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Scientific Breakthroughs

The seventeenth century is generally credited with the birth of what we consider modern science.  It saw significant discoveries and explanations of some natural phenomena, and above all, the beginning of a methodology based on observation and analysis. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) emphasized the use of experimentation in science. Bacon’s empiricism was highly influential during the first half of the seventeenth century, especially in his native Britain.  Galileo (1564-1642) made use of experimentation, but his strength was in theoretical insights. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), working later in the century, achieved a better balance between theory and experimental investigation. Both Galileo and Newton also made significant contributions in the use of mathematics to express, and sometimes to deduce, scientific theories.

Francis Bacon was an English nobleman and statesman who pursued scientific investigations on the side. His most important contributions were in scientific methodology. He also had a very inspiring view on the social value of science:

Now among all the benefits that could be conferred upon mankind, I found none so great as the discovery of new arts, endowments, and commodities for the bettering of man's life... But above all, if a man could succeed, not in striking out some particular invention, however useful, but in kindling a light in nature -- a light which should in its very rising touch and illuminate all the border-regions that confine upon the circle of our present knowledge; and so spreading further and further should presently disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the world, -- that man (I thought) would be the benefactor indeed of the human race, -- the propagator of man's empire over the universe, the champion of liberty, the conqueror and subduer of necessities.[1]

Bodleian Library, Oxford  Photo Source: Wikipedia, Author: Tony Hisgett

Bacon's utopian novel, the New Atlantis, depicts a society where the state supports a group of elite scientists that conduct advanced research for the benefit of mankind. This image has remained an ideal for scientific research through the ages.

Scientific Circles

Literary circles were common in Renaissance Europe, but during the seventeenth century topics of interest shifted to the new philosophic ideas and natural science. One of these literary circles turning scientific was hosted in Paris by Marin Mersenne (1588-1648),  a scientist and mathematician and member of the Catholic religious order of the Minims. Mersenne mentored young scientists, such as Blaise Pascal and Christian Huygens, and weekly intellectual meetings were hosted at his convent cell in  Paris and at the homes of other members of the group.[2]


Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637), from a wealthy French family, received his formal education in Law, but became very knowledgeable of the emerging sciences through his personal interest and contacts. He traveled through Europe, ostensibly to complete his legal knowledge, but the correspondence with the friends he made during his travels became a life-long passion, and it included most of the prominent scientists of his time, including Mersenne. He supported many of these scientists through his personal fortune and his correspondence network acted as a clearing-house for scientific information.[3]


The Catholic religious order of the Jesuits, which had been founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, quickly spread through Europe and the mission world during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The order was primarily dedicated to education, and it established a strong presence in scientific research.[4] Ignatious had encouraged the members of the order to share their experiences in letters, and this created an information network of its own,[5]  which also included some laymen such as Peiresc, who had been educated at a Jesuit school.[6]

Another key group with scientific and educational interests gathered in London around Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662). This group, influenced by the ideas of Francis Bacon and Czeck educator Jan Comenius (1592-1670), attempted to introduce educational reforms with an applied science orientation into Oxford and Cambridge.[7] They were not successful in this, but instead they stimulated the creation of a number of independent academies in England and Scotland.[8] Hartlib attracted into his circle several scientists such as mathematician John Pell, chemist Benjamin Worsley and physicist Robert Boyle.

A number of English scientists held informal meetings at the Gresham College in London and at Oxford during the 1640's and 1650's. Prominent among these were physicists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, architect Sir Christopher Wren, and clergyman and educator John Wilkins. Under Wilkins' leadership, this group became organized as the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge in 1660. A Royal Charter was awarded to the organization in 1662 by Charles II.[9] The society was organized in commissions who investigated specific topics such as mechanics or astronomy.  Beginning in 1665, the society published a journal entitled Philosophic Transactions, which included papers presented at the sessions and related discussions.[10]

The Knowledge Bureau

Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662)  was born in Prussia of a Polish protestant family that had emigrated to Prussia. He emigrated to England in 1628.[11]  From his early years in England, Hartlib demonstrated a great ability to gather and disseminate information.  He was inspired by Francis Bacon's ideals about scientific cooperation.  Taking advantage of his continental contacts and his wide interests, he established a large network of correspondents. This network attracted some wealthy intellectuals who provided him some financial support.

