Thursday, November 19, 2009


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I’m going to talk mostly about the navigation that developed in North West Europe and the Mediterranean. This has a convoluted history. I am going to attempt to cover the period from medieval times up until the end of the 18th century.

There are many paintings showing English ships in a gale. They typify the terrors of navigating sailing ships, sometimes on a lee shore or sometimes on the gales that they encounter in oceans around the world. There comes a time when ships’ navigating officers have to make vital decisions. It can be when they are making a landfall after a long protracted voyage, the sky overcast, they’ve not been able to get a fix for the ship. There is much discussion amongst them all as to exactly where the ship is and what course they should steer. Samuel Pepys, who went on a voyage to Tangiers in 1683, to supervise the demolition of the mall there, was absolutely amazed at the incompetence of most of the navigators in the naval ships he sailed with. Pepys says:

It is most plain from the confusion that these people are in, in how to make good their reckoning, even each man’s with itself, and the nonsensical arguments they would make use of to do it, and disorder they are in about it, that it is by God’s almighty providence and great chance and the wideness of the sea that there are not a great many more misfortunes and ill chances in navigation than there are.

So Pepys was not desperately impressed with the technique and skills of the 17th century navigators in the Royal Navy.

If they make the wrong decision, you can make the supremely unfortunate mistake of arriving rather suddenly amongst the rocks and the breakers. So seamen have always been conscious that they need all the assistance that they can develop and find. I suspect that you will have guessed that the earliest navigating instrument was the sounding lead. As ships approach the Channel, perhaps on a voyage from Bordeaux or the Portugal ports, it was the 100 fathom line that they would search for. The lead itself, which was armed with tallow, was lowered from the side of the ship, the ship would heave-to, they would lower the line down and discover how deep the water was. If they hadn’t reached the 100 fathom line on the continental shelf which protrudes out from the English Channel and surrounds the North West European shores, they would sail on a little further until they picked up the sea bottom, and then the tallow on the bottom of the lead would pick up from the sea bed its character, either fine sand or mud and ooze, and experienced seamen would be able to tell from this exactly which part of the Channel’s mouth that they were in. So the sounding lead was a commonsense instrument. It was used in very deep water, and then as you got into shallow water, you used the hand lead, which had a seven pound weight on the bottom of it, and markings on the line.. These were in existence we know as early as the 1620s, where you used bits of cloth and lengths of rope with knots in it. I know that white was five fathoms, and that red was seven fathoms – and I know this because I was taught that there are five letters in white and there are seven in crimson. Those marks were established three or four hundred years ago.

The sounding lead was a fairly obvious device to make use of but the most important, perhaps the most important, invention for seamen was the magnetic compass. There is a compass in the National Maritime Museum collection, date unknown, but we think possibly middle of the 16th Century, perhaps from the 1580s. It’s in turned ivory. The motion of the vessel doesn’t upset the steadiness of the card under which the magnetic needle is suspended. The first record of a magnetic compass in Western waters was by an English monk, Alexander Neckham, in 1187. He was travelling to somewhere on the Continent, and in crossing the Channel he noticed that seamen were using this rather strange device when the sky was overcast and they lost a sense of their direction.

Vincent Bouvey in 1240 described in graphic detail how this magic trick was performed. The magnetic needle was stroked with a lodestone, a naturally occurring magnetic ore, the needle was magnetised, and then thrust, at right angles, through a little piece of straw and floated in a bowl of water. Then they would whirl the lodestone around the bowl, and the needle would be dragged round with it by the magnetic attraction. The lodestone would be snatched away and eventually, when the needle settled, in theory it pointed to the north. Now of course this could be checked when the skies were clear and you could see the Pole Star, but in overcast conditions, obviously this was a very useful device.

The magnetic compass was a tremendously useful addition to the navigator’s armoury. No one is really sure exactly when it was pivoted on a needle in the bottom of a bowl, and when the compass fly or card was stuck to the needle and marked with the 32 points of the compass, but we think it was in the middle of the 13 th century, round about 1250 or so. We know the Chinese developed a similar instrument round about 1100. Obviously this instrument was being developed in Europe at much the same time.

The magnetic compass made a tremendous difference to navigation. Mediterranean sailors, since classical times, have been sailing the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, and out into the Atlantic. Roman sailors came to our shores. In some ways the Mediterranean was an ideal cradle for navigation to develop, because it’s enclosed almost entirely by land. It is not subject to currents as the sea is around the North West European shores. The water is very deep, and the cliffs are steep too. The winds tend to be seasonal and steady, and it was in the Mediterranean that the galleys, vessels which went along at a steady pace, were developed. So with a combination of magnetic compass courses, which gives you direction, and the steady speed of the ship, which would give you the distance over a period of time, a very clear image of the Mediterranean’s coastline was built up over centuries.

At about the same time that the compass was introduced, the Portulan charts came along. Originally they were an illustration of the sailing directions that seamen used to help them find their way about from cape to cape and from coast to coast. They are reasonably accurate as to the delineation of the coast, but the coastline of the Mediterranean in these charts is about 11 degrees out because there is a geographical pole on our Earth and a magnetic pole, and the two do not coincide. The magnetic pole moves around on an annual basis, and this causes the magnetic field of the Earth to alter annually. In the Mediterranean at this time the error of the compass was about 11 degrees, but this doesn’t make any difference. If you’re using a compass with an 11 degree error, and you’ve got a chart with an 11 degree error in it, the two match up very nicely.

When artefacts began to appear from the Mary Rose, which we know sank in 1545, I was particularly excited because I thought we would find some navigational instruments in it. Three compasses were recovered from Mary Rose. I have a picture of one. You can see it’s glazed. It has a glass top to it to protect the card from being influenced by the wind and so on, and the circular piece of wood to the right with the pin you can see stuck through the bottom, which is the pivot for the compass card, that plugs into the bottom of the tubular item on the left. There was no magnetic needle or card in the compass. It was discovered in a sea chest in one of the cabins of the Mary Rose, the so-called pilot’s cabin, because other navigational instruments were found there also. When it was freeze dried and reassembled, this compass was totally complete apart from its card and the magnetic needle. It was contained in a box with a sliding lid, with finger grips that pulled the lid back. Unfortunately, the original putty that held the glass in disintegrated during the conservation process, but that particular compass, it surprised me, because it was almost identical to a magnetic compass. If you look at a French compass from about 1800, you can see that in about 250, 300 years, there was be no improvement in either the performance of the compass or the techniques by which it was built. The improvement of magnetic compasses really only got under way in the mid part of the 18th century, but it’s a 19th century story and perhaps a story for another day.

When the compass was used on a ship, they would have one by the man who was steering the ship with either the tiller or the whiplash, which was fixed to the end of the tiller, so that it could be used by night and so that it could be protected from spray and so on. It was placed in a small cupboard known as a binnacle, or a habitacle. The earliest record in English ships for habitacles is about 1410. One was recovered from a bask whaler on the Labrador coast, and the ship we know sank in 1565. It was a simple cupboard, with a sliding panel on the front and the compass protected there inside it.

The other instruments that were early were sandglasses, which we know were at sea in the middle of the 13 th century. A sandglass was recovered from an English warship that sank in 1703, but in fact it’s no different from the sandglasses recovered from Mary Rose 200 odd years earlier. It is made of two glass vials which were filled with very fine sand. It was timed against another sandglass, a standard sandglass, and then sealed and bound and put in a wooden cage to protect it. We know that they carried different sizes of sandglass in ships because not only was the day regulated for the working of the ships, watches were controlled by the sandglass. There would be a sandglass by the helmsman and he would turn it at the end of a half an hour. The smaller sandglasses ran for half an hour. But so that he didn’t warn the bell as it were, the officer of the watch would have a sandglass that perhaps ran for an hour, so the man at the wheel or the tiller would turn the sandglass at half an hour, strike one bell at the beginning of his watch, and when he’d turned it twice, he’d strike two bells, and this is the process of watches in ships. Seamen served four hours on, and in the early days, four hours off, and they struck a bell every half an hour. So four bells, you knew you were half way through the watch, and so on, eight bells was the end of the watch, and you would have turned the glass eight times. They had a series of sandglasses just to check against each other.

It regulated time in the ship, but it also regulated the time that you were sailing on a particular course, so it was a very essential tool to the mariner. It was a combination of direction with the compass and timing, timing the length of time you were on a course, with a sandglass were obviously essential in the very early days.

Also amongst the items recovered from this wreck of 1703 were little slates, which were used for recording the day’s work, recording the speed of the ship through the water, the course it was steering and wind condition etcs. Slates like these have been found in a number of ships from that period. I have to admit that when I was at sea in the ’fifties and ’sixties, the company I was with still used slates to record the progress of the ship in the wheel house. We wrote with a slate pencil, the idea being that if there was some dreadful catastrophe, the ship’s master could decide what had happened and the slate could be adjusted, whereas if you’d written it down in ink or somewhere in a book, you were stuck with it! That was the anecdote, but I suspect that’s all long gone now.

Judging your distance and the speed at which a ship was sailing – the two are obviously interconnected – was a difficult thing to do. The Spanish and the Portuguese judged the speed of their ships by the amount of sail the ship was carrying, and they could translate that into distance. At one time, it was also known that you could mark a length on the gunnel of the ship and that length was proportional to a mile. You would toss in a chip of wood or something, or you would see a fleck of foam, and you would time it past this length on the gunnel, and the time it took was proportional to an hour that this length was on the gunnel, and then you could turn that into the distance the ship was sailing in an hour. Well, this is all very prone to error, obviously. The English log was invented by a seaman in England, we know now, before the Mary Rose sank. Prior to the work on Mary Rose, it was thought that the English log wasn’t introduced until the latter part of the 16th century, where William Bourne describes it in his book “Navigational Text”.

The way it was used, you threw a little triangular piece of wood over the stern of the ship, and waited until it had got clear of the eddies, and then you turned a half minute sandglass, and allowed the line to run out over the stern of the ship. When the sandglass ran out in half a minute, you stopped the line, and then bringing it in across your chest, which is a fathom, six feet, you measured how much line had run out in half a minute, and then half a minute is of an hour what that length of line is to the distance the ship has run. While measuring a wet line like this over your chest, someone had the bright idea that it would be a useful to put knots in the line at certain distances. The trouble with that is that to get the knots the correct distance apart, you have to know the size of the Earth, and no one was really sure of that until the mid-eighteenth century, although the Greeks had in fact worked it out very accurately many thousands of years before. So seamen tended to have the knots too close together. The correct distance is 51 feet and that equates to sea mile of 6,080 feet. But seamen, being the cautious people they are, preferred the reckoning to be ahead of the ship, so when they were reckoning how far the ship had sailed, they would much prefer that reckoning to be ahead of where the ship actually was. If it’s the other way round, you think you’re safely in the ocean and the ship is ahead of you, so they always made the knot distances shorter than needs be. So they’d make them 45 feet. The sandglasses they used in the 19th century, just to be on the safe side, instead of running for 30 seconds, they ran for 28 seconds, and so they were always underestimating the speed and the distance that the ship had run – or overestimating rather, so that the ship was behind the reckoning.

All of these things went together to form what we call today dead reckoning. You used all the information that was possible, your knowledge of tides and currents. This knowledge wasn’t extensive out in the oceans, but around the coasts, shipmasters learnt, master to apprentice, over hundreds of years, the courses between capes, times of high and low water. It was known that the tides arrived later by about 48 minutes each day. In fact, the ports around European coasts were given what we know call an establishment, but seamen thought of the compass card, its 32 points – north equated to midnight, east was six, south was 12 hours, and because there are 32 points of the compass, if you divide that into 24 hours, it works out at about 45 minutes. By knowing the establishment of a port at full moon, which is when the tides are highest, in spring tides, that fall and change, they could work out from the compass card, knowing the age of the moon, which they’d look up in their little almanacs, they could work out what time high water would occur at the various ports around the UK.

That is quite difficult to explain, but another instrument found in the Mary Rose was a little circular disc, which has on it the 32 points of the compass. At the north point, it has a peg. At the south point, it also has a little distinguishing mark. It’s quite crudely done. I think that this was a tidal computer. The master of the ship, or one of the sailors, would know that if, at full and change, high tides were at midnight, he would know that after three day, he could work back three points on the compass and it would give him the time. So it’s a little handy pocket computer.

There were dividers found on Mary Rose. It’s obviously a standard instrument that seamen use now on picking off distances on charts, although it’s all done for you electronically these days. But a pair of dividers, or compasses as they were known, was found on Mary Rose, and it has given us cause to think that perhaps there were charts on Mary Rose, although when she sank, British seamen, English seamen, were not too familiar with charts. They were being developed in the Mediterranean, and then with the Portuguese and the Spaniards, who were sailing off to the New World and out to the Far East. British seafarers were not much taken by this, and reckoned they could keep a better reckoning on a travis board, which was something on which you could plot a ship’s course and its distance.

There may have been charts in the Mary Rose, but we shall never know because velum charts are not able to survive in sea water for very long. One of the earliest English charts of any significance was by Thomas Hood, and it was drawn in 1598. It shows the Western approaches. It shows the continental shelf with its soundings and the 100 fathom line. It incorporates a latitude scale, and it also has tidal information. It tells you the times of high water at the various ports around North West Europe. Of course that’s most important information because at a place like Bristol, the difference between high and low water can be 35 feet, so if you’re sailing in with quite a large ship, you want to be sure there’s enough water beneath the keel of your vessel.

Well, this was coastal navigation, and I suppose we call it pilotage now. Seamen travelling across short seas from headland to headland, cape to cape. In the early sailing directions, they didn’t express it in miles, they expressed it in kennings, in other words, how far you could see from one cape to the next, and a kenning in English terms was about 20 miles. The word ‘kenning’ is still used up in the North – do you ken John Peel? It’s knowing the distance, basically.

Prince Henry the Navigator was the third son of King John II of Portugal. He married an English princess. Prince Henry was very interested in getting to the riches of the Far East by sailing around the Islamic Empire, which had control of Africa and the Levant. So he sent his seamen exploring off the African coast. They progressed further and further down this coast. Keeping track of how far they had gone was a difficult proposition, but they were taught this method of using the Pole Star. If you stand at the North Pole, the Pole Star is directly overhead, and as the Earth rotates, the Pole Star stays overhead. If you go down to the horizon, the Pole Star is right on the horizon. Anywhere in between the North Pole and the Equator, the Pole Star actually corresponds to the height you are above the Equator, in other words, your latitude. So by measuring the height of the Pole Star above the horizon, this gives you your latitude or your distance north of the Equator. It’s quite a simple sum.

Instruments were devised for seamen to be able to measure this simple altitude observation. The first instrument they used was a quadrant. These were astronomical instruments adapted for use for seamen. There was one inherent failure, and that was its use of a plumb ball. If you’re on a ship, where it’s windy and the ship is rolling and pitching, obviously it takes a very careful eye to get the altitude correctly. Seamen were taught to mark the altitude of their port which they were departing from, and then as they sailed south, they’d record the height of the Pole Star when they were off headlands or discovered islands, and by doing this, they could mark it on the quadrant. It was the Portuguese who discovered the wind systems in the North Atlantic: they found they couldn’t sail back up the coastline again, they had to sail out into the Atlantic, where the winds had a circular, clockwise rotation. They would sail north again until the Pole Star equated to the mark they had put on their quadrant for their home port, and then they would turn east and then sail towards the coast. This was known as altura sailing, the height of the Pole Star.

The quadrant was not an ideal instrument, and they adapted the astronomer’s astrolabe. The earliest types had a solid disc with an alidade or ruler on it with two sights with pinholes in it. The pinholes and the plates in which they are were moved closer to the centre point because it’s very difficult to get the sun’s rays to go into one hole and strike the other hole. It had a scale on which they could read the height. They discovered that the solid discs - which were quite large, some of them two feet across – would blow around in the wind so you wouldn’t get a very steady reading, so gradually they developed into cast brass instruments.

When I joined the Maritime Museum only about six of these were known, but I soon realised that if we were going to learn any more about the earlier instruments of navigation, they would be all coming up from wrecks. So I attended many underwater archaeological conferences, and my spies then were around the world and they used to write to me and give me information on these instruments. Eventually I had a total of over 60. I published a book on it, so if you are interested in mariners’ astrolabes, that’s the book to get!

Sailing beyond the Equator, when the Portuguese got down beyond the Equator, of course the Pole Star dips below the horizon and you can no longer use it, but the astronomers that Prince Henry the Navigator could call upon produced tables for the Sun so that you could use the Sun to find your latitude. You can only measure the Sun as it crosses your meridian at noon each day wherever you happen to be; iin other words, when it reaches its highest point. You also have to correct it because of its seasonal changes. In the summer, in the northern hemisphere, the Sun is higher in the sky, and so on. So tables were produced which could correct this but seamen, being the simple souls they weere, some of them were much more easily satisfied with a diagram which told them which way to apply the declination. So if the Sun has got a northerly declination and you’re in the northern hemisphere, north of the declination, it tells you which way to apply the correction, and then all the different cases of being in the southern hemisphere and the Sun is in the northern hemisphere because it’s a northern hemisphere summer. All those different instances were recorded in a diagram, which made it very much easier for the average navigator.

Another astronomical instrument that was developed for seamen was the cross-staff, a simple instrument, that was quite difficult to use. You put one end of the staff to your eye, and the cross on it you slid up and down the staff until the top of it was just covering the Pole Star, or the body you’re observing, and the lower end of it was just touching the horizon. Well, this is quite difficult to do, and in fact you can’t measure angles over about 50 degrees with it, but it was much used at sea. When you were using it with the Sun of course, gazing towards the Sun is very difficult, and you would put a shade on the end of the cross to protect your eye. It was recorded that most old seafarers at this time were blind in one eye or had impaired vision because of staring at the Sun to get its altitude.

Well, using these methods, the new declination tables, altitudes of the Pole Star, seamen and geographers were able to compile very much more advanced charts. By 1529 charts appeared that were quite accurate for latitude Most of the latitudes were within an acceptable tolerance. The longitudes were not yet there.

The charts were often drawn on a whole skin of velum: a cross was put on it, and then from the centre point, you drew a circle, and the circle was marked by little compass roses that go round, and from each of those compass roses, you drew the 32 points of the compass, and you drew them also from the centre of the chart. As a consequence, these charts were covered in a maze of rums or lines from which you could pick your course when sailing from point A to point B.

During the latter part of the 16th century, Captain John Davis invented the backstaff, which helped you preserve your eyesight. Instead of gazing directly at the Sun, you stood with your back to it, and then the two arcs together made 90 degrees and you had a sight vane and a shade vane. The shadow vane threw a shadow onto the horizon vane, which you can see has got a slit in it, and by peering through the sight vane at the horizon, you made that coincide with the shadow cast by the shade vane from the Sun. You could adjust this by moving the sight vane up and down the large scale, and when you felt all was right, you read off the sum of the two arcs and this gave you your altitude of the Sun. You might get an answer to within about 15 or 20 miles with an instrument like that. There’s an example in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Of course at this time, they were developing pilot books. They were known as rutters from the French routier, or wagoners because in the 17th Century and the late 16th Century, the Dutch produced them, Jansun Wagoner, sailing directions with little pictorial images of what the coastline looked like, so that when you were approaching the coast, you could work out, as one of them says, “When as Torbay bears north-northwest from you and that you are about three leagues from the shore, then the land appears in this order.” In other words, if you weren’t familiar with this part of the coastline, you could look it up in a book, and of course pilot books are still used today. All of this information was gradually accumulated over many centuries. The Dutch were pre-eminent in navigation in the 17th Century.

Gunter’s rule or scale was developed by one of the professors at Gresham College in the early 17th Century. Edmund Gunter invented the sector, and also a rule which incorporated logarithmic functions. Now, I won’t go into logarithmic functions this afternoon, but they’re very necessary in working courses and distance to go, and courses and distance that you might have travelled.These logarithmic functions were placed on a ruler, rather like a slide rule, and you used it with a pair of dividers, and then by comparing lengths on it, you could work out mathematical problems in which normally multiplication and division would have applied but all you were doing was adding and subtracting the various lengths on the scale.

Well, latitude we’ve discussed, but longitude was a very much trickier problem. Latitude is fairly simply found. It’s very easy delineated. he Equator is midway between north and south. You’ve got north latitude and south latitude. But longitude, east and west, there was no natural starting point. You could pick any point on the Earth’s surface, and say, well, we’ll start longitude from here. In fact, this is what most nautical nations did. They used their own observatory as the starting point. So the French based their longitude scales on their charts on Paris, we on London, the Spanish on the Cape Verde Islands, and so on. That wasn’t resolved until 1884.

Longitude is in fact the difference of time between places. If it’s noon in London, it’s five hours earlier in New York, and this is because there’s 360 degrees of the Earth’s circumference divided by 24 hours, it works out at 15 degrees of longitude equates to one hour. So you can find your longitude if you know the difference of time between a standard place and where your ship is. Now, the theory of it was very easily understood, and in fact Johannes Ferner, as far back as 1514, had suggested using the Moon as a clock. Obviously you couldn’t take a clock to sea, but the Moon acts rather like a clock against the starry background. It moves quite rapidly against the star background. n fact, it moves its own diameter in about an hour. If you think of the stars as the hour points on the clock dial, as the Moon moves against it, you could predict where the Moon was going to be at a certain time, at a fixed known place, say Greenwich, and then if you measured the difference at your ship, you could find out what the time was at Greenwich by using the Moon, and then find your local time, wherever the ship was, and by comparing the two, local time and the time at your port of departure, you would know how far east and west you’d sailed.

That was one theory. The other theory was that yes, you could make a clock, and that would be another way. You would take the standard port of departure’s time round with you, with a clock that would keep time at sea, but of course the problem with both of these theories was that no one had accurately mapped the star background, no one could predict the Moon’s path against the stars with any degree of accuracy, and there wasn’t a navigational instrument that could take the measurements, and also there was not sufficient technology to produce a clock that would suffice. Many prizes were offered for finding longitude. It was seen as essential that ships should have safe passage around the world so that their cargos and crews would be safe, and Charles II established the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, in Greenwich Park. The first Astronomer Royal was instructed to find out the positions of the stars so that we can find the so much desired longitude. So this is what the Rev. Flamstead, set about. Something that precipitated the action was the sinking of a squadron of ships running from the Mediterranean under the command of Sir Cloudsley Shovel in 1707. Four of the ships floundered and 2,000 sailors drowned, and there was a national outcry. Something had to be done.

Eventually, the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 for anyone who could come up with a practical method of finding longitude at sea. Well, the first part of that equation to be solved was the instrument to take the measurements. John Hadley, the Vice-President at the Royal Society, invented his reflecting octant, which, as described to the Royal Society in 1731, looked very like this. It’s an instrument with double reflection. The index arm on the scale can be moved across, and by means of two mirrors, you can see the Sun and the horizon at the same time. It was the first instrument that allowed you to see the sea horizon, which is essential in taking altitudes, and the object you were observing.

This quickly translated into an instrument with a diagonal scale. It had shades to protect your eye. It dispensed with the telescope as too expensive, and they had little pinhole sights. But that kind of instrument, refined, was very quickly put into production and became popular by about the 1750s. In fact, the back-staff continued in use towards the end of the 18th Century because it was so much cheaper than the octant, and most seamen only aspired to finding their latitude at the time.

The business of finding a clock was solved by John Harrison, a carpenter from Lincolnshire, Barrow-upon-Humber. He produced a series of clocks between the late 1720s until 1759. Harrison was remarkable in that he incorporated a tremendous number of new devices. A clock to keep time at sea must not be affected by the temperature, or it must be compensated for temperature fluctuations. At that time, when you oiled a clock, the oil deteriorated and thickened and would slow the clock down. The pivots would wear. So he invented roller bearings and frictionless pinions, and also the most accurate form of clock at this time was the pendulum clock. Well, obviously there are shortcomings of taking a pendulum clock to sea, and he invented a double balance system. He worked away at these clocks, which were enormous and sat in big cases. He had a lot of trouble adjusting them to keep time, but meanwhile, he produced a watch, quite a large watch, about five inches across, which incorporated some of the technical inventions he’d come up with in producing his large clocks, and the watch was tried. First of all, it had to be copied. There were tremendous arguments with the Board of Longitude, who adjudicated on the so-called solutions to the longitude problem. A copy of Harrison ’s fourth watch was produced by Lark and Kendall and went to sea with James Cook, where it performed tremendously well.

The other method of finding longitude at sea, the lunar distance method, was solved when Tobias Mayer finally came up with prediction tables. If you’re going to use the Moon as a clock, you have to take to sea with you, and have them prepared well in advance, the predicted positions of the Moon perhaps one or two years ahead. This had been the trouble. The Moon is a very irregular passenger around our Earth. Tobias Mayer came up with tables eventually in 1755. He also said, well, he didn’t much like Hadley octant – he invented the reflecting circle, which is on the same principles, two reflecting mirrors, but he reckoned it would eliminate all sorts of instrumental errors. The instrument was tried at sea, but was found to be very unwieldy, and so John Campbell, who was testing it, asked John Bird, who made instruments for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, if he would produce an enlarged Hadley octant to very high standards. The instrument he produced was 20 inches in radius. It weighs something like 17 pounds, so very heavy. In fact, it has a pole to take the weight. With this, he maintained you’d be able to take very satisfactory lunar distances, that is, measuring the distance between the Moon and a fixed star.

The only problem with John Bird’s solution with that instrument was the fact that it took him so long to devise the scale. It was all done by hand. Jessie Ramsden came up with a solution to that. He produced a dividing engine. At that time, the Board of Longitude was able to fund worthy causes. Ramsden was given sums of money to perfect this instrument, and also John Harrison. So Ramsden was encouraged, and produced his dividing engine, which in fact was used on all sextants right into the 20th century – not his particular instrument, but instruments like it. With a dividing engine like that, he was able to produce sextants that were much more manageable that went away with Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration.

Because the Board of Longitude had financed the dividing engine, they said it was their property, so that every instrument that Ramsden produced, he had to stamp it with the mark of the anchor of the admiralty. He would put his initials either side of it, Jessie Ramsden. So if you look at a Ramsden sextant, you’ll find that all the early ones are stamped like that.

The man that made all these methods practicable was Neville Mascalin, the Astronomer Royal, who had made a voyage to St Helena to watch the transit of Venus in 1761. He’d used Meyer’s tables, and said yes, they do work, but they’re very unmanageable. Not only is Hadley’s octant not quite sufficient, but also it takes about four hours to work out your longitude by using this lunar distance method, and this is well beyond anything that the average seafarer could cope with. Well, Mascalin came back and said, well, I can resolve all these things by pre-working a lot of the work that had to be done in those calculations, and so he produced the nautical almanac for 1767 at the Royal Observatory. It gives the time at noon, and every three hour intervals, so by measuring the distance of the Moon from a star, and by interpreting the distance you got, you could look that distance up and interpret from the tables what the time was at Greenwich where this nautical almanac was produced. So the nautical almanac, first produced was 1767 and annually ever since, transformed maritime navigation.

It’s also part of the reason why the Greenwich Meridian was chosen as the international meridian for nought degrees longitude, because in 1884, when the conference was called, 70% of the world’s ships were using charts based on the Greenwich Observatory’s nautical almanac, and North America, which had been an English colony, also was using those charts. All her time zones were based on the Observatory at Greenwich and the nautical almanac.

Well, we haven’t time to go into this in more detail, but the accumulation of all this knowledge, all these instruments, were available to Cook on his famous voyages in the 1760s and 70s, and in a developed sense, the methods that were developed in the middle of the 18th century, with refinements, were available to me in the 1960s. We were still using sextants, nautical almanacs, logarithm tables and so on in the ’Sixties.


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Mapping the Heavens from 17th Century Greenwich.

Dr Allan Chapman.

The physical sciences have always undergone spurts of rapid innovation in the wake of the development of crucial new technologies, because such technologies made available new data from which fresh interpretative conclusions could be drawn. The work of the Revd John Flamsteed and the founding of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, after 1675, came about very much in the wake of such technological developments, and their demonstration at Gresham College.

For much of the astronomical research of the 17th century was not concerned with looking at objects in the sky, but with accurately measuring the respective positions of the stars and planets with regard to each other. This involved a complex celestial geometry. The stars in the constellations, of course, never moved position from each other and were regarded as “fixed”. Yet moving among the stars of the Zodiac band were the planets, the Sun and the Moon, whose position changed on a nightly basis. Monitoring these changes had occupied astronomers since antiquity, for knowledge of solar, lunar and planetary wanderings lay at the heart of accurate calendars and time-keeping.

And by the17th century, astronomers had come to realise – a full 100 years before John Harrison and the development of the marine chronometer – that if one could predict the exact place of the moon amongst the constellations for a year or two ahead, then tables of these motions could be supplied to navigators as a way of finding the longitude of ships on the ocean. By the reign of King Charles II, moreover, in the 1670s, both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Marine had an urgent need for improved navigational accuracy.

In 1675, John Flamsteed was consulted by the King and the Royal Society about the establishment of a Royal Observatory, the purpose of which would be to conduct painstaking geometrical observations of the Sun, Moon and stars which might be able to provide a solution to the longitude problem.

Flamsteed was a private gentleman in 1675, who also had the acknowledged advantage of being the most knowledgeable practical astronomer in Great Britain. He realised that three very recent technological innovations had just been produced which had the potential of making practical celestial geometry vastly more precise.

They were: (a) the telescopic sight, which enabled astronomers to measure star positions 40 times more precisely than by the naked eye; (b) then there was the screw micrometer which could reliable measure the tiniest angles, and (c) the pendulum clock, which at a stroke, in 1658, had transformed the accuracy of clocks from an error of 10 minutes to 5 seconds per day.

Technology, innovation, the hoped-for solution to a political and strategic problem, and the geometry of the heavens all came together in a period of intense scientific and mathematical creativity.


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Professor Allan Chapman.

In this series of three lectures, I am going to be looking at medicine in London over effectively three century periods: the 17th century is the period for this evening; the 18th century is next week; and the 19th Century in two weeks' time.

But before I start, I would like to read a short poem, which some of you may know, about Gresham, and which, in many ways, gives a sense of the novelty of the College, at least as it was perceived in the 1660s. We do not know quite who wrote this poem. It was a broadsheet ballad and it has been dated from internal evidence to circa 1663, simply because that is what the Royal Society was getting up to at the time it had been written, and it says this:

'If to be rich and to be learned
Be every nation's chiefest glory
How much are Englishmen concerned
Gresham to celebrate in story
Who build the Exchange to enrich the City
And the College founded for the witty.'

The 'witty' of course not meaning the comical, but rather in the Anglo Saxon sense of those who possessed acute senses - in other words, the study of the natural world.

Now, I would like to start off tonight in 1597, which is the year in which the will of Sir Thomas Gresham came into action and the College came into existence. So it was that the Welshman, Matthew Gwinne, became the first Gresham Professor Physic.

I want to have a look initially at what was the general state of medicine and medical understanding at the time of the founding of Gresham and a little bit later at the time of the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. Medicine was profoundly different from what it would become even two centuries later. The one thing which is surprising is how essentially classical medicine was at this period, and I think it is important to say initially how they conceived that the body worked in 1597.

It was considered that the body was a sovereign territory - it is not for nothing that the analogy of the body as 'the body politick' was often used in political discourse as well as medical and theological discourse. For instance, Shakespeare, in his play King John, speaks of England as having 'distempered humours', where of course, in the early 13th Century, anarchy and Civil War was active. Of course even earlier, in the letter to the Corinthians, St Paul speaks of the body as having different parts, all of which have a sovereign combination. This strikes at the heart of how Elizabethan and early Jacobean people imagined medicine worked.

Effectively, the assumption was that there were four humours, four properties, and these were: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. They were generally associated with certain organs, but not particularly organ-specific. More particularly, they represented characteristics of conditions: hot, cold, moist and dry. It was believed that the way in which these were mixed together in an individual governed, first of all, your basic temperament - whether you were melancholic, saturnine, phlegmatic and so on - and also what kind of diseases you were likely to be inclined to. For instance, a person born under Saturn with a considerable amount of black bile in their make-up was likely to be much more inclined to depression, perhaps violence, and erratic behaviour. When a doctor therefore looked at a patient, before you even started to get round to diagnosing the disease, you would type them, and would therefore say what kind of susceptibility they had, based on these four classical humours.

Medical training at that period, in either Oxford or Cambridge or any of the great universities of Europe, especially Bologna and Padua, would also have focused on a classical humoural tradition. This included such figures as Galen, the Prince of Physicians, who had lived around 150AD; Hippocrates, the first systematiser of medicine, around 400BC; and lots and lots of others including Dioscorides. In fact, if you were a medical student in 1597, you would be reading cases of people who had been in their graves for over 2,000 years. These formed part of the general process of diagnosis. Hippocrates' Airs, Waters and Places, his Diagnostics and Prognostics, his book on the King's Evil, and various other diseases, classified illness in a way that was, first of all, comprehensible in the Greek world, and was equally comprehensible in the world of Queen Elizabeth I. Therefore, medicine was, unlike today, a profoundly classical art. It was also a deeply conservative art, where the conservatism of the doctor was more important than innovation, in many ways.

I think the biggest single quantum shift in medical understanding in the intervening four centuries is how we regard medical authority: the idea that a young doctor was not as good as an old doctor; the fact that a man who was concerned with modern learning was not as reliable as a man who was concerned with old learning. Indeed, when William Harvey published his first major fundamental studies on the circulation of the blood in 1628, it virtually slaughtered his practice in London, because who would go to a doctor, especially a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a Royal Physician, who was so mad enough to suggest that the blood circulated around the body?! A number of Harvey's rivals, particularly Dr Primrose, made great fun of this and effectively tried to harry Harvey off the scene, because he innovated in physic, as opposed to following the great traditions of classical medicine. So this is one very, very important area of difference between then and now.

Also, we have to bear in mind how the medical profession was structured in 1597. London is the easiest place to describe it because of various statutes that applied to London. Most obviously of all, King Henry VIII had established the Royal College of Physicians. This had been a body which had not only governed London, but had an administrative remit for the practice and teaching of physic within a radius of seven miles of St Paul's Cross, which was the whole of what we would now call Greater London. How far this remit applied to Bristol, Norwich, York, and so on, became a matter of endless legal wrangling in the 17th Century, because it duly became what you might call a medical closed shop.

The physicians were the doctors who dealt with the inner workings of the body and they would be the ones who applied a variety of therapies which were broadly purgative in character. You would first of all diagnose which particular humour - black bile, phlegm or so on - was at the cause of this person's disease, and then you would try to shift it. You would do this by moving or coaxing it by bleeding, purging or powerful emetics etc. When you look at the general armamentarium of doctors of circa 1600, most medicines were effectively intended to move something inside you. It was a sort of sophisticated system of metaphysical and physical plumbing. The physicians were the ones who had the legal right to diagnose and to prescribe.

On the other hand, you had the surgeons. These also operated under a Charter of 1540 given by Henry VIII. However, this Charter clearly put surgeons as distinctly second class citizens to doctors. For instance, they did not have a Royal College at that date - that dates from 1800 - they had a Worshipful Company. They were grouped with the Dyers and the Salters and the other, traditional commercial trades of London and did not to have an academic foundation behind them. They were not to deal with the internal parts of the body. They were to deal with scabs, ulcers, with shaving if necessary, amputating limbs, dressing wounds, and things of this sort. On the other hand, it was often amongst the surgeons that you found some of the most extraordinary radical technical innovation, because 16th Century Europe was absolutely beset with war, and if you wanted to learn your trade as a surgeon, you did not stay in London. You went off and followed the Army or you enlisted with Drake or Frobisher or someone like that. In doing this you had access to lots and lots of badly injured men who were not going to complain, and you would learn a great deal. Surgery, by 1600, was light years ahead of where it had been in 1500 in terms of technical manipulation and understanding of the body.

Then you have what I suppose one would consider as the lowest branch of medicine, and these would be the apothecaries. These were the people who would 'compound drugs', as the phrase used to be. They were not supposed officially to prescribe, although when you have a situation where only a relatively small number of people could afford the services of a formally trained physician, the majority of people would go into an apothecary's shop, describe their aches and pains, and something would be given to them over the counter. This became another source of endless legal wrangling, as the College of Physicians tried constantly to restrict the apothecaries in prescribing.

These are the three branches of the profession as they would have been in 1597. They would also have been relatively ineffective in treating any major disease. The only people who would have had what you might call a radical capacity to cure were well-trained surgeons. For instance, the surgeon for with Sir Francis Drake wrote a major treatise on surgery, in particular how to deal with gangrenous limbs, how to amputate with new techniques, and so on, but this was a conservative business.

On the other hand though, when you look at the nature of care in London, there was only two hospitals in 1597. There was St Bartholomew's which was allegedly founded by Rahere in 1123; and there was Bedlam, or St Bartholomew's, both of course on the northern part of the City, dating from around 1200. These would be for every kind of illness at Bart's and for those referred to as 'the poor distracted' in Bethlehem or Bedlam. On the other hand, it would only have had a small capacity. For instance, Bedlam only had 25 beds until 1676, when Robert Hooke completely redesigned the hospital for the governors and provided facilities for 120. The idea through much of this period was not that the sick would go to hospital, but they would simply be treated at home. They would be treated by irregular practitioners if you could afford no one else at all, or if you could afford it, you would have a surgeon or a physician or, illegally, an apothecary to visit you at home.

On the other hand, we do have the vast and murky diaspora of what I suppose one would call irregular practitioners, people who were already by this time becoming to be called 'quacks.' This was, of course, largely because they have a great penchant for mercury-based drugs, and hence of course quicksilver, quack-salver, quack, becomes the linguistic derivation by which we often refer to them. I will be looking more at quacks next week, but in addition to the more overt, quack-ish, practitioners I want to say something to you about the use of astrology in medicine in 1597.

It was widely used, because we have to bear in mind that these people lived within a geocentric cosmos. This was a period when Copernicanism has had relatively little impact in the West, and really until Galileo, you do not have a lot of evidence that really suggests the Earth moves in space. Therefore, astrology makes sense in that world. If we have four humours in our bodies, and we are on the Earth, which is at the centre of a series of spheres, and all the planets of heaven go around us, describing the variety of complex geometrical configurations, then all of these things will beam in on us and affect our humours. So therefore, very often, if a perfectly reputable physician was making a diagnosis, he would often request of the patient of the hour at which you went to bed - in other words, when did the disease become intolerable, because that is the birth of your disease. In addition to looking at your humours and everything else, very frequently, he would calculate from this a prognosis of how you were likely to fare in the future.

I have done quite a lot of work on the popular almanacs of the period, which were replete with the astrological knowledge of that day, and perhaps the most famous of all of these medical astrologers was William Lilly. He was to become Chief Astrologer to Cromwell, and it was said that in the Civil Wars a positive prognosis from Lilly for the outcome of a battle was better than an extra six regiments of dragoons for the King. This gives you the idea of the sheer moral force that Lilly had the power to bring up. But Lilly was also a man who practised astrology extensively in medicine, although of course often on the fringes and never quite liked by the Royal College of Physicians.

I want to go on to say something about the illness patterns now, what actually people suffered from in England around 1597. But, first of all, I think it is important to just ask what size London was at that time. We do not have any exact returns, but people who have studied things like tax returns and so on from the period have led to the expectation that at around 1600, at the end of the Queen's life, there were probably 200,000 people living in what is now the City, in Westminster, Southwark and that area. By the time that you get to 1700, it has been estimated to around 600,000 - well over half a million. That is a substantial increase in people.

What you also have to bear in mind though is what the age structure of that was. One of the first people to ever study that was William Petty, one of the early Fellows of the Royal Society, a man who knew Gresham College very well indeed. In 1663 he produced a little tract which basically looked at the structure of population in London. It is not for nothing that Petty is considered the father of scientific demography. He studied the Bills of Mortality particularly, which had been started in 1603, in which every parish in the city had to do a weekly return of the number of people who had died and what they had died of (which, as you might be able to guess from what I have said so far, was often a bit of a guess). From this, Petty calculated that of every hundred children born in London sixty would be dead before they reached the age of five. Also, the average life expectancy of a Londoner was in their thirties. Then you come across figures like Robert Hooke, Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Isaac Newton - a number of the leading figures of the age - who got to decent ages between 68 for Hooke and 92 for Christopher Wren, but they were very much the tips of the demographic icebergs. One has not got to look very far, for instance flipping through John Aubrey's Brief Lives, that great collection of 17th Century lives, will simply tell you, so-and-so and so-and-so, great scholar, St John's Cambridge, Inns of Court, fought in the Civil War, died 42 - and it is very common, and of course not dying in battle, just simply dying. So most people did die much younger.

This would also have meant that London had a much younger average population than today. Alms houses were not the problem. The real problem is what to do with the apprentice gangs, the large number of unruly fourteen to sixteen year olds, and of course a much younger general population group. Of course, this affects disease patterns, because many diseases which of course we are particularly concerned with today - let us say cancer or heart disease - would not have been statistically that significant. Essentially, these are diseases of aging, in the broadest sense; they tend to be more effectively biting into people over forty than people over ten. In consequence therefore, it is not for nothing that when you look at disease patterns in London for this period, you tend to find a relative paucity of what you would consider as modern diseases.

One reason for that is a totally different explanation of what a disease was. For instance, the concept of a heart attack did not exist in the 17th Century. You might have a palsy, you might have an imposthume, you might have a man who was, let us say, 62 years old, very fond of food and drink, had a red nose and was often out of breath - he might have a spasm, which is what we would now call a heart attack. We can recognise these there in the right groups, but statistically, they are much, much smaller.

The case is similarly for cancer. You always find cancer on the Bills of Mortality, but generally speaking, these are confined to visible cancers. Indeed, breast cancer was the almost entire reference to this. Concepts such as internal cancers and definitely things like blood cancers were totally unknown within the purview of medical knowledge of the 17th Century.

Therefore of course, when you have a reference to what someone died of, you have to ask who gave the diagnosis. For instance, the people who had to give the diagnosis for the Bills of Mortality each week within the 109 parishes of the city were two old women and not a doctor. They had the title of Searchers of the Parish, the intention being that they would have been old enough to have seen a lot of disease in their time; so therefore, when they went to see a body lying on its bed or on a board in a house, and they asked a few general questions of the family such as whether they died of a great pain in the head or if they had died, very commonly in the case of children, of teeth, exactly what that means, and then you have other familiar diseases such as fever, a flux, or something of this sort. By today's standards this is all, clinically, spectacularly imprecise! These Searchers were looking for one illness particularly - plague - and if they saw the tokens of plague, the buboes of plague on a body, then of course that house had to be shut up and left for forty days and forty nights, usually with disastrous consequences for the inmates.

I would like to now say something about diseases coming and going at this period. For instance, without any medical interference whatsoever, one disease which had benighted a lot of medieval Europe had gone by the time of Elizabeth's time, and this is the disease of leprosy. We can chart leprosy's course throughout European culture in the Middle Ages, simply because of the number of leper houses or lazar houses that were built to accommodate the lepers. By 1550, these lazar houses were being given over to other things - schools, charities, general hospitals - because simply there are no lepers to go in them anymore. Exactly why this disease died out, we simply do not know. It dies out from England; it does not die out from Scandinavia; Scotland has a bit of leprosy too; but in fact, Bergen in Scandinavia had its last leper death in 1952. Why this peculiar change of this disease pattern happens, frankly, we do not know, but it had gone from England by 1600.

On the other hand, you have the appearance of the new disease of syphilis. This came in from the New World in around the 1490s, traditionally in the wake of Columbus' landfall in the Americas. Sixty years later its mode of transmission and its basic gross aetiology had been worked out by Giorlamo Fracastoro in Italy, and it was known to be a sexually transmitted disease. This was now beginning to ravish Europe, and one comes across numerous references to the generic use of pox, or syphilis, or of course the one that it was most commonly called in this country, the Morbum Gallicum, the French disease. When you look of course across Europe, syphilis is often given the name of the country you do not like - it is the 'Morbum Gallicum', the 'German disease', the 'Spanish disease', and various others. But it is fascinating to see where that disease came from and how it established itself in the English population by the middle of the 17th Century.

Then you have diseases which are episodic, and the most obvious of these is the great terror disease itself, Bubonic Plague. Bubonic Plague probably was known in biblical times. The second book of Samuel has an account of an illness, suffered first of all by the Philistines, and then by the Children of Israel, which some epidemiologists have suggested is Bubonic Plague. This of course is the famous series of wars between the Children of Israel and the Philistines, when the Ark of the Covenant is stolen by the Philistines and God strikes them down with buboes in their secret parts and there are rats and mice plaguing them as well. Whether this was plague, we do not know, but it certainly could well be.

We do know too that it was likely to be around in the late Roman world - the Plagues of Justinian have been suggested to be Bubonic Plague. But it comes and goes. But then in 1346, it appeared in Italy, out of the Byzantine world, and shot across Europe in a period of two years. It got to England in the early months of 1348, and it was in Scotland a few weeks later. The disease then took up residence. At first, it came about every two or three years, absolutely ravishing the population. Then it settled down to a much more what you might call congenial pattern, of a really bad epidemic about every 20 or 25 years.

The year in which Queen Elizabeth died, 1603, saw one of the worst ever epidemics on record. 1644, at the height of the Civil Wars, saw another; and then came 1665, the plague year of Samuel Pepys, when at least 68,000 people died. I say 'at least' because that is what the Searchers declared, and as many people had a very clear interest in not having their houses shut up, so they were very careful in many cases to cross palms with silver to have the disease put down to something else.

But then, after 1665, it went away and it never reappeared. And then of course, there has been endless speculation as to whether perhaps changes in the rat population or better nourishment may have been at the heart of the fact that it never came back. It was certainly in Egypt in 1798, because Napoleon Bonaparte's army encountered it, and it was also in other parts of the Middle East, but why it left Europe, we simply do not know.

Doctors of the day tended to have a strong historical sense, after all, if you had been educated on Greek philosophers, Greek doctors, and Arab doctors, such as Avicenna, you would have a strong historical perspective. So it was that they were aware of and were, frankly, baffled by these comings and goings of diseases and their episodic nature. This is one of the reasons of course why astrology often had a strong profile in medical explanation, because you could normally tie up these manifestations to things happening in the heavens.

I think this shows us something of the nature of the profession, the way in which the approach to medicine operated, but what I want now to look at is the way in which changes take place in the growth of what might broadly be called scientific medicine, which began to slowly appear in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

If you live in a world where you see the Ancients as lying at the heart of all truth, innovation becomes fundamentally unacceptable. Like Harvey found, if you start to innovate, you are doing something which is going against the wisest of the past. Why therefore did people begin to innovate in medicine? Also, why did they innovate in astronomy - people like Copernicus and Tycho Brahe and Galileo - and why did we have also this challenge to ancient learning? This is an issue that I believe many historians simply duck. They talk about the Renaissance or the New Learning and things of this sort, but what fascinates me as a historian is why things happen. Looking at a lot of the general scientific literature of the 16th and early 17th Century, there is one event which screams out with regular reference to the way in which they saw their world changing. This was the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492. Why this is so crucial is that it shows the ancient geographers had utterly and completely got it wrong.

We have to bear in mind of course nobody in 1492 believed the Earth was flat - this is only a piece of American history legend going back to Washington Irvine and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and tales of that sort. No educated person with three brain cells believed the Earth was flat in 1492. Ptolemy had shown it was a sphere and Aristotle and various others even made good guesses as to its size. The key thing of course was that all the ancients had worked on the assumption that it had actually more land on its surface than it had water, so effectively, the European and Asiatic landmass occupied a much bigger part of the Earth's surface. In their reckoning the entire sovereign part of the world, terra-incognito Australis, the Southern part of the globe, and the known oceans - the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian, and by legend, what bits of the Pacific there were around China and Japan - were simply small pieces of water. On the whole, water occupied about one-seventh of the Earth's total surface, this was believed. So, when Columbus discovered the Americas, and shortly afterwards, Magellan discovered and navigated the Pacific, it showed that Strabo and Ptolemy and various other ancient geographers have made fundamental errors.

There is another central feature that you have to bear in mind here as well. If you looked at the broader assumptions that lay at the heart of where the human race was going in the 16th Century, you have an essentially declinist approach to culture. You had, first of all, longevity in the days of the Old Testament patriarchs. After all, Methuselah lived to the age of 986 years, and in fact Thomas Paynell, a medical doctor and close friend of the court of Henry VIII, wrote a little book in 1518, where he commented on the fact of how puny modern man are: 'Not only are we not the size of the giants, do we not compare with Goliath or with King David, but we are just runts when it comes to longevity.' Clearly, the human race is running out, dying out, and conking out, broadly speaking. Why therefore did we discover things that the wisest men of the ancient world had not known?

In this respect I think the discovery of the Americas was a tremendous re-orientation of Western culture. They saw we could find things out that they never knew of, and not only did they find it out, they found it out by a particular method. They did not do it by collecting - I am speaking here of Columbus et al, Drake and so on - they didn't do it by philosophising; they did it by taking ships and finding places - they did it by physical discovery. It is very hard to reconcile this approach to physical discovery, with let us say the philosophy of Plato, which held that that essentially intellective knowledge, deductive, philosophical knowledge is of the highest kind (and it was in Plato, of course, that the neo-Platonists of the universities would have been trained). Now you have a pack of navigators finding continents and oceans not known. This I think therefore is a shot in the arm.

There is also a biblical parallel again which comes into this. Francis Bacon, in the introduction and on the title page of his Advancement of Learning of 1620 has a Latin quote from the Book of Job, which of course was extremely powerful within that culture. The English translation of this Latin quote says effectively, 'Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased. Before the end of the world, before God wraps up the world like a curtain, many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased.' Geographical discovery, scientific discovery, investigation of new things seem to fit that prediction beautiful. So the rise of their science, and the medical knowledge which they start to see as part of that science was not just simply discovery. It was seen as fulfilment of biblical prophesy; it was seen as the last new vigorous gasp of a dying human race before the world is wrapped up as a curtain; and of course we have to bear in mind that, to most people living in the Renaissance, they were not living into a new wonderful time of the birth of culture, but rather to what you might call the last act of the drama before the celestial curtain came down. So therefore we have to see this as taking part of what they thought of medicine.

At the same time, you also find Vesalius in Italy doing something never done before, certainly since the time of Galen, and this is the dissection of human bodies on a systematic scale. It is true that the Royal College of Physicians had been permitted bodies to lecture on in London - four criminals a year to lecture on to medical students in London. But of course you have to bear in mind that this kind of dissection, in let us say 1500, had been largely theatrical. You would have had a corpse placed up on a table, you would have had a professor on a high dais, reading from an appropriate passage of Galen or Hippocrates or so on, and you would then also have had a reader who would have assisted in the reading, and then down there, you would have had the corpse on its slab, a man with a knife, probably who did not understand the Greek or the Latin, who was told, 'Get the heart,' 'Now get the liver,' he would saw away and out it came, it would be put it on the platter and he would show it round. That is theatrical dissection.

What you start to find though with Vesalius is the idea of the painstaking taking to pieces of a corpse bit by bit, where the professor does not merely work on his dais; he closes the book, he comes down, and cuts up the body with his students. This starts a radical new approach to dissection. It also finds that ancient doctors have got a lot of key things wrong. For instance, the uterus does not have the structure that Galen said it did, the breastbone is not serrated in the way that Galen said it was, and the heart simply does not have the required plumbing facilities that Galen said it should have had. What of course too Vesalius, who was not only cutting up humans but cutting up virtually any creature he could lay his hands on, had realised was that what the ancients were doing was often dissecting apes, monkeys, pigs, cows, and creatures of this sort. In other words, the great inheritance of classical anatomy was a veterinary.

You can understand the shock force of the realisation that we, from this runt end of human history, have discovered structures in the human body that no one had ever known were there before. It is not for nothing that Padua in Northern Italy became the greatest centre of this radical dissection, and it is not for nothing of course that William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, was a student in that University from 1601 to 1603.

What you start to find therefore, with this new radical approach to knowledge, is the suggestion that new things can be found. In another dimension of course, Copernicus was suggesting that the Earth moves around the Sun, backed up very powerfully by Galileo's realisation in 1610 with the telescope that many of the things he saw - the moons of Jupiter, the craters on the Moon, the phases of Venus, and so on - fit much better with the Copernican heliocentric theory than they fit with the classical geocentric theory. So in other words, knowledge was in ferment and this is why we were starting to get new discoveries - not because people are just discontented with antiquity, but because, starting from the geographers onwards, you are finding that a new style of learning - empirical, hands-on, comparative, and in the astronomical sciences, mathematical studies - are bringing out truths never known before.

Undoubtedly the greatest of all of these discoveries in the period that we are concerned with is William Harvey of London. Harvey was born in 1578. He was a Kentishman, went to Gonville and Caius in Cambridge, and then went off to Padua. There he took a Doctorate in Medicine and learned the new radical techniques of dissection and the study of the human body.

On the other hand, people sometimes give the impression - and this is part of an approach to the history of science which I personally strongly find erroneous - that somehow all of these great scientific innovators were, on the one hand, radical, discontented and difficult men, and also, they were trying to prove the Church to be somehow wrong. This is a thing which simply fails to stand up to scrutiny. For instance, we find that so many of these discoveries were made by men who have no particular axe to grind. It is true that Galileo is an exception to this, but many others were remarkably conservative. They were also often deeply devout as well, as Galileo was as well. But what you start to find is that they were realising that, against all of their instincts, what they are finding in their respective profession - astronomy, medicine, or whatever - simply did not quite match up to what they had been told it should. This tended to mean that you also used the ancients creatively, and I think Harvey was an immensely conservative doctor who also used the ancients creatively to produce radical conclusions.

For instance, one of the central tenets of the medical writings of Aristotle is effectively that structure and function were connected; a body of any creature should not have a part that is overworked or under-worked. Why therefore, when you look at the function of the heart in classical Galen physiology, is the aorta overworked and vena cava under-worked? Harvey started to look at how you can rethink the body in terms of the heart, and I will quickly say here how he came to the conclusions of the circulation of the blood, here in London, just down the road.

He studied in Padua and learned the business of how to cut things to pieces with a number of leading Italian anatomists and dissecting anatomists. He had found that the Italian anatomists in the wake of Vesalius had been puzzled by one phenomenon: why in the great trunk veins of the body were there valves, unknown to the ancients, and why do these valves all open and close toward the heart?

According to classical medicine, the heart was a furnace that heated the blood, and it caused the blood to effervesce and froth. The lungs were seen as bellows that blew air, through the pulmonary artery and the pulmonary vein they thought, into the heart and frothed and bubbled it up, and this then caused it to sort of effervesce into the veins, where there was a tidal flux and reflux through the veins. This meant that you had something like that vena cava that was overworked, in and out, and others that were under-worked.

Harvey started to ask whether this could really be quite the situation. For instance, if all of the blood goes into the veins and goes down the body, why do all the veins have what he calls 'clacks' or 'mock gates', as in a pump, which close? He spoke of the mechanical analogies - the clacks of a pump that stops the reflux of water when you have done a pumping action. Why does the body clacks against the flow? Could it be that the blood is supposed to go up the vein rather than down it? He had a long way to go.

He then started to do another brilliant piece of experimentation, and although, he was a conservative doctor, Harvey was an instinctive experimentalist - he had picked that up in Italy. For instance, the idea was in classical medicine that your food produces your blood, pretty well directly, in the spleen and the liver. 'Why is it,' he then asked, 'if you measure a person's pulse and, in dissection, you determine the internal volume of the heart, and how much blood a systolic heart can hold, then multiply that by the number of beats per minute, why is it that in the course of about twenty minutes to half an hour, the person's entire body weight passes through their heart?' No glutton in Christendom eats his or her body weight in twenty minutes in food. Where therefore do you have what you might call the missing mass of the blood? This was another of his problems.

Then also, he started to do experiments on arms. I do not know how far this will be appropriate for Health & Safety at Work, but these were experiments you can simply do on yourselves or on your friends. If you have someone hold a staff or a pole, and someone put a moderately tight ligature around your arm, after a few minutes, you would see your principal veins in your arm starting to stand up as little nodules, and you would see that they were rather like strings of sausages and they have closed gaps between them. Harvey showed that you could push the blood up but you could never push it down, because when you pushed it down, as he said, the pump clacks, closed. This clearly indicated that the flow of blood was towards the heart.

The great problem was, what was the job of the arteries? The ancients had believed that the arteries contained a variety of things - generally speaking, numa, the life force - and this carried some kind of vague, gaseous, sometimes partially liquid, thing through the arteries. On the other hand, Harvey was aware of another thing, and this comes from Galen, and from military surgeons. Why is it that when you are dissecting a cadaver, especially one that has been dead perhaps for quite some time, you find no blood in most of the arteries, but why is it that when a man has an arm injury that it is the artery that spurts blood? Why therefore are the arteries engorged with blood in life and apparently empty of it in death? Do you therefore get the blood in the veins in death because they are trapped between the clacks up the limbs? The great problem facing Harvey though is how the blood gets from the arteries to the veins. He was able to trace increasingly reduced structures and membranes. The problem was he could not see a connection, and Harvey was a very good experimentalist and did not like postulating things he could not be sure of.

He recognised the weakness of his theory and he suggested that there could be connections on such a small level they could not be seen. This was put forth in one of the most important books in the entire history of medicine, De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Things, published in London in 1628. The book outlines, in detail, everything I have told you. It is an extraordinary piece of experimental physiology. Without it, modern medicine could not exist. Can you imagine any aspect of modern medicine requiring drips, hypodermic injections, experiments, which did not take, as a premise, that the blood circulated around the body, under the mechanical action of the heart? The heart, says Harvey, is not a furnace, but is a pump, and it is a pump which in its systolic and diastolic expansions and contractions makes the blood move through the body.

Harvey's work was utterly fundamental on influencing European thinkers. As I said, it did damage his practice, and a lot of his most fashionable clients will no longer come to him. But on the other hand, in Padua, Paris, Bologna, and all across Europe, people like Rene Descartes and Marcello Malphigi were taking up Harvey's work.

In 1663, Marcello Malphigi, using the newly devised microscope, saw for the first time the circulation taking place in the tail of a fish. Therefore, using the biological experimental analogy that what is happening in one creature can be applied to another, he gave the first proper microscopic determination of the circulation of the blood in living creatures. But by this time Harvey had been dead for five years.

What happened after this was that there was an explosion in fascination with experimental physiology, in England and across Europe. Harvey's work, as I said, was inspiration in a very important degree. That group of men who started to meet in Gresham College, around 1644, which called itself a philosophical club, and part of it migrated to Oxford in 1648 into my own College of Wadham, under the aegis of John Wilkins, the Warden, started to create two experimental centres in England. These centres look at all kinds of things - astronomy, gardening, animal culture, all sorts of things - but in 1660, they came to London at the Restoration, where they became the Royal Society (the Royal Society though, I may say, was always referred to euphemistically as Gresham College, simply because that is where it met). Of course I am sure most of you are familiar with its illustrious curator of experiments, Robert Hooke, who we celebrated last year, and he was one of the great experimental driving forces. But in that world of experimental science at Gresham and at Wadham, we find a number of key new approaches.

The first of these is the study of the physiology of respiration - what is air, what does it do in living creatures, and how does it bond? It was well known that your venus blood in your veins is darker than your arterial blood. Why? Traditionally it was said that this was because one had numa blown into it and the other did not. Boyle and Hooke, working with an air pump, were able to discover that there seems to be some property in air, which they called generically aerial nitra, which when it is in contact with blood, lightens its colour. They performed a series of experiments, and found that when he had a mouse or a candle burning in the same volume, an upturned vessel with a sealed bottom, that they both expired - the mouse died and the candle went out - when a certain volume of the air had gone. This suggested that the whole of the air was not necessarily used for respiration, only part of it; and it also asked the wider question - why is burning and breathing connected? Could it be perhaps that what causes a fire to burn in the air is also the thing that generates life and makes living bodies warm? Dead bodies of course do not breathe, hence they are not able to generate that kind of reaction.

Hooke went on to perform a series of, frankly, rather gruesome experiments, along with Richard Lowell and John King, where they performed experiments called the insufflation on dogs to try to determine the blood/air connection in the lungs. By 1667, the general books of the Royal Society contained a series of experiments where they were asking the question 'What does air do in the lungs? Does it actually invigorate the blood or does it simply cool the body down, as a sort of blast going into the mouth?' They come to the conclusion that not only did it cause a colour change in the blood, but also it seemed to have some kind of chemical bond. This is 1667, thirty odd years after Harvey. - The speed of experimental development was colossal.

Likewise also, Thomas Willis of Oxford, and later of London, Fellow of the Royal Society, started to do fundamental work on the nature of the human brain. He started to dissect brains in about 1658. He tells us how he came to this by a rather bizarre route. He says that his wife had died and, in his mourning, he had looked for intellectual distraction, and he says, 'I took myself upon the opening of heads,' which is hardly what most people would consider as a way of relieving mourning, but it provided him with tremendous intellectual impetus. He was dissecting one man who he seemed to have known in life and known something about the man's prior illness, and found that this man's left carotid artery was completely blocked by a massive and long-standing thrombosis. According to traditional medical belief from Aristotle and Galen, that man should have had half a brain dead, because it was thought that each carotid supplied the left and the right hemispheres respectively. Why therefore was he not dead?

He then tells us that he sent out his servant to find him a dog. This was a common practice, especially at Oxford - you would give your servant sixpence and he would come back with dog on a piece of string. You would then open the dog's neck, he ligatured its carotid, stitched it up again, and kept the dog around for a few weeks. He studied of course that clearly the creature did not seem disoriented, it ate its food, and absolutely witless cur as it was, he said it even licked his hand after all of this. It would not have done had it known what was coming to it!

After about a month, he killed it. He found that the ligature was holding and that the dog's carotid had withered away, but just as in the case of the man, the right carotid had swollen to thrice its normal size and seemed to be putting blood into a great circular vessel at the base of the brain, and from this circular vessel, the rest of the brain drew its blood nourishment. This is now of course immortalised the Circle of Willis. It was the first discovery that one part of the body can compensate for the loss of function of another part of the body, and again, it comes out of this experimental tradition.

The use of the microscope, the air pump, and a variety of experiments at this period all suggest that there was a tremendous new interest in taking the body to pieces, comparing it with animal bodies, and trying to conduct experiments in particular diseases. The establishment of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society became, and remains, a benchmark for articles on all forms of experimental knowledge. If one looks through the early volumes of Philosophical Transactions especially, you find articles on diseases, on monstrous births, as they call them, creatures that were born - a sheep born with six legs and things of this sort. This was at the time when the scientists are trying to define what was normal nature, and therefore how does unnormal nature compares to normal nature, and what you can do to a body. These would occasionally be extraordinary things, such as a story from Philosophical Transactions from the 1580s, of a rather foolish boy playing around with a knife who swallowed the knife down his gullet and could not get it out. Then, a few months later, the side of his stomach became very sore and it became a sort of festering sore and a local surgeon opened it, and lo and behold, he finds a sharp metal point beneath the sore. He then probes and widens the wound and extracts the knife from the lad's stomach wall, and apparently he survived. This is the type of thing that goes into Philosophical Transactions - it is the weird, the wonderful, and the scientific. They were trying to delimit what nature was.

This medical world, you may say, should have started to produce prodigious cures, but it did not. Over the course of the next two lectures, I am going to be looking at the way in which science began to progress in medicine, and so many aspects of illness came to be understood - anatomy, physiology, the classification of disease, and of course alternative practitioners and quacks.

But there were so many things that these people could not do: they could not control pain; they could not control infection; they had no proper understanding of trauma; and they were totally, utterly, and absolutely at sea when it came to understanding the vast plethora of fevers and infectious diseases that simply wiped out that population - smallpox, Phthisis, pulmonary consumption, typhus, typhoid, malaria, all of the rest of them. They could do nothing against these things. It would take a full two centuries of systematic, prodigious experimental research in London, across Europe, and in the burgeoning American colonies, and then the United States, while they started to accumulate this tremendous new body of medical knowledge. And it was not until the middle of the 19th Century that this body of knowledge had reached what you might call a critical mass, where you started to get real innovations in therapeutics emerging from it. I want to be looking, in my subsequent two lectures, on how this critical mass developed, and in my last lecture, the extraordinary fruits that experimental medicine produced in the late 19th Century.


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Dr Allan Chapman.

Once again, it’s a great honour and a great delight to speak here. The last time I spoke here, in the early part of this year, I spoke about medicine in London. Being a historian of science, I am now going to be looking at another area which I hope is topical certainly within the context of coffee house society, largely because this was born out of the very period of coffee shop society. At the time when coffee first started to be sold both in London and in Oxford in the late 1640s and created what the diarist and writer John Aubrey spoke of as “a convivial drink which men could drink [not mentioning women of course in those days] but men could drink all day and become delighted rather become inebriated and start fighting,” which is one of the ways in which coffee had such a fundamental role in the spurring of the intellectual life of Britain, especially in the period of the Royal Society, which just comes slightly after the period I’m talking about today.

Now, to talk of the Jacobean Space Programme may sound rather odd. Whilst we speak of Jacobean furniture, Jacobean art, and architecture and so on, flying to the moon 400 years ago seems palpably idiotic to most people. I’d like to say why this was being spoken of at the time. It also is part of a narrow window in European knowledge at a time when there had been already colossal discoveries made in geography, in optics, in astronomy, in anatomy, right across of the range of the sciences as they were understood at that time, but also too before even more discoveries had been made which simply showed that they were totally and utterly impossible. The period of the Jacobean Space Programme, circa 1630 to 1660/65, something like that, was a sort of honeymoon period in the history of science, when immense possibilities were expected and things had not yet started to go wrong.

What were the roots of this movement? The first and the most important I think is the realisation that the ancients had got one thing after another wrong. If you look at the scientific ideas of Medieval Europe, in places like Paris and Oxford and Montpelier, Bologna and so on, you have a profound reverence for the ancient scholars, particularly for Aristotle, for Ptolemy, Hippocrates and so on, the general belief being that the Ancients knew best. They were closest to the Creation, the human mind was fresher, we hadn’t degenerated, we weren’t approaching Armageddon, a natural Armageddon, hence of course they knew more, saw more, and understood more.

On the other hand, things started to happen in the 15 th Century, and started a cascade which changed this. I would say the most profound things that began this movement of re-evaluating the Ancients were the great geographical discoveries, and it’s not for nothing that the Reverend Dr John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham, and also Bishop of Chester, as he was in the latter part of his life, was so entranced by Magellan, by Drake, by Columbus, by all the great early navigators, the idea being that geography had not only opened up new vistas to human understanding, but had shown the Ancients to be wrong. If you look at Strabo or you look at Ptolemy or Tacitus or any of the other writers on the nature of the world in the Greek and Roman period, whilst it’s perfectly true they got the shape of the world right, yes – they all knew it was a sphere, it had been measured to about 8,000 miles in diameter, all of this was known, but where they were completely wrong was on the land, sea, continent, ocean distribution. The general belief was that there was far more land on the Earth’s surface than there was water, and that the big oceanic tracts of the Atlantic, the Indian, which were the only two really big oceans known in the ancient world, were little more than big lakes in a great terrestrial continental mass. The Portuguese navigator, Christopher Columbus, and then of course the great circumnavigation of Magellan show that there was more water on the Earth’s surface and there were vast land masses that the Ancients had never known of, particularly the Americas, literally from pole to pole, a vast slab of land that they had great difficulty getting through into the sea beyond it. Now, what all of this does is two things. It shows that the Ancients have really come up wrong on this one, haven’t they? What else might they have come up wrong on? And if we are what you might call the intellectual runts of the human litter, at the end of time and not long to go before Armageddon, why have we discovered all of these things that the wise men of antiquity never knew of? This is one important thing.

The other big thing is the method by which these new discoveries had been made. They had not been made in studies. They were not made by the ransacking of ancient texts. Nobody deduced the existence of Nova Scotia. These things were discovered by the very simple process of driving a ship into them. A ship is a form of scientific instrument. It takes you to places you couldn’t swim to, and it shows you things you couldn’t see if you weren’t on a ship. I think it’s one reason why not only the big voyages of discovery are so important, but why also the method whereby there were made, with literally hands-on technology, became so important. Geography by 1600 had more or less mapped the world pretty well in outline, barring the Australasian land mass, to what we know today, and it had been done utterly empirically. This is a very important thing.

Another key thing are the works of Galileo. Galileo’s telescopic work after 1610, his publication of Sidereus Nuncius, the Starry Messenger, in 1610, shows the universe to be a fundamentally different place to that which the Ancients had thought it to be. Galileo is pushing a very, very obviously Copernican agenda. He’s saying all of my ideas clearly show the Earth moves around the Sun. Well, he’s frankly being a little bit cheeky there. They didn’t strictly show that, but what all of his discoveries with the telescope did do was to come up with things which are fundamentally irreconcilable with Classical cosmology. These were some of them.

First of all, the Moon had been thought by the Ancients to be a tarnished, silvery ball. Galileo’s telescope showed it to be a continental place. It had mountains, land masses, what in the early days they called pits, what later we called craters, and what seemed to be possible places for habitation. Telescopes then, bear in mind, magnified 30, 40 times, and produced very, very badly abborated images, nowhere near as good as you’d get today, even with a high street telescope bought at a photographic shop, but nonetheless they took perception to a new level.

Jupiter, a bright star visible for most of the year, is shown through the telescope to be a world. It’s three dimensional, it’s a ball, and it’s slightly squashed at the poles. It also has four little moons going around it, and these in their own right fundamentally challenged classical astronomy, because classical astronomy said all things rotate around the Earth, because the Earth is in the centre of the universe. Jupiter’s four little moons, which Galileo called the Medician Stars, after the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, the House of Medici, who were his patrons, simply showed that the Earth was not the only centre of rotation in the universe.

Saturn was an absolute puzzler. Saturn had what they called ansi, which comes from the Greek word for handles of an anaphora. Why did Saturn sprout handles at the side? And why did these handles sometimes go away? Why was Saturn sometimes round, sometimes like a rugby ball, and on other occasions looked rather like a Mickey Mouse mask as they thought, where you had one ball with two big ears at the side of it? All of these appear in contemporary drawings. What they did not know at this stage is what Saturn had going around it, was what Christian Huygens discovered in 1655, as optical technology improved – notice, optical technology – a thin flat ring which nowhere touches the body of the planet, but which in the very early telescopes looked like rugby balls, blobs and things of this sort. But what was clear, Saturn was not a star. Saturn was a three-dimensional object. Venus also showed phases. There were spots on the Sun which, according to Aristotle, should have been blemishless. The sun had blobs on it and rotated in 28 days.

All of this showed that ancient astronomy was wrong. And how had all of these things been discovered? Again, just like the ship – organ pipes and cardboard tubes, with bits of glass in each end. Anybody could make one, anybody could try them out, and it’s remarkable how after 1610 telescope mania hits Europe. They were often called at first “perspective cylinders”, or, alluding to their original point of invention, “Dutch spyglasses”. And in fact a Welsh astronomer, a close friend of Thomas Harriott, who lived at Zion House just down the road and actually did have some involvement with early Gresham, pointed out that when looking at the Moon through his telescope, he was reminded of a book of Dutch sea charts, in other words, headlands, bays, the kind of topography you find in a book of Dutch sea charts. This is suggesting that the universe is probably geocentric – is probably heliocentric, going around the Sun, but more importantly, there are things in it which are solid worlds. This becomes important. If they are solid worlds and if we had still a very imperfect concept of their distances, the suggestion there could be people living on them. This becomes a central feature in one of the components of the Jacobean Space Programme. Why should there be people living on them?

One argument, plainly and simply, is theological. If God has made habitations, then he should certainly have made habitants to live in the habitations, so therefore they should be perhaps Jupiterians, Selenites, the generic name they always applied to Moon men from the Greek goddess Selene, perhaps Saturnians, Venusians. There could indeed be an inhabited universe. Christian Huygens and his brother Constantine, a few years later in the 1670s, exchange a remarkable letter, which is now published in the Complete Works of Huygens, and this letter says, from Constantine to Christian, “How many times have you and I, dear brother, sat at the eyepiece of a great telescope and wondered if people were looking at us?” The Huygens brothers even took it further: they said what is the defining characteristic of mankind? It’s intelligence, it’s an ability to think abstractly, and rather apropos of Conrad Lorenz in the 1950s, we’re toolmakers. Human beings make things. Why should we therefore assume that Saturnians or Moon men don’t make things? And what after all is a very, very high level of thing to make, once you’ve gone beyond your stone axe or something like that? Philosophical instruments. Do these chaps living up there have air pumps, barometers, thermometers, telescopes, ergo, are they looking at us?

Now, this is part of the much wider idea about a populated universe and whether we might actually have contacts with it. As a preliminary to the Jacobean Space Programme, think on the one hand of trying to replicate the great oceanic voyages into the air, and then after that, the idea that the telescope has shown places and hinted at peoples that are of a kind perhaps of ourselves. Very, very centrally, none of this comes from Aristotle or from Ptolemy or from the Classical philosophers. Also, it does have, along with the rest of the scientific movement which grows at this period, a sense of finality. We think of this as part and parcel of the European Renaissance, as part of Shakespeare’s plays or Talici’s anthems or Michelangelo’s work or things of this sort. We can think of this as the beginning of the modern world in which we live today. They didn’t think like that. They thought of these things as significators of the end. It was not for nothing, on the front page of the Novum Organum, Francis Bacon’s great treatise on the method by which one should do science, he shows not only a ship sailing out between two great Classical columns. Of course this is supposedly the new ship going beyond the ancient pillars of Hercules, the Straits of Gibraltar, that demarked the continental knowledge of the ancient world. Many people failed to read a little Latin text that goes underneath it.

That little Latin text is from the twelfth book of Daniel in the Old Testament, verse four, translated into English: “Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased.” This was part of Daniel’s prophecies for the coming of the end of the world, the visionary times of the end. “Many shall run to and fro,” the great geographical discoveries, and “knowledge shall be increased,” learn more and more and more. In other words, was all of the insight part of a sort of recapitulatory flash that God would give us before literally wrapping up the world like a carpet and hence the end? You have to think of their work not just as part of visionary science, it also has this wider agenda that runs with it, from history, from invention, and very strongly the notion too of sense knowledge - sense knowledge, our natural senses take us further than we can go by pure speculation.

Slightly later, 1665, Robert Hooke really hits the nail on the head. He invents the term “artificial organs”. We have five natural organic senses. Scientific instruments make these more acute and more precise, and hence science advances. Hooke says in 1665, “We have discovered more in the last 150 years since Columbus than the entire Ancients discovered together, and we have discovered this by making your senses more acute so that we can now see further.”

This is a rather long background to the Jacobean Space Programme, and one which I hope makes it sound not perhaps quite as crazy as it may seem at first, with the idea of men making what they called flying chariots to fly off into space. Where does the idea of the voyage to another world come from? We have to bear in mind, who were the first people to talk seriously of what you would call inter-planetary journey?

I suppose the one who wins is the Roman writer Lucan, who around 160AD wrote a work which was based upon a ship going to the Moon, literally a conventional Mediterranean galley caught up in a great storm, being lifted up into the air, and low and behold, it comes down on the Moon. The reason for this of course, it is not a book about science; it is not a book about the Moon. It’s political satire, it’s in the tradition of “let’s go from here to a fantasy land, compare the perfection of fantasy land with what we know on Earth”, and so on. Of course Lucan’s voyage is not really part of serious planetary exploration. But nonetheless, they’re aware of this idea. They also knew firmly by 1600 the distance of the Moon, about 240,000 miles, about a quarter of a million miles. They could establish this quite accurately by trigonometrical measurements made from the Earth, so they knew how far they had to go. Now of course that journey, compared to, let’s say, the two months necessary to get to the Americas, or the three years to circumnavigate the globe, has to be put into context.

The first person to write what I would call a serious book on flying to the Moon, in other words, one which contained an undoubted fantasy component, but built around the best scientific knowledge of the day, was none other than Johannes Kepler. In 1630, shortly before he died, he wrote a book called the “Somnium”, or “The Dream”. It was published a few years after his death, written, bearing in mind, by the greatest astronomer and the greatest planetary dynamicist before Newton, therefore it’s not going to be naïve. He talks of a young man whose mother happens to be, conveniently, a witch. He’d already studied with Tycho Brahe in Denmark, and there’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in the Somnium. The mother says to him: “You’re interested in the Moon. Would you like to go?” She arranges for him to go there by means of what you would call “demon power”. This is the first reference to what we would now call some kind of blast-off. In fact, she says that he needs to be put to sleep because the violent shaking of his ascent would probably be alarming. He has to make the journey during a total eclipse, because in space, the Sun’s life would be utterly blinding, ergo you would have to travel in the shadow of an eclipse, and of course have a number of friendly demons to bring you back again.

Then a few years later too, the great French comic writer, and he was genuinely really a man, Cyrano de Bergerac produces his “Comical History”. He flies to the Moon in his “Comical History” with a novel mode of propulsion – May dew. Why on earth do you have dew falling at night in spring, and it vanishes as soon as the Sun’s come up? Because the Sun clearly sucks it into the sky. He therefore says he gets up early one morning, fills a number of little glass bottles with May dew, fastens them to his coat, faces east, and whoosh, up into the sky he goes! Not terribly scientific.

There’s also William Godwin, who later became Bishop of Hereford, because in the title page of his book “A Man in the Moon”, 1638, which simply has on the title page “WG, B of H”, someone has written, in a 17 th Century hand, William Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, so we know who he was. This is another piece of fiction. It’s about a Spanish adventurer, a sort of down-at-heel model of a celestial Don Quixote. He’s called Domingo Gonzales. Domingo Gonzales, having failed to make his fortune in the Americas, is coming home to Spain, and he’s shipwrecked off an island. He wonders how he can get back home, and what he does is notice that certain large birds, which he calls ganzas, come and go to and from the island. He trains these ganzas with the intention of putting them into some kind of frame, like animals before a chariot, and hence pulling him back to Spain. Works perfectly well, up he goes, marvellous ascent, but then it keeps rising and rising and rising, and we have now, for the first time I think in world literature, the ascent of an astronaut from the Earth. He mentions that the island then became surrounded by sea, then he could see the Caribbean and the Americas, and he went higher and higher, and then remarkably, he mentions that when he gets to a certain height, he can see the stars although the Sun is still shining - quite extraordinarily prescient for a story written in 1638. While this is happening is, unknown to him, the ganzas migrate to the Moon. So they take him to the Moon, he meets the king of the Moon – of course you always meet the king of the Moon, you never meet the charlady of the Moon, always the king of the Moon – and of course he comes home and tells of his adventure.

Now, these are purely works of fiction. Nobody is claiming that these are scientific books. Kepler, it’s true, was writing in the best knowledge of his day. But what this does is to have a profound influence on a number of figures, one of whom is the Reverend Dr John Wilkins.

Wilkins is born in 1614, near Northampton. He comes from a family of goldsmiths and also clergy. He’s sent to Oxford as a young man. He goes to Magdalene Hall. After this, he becomes ordained, and this is the period just before the outbreak of the English Civil War. He becomes Chaplain to Lord Privy Seal, who’s one of the great political movers and shakers of the 1630s. Hence, right from the word go, both through Oxford and through his political connections, he’s right in the heart of the London establishment. At this time, he becomes especially fascinated with cultivating an interest that goes back to childhood, and this would be what would be simply called natural philosophy, the old word for science. He’d read Galileo in the Latin, he knew Kepler’s works, and he becomes fascinated by the power of the new science. One figure he had devoured as a young man and continued to revere was none other than Lord Francis Bacon, who of course I mentioned before, the author of the “Novum Organum”, the greatest apostle of experimental science who had died in 1626 and whose books formed what you might call the mother’s milk to the English experimental community.

Throw in Bacon’s experimentation with all of these other factors, the fictional literature, the voyages of discovery, the telescopic discoveries, and this is the genesis of the Jacobean Space Programme. Now, Wilkins produces a book, in 1638 when he’s only 24, and this book is called “A Discovery of a New Planet”. It’s the first book really to popularise Galileo’s ideas in English. It’s true that some of Galileo’s works were already available in English translation, but these were learned works, and what Wilkins produces in his Discovery is a book, intended for the lay reader, the kind of person who is not a scientist but has an active interest in these things and probably does not read Latin – very, very importantly. He takes you through all of the basic arguments, about the size of the universe, the fact that Jupiter is a world, that the Moon is a world, and all the rest of it. Then, in what he calls Proposition 14, or Chapter 14, the large chunk at the end of the book, he talks about “whether it be possible to fly unto that world by means of flying chariots”, some kind of mechanical conveyance. He also speculates as to the existence of the Selenites and with that kind of combination of ingenuity, promotion of learning and good business, which has always been a hallmark of the City of London, he adds the rider “and can we have commerce with them?” In other words, can we trade with the Selenites in the way that we trade with people in India, or the Americas? Can we trade, literally, with the Moon, have commerce? The word “commerce” in the 17 th Century had a wider meaning than today. It didn’t just mean business trading, it also meant connection, understanding, but very, very clearly, there’s the idea of having commercial relations with the Selenites. He has to admit he can’t be sure that the Selenites exist: They should do, but nobody’s seen them, but after all, it’s probably a fairly good bet that they’re there.

Now, how do you start flying? Well, Wilkins first of all draws heavily on the writings of Dr William Gilbert for this early idea of going to the Moon. William Gilbert had been physician to Queen Elizabeth I, and as Queen Elizabeth I was an extraordinarily healthy woman who did not trust doctors, her medical advisor didn’t have a lot to do. So Dr Gilbert had a lot of spare time on his hands, and from about 1570 onwards, he started to perform experiments on magnets. These would be bar magnets, iron magnets. He discovered a lot of the things which would nowadays be sort of pre-GCSE Physics: you take a bar magnet, you put a piece of paper on it, sprinkle on iron filings, flick the paper, and low and behold, all the lines will appear. He said you can do the same with a spherical magnet, which he called a terrella, a little Earth, and he assumed the Earth to be a magnet, with a north and a south pole, and what he called “lines of force radiating between these places”.

One of the crucial problems at this early period is that the connection between magnetism and gravity was frankly confused. Both were known to be invisible things which acted as what they called “at a distance”. In other words, A would affect B without any visual connection going between them, therefore gravity and magnetism seemed to be connected. Wilkins also takes up one of the ideas of Gilbert, that any terrella, or any magnet, has a limited field around it, so that if, let’s say, you hold a compass two feet from a magnetised cannonball, it often won’t even affect the needle. Bring it closer and closer and then suddenly the needle will flick over.

What Wilkins suggests is that the Earth probably has a magnetic or a pole field that is limited into space. He therefore conducts a number of experiments, and seems to collect material from others, from things like triangulating the heights of clouds, which he works on the assumption that they are the flimsiest things known in nature and hence can probably fly the highest, and comes to the conclusion that the Earth’s magnetic field must stop definitely at 20 miles. Ergo, if we can rise 20 miles, we should be able to push off into space. This is one of the central tenets of his thinking, born of good solid observational work. The fact that, in 1638, he didn’t know that magnetism and gravity weren’t the same, frankly, you can’t blame him for.

He then talks about how you get off the ground and how you get up 20 miles. He has a number of suggestions, and part of the honeymoon sense of the exhilaration of this period is that Wilkins is of the opinion that we’re almost flying already. You look at literature, certainly look at modern literature, and people are just literally leaping into the air and going two furlongs and things of this sort. He mentions, for instance, even a century earlier, the great Viennese astronomer Regio Montanus who allegedly had made an iron fly, powered by clockwork, that flew out of the city of Nuremburg, greeted the Holy Roman Emperor, and flew back again, rather like a sort of model aircraft. What this thing was we don’t know, but certainly iron flies weren’t flying around in 1500. Nonetheless, it’s part of what he adds to the general argument.

He says too that people think that flying is absurd, but frankly, there are lots and lots of things that we take for normal in life which would seem absurd. Horse riding, for instance. He says: “Horses are great big strong strapping beasts. Who would ever from a cold start assume that you could tame them so you could sit on their back and run at great speeds on them? ”Tightrope walkers and circus performers are another: “It would seem absurd that a man could walk or dance upon a wire, but they clearly can. Why can’t we fly?” Now this is part of his ingenious optimism. All of these things seem impossible from a cold start, but they’re here – why not flying?

He then starts to throw in examples of proven flying. For instance, we’re told, from legendary tradition from the Acts of the Apostles, that in Rome, Simon Megus had challenged St Paul to a flying competition, to fly from the Avantine Hill to the Capitoline Hill, and that when Simon Megus almost won, a bolt from heaven knocked him out of the sky. The key thing is of course he was flying. And then there was a monk living at the Abbey at Canterbury just before the Norman Invasion, about 1062, and this is well recorded, this is in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, who flew from the top of what was then the old pre-14 th Century cathedral at Canterbury, and flew two furlongs in a winged device. It’s true he broke his legs, but two furlongs wasn’t bad going! Wilkins mentions too that he knew men who were making machines and studying flapping wings and so on, and the image that comes over is you only need to get maybe 10 or 20 gentlemen, who will throw in 20 guineas apiece, appoint a good blacksmith, a good ingenious mechanic, give him some drawings, and before long we’ll have a workable machine going. The key thing was how do you power it?

Wilkins has his own fascination with mechanism. Springs were the new wonder technology of the 17 th Century. Not only clocks, which were already familiar since the Middle Ages, but much more importantly, automata – little model vehicles that moved on by themselves, like clockwork cars on the floor, things driven even by the wind, little men that walked. There was a tremendous rage for clockwork automata in the late 16 th, early 17 th Century, and it seemed that once you had enough power torque in a spring, then you could release it through that other wonderful thing, a gear train. What they did not know is that gear trains suffered from inertial resistance, and Wilkins worked on the rather blasé assumption that you can perhaps have several million to one upstaging from a simple spring which can then, let’s say, flap the wings of a flying machine.

All of these things go together to produce his marvellous image of some kind of ship-like vehicle, his flying chariot, based upon the load carriers of the oceans, but containing a powerful spring, a clockwork gear train, and a set of wings. He points out that you have to have wings that are covered with feathers from the right kinds of birds! Hens are no use. Hens don’t fly. You want the feathers of high flyers, swans, geese, birds of that kind. “Those kinds of feathers have a natural affinity,” he argues “for the high air,” and you also probably make a machine that takes off on what we would think of today as a fairly low take-off plane, rather like a 747 or something of this sort. He points out that when you look at large birds taking to the air, swans and things of this sort from the water, they always do it from a low angle. It’s very, very much work for them, but the higher and higher they get, the easier and easier it becomes, until finally they’re hardly moving their wings at all. This is because, he says, they’re now releasing themselves from the natural pull of the Earth.

This basically is his model of his flying machine. You may say though, as he was fully well aware too, if you’re going to have a journey to the Moon that will last months, what are you going to eat on the way? What are you going to breath? Well, food he dismisses fairly conveniently. He says eating is a degenerate habit, we don’t really need it, and he cites, as he always does with that extraordinary compendium of scholarship that he has at his fingertips, people who lived long periods without eating. He mentions for instance, good Protestant as he was, of a man whom the Popes had in the custody in Castel St Angelo in Rome who lived for 40 years on mere air! And there was also the case of a German peasant, who allegedly at a village feast, at harvest, fell asleep with his pint mug under a hayrick, was completely forgotten about, and 6 months later when they were removing the hayrick, they found him still lying there, snoring away happily with his pint pot, and none the worse for not having eaten for six months. So Wilkins can always draw these cases out of the air, but of course he has a real reason why we can survive in space. Quite simply, in space, there will be no pull on our digestive organs. We get hungry because gravity or magnetism or whatever you want to call it is constantly irritating our insides and making it necessary to fill them up with food. Once that has stopped, you won’t feel hungry.

What about the obvious choking effects that one can experience at great altitudes? Mountaineers and people of course were climbing mountains in those days. Does this mean that the air gets unbreathable in space? He suggests that this is not a problem at all. This is simply because human lungs are not accustomed to the pure air breathed by angels, and once we have become accustomed to this pure air of the angels, we’ll be able to breathe it. Effectively, therefore, he argues that what all of this will lead to is that with a bit of discipline, a good bit of investment and some ingenuity, we will be able to get up there 20 miles and on to the Moon.

He develops the ideas of the flying chariot in three books – the first and second edition of his journey to the moon, or his Journey to a New Planet, as he calls it, 1638 and 1640, and then, 10 years later, the year in which he becomes Warden of Wadham College, he then publishes Mathematical Magic, an immensely influential book, a book which influenced many others, including Robert Hooke, and many people who were to be of the next generation of scientists, the men of the early Royal Society. Mathematical Magic is subtitled, The Wonders of Applied Mechanical Geometry, and this is about flying chariots, wind cars, guns that will have multiple shots, ingenious devices all over the place. It shows the immense sense of optimism of what they thought technology could do, including a wonderful section on how you could use the wind from a mere puff of a man’s breath to uproot an oak tree with an enormous gear train, the idea being that you don’t need much of a spring to have enough gears to make the thing fly. Wilkins therefore had tremendous influence in his time.

One of the key things which does not happen is that he never becomes a man on the Moon. We do know that he experimented with these things in Oxford and almost certainly in London, where before becoming Warden, he was part of the original Gresham group out of which the Royal Society came, so he would have known Gresham College in Bishopsgate Street like the back of this hand. He was friend of people like Lawrence Rook, the professor of geometry, and then, a generation later, when his own pupil, Robert Hooke, became professor at Gresham, he would have known him there as well. So he’s moving in these very, very well connected and ingenious circles, but he never gets to the Moon. But what he is doing in the 1640s and 50s is very influential.

We have to bear in mind that the backdrop to this whole movement is the English Civil War and the Cromwellian period. Wilkins was one of those consummate diplomats, a man who really found a way of getting on with most people, in what were called by John Aubrey “these troublesome times”. He marries Oliver Cromwell’s sister. He then starts to develop very close connections with Cromwell himself, and at the time of the Cromwellian Interregnum, and when Cromwell dies in 1658, John Wilkins is a member of the Council of State, trying to advise Richard Cromwell about the governance of England. He’s already of course Warden of Wadham in Oxford, and in the last eight months of the protectorate, he becomes Master of Trinity Cambridge. So there he is an immensely influential figure.

Don’t at all think of Wilkins as some crackpot who had rather wonderful ideas about flying to the Moon. Here is a man at the centre of the establishment of mid-17 th Century England, ecclesiastical, intellectual, scientific, but in spite of all of these connections with the Cromwellian government, he was certainly no Puritan, and frankly disliked Puritanism. As Warden of Wadham he made the College what was called by Anthony Wood “a haven”, a haven for young men who would normally be banned by the Protestants, or more correctly, the Puritan universities. It included people, for instance, like the young Christopher Wren, later Sir Christopher Wren, son after all of the Dean of Windsor and nephew of the Bishop of Ely. His father had been Chaplain to King Charles I. You can’t get much more Royalist than that, but Christopher Wren becomes one of Wilkins’ boys. Wilkins also takes up Robert Hooke in the same way. Seth Ward, Thomas Willis, and a whole variety of figures, start to form his private club of friends, what they came to call the Oxford Philosophical Club, the word “philosophical” in those days being used for what we would now call scientific, to pursue experimental knowledge.

Now, all of this is happening, flying to the Moon, experimental science, cultivating a wide variety of people across the spectrum, and also helping to govern England, especially towards the end of Oliver’s reign. And then in 1660 the Restoration comes and King Charles II is on the throne. This group of men, two groups who had met both at Gresham and at Oxford, now apply to the King for an official position of state. The King of course is broke but very well intended. He gives them the Royal Society Charter, the name the Royal Society, the Society’s ceremonial mace, and various other ceremonial articles, which of course are precious to the Society today, but no money. The key thing is that all of these men now move to London. They leave Oxford and they start to re-meet in Gresham College London.

On the other hand, what happens to somebody who’s married to Oliver Cromwell’s sister? Well, with that extraordinary ingenuity of Wilkins, he gets appointed to a couple of very, very good City livings. He is of course an Anglican at heart. He’d never liked the Puritan movement, although he worked very easily with the more moderate Puritans. He then becomes Dean of Ripon, very quickly, and in 1668, Bishop of Chester. Any man who can be Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law and die an Anglican Bishop was a diplomat, whether he thought of going to the Moon or not!

What about the abandonment of the Jacobean Space Programme? Well, the group of friends whom Wilkins assembled around him, mainly in Oxford and at the meetings at Gresham, start very quickly zooming ahead on his original ideas. Boyle and Hooke, with the early work on the vacuum, come to discover by 1660 that space is probably a vacuum. Piccard in France takes an early barometer up the Pyrenees, and finds that not only does he become progressively out of breath, but two other things happen. The mercury in his barometer sinks and sinks and sinks and sinks, and it becomes easier and easier to boil a kettle, suggesting therefore that there’s less pressure up there. Generally, by 1665, space was now known to be a vacuum, and you couldn’t fly through it. Likewise Wilkins came to realise, with the growth of knowledge of clockwork and mechanics by the 1660s, that you would never have a spring strong enough to make a machine lift off the ground to go any distance.

On the other hand, you may say, where does the gunpowder come in? (I mentioned gunpowder in the title of this lecture.) They never thought of using gunpowder as a form of propulsion, but they were suggesting it as a sort of primitive internal combustion engine. If you had a very powerful canon with some kind of plunger, rather like a piston, perhaps you could use the explosion of a canon to tension an immensely strong spring, hence you could use an explosion to generate the mechanical energy for the springs.

Finally, although Wilkins realised, certainly by the time he became Bishop of Chester in 1668, that you would never fly to the Moon the whole perspective of scientific knowledge had changed beyond recognition in the intervening 30 years. He nonetheless was aware that perhaps these machines would be useful for terrestrial travel. For instance, why not have a machine that could fly up for 20 miles, get outside the Earth’s pull, switch the wings off, and wait for the Earth to turn around you? And so if you were flying to, let’s say, Boston from England, you just simply fly down to the latitude of Boston, somewhere over France, hang there in space, wait until Boston had become below you, and go straight down. He suggests this as a mode of travel around the world. After all, China in ten hours, you simply can’t beat that! The fertility of this man’s imagination is incredible.

If you look at the portrait of Dr John Wilkins which hangs in the Senior Common Room in Wadham College, Oxford, I think the geniality of his face comes over, and one can understand how he was a figure who won friends very, very easily.

Wadham College, Oxford at the time looked very much like 17 th century Gresham College. It had a walled Medieval gatehouse, the great enclosed place, where you have the front gate– of course in Gresham’s case it was Bishopsgate Street – and all of the staircases, chapel, dining places within the great quadrangle. It was probably in ornamental gardens. You couldn’t try out spaceships there, but we do know that there was a sort of home farm, and it was probably in the fields of the home farm. We know this happened because in 1674 Robert Hooke has an entry in his diary, that he was attending a meeting at the Royal Society where one Dr Croon, a famous anatomist, was giving a lecture on birds and how they fly, and he says: “I did say to Dr Croon that Dr Wilkins and I did make flying machines in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, 20 years ago, circa 1654.”

A mid-16 th century engraving shows the use of water power, and part of this sense of the wonder of mechanical force. It depicts a stream, and a number of little sluices, each one powering wheels, the idea being, that a wheel, through a crank, makes the hammer go up and down and hence you can use it for forging metal. It was part of a much wider culture of the sheer fascination with mechanical technology.

Another wood-cut, 1620, shows an Oxfordshire-peculiar stunt called the Flying Ship of Lamborne, where something of an entrepreneur had the idea of a pair of ropes up Lamborne Church tower, where a small model ship, big enough for him to sit in, was being pulled up and down, and the very idea of the image of a ship literally going into the air, I think, has an enormous power in the Flying Ship of Lamborne.

Another picture shows one of Wilkins’ devices about the powers of spring.

There is a man blowing into something rather like a child’s windmill. All of the gears rotate, and out of the ground, comes the oak tree – a puff of breath pulls an oak tree out of the ground. Of course it doesn’t really follow the laws of dynamics as we understand them nowadays! Put a clockwork motor up there, put a pair of wings down here, and you’re up 20 miles.

Wilkins was always bringing in ingenious inventions he knew of in reality. There was a wind ship a rather dangerous looking contraption which shot across Holland at something touching 30 miles an hour. Now being in this device at 30 miles an hour with a good headwind from the North Sea behind you must have been hair-raising to say the least! But his idea is something that can perhaps do that and then go up into the air as well.

Another of Wilkins’ suggestions is a wind car – with a rotary vane and a differential axle on the back wheel, and you now have a wind car which can drive in any direction because the vane will rotate irrespective of the wind’s direction.

I hope I’ve given you some idea of one of the extraordinarily fruitful periods in not only British but European scientific history. One of the great things about this movement is the flash quality about it. By that, I don’t mean flash as cheap, but rather suddenness, the