Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 12.  Mechanisms

Scientific Societies

The first half of the seventeenth century saw the emergence of scientific groups whose members gathered to promote discussion and to disseminate the "new" philosophy.  These were not merely groups of enthusiasts, but assemblies of individuals representing a broad cross-section of educated society.  Notable among them were:

The Accademia dei Lincei [Academy of the Lynx-Eyed] (1603-1630) operated out of the Roman villa of its founder Prince Federigo Cesi (1585-1630).

Its first members were:

  • Cesi (Il Celivago--the heaven-wanderer)
  • Johannes Van Heeck (L'Illuminato--the enlightened one)
  • Anastasio Di Filiis (L'Eclissato--the eclipsed one)
  • Francesco Stelluti (Il Tardigrado--the slow one)
  • Galileo Galilei (inducted as the fifth member in December 1611)

The so-called Académie Parisiensis (a.k.a. "Mersenne's Circle") was organized in Paris around 1623 by Father Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) and maintained by him until his death.

Members of Mersenne's Circle included:

  • Jan Baptist van Helmont (1577-1644) -- chemist and physician
  • Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) -- physician and naturalist
  • Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) -- political and moral philosopher
  • Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637) -- mathematician and physicist
  • Etienne Pascal (1588-1651) -- lawyer and mathematician
  • Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) -- philosopher and astronomer
  • René Descartes (1596-1650) -- philosopher
  • Pierre Fermat (1601-1665) -- mathematician
  • Gilles Personne de Roberval (1602-1675) -- mathematician
  • Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) -- mathematician and philosopher

When Mersenne died in 1648, the Académie Parisiensis did not disband, but continued to meet for nearly twenty more years, at the Paris home of Habert de Montmor (1600-1679), the wealthy patron of members René Descartes (1596-1650) and Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), thus becoming known as the Académie Montmor (a.k.a. Gassendi's Circle).

In addition to Gassendi, members included:

  • Ismaël Boulliau (1605-1694) -- astronomer and mathematician
  • Pierre Carcavi (c.1603-1684) -- mathematician
  • Claude Clerselier (1614-1686?) -- editor and illustrator of Descartes works
  • Gérard Desargues (1593-1662) -- geometer
  • Guy Patin (1601-1672) -- physician
  • Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) -- mathematician
  • Pierre Petit (1594?-1677) -- physicist, cartographer, and engineer
  • Gilles Personne de Roberval (1602-1675) -- mathematician

The Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club (a.k.a. "John Wilkins' Circle," the "Oxford Circle," and the "Invisible College"), originated in the early 1640s as a loose association of like-minded Oxford scholars headed by John Wilkins (1614-1672), who as events unfolded in England's Civil War, moved to London.  By the mid-1640s, the group became more organized and began meeting weekly, often at Gresham College.

Members of John Wilkins' Circle included:

  • Thomas Willis (1621-1675) -- medicine and chemistry
  • Christopher Wren (1632-1723) -- mathematics and architecture
  • Seth Ward (1617-1689) -- astronomy and mathematics
  • John Wallis (1616-1703) -- mathematics and mechanics
  • William Petty (1623-1687) -- anatomist and demographer
  • Robert Hooke (1635-1703) -- mechanician and experimentalist
  • Robert Boyle (1627-1691) -- chemist and philosopher
  • John Locke (1632-1704) -- philosopher
About the year 1645, while I [mathematician, John Wallis] lived in London (at a time when, by our civil wars, academical studies were much interrupted in both our Universities) ... I had the opportunity of being acquainted with divers worthy persons, inquisitive into natural philosophy, and other parts of human learning; and particularly of what has been called the New Philosophy, or Experimental Philosophy.  We did by agreements, divers of us, meet weekly in London on a certain day, to treat and discourse of such affairs....  These meetings we held sometimes at Dr. Goddard's lodgings in Wood Street (or some convenient place near), on occasion of his keeping an operator in his house for grinding glasses for telescopes and microscopes; sometimes at a convenient place in Cheapside, and sometimes at Gresham College, or some place near adjoining.