A proposal for the formalization of a knowledge network was crystallized when Hartlib learned of a Parisian Bureau d'adresse established by French physician and philanthropist Theophraste Renaudot (1584-1653) with government support.[12] Renaudot's agency had a limited scope, concentrating in employment information, but the concept helped Hartlib in formulating an ambitious proposal for an information bureau called the Office of Addresse, presented to the English Parliament in 1647. Hartlib had performed some of these functions on his own, and parliament provided him some financial support, but the bureau was never established officially. The following quotation from Harlib's proposal illustrates the intended scope of the projected office and its relation to the universities:

The Warden of this Office should be authorized to have and keep not only all manner of Registers, Inventaries, Catalogues and Lists containing the Peculiar Objects whereof he should furnish Information for Addresse to such as shall desire it... and to maintain a Correspondence and Learned Trade with all Men of Abilities within and without the Kingdom...  In the Matters of Ingenuity his  end should be to offer the most profitable Inventions which he should gain, unto the benefit of the State, that they might be Publically made use of, as the State should think most expedient... He should yearly once at a certain time be obliged to give up the account of his Annual Negotiation, to the Professors of all Sciences in both Universities and to the Heads and Masters of Colleges and Halls, who should be made a Special Committee and appointed to meet, and to take into Consideration the things which he shall produce: that such pieces as shall deserve to be put into the Public Libraries, to be made Common unto Scholars, or other wise published in Print for the benefit of every one, may by their advice be applied unto their proper Uses; for the advancement of Divine and Humane Learning...[13]

In Hartlib's project we have one of the best examples of the dream of a true knowledge heritage, with the accumulated knowledge of mankind being organized and made available. Although this dream did not materialize, it is now acknowledged that Hartlib's correspondence network, and those of his continental counterparts such as Mersenne and Peiresc, provided a crucial conduit of information during the early days of modern science.

The Republic of Letters

All of the networks and circles mentioned above contributed to create a sense of the "universality of thought" in seventeenth century Europe, and an increased awareness of the knowledge heritage of the human species. The participants in this informal international association saw themselves as a community, an ideal "state," the Republic of Letters, perhaps inheriting some political ideas from the Italian Renaissance citi-states and in contrast with some of the actual European absolutist states.[14]

There is some controversy as to the origins of this term, but it was popularized in our context by Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) who used in the title of his journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres in 1684.[15] This periodical was devoted to reviews of current publications, and it was probably the first known book review journal. Bayle also published a biographical dictionary, the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, in 1697,[16] which was to influence the more ambitious Encyclopédie project in France from the 1750's to the 1770's. The spread of the use of printing faciltated the Republic, which could now circulate journals such as Bayle's.[17]

While the intellectual circles in England during this period had a primarily scientific orientation, France made an effort to provide leadership in a wider range of interests. Under Chief Ministers Richelieu  and Colbert, a number of academies were created in the 1600's for such subjects as literature, music, dance and architecture, in addition to science.[18] The settling of members of the Republic into established academies, often  sponsored by governments, crimped somewhat its free-wheling and independence, [19] but it is clear that this informal "project" served as a preamble to the Age of Enlightenment, which is the subject of the next section.

[1] Francis Bacon, Of the Interpretation of Nature Proem

[2] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science (Harmonsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1978), 268-271.

[3] Peter N. Miller, Peiresc's Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century Yale University Press, 2000, 1-3.

[4] Ugo Baldini, "The Academy of Mathematics at the Collegio Romano from 1553 to 1612" in Mordechai Feingold,Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters(Cambridge, Mass. The MIT Press, 2003), 64-65.

[5] Steven J. Harris, "Mapping Jesuit Science: The Role of Travel in the Geography of Knowledge" in John W. O'Malley,S.J, et al, eds., The Jesuits, Cultures, Sciences and the Arts 1540-1773 (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1999), 212-213.

[6] Peter N. Miller, Peiresc's Europe, 1.

[7] Charles Webster, Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 56-62, 71.

[8] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Universities in the Enlightenment  (New York: Teachers College Press,  Columbia University, 1971), 65.

[9] Roger Ariew et al, ed.  Descartes' Meditations: Background Source Materials (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 141-144.

[10] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science, 268-271.

[11] G. H. Turnbull, Samuel Hartlib- A Sketch of his life and his relations to J. A. Comenius (London: Oxford University Press, 1920), 1-6.

[12] Charles Webster, ed., Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 44.

[13] Samuel Hartlib, "Considerations Tending to the Happy Accomplishment of Englands Reformation" in Charles Webster, ed. Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning, 126-134.

[14] Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Cornell University Press, 1996), 15.

[15] "Life of Bayle" in Pierre Bayle, An Historical and Critical Dictionary  (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1826), 11.

[16] Ibid., 22-23.

[17] Goodman, The Republic of Letters, 16.

[18] James Bowen, A History of Western Education, Vol. 3, 54-55.

[19] Goodman, The Republic of Letters, 21.