world included not only what we would now call drugs but also a very diverse range of other goods, including herbs and spices, dyes, soaps, incenses, pigments or even jewels. Although, one should add than many of these non drug dry good were often also regarded as medicines. One should also remember that three of our everyday commodities, coffee, chocolate and tobacco, were originally viewed as medicinal drugs.

Breen narrative centres around two of the early European empires the Portuguese and the English, as the main sources for the introduction and establishment of intoxicant drugs into European culture. The book is divided into two sections. The first of these, entitled Invention of Drugs, begins with the Portuguese search of new drugs in the jungles of Brazil, inspired by the discovery of quinine, the ground up bark of the cinchona tree, by the Jesuits in Peru. We then move on to the selling of the new drugs in the Apothecaries of Europe. This section closes with a fascinating discussing Fetishizing Drugs about the relationship between drug use, religion and magic in Early Modern Africa.


The second section, Altered States, tackles the whole concept of intoxication. It opens with the strange, under the counter so to speak, relationship between the Portuguese, oft Jesuit, discoverers and importers of drugs and the natural philosophers of the English Royal Society. This exchange of information and knowledge, whilst for a period highly active, remained largely clandestine because of the religious, political and philosophical clash that existed publically between the two parties. But the exchange did take place and was highly fruitful. Historians of science in the know will perhaps be aware of Robert Hooke’s dope smoking activities but as Breen shows there was very much more. We now move on to the problems involved in trying to describe and classify states of intoxication. The only real reference point for the Europeans was getting drunk on alcohol, whereas the highs produced by the alkaloids contained in the drugs imported from South America and Asia are very different. I know this from personal experience.  Try explaining an acid trip to somebody whose only experience of deliberately losing control of ones mental facilities is getting pissed!

The second section closes with what might within the context of the book be described as a case study. Entitled Three Ways of Looking at Opium it chronicles how the perception and acceptance of opium changed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Breen starts with a fact that was completely new to me, the opium poppy is actually a native European plant and the perception that opium comes into Europe from Asia is one of those changes that took place in the early modern period. Breen relates how a fairly positive image of opium as a medicinal drug gradually changes to a negative one, a process accelerated in the nineteenth century by the successful synthesis of the of first morphine and later heroine from raw opium; the synthetic forms becoming the acceptable medical drugs, whereas raw opium becomes an unacceptable illicit substance.


The book closes with a meditation on our attitude to drugs then and now under the title, Drugs Past and Present.

This is a truly polymathic, historical achievement; Breen weaves together a world history out of elements of the social, cultural and core histories of exploration, discovery, botany, chemistry, medicine, pharmacology, trade, economics, magic, religion and philosophy. As was to be expected from the author of Res Obscura this book is beautifully written and is a real pleasure to read. It is well presented with a wide range of grey in grey illustrations. There are extensive, highly informative endnotes, requiring the somewhat tiresome two bookmarks method of reading, a useful bilingual (Portuguese and English) glossary, a very comprehensive bibliography and an excellent index.

Whatever your historical interests, if you like reading good quality, excellently researched and equally excellently written history, then do yourself a favour and read Breen’s fascinating academic excursion through the world of the Early Modern drug trade.

*Benjamin Breen, The Age Of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2019






Filed under Book Reviews, History of medicine

Christmas Trilogy Part 3: The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXVI


In popular presentations of the so-called scientific or astronomical revolutions Galileo Galilei is almost always presented as the great champion of heliocentricity in the first third of the seventeenth century. In fact, as we shall see, his contribution was considerably smaller than is usually claimed and mostly had a negative rather than a positive influence. The real champion of heliocentricity in this period was Johannes Kepler, who in the decade between 1617 and 1627 published four major works that laid the foundations for the eventual triumph of heliocentricity over its rivals. I have already dealt with one of these in the previous post in this series, the De cometis libelli tres I. astronomicus, theoremata continens de motu cometarum … II. physicus, continens physiologiam cometarum novam … III. astrologicus, de significationibus cometarum annorum 1607 et 1618 / autore Iohanne Keplero …, which was published in 1619 and as I’ve already said became the most important reference text on comets in the 1680’s during a period of high comet activity that we will deal with in a later post.