Our business was (precluding matters of theology and state affairs), to discourse and consider of Philosophical Enquiries, and such as related thereunto:  as physic, anatomy, geometry, astronomy, navigation, statics, magnetics, chemics, mechanics, and natural experiments; with the state of these studies, as then cultivated at home and abroad.  We then discoursed of the circulation of the blood, the valves in the veins, the venae lactae, the lymphatic vessels, the Copernican hypothesis, the nature of comets and new stars, the satellites of Jupiter, the oval shape (as it then appeared) of Saturn, the spots in the sun, and its turning on its own axis, the inequalities and selenography of the moon, the several phases of Venus and Mercury, the improvement of telescopes, and grinding of glasses for that purpose, the weight of air, the possibility, or impossibility of vacuities, and nature's abhorrence thereof, the Torricellian experiment in quicksilver, the descent of heavy bodies, and the degrees of acceleration therein; and divers other things of like nature.  Some of which were then but new discoveries, and others not so generally known and embraced, as now they are, with other things appertaining to what has been called The New Philosophy, which from the times of Galileo at Florence, and Sir Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam) in England, has been much cultivated in Italy, France, Germany, and other parts abroad, as well as with us in England.

By the second half of the seventeenth century, scientific societies had evolved.  Participants aimed to develop the sciences rather than promote the New Philosophy.  They viewed their task as less a matter of securing the scientific revolution than of maintaining its momentum and reaping its harvest.  Included among this generation of scientific groups were:

The Accademia del Cimento [Academy of Experiment] (1657-1667) founded by Grand Duke Ferdinand II and Prince Leopold de' Medici of Florence.  Viewing the unknown as too vast for one man to tackle single-handed, the members set to work in common on tasks of importance to science.  The Medici brothers used their wealth to purchase the services of finest instrument makers and to publish a record of the experiments performed with these instruments -- Saggi di Naturali Esperienze (1667).

The Accademia's motto was:  "Provando e Riprovando"--Testing and Retesting; or Testing and Refuting.

Its members included:

  • Vincenzo Viviani (student and disciple of Galileo)
  • Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (leading scientist in Italy; specialized in mathematizing and mechanizing physiology)
  • Francesco Redi (physician; conducted experiments on spontaneous generation)
  • Carlo Renaldini (an Aristotelian professor of philosophy)
  • Lorenzo Magalotti (a man of letters with an interest in science)

Meanwhile, in England, the end of the Civil War saw the return of Charles Stuart from exile in France in May 1660.  In November of that year, twelve men, many of them members of the Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club, met at Gresham College to formally establish a society "for the promoting of Physio-Mathematical Experimental Learning." 
The Founding Members of the Royal Society
  • Balle, William (c. 1627-1690)
  • Boyle, Robert (1627-1691)
  • Brouncker, William, 2nd Viscount Brouncker (c. 1620-1684)
  • Bruce, Alexander, 2nd Earl of Kincardine (c. 1629-1680)
  • Goddard, Jonathan (c. 1617-1675)
  • Hill, Abraham (1633-1721)
  • Moray, Sir Robert (1608-1673)
  • Neile, Sir Paul (1613-1686)
  • Petty, Sir William (1623-1687)  
  • Rooke, Lawrence (1622-1662)
  • Wilkins, John (1614-1672)
  • Wren, Sir Christopher (1632-1723)
Frontispiece to the History of the Royal Society (1667) by Thomas Sprat (1635-1713)

Lord Brouncker, who had the closest association with Charles Stuart, assured the gathering that Charles was favorable to seeing an enterprise like theirs succeed.  Encouraged by this, they resolved to seek a royal charter -- with Robert Moray chosen to begin the process.  In the meantime, they would compile a list of forty others to invite to participate in the venture.

Once the royal charter was granted in July 1662, the Society named Lord Brouncker as its first president.  They chose "Nullius in Verba" -- "Deeds rather than Words" -- as the Society's motto and appointed Robert Hooke (1635-1703) as Curator of Experiments.

In March 1665, Henry Oldenburg (1615-1677), the Society's secretary, began publishing what was to become the first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions:  giving some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours, of the Ingenious in many Considerable Parts of the World.

The successful founding of the Royal Society was watched very closely by envious members of the Montmor Academy.  They petitioned Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister for Internal Affairs in the court of Louis XIV, to sponsor a similar organization in France.  In 1666, the Académie des Sciences was established.  Unfortunately for members of the Montmor Academy, few of them were invited to be part of the new Académie des Sciences.  In contrast to the Royal Society, the Académie was structured as a society of science professionals who would be paid by the crown for their service to the nation.

New Instruments -- The Air Pump

As we discussed in the previous lecture, new instruments were being introduced that would aid investigators in their quest to uncover what distinguished living from non-living things.  The microscope, for example, offered access to what Robert Hooke called the "terra incognita" (unknown world) of a realm where even the smallest of visible beings were found to exhibit previously unimagined (in fact, unimaginable!) detail in their bodily structures.  Perhaps, the microscopists hoped, improved lenses and instrument design would make it possible to "witness" firsthand the very stuff that converts inanimate matter into something that is alive.

