Reading Early Technical Literature
My blog has been silent for quite some time as I have worked through some outstanding dissertation deliverables. My current project explores reading, particularly the reading of technical works, or at least one very particular technical work.
We know very little about how people read technical literature in the early modern era. The Reading Experience Database (RED) contains some hints. FN1 The findings are rather sparse.
Henry More, the famous theosophist once explained a vision, noting: “reasons out of Aristotle Mechanicks which I had very lately read.” (RED 6158).
John Aubrey, the antiquarian and writer, read a book by the architect Inigo Jones and noted: “In the year 1655. was published by Mr Web a Booke intituled Stonehenge-restored (but writt by Mr Inigo Jones) which I read with great delight: there is a great deale of Learning in it: but, having compared his Scheme with the Monument it self, I found he had not dealt fairly: but had made a Lesbians rule, which is conformed to the stone: that is, he framed the Monument to his own Hypothesis, which is much differing from the Thing it self. This gave me an edge to make more researches.” (RED 56)
On February 14 1758, Thomas Turner, a shopkeeper in his late 20s sought to educate himself: “In the even read part of Leadbetter’s ‘General Gauger’.” (RED 6365) On November 9 1758 he explored another topic, noting: “In the even read part of Wiseman’s ‘Chyrurgery’.” (RED 6497)
On July 26 1770, Joseph Banks, a naturalist in his mid-20s working in Australia relied on reference books: “While botanising to-day I had the good fortune to take an animal of the opossum ("Didelphis") tribe; it was a female, and with it I took two young ones. It was not unlike that remarkable one which De Buffon has described by the name of "Phalanger" as an American animal. It was, however, not the same. M. de Buffon is certainly wrong in asserting that this tribe is peculiar to America, and in all probability, as Pallas has said in his "Zoologia" the "Phalanger" itself is a native of the East Indies, as my animals and that agree in the extraordinary conformation of their feet, in which particular they differ from all the others.” (RED 10120) On August 26 1770 he made additional observations while at sea aboard the HMS Endeavour, somewhere between Australia and New Guinea: “The third was of the opossum kind, and much resembled that called by De Buffon "Phalanger". Of these two last I took only one individual of each. Bats here were many: one small one was much if not identically the same as that described by De Buffon under the name of "Fer de cheval". Another sort was as large as, or larger than, a partridge; but of this species we were not fortunate enough to take one. We supposed it, however, to be the "Rousette" or "Rougette" of the same author.”
On August 10 1784, Mary Hamilton, a gentlewoman in her late 20s perused a book, noting: “amused myself with looking over Cowley's Geometrical Plates - the different Problems of Euclid are drawn upon Pasteboard Paper & cut so that you may lift them up & see the solid forms &c &c I suppose a profound scholar might despise all this - but I think it a pretty work for Ladys or young beginners.” (RED 12615)
At some point between January 1 and August 15 1791, John Marsh, a musician and composer in his late 30s wrote: “Having been lately interested in astronomical studies & been reading Ferguson and Bonnycastle on that science; I on Monday the 15th began making a planetorium upon a stand which I completed in the following week.” (RED 7845)
Sometime between June 1 1793 and February 1 1794, Francis Place—a maker of leather britches in his early 20s and social activist—worked through on his math education, noting: “I readily got through a small school book of Geometry and having an odd volume of the 1st of Williamsons Euclid I attacked it vigorously and perseveringly…” (RED 2142).
On July 7 1798, Joseph Hunter—a 15 year old apprentice—noted: “Took Beckman's "History of Inventions" to the Library; I have been very much entertained with it. Brought the "Gent. Mag" for 1793.” (RED 10928) A few weeks later, on August 10, he noted: “I will give an account of how I spend the day hour by hour. From 7 to 8 drew part of a landscape, wrote my diary. 8 to 9. Read a little in my Encyclopedia ... 2 to 5 at Warehouse. From 6 to 7 read a little in the Encyclopedia ...8 to 9 got my supper, read a little in the ency. 9 to 10 read in the ency.” (RED 10836)
On December 28 1809, Ellen Weeton—a governess in her early 30s—explored a book about carving, noting: “have to attend to the direction of the House, the table &c, as well as literary studies; to assist in entertaining company in the parlour; and give directions to the servants. I am studying the art of carving, and learning, as far as books will teach me, as well as giving instructions. Mr P. has a most excellent library.” (RED 4941)
While these observations offer a glimmer of insight on reading practices, it is the great diarist Samuel Pepys that provides the greatest insight on how technical and reference works were read. On April 15 1663 he wrote: “I walked back again, all the way reading of my book of Timber measure, comparing it with my new Sliding rule, brought home this morning, with great pleasure.” [RED 11926; Incidently, Pepys commissioned the sliding rule from Greatorex who was instrumental in the construction of Boyle’s air pump]. Later that year Pepys notes: “my wife, it being a cold day and it begin to snow, kept her bed till after dinner. And I below by myself looking over my arithmetique books and Timber Rule.” (RED 12037) While these “arithmetique books” were likely complimentary to his use of the “Timber Rule” he also used other books to supplement his understanding and use of instruments. On August 13, 1664 he wrote: “Thence home and to my office; wrote by the post, and then to read a little in Dr Powre's book of discovery by the Microscope, to enable me a little how to use and what to expect from my glasse.” (RED 12128) He finished this work the next day: “After dinner, to my chamber and made an end of Dr Powre's book of the Microscope, very fine and to my content.” (RED 12129) But he apparently couldn’t leave the work alone, noting (August 16, 1664): “and so to supper anon and then to my office again a while, collecting observations out of Dr Powres book of Microscopes, and so home to bed.” (RED 12131)
Pepys’s reading wasn’t limited to printed works. On April 1 1664 he discussed an unpublished work on ship building: “This day Mrs Turner did lend me, as a rarity, a manuscript of one of Mr Wells, writ long ago, teaching the method of building a ship; which pleases me mightily. I was at it tonight but durst not stay long at it, I being come to have a great pain and water in my eyes after candle-light.” (RED 12107) The work in question was very likely that of Matthew Baker, continued by his apprentice John Wells. Stephen Johnston provides some interesting details about the work at http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/staff/saj/thesis/baker.htm.
Pepys wasn’t always fond of his reference works. On May 28 1663 he noted: “At the Coffee-house in Exchange-alley I bought a little book, ‘Counsell to Builders’, written by Sir Balth. Gerbier; it is dedicated almost to all the men of any great condition in England, so that the epistles are more than the book itself; and both it and them not worth a turd, that I am ashamed that I bought it.” (RED 11973) The book in question is “Counsel and advise to all builders; for the choice of their surveyours… Together with several epistles to eminent persons, who may be concerned in building.” I have to admit a certain fascination as to why Pepys would consider such as a work “not worth a turd.” It receives some commentary in “British architectural theory, 1540-1750” and in the Business History Review. In fact, this little work has received all sorts of commentary.
Perhaps Pepys most interesting acquisition was Hooke’s Micrographia (and not just because I used the same work as part of my proposal for this project!). On January 2 1665 he went about town and “thence to my bookseller’s and at his binder’s saw Hooke’s book of the Microscope, which is so pretty that I presently bespoke it, and away home to the office.” And on the 20th of that month: “So took coach and to my lady Sandwich’s, and so to my bookseller’s, and there took home Hooke’s book of microscopy, a most excellent piece, and of which I am very proud.” [Unless otherwise noted, diary entries are from the Gutenberg.org edition of Wheatley (Ed.) 1893]. The book must have made a dramatic impression on Pepys: “Before I went to bed, I sat up till 2 a-clock in my chamber, reading of Mr Hooke's ‘Microscopicall Observacions’, the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.” (RED 12234) Pepys had a very good opinion of Mr. Hooke. On the fifteenth of February he attended a supper at the “Crowne Taverne” hosted by Lord Brunkard, the first president of the Royal Society. Various prominent scientists were in attendendance: “Above all, Mr. Boyle to-day was at the meeting, and above him Mr. Hooke, who is the most, and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw.”
FN1. For more information on RED, see Weedon (2001). The database is available at http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/ [retrieved June 18, 2008].References
Weedon, Alexis (2001). Using the web for academic research: The reading experience database project. Ariadne, 28. Retrieved June 18, 2008 from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue28/red/.