Source: ETH Library Zurich

Chronologically the first of Kepler’s influential books from this decade was Volume I (books I–III) of his Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae published in 1617, Volume II (book IV) followed in 1620 and Volume III (books V–VII) in 1621. This was a text book on heliocentric astronomy written in question and answer dialogue form between a teacher and a student spelling out the whole of heliocentric astronomy and cosmology in comparatively straight forward and simple terms, the first such textbook. There was a second edition containing all three volumes in 1635.


Second edition 1635 Source

This book was highly influential in the decades following its publication and although it claims to be a digest of Copernican astronomy, it in fact presents Kepler’s own elliptical astronomy. For the first time his, now legendary, three laws of planetary motion are presented as such together. As we saw earlier the first two laws–I. The orbit of a planet is an ellipse and the Sun is at one of the focal points of that ellipse II: A line connecting the Sun and the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times–were published in his Astronomia Nova in 1609. The third law was new first appearing in, what he considered to be his opus magnum, Ioannis Keppleri Harmonices mundi libri V (The Five Books of Johannes Kepler’s The Harmony of the World) published in 1619 and to which we now turn our attention.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler’s first book was his Mysterium Cosmographicum published in 1597 with its, to our way of thinking, somewhat bizarre hypothesis that there are only six planets because the spaces between their orbits are defined by the five regular Platonic solids.


Kepler’s Platonic solid model of the Solar System from Mysterium Cosmographicum Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although his calculation in 1597 showed a fairly good geometrical fit for his theory, it was to Kepler’s mind not good enough and this was his motivation for acquiring Tycho Brahe’s newly won more accurate data for the planetary orbits. He believed he could quite literally fine tune his model using the Pythagorean theory of the harmony of the spheres, that is that the ratio of the planetary orbits build a musical scale that is only discernable to the enlightened Pythagorean astronomer. The Harmonices Mundi was that fine tuning.

The first two books of the Harmonices Mundi layout Kepler’s geometrical theory of music, which geometrical constructions produced harmonious musical intervals and which disharmonious ones, based on which are constructible with straight edge and compass, harmonious, and which are not, disharmonious. The third book is Kepler’s contribution to the contemporary debate on the correct division of the intervals of the musical scale, in which Vincenzo Galilei (1520–1591), Galileo’s father, had played a leading role. The fourth book is the application of the whole to astrology and the fifth its application to astronomy and it is here that we find the third law.

In the fifth Kepler compare all possible ratios of planetary speeds and distances constructing musical scales for planets and musical intervals for the relationship between planets. It is here that he, one could say, stumbles upon his third law, which is known as the harmony law. Kepler was very much aware of the importance of his discovery as he tells us in his own words:

“After I had discovered true intervals of the orbits by ceaseless labour over a very long time and with the help of Brahe’s observations, finally the true proportion of the orbits showed itself to me. On the 8th of March of this year 1618, if exact information about the time is desired, it appeared in my head. But I was unlucky when I inserted it into the calculation, and rejected it as false. Finally, on May 15, it came again and with a new onset conquered the darkness of my mind, whereat there followed such an excellent agreement between my seventeen years of work at the Tychonic observations and my present deliberation that I at first believed that I had dreamed and assumed the sought for in the supporting proofs. But it is entirely certain and exact that the proportion between the periodic times of any two planets is precisely one and a half times the proportion of the mean distances.”

Translated into modern notation the third law is P12/P22=R13/R23, where P is the period of a planet and R is the mean radius of its orbit. It can be argues that this was Kepler’s greatest contribution to the history of the emergence of heliocentricity but rather strangely nobody really noticed its true significance until Newton came along at the end of the seventeenth century.

However they should have done because the third law gives us is a direct mathematical relationship between the size of the orbits of the planets and their duration, which only works in a heliocentric system. There is nothing comparable for either a full geocentric system or for a geo-heliocentric Tychonic or semi-Tychonic system. It should have hit the early seventeenth-century astronomical community like a bomb but it didn’t, which raises the question why it didn’t. The answer is because it is buried in an enormous pile of irrelevance in the Harmonices Mundi and when Kepler repeated it in the Epitome he gave it no real emphasis, so it remained relatively ignored.

On a side note, it is often thought that Kepler had abandoned his comparatively baroque Platonic solids concepts from the Mysterium Cosmographicum but now that he had, in his opinion, ratified it in the Harmonices Mundi he published a second edition of the book in 1621.


Second Edition 1621 Source

Ironically the book of Kepler’s that really carried the day for heliocentricity against the geocentric and geo-heliocentric systems was his book of planetary tables based on Tycho Brahe’s data the Tabulae Rudolphinae (Rudolphine Tables) published in 1627, twenty-eight years after he first began working on them. Kepler had in fact been appointed directly by Rudolph II in Prague to produce these tables at the suggestion of Tycho in 1601. Turning Tycho’s vast collection of data into accurately calculated tables was a horrendous and tedious task and over the years Kepler complained often and bitterly about this burden.


Tabulae Rudolphinae The frontispiece presents in graphic form a potted history of Western astronomy Source

However, he persevered and towards the end of the 1620s he was so far. Because he was the Imperial Mathematicus and had prepared the tables under the orders of the Emperor he tried to get the funds to cover the printing costs from the imperial treasury. This proved to be very difficult and after major struggles he managed to acquire 2000 florins of the more than 6000 that the Emperor owed him, enough to pay for the paper. He began printing in Linz but in the turmoil of the Thirty Years War the printing workshop got burnt down and he lost the already printed pages. Kepler decamped to Ulm, where with more difficulties he succeeded in finishing the first edition of 1000 copies. Although these were theoretically the property of the Emperor, Kepler took them to the Frankfurt book fair where he sold the entire edition to recoup his costs.

The Tabulae Rudolphinae were pretty much an instant hit. The principle function of astronomy since its beginnings in Babylon had always been to produce accurate tables and ephemerides for use initially by astrologers and then with time also cartographers, navigators etc. Astronomical systems and the astronomers, who created them, were judged on the quality and accuracy of their tables. Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae based on Tycho’s data were of a level of accuracy previous unknown and thus immediately won many supporters. Those who used the tables assumed that their accuracies was due to Kepler’s elliptical planetary models leading to a gradually increasing acceptance of heliocentricity but this was Kepler’s system and not Copernicus’. Supported by the Epitome with the three laws of planetary motion Kepler’s version of heliocentricity became the dominant astronomical/cosmological system over the next decades but it would be another thirty to forty years, long after Kepler’s death, before it became the fully accepted system amongst astronomers.









Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

Christmas Trilogy 2019 Part 2: Babbage, Airy and financing the Difference Engine.

Charles Babbage first announced his concept for his first computer, the Difference Engine, in a Royal Astronomical Society paper, Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables in 1822.


Engraving of Charles Babbage dated 1833 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He managed to convince the British Government that a mechanical calculator would be useful for producing numerical tables faster, cheaper and more accurately and in 1823 they advance Babbage £1700 to begin construction of a full scale machine. It took Babbage and his engineer, Joseph Clements, nine years to produce a small working model but costs had spiralled out of control and the government suspended payment at around £17,000, in those days a small fortune, in 1833.


A portion of the difference engine. Woodcut after a drawing by Benjamin Herschel Babbage Source: Wikimedia Commons

Babbage and Clement had parted in dispute by this time. The next nine years saw Babbage negotiating with various government officials to try and get payment reinstated. Enter George Biddel Airy (1801–1892).


George Biddell Airy caricatured by Ape in Vanity Fair Nov 1875 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Airy entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1819, graduating Senior Wrangler and Smith Prize man in 1823. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1824 and Lucasian Professor of mathematics beating Babbage for the position in 1826. In 1828 he was elected Plumian Professor of astronomy and director of the new Cambridge Observatory. Babbage succeeded him as Lucasian Professor. Airy proved very competent and very efficient as the director of the observatory, which led to him being appointed Astronomer Royal at the Greenwich Observatory in 1835 and thus the leading state scientist and effectively the government scientific advisor. It was in this capacity that the paths of the two Cambridge mathematicians crossed once again[1].

In 1842 Henry Goulburn (1784–1856), Chancellor of the Exchequer in the cabinet of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) was asked by Peel to gather information on Babbage’s Difference Engine project, which he would have liked to ditch, preferable yesterday rather than tomorrow. Goulburn turned to Airy as the countries leading scientific civil servant and also because the Royal Observatory was responsible for producing many of the mathematical tables, the productions of which the Difference Engine was supposed to facilitate. Could Airy offer an opinion on the utility of the proposed mechanical calculator? Airy could and it was anything but positive:

Mr Babbage made the approval of the machine a personal question. In consequence of this, I, and I believe other persons, have carefully abstained for several years from alluding to it in his presence. I think he lives in a sort of dream as to its utility.

An absurd notion has been spread abroad, that the machine was intended for all calculations of every kind. This is quite wrong. The machine is intended solely for calculations which can be made by addition and subtraction in a particular way. This excludes all ordinary calculation.

Scarcely a figure of the Nautical Almanac could be computed by it. Not a single figure of the Geenwich Observations or the great human Computations now going on could be computed by it. Indeed it was proposed only for the computation of new Tables (as Tables of Logarithms and the like), and even for these, the difficult part must be done by human computers. The necessity for such new tables does not occur, as I really believe, once in fifty years. I can therefore state without the least hesitation that I believe the machine to be useless, and that the sooner it is abandoned, the better it will be for all parties[2].

Airy’s opinion was devastating Peel acting on Goulburn’s advice abandoned the financing of the Difference Engine once and for all. Even the personal appeals of Babbage directly to Peel were unable to change this decision. Airy’s judgement was actually based on common sense and solid economic arguments. The tables computed by human computers were comparatively free of errors and nothing could be gained here by replacing their labour with a machine that would probably prove more expensive. Also setting up the machine to compute any particular set of tables would first require human computers to determine the initially values for the algorithms and to determine that the approximations delivered by the difference series remained within an acceptable tolerance range. Airy could really see no advantages in employing Babbage’s machine rather than his highly trained human computers. Also any human computers employed to work with the Difference Engine would, by necessity, also need first to be trained for the task.

Airy’s views on the utility or rather lack thereof of mechanical calculators was shared by the Swedish astronomer Nils Seelander (1804–1870) also used the same arguments against the use of mechanical calculators in 1844 as did Urbain Le Verrier (1811–1877) at the Paris Observatory.

Babbage was never one to take criticism or defeat lying down and in 1851 when the working model of the Difference Engine No. 1 was on display at the Great Exhibition he launched a vicious attack on Airy in his book The Exposition of 1851: Views of The Industry, The Science and The Government of England.


Babbage was not a happy man. By 1851 Airy was firmly established as a leading European scientist and an exemplary public servant and could and did publically ignore Babbage’s diatribe. Privately he wrote a parody of the rhyme This is the House that Jack Built mocking Babbage’s efforts to realise his Difference Engine. Verse seven of This is the Engine that Charles Built reads as follows:

There are Treasury lords, slightly furnished with sense,

Who the wealth of the nation unfairly dispense:

They know but one man, in the Queen’s vast dominion,

Who in things scientific can give an opinion:

And when Babbage for funds for the Engine applied,

The called upon Airy, no doubt, to decide:

And doubtless adopted, in apathy slavish,

The hostile suggestions of enmity knavish:

The powers of official position abused,

And flatly all further advances refused.

For completing the Engine that Charles built.[3]

Today Charles Babbage is seen as a visionary in the history of computers and computing, George Airy very clearly did not share that vision but he was no Luddite opposing the progress of technology out of principle. His opposition to the financing of Babbage’s Difference Engine was based on sound mathematical and financial principles and delivered with well-considered arguments.

[1] The following account is based almost entirely on Doran D. Swade’s excellent paper, George Biddell Airy, Greenwich and the Utility of Calculating Engines in Mathematics at the Meridian: The History of Mathematics at Greenwich, de. Raymond Flood, Tony Mann & Mary Croarken, CRC Press, Boca Raton, London New York, 2019 pp. 63–81. A review of the entire, excellent volume will follow some time next year.

[2] All three quotes are from Airy’s letter to Goulburn 16 September 1842 RGO6–427, f. 65. Emphasis original. Quoted by Swade p. 69.

[3] Swade p. 74 The whole poem can be read in Appendix I of Doran David Swade, Calculation and Tabulation in the Nineteenth Century: Airy versus Babbage, Thesis submitted for the degree of PhD, University College London, 2003, which of course deals with the whole story in great depth and detail and is available here on the Internet.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Computing, History of Mathematics, History of science

Christmas Trilogy 2019 Part I: Would the real Mr Newton please stand up?

Probably the more wide spread and popular image of Isaac Newton is of him discovering the law of gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple.


For many generations of school kids throughout the world the name Newton is associated with his laws of motion and that law of gravity, often with unpleasant thoughts of having to solve physics home work problem involving them. For many Newton is the ‘father of modern science’ or the ‘father of physics’ or in some way synonymous with the scientific revolution. Also for those worldwide, generations of school kids he was the inventor/discoverer of the bane of mathematics the calculus. In reality, as well as his most well known achievements in mathematics, astronomy and physics, Newton took a lively interest in a surprising range of topics and, never a dabbler, he invested the full power of his vast intellect in whatever he undertook to investigate.


Portrait of Newton by Godfrey Kneller, 1689 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Woolsthorpe Manor on 25 December 1642, the son of a yeoman farmer, who died before he was born, Newton grew up in a strongly puritan environment and remained deeply religious throughout his entire, very long life. He devoted an immense amount of time and energy to studying the Bible that tradition claims he could recite off by heart. He would learn both Greek and Hebrew in order to further his theological studies. His religious views were anything but orthodox and he was in fact probably an Arian i.e. he denied the concept of the Trinity believing in a Unitarian concept of God instead. He would have normally been required to take holy orders in order to become a professor at Cambridge and even considered leaving the university because he was not prepared to do so. Through the assistance of Isaac Barrow he was granted a special dispensation and was thus able to accept the Lucasian Chair without having to take holy orders. Although he wrote many papers on his religious beliefs, including his belief that the Catholic Church had corrupted the text of the Bible in order to justify their belief in the Holy Trinity, he largely kept his heterodox religious views to himself, sharing them only with selected sympathetic correspondents.

His religious views played a central role in his scientific endeavours as he believed that he was uncovering God’s plan of the universe. He went further than this in that he believed that he, and he alone, had been chosen by God to reveal that plan. He was also a prisca theologian, who believed that Adam and the early generations of humanity had had perfect knowledge of God’s creation and that this knowledge had been lost down through the succeeding generations. He was not discovering the plans of God’s creation but rediscovering them.

Newton was also, like many others in the High Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, a millennialist that is he believed in a second coming and the end of the world. This led to the second of his great intellectual passions, history. Newton was a Bible chronologist, who thought that if he could accurately determine the date of creation and thus the current age of the Earth then he could also determine the time of the second coming. In order to do this he devoted a lot to the study of history in order to establish the time and durations of the great civilisations based, of course, around an analysis of the Old Testament as a historical source. He also tried, as an astronomer, to tie historical descriptions of astronomical phenomena, eclipses etc., to mathematically determined dates of those phenomena. This led other chronologists to eagerly await access to Newton’s chronological writings after his death hoping that the great astronomer mathematician would provide solid scientific evidence for his historical dating scheme. On the whole those hopes were disappointed when Newton’s chronological manuscripts did finally see the light of day.

Newton’s prisca theological beliefs also led to another of his better-known intellectual activities his alchemical investigations. He believed that alchemy was the oldest of all the sciences and that if he could unravel the secrets of this arcane discipline then it would bring him closer to knowledge of God’s creation plan. You will often see the highly incorrect assertion that the scientist Newton only turned to the occult alchemy in his dotage, after his scientific creativity had been drained; this is far from the truth. Newton began his alchemical studies in about 1666 at the height of his intellectual powers. He built a hut in the gardens of Trinity College, which served as his laboratory and devoted the winter months of the next thirty years to the serious study of alchemy. He read and annotated hundreds of alchemical manuscripts, carried out numerous experiments and wrote his own thoughts on the subject none of which he ever published. On interesting side note to this intensive engagement is that he used the knowledge of chemical processes that he had won to develop new and better methods of assaying when he was running the Royal Mint later in life.

The years that Newton devoted to the study of alchemy were also the years that he devoted to the study of mathematics, physics and astronomy. Those people who reached a high enough level in mathematics in their own education usually know than Newton is credited with being the co-creator, together with Leibniz, of the calculus. What most people don’t realise is just how vast Newton’s output of creative mathematics was. The edited edition of his collected mathematical papers runs to eight very thick, large format volumes covering a very wide range of mathematical topics. His scientific crowning glory is, of course, his Principia Mathematica (1687) combining, as it does a definitive, uniform presentation of the physical mechanics that had been developed piecemeal over the preceding two centuries adding much that was new in the process, as well as a complete consistent heliocentric model of the solar system. With this one book he established himself as Europe’s number one physicist and number one astronomer. He second masterpiece was his Opticks, created and written largely before the mathematics, mechanics and astronomy but first published, due to negative reactions to his first papers on the subject, in 1704. It was of course in this period that Newton was also Lucasian Professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. This however was not that much of a burden, as Newton famously had virtually no students attending his lectures. Mathematics was not particularly popular at English universities during the seventeenth century.

In 1696 Newton left the world of academia, and to some extent his scientific investigations, to start a completely new career as a government servant, first as warden then later as comptroller of the Royal Mint in London. He obtained this appointment through the services of one of his former students, Charles Montagu, later 1st Earl of Halifax, one of the most powerful Whig politicians and for a time Chancellor of the Exchequer. Newton’s association with Montagu illustrates another aspect of his life that of politician. Newton was a member of the Whig Party, who sat as an MP for Cambridge University, the universities were their own parliamentary constituencies, at the convention to settle the revolution of 1689. This was however one activity where Newton remained very passive and did nothing to distinguish himself. In 1705 Montagu persuaded him to stand again and even arranged for him to be knightedto increase his chances of election but he lost the election and thus ended his active political career.

The job at the Royal Mint, which Newton desired because he thought being a mere university professor did not fit his status as a leading European intellectual, was actually normally considered a political sinecure, i.e. the office holder was not actually expected to do anything, just hold the title and collect the pay. Others would actually do the work. Newton was not a man for sinecures. He plunged right in taking over the day-to-day running of the mint. He personally supervised the recoining of the nation, a monstrous task, which Montague had introduced as a measure to combat the debasement of the English currency. Newton applied his scientific mind to modernising the Mint, introducing as indicated above, new methods of chemically assaying metals. One of the responsibilities of the Warden of the Mint was to track down and bring to trial coiners, i.e. those who forged coin of the realm, and clippers, i.e. those who clipped are shaved metal of the edges of coins. The milling of the edges of coins was introduced in Newton’s times to make life more difficult for clippers. Normally a Warden would employ others to track down these criminals, Newton took on the job himself working as a sort of seventeenth century gumshoe[1]. He was very much a hands on boss and remained so until late in his life, when he began to hand over the reigns to John Conduit, the husband of his niece and housekeeper, Catherine Barton.

From 1704 onwards until his death, he was also President of the Royal Society, which he ruled in a very autocratic manner. Once again he was not prepared to be merely some sort of figurehead but was deeply engaged in shaping the society’s profile and business. In this role he also became a tourist attraction, foreign visitors to London attending meetings of the Royal Society in order to witness Sir Isaac Newton Europe’s greatest, living natural philosopher.

Although the term natural philosopher signifies what we would now call a scientist, Newton was also a philosopher in the true sense. Although, unlike Leibniz, he didn’t publish separate philosophical texts, his major works, the Principia Mathematica and the Opticks, both contain a lot of serious thoughts on the philosophy and methodology of science. He was also very much pulling the strings, as the puppet master, in the philosophical debate about Newton’s natural philosophy between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, who acted as Newton’s mouth piece. Newton’s philosophical approach to science influenced, not necessarily positively, John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant amongst others.

Last but perhaps by no means least there is an aspect to Newton that often gets overlooked, Newton the family man. This might seem like a contradiction in terms given that Newton lost his father before he was born and was abandoned as a small child by his mother, to be looked after by relatives, when she remarried. Newton, also, never married and had no children. However, he inherited the family’s not insubstantial holdings in Lincolnshire, they generated a yearly income of six hundred pounds at a time when the annual salary of the Astronomer Royal was one hundred pounds per annum. Newton brought his niece Catherine Barton to London to be his housekeeper and by no means treated her as a servant but as the lady of the house, who enjoyed the status of a lady in London’s high society. Newton also managed the family holdings personally and took good care of those members of his extended family living in Lincolnshire. Newton has acquired a historical reputation for being cantankerous and unfriendly but towards his extended family but also towards his scientific acolytes, the first so-called Newtonians, he could be and often was warm and generous.

Although the above is at best an inadequate sketch I hope I have made it clear that the real Isaac Newton was much more than a caricature of a scientist with an apple falling on his head. He was a theologian, historian, Bible chronologist, alchemist, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, public servant, detective, politician, society president, philosopher, farm manager and family man quite a lot for any individual.

[1] For an excellent account of this activity read Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009



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The Renaissance Mathematicus Christmas Trilogies explained for newcomers


Being new to the Renaissance Mathematicus one might be excused if one assumed that the blogging activities were wound down over the Christmas period. However, exactly the opposite is true with the Renaissance Mathematicus going into hyper-drive posting its annual Christmas Trilogy, three blog posts in three days. Three of my favourite scientific figures have their birthday over Christmas–Isaac Newton 25thDecember, Charles Babbage 26thDecember and Johannes Kepler 27thDecember–and I write a blog post for each of them on their respective birthdays. Before somebody quibbles I am aware that the birthdays of Newton and Kepler are both old style, i.e. on the Julian Calendar, and Babbage new style, i.e. on the Gregorian Calendar but to be honest, in this case I don’t give a shit. So if you are looking for some #histSTM entertainment or possibly enlightenment over the holiday period the Renaissance Mathematicus is your number one address. In case the new trilogy is not enough for you:

The Trilogies of Christmas Past

Christmas Trilogy 2009 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2009 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2009 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2010 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2010 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2010 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2011 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2011 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2011 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2012 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2012 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2012 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2013 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2013 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2013 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2014 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2014 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2014 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2015 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2015 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2015 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2016 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2016 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2016 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2018 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2018 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2018 Post 3






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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, History of Technology, Uncategorized

Happy Solstice!–Happy New Year!

This year’s winter solstice took place at 4:19 UTC on 22 December 2019, when the Sun on it’s apparent annual journey along the ecliptic reached its southern most point at the Tropic of Capricorn turning to begin its journey back up to the Tropic of Cancer and the summer solstice.


Stonehenge Winter Solstice

Here at the Renaissance Mathematicus this marks the natural end of one year and the beginning of a new one, so I wish all of my readers a happy solstice and a happy new year and may the next 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds bring you much light, joy, peace and wisdom. We can only hope that they will be better than the last 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds (length of the mean tropical or solar year).


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Filed under Calendrics


Who is the old man shuffling into the kitchen? I don’t recognise him

Where has the youth gone, who on warm summer evenings

Ran barefoot through the streets of the small Welsh town

After a long day uncovering the remains of a Roman fort

His long hair and his thoughts flowing free on the gentle breeze

Now I sit, with naked skull, in doctors’ waiting rooms wondering

Where does the time go?


Filed under Autobiographical