Boyle's Air Pump

Other new instruments offered clues that raised perplexing new questions about the bare necessities of life.  The air pump made it possible to examine the role that air plays in sustaining life in an animal.  Do animals need air, or do they simply need to expand and contract their lungs regularly?  If they need air to live, what exactly does the respired air do?  Does it cool the body?  Does it somehow act as a fuel?  How long can an animal live in an evacuated container?  Do they die for lack of air, or do they die from a build up of toxins released by their bodies into the container? 

To untangle these knotty issues, Robert Boyle conducted a series of pioneering tests with his "New Pneumatical Engine" and reported his observations in great detail in New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching The Spring of the Air, and its Effects.... (1660). 

Many of these experiments were performed as public demonstrations.  Boyle, like others in the Oxford Circle, believed that experiment could produce certain knowledge about Nature so long as experiments were repeated many times and were witnessed by many observers who could all agree on the outcome.

In Experiment 41, Boyle wanted to "satisfie our selves in some measure, about the account upon which Respiration is so necessary to the Animals, that Nature hath furnish'd with Lungs."  To do this, he conducted trial after trial, placing live birds, mice, eels, snails, bees, and even flies inside the large glass receiver of the air pump and then studying each animal carefully as air was sucked out of the container.  Here, in part, is how he described the procedure:

detail from
Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768),
by Joseph Wright of Derby
[National Gallery, London]
excerpt from
Boyle's New Experiments.... (1660)

[W]e took (being then unable to procure any other lively Bird, small enough to be put into the Receiver) a Lark, one of whose Wings had been broken by a shot, of a Man that we had sent to provide us some Birds for our Experiment; but notwithstanding this hurt, the Lark was very lively, and did, being put into the Receiver, divers times spring up in it to a good height.  The Vessel being hastily, but carefully clos'd, the Pump was diligently ply'd, and the Bird for a while appear'd lively enough; but upon a greater Exsuction of the Air, she began manifestly to droop and appear sick, and very soon after was taken with as violent and irregular Convulsions, as are wont to be observ'd in Poultry, when their heads are wrung off:  For the Bird threw her self over and over two or three times, and dyed with her Breast upward, her Head downwards, and her Neck awry.  And though upon the appearing of these Convulsions, we turn'd the Stop-cock, and let in the Air upon her, yet it came too late; whereupon, casting our eyes upon one of those accurate Dyals that go with a Pendulum, and were of late ingeniously invented by the Noble and Learned Hugenius [Dutch physicist and astronomer, Christiaan Huyghens (1629-1695)], we found that the whole Tragedy had been concluded within ten Minutes of an hour, part of which time had been imploy'd in cementing the Cover to the Receiver.  Soon after we got a Hen sparrow, which being caught with Bird-lime was not at all hurt; when we put her into the Receiver, almost to the top of which she would briskly raise her self, the Experiment being try'd with this Bird, as it was with the former, she seem'd to be dead within seven minutes, one of which were imploy'd in cementing on the Cover:  But upon the speedy turning of the Key, the fresh Air flowing in began slowly to revive her, so that after some pantings she open'd her eyes, and regain'd her feet, and in about a 1/4 of an hour, after threatned to make an escape at the top of the Glass, which had been unstopp'd to let in the fresh Air upon her:  But the Receiver being clos'd the second time, she was kill'd with violent Convulsions, within five Minutes from the beginning of the Pumping.

A while after we put in a Mouse, newly taken, in such a Trap as had rather affrighted then hurt him; whil'st he was leaping up very high in the Receiver, we fasten'd the Cover to it, expecting that an Animal used to live in narrow holes with very little fresh Air, would endure the want of it better then the lately mention'd Birds:  But though, for a while after the Pump was set awork, he continued leaping up as before, yet 'twas not long ere he began to appear sick and giddy, and to stagger, after which he fell down as dead, but without such violent Convulsions as the Birds died with.  Whereupon, hastily turning the Key, we let in some fresh Air upon him, by which he recovered, after awhile, his senses and his feet, but seem'd to continue weak and sick:  But at length, growing able to skip as formerly, the Pump was plyed again for eight minutes, about the middle of which space, if not before, a very little Air by a mischance got in at the Stop-cock; and about two minutes after that, the Mouse divers times leap'd up lively enough, though after about two minutes more he fell down quite dead, yet with Convulsions far milder then those wherewith the two Birds expired.  This alacrity so little before his death, and his not dying sooner then at the end of the eighth minute, seem'd ascribable to the Air (how little soever) that slipt into the Receiver.  For the first time, those Convulsions (that, if they had not been suddenly remedied, had immediately dispatch'd him) seis'd on him in six minutes after the Pump began to be set awork.  These Experiments seem'd the more strange, in regard, that during a great part of those few minutes the Engine could but considerably rarefie the Air (and that too, but by degrees) and at the end of them there remain'd in the Receiver no inconsiderable quantity; as may appear by what we have formerly said of our not being able to draw down Water in a Tube, within much less then a Foot of the bottom:  with which we likewise consider'd, that by the exsuction of the Air and interspersed Vapors, there was left in the Receiver a space some hundreds of times exceeding the bigness of the Animal, to receive the fulginous Steams, from which expiration discharges the Lungs; and, which in the other cases hitherto known, may be suspected, for want of room, to stifle those Animals that are closely pent up in too narrow Receptacles....

Dissection and Transfusion
(for details, please see Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer)

Thomas Willis (1621-1673)

  • studied medicine with court physician, William Harvey (1578-1657)
  The brain as drawn by Christopher Wren (1632-1723), from Willis's Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves
  • conducted countless dissections to discover the relationship between the observed anatomy of a deceased individual's brain and notable behavioral and/or physiological characteristics preceding death
  • developed new techniques for preserving a cadaver's brain so that details of its structure could be observed and correctly recorded
  • in 1649, hired young Richard Lower as an assistant in this work
  • wrote several important medical treatises including
    • Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves (1664)
    • Cerebral Pathology (1664) -- treatise on convulsions
    • Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes (1670)
    • Rational Therapeutics (1673)

Richard Lower (1631-1691)

  • pioneered the art of transfusing blood from one living animal to another
  • conducted transfusion demonstrations for the Royal Society
Transfusion apparatus, from Lower's Treatise on the Heart: The Motion, Color and Transfusion of the Blood (1669)
  1. silver tube for inserting into blood vessel
  2. tube inserted into recipient vein (tube attached to plate with holes for strings to tie apparatus to human recipient)
  3. tubes inserted into recipient vein and donor artery
  4. major artery of horse or ox serves as conduit between two silver tubes
  5. complete set up, from left to right: donor artery
    silver tube
    horse/ox artery
    silver tube
    recipient vein
  6. same apparatus for transfusion from animal to man

What did people think of these transfusion experiments at the time?  Here's an excerpt from the famous diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), a government official and member of the Royal Society:

November 14, 1666.  ...Dr. Croone told me, that, at the meeting at Gresham College to-night, which, it seems, they now have every Wednesday again, there was a pretty experiment of the blood of one dogg let out, till he died, into the body of another on one side, while all his own run out on the other side.

The first died upon the place, and the other very well, and likely to do well.  This did give occasion to many pretty wishes, as of the blood of a Quaker to be let into an Archbishop, and such like; but, as Dr. Croone says, may, if it takes, be of mighty use to man's health, for the amending of bad blood by borrowing from a better body....

November 28, 1666.  ... Mr. Carteret and I to Gresham College, where they meet now weekly again, and here they had good discourse how this late experiment of the dog, which is in perfect good health, may be improved for good uses to men, and other pretty things....

November 21, 1667.  ... they discourse of a man that is a little frantic, that hath been a kind of minister, Dr. Wilkins saying that he hath read for him in his church, that is poor and a debauched man, that the College' have hired for 20s. to have some of the blood of a sheep let into his body; and it is to be done on Saturday next.

They purpose to let in about twelve ounces; which, they compute, is what will be let in in a minute's time by a watch.  They differ in the opinion they have of the effects of it; some think it may have a good effect upon him as a frantic man by cooling his blood, others that it will not have any effect at all.  But the man is a healthy man, and by this means will be able to give an account what alteration, if any, he do find in himself, and so may be usefull.

November 30, 1667.  ...[H]ere was good company.  I choosing to sit next Dr. Wilkins, Sir George Ent, and others whom I value, there talked of several things.  Among others Dr. [John] Wilkins, talking of the universal speech, of which he hath a book coming out, did first inform me how man was certainly made for society, he being of all creatures the least armed for defence, and of all creatures in the world the young ones are not able to do anything to help themselves, nor can find the dug [their mother's breast] without being put to it, but would die if the mother did not help it; and, he says, were it not for speech man would be a very mean creature.  Much of this good discourse we had. 

But here, above all, I was pleased to see the person who had his blood taken out.  He speaks well, and did this day give the Society a relation thereof in Latin, saying that he finds himself much better since, and as a new man, but he is cracked a little in his head, though he speaks very reasonably, and very well.  He had but 20s. for his suffering it, and is to have the same again tried upon him: the first sound man that ever had it tried on him in England, and but one that we hear of in France, which was a porter hired by the virtuosos.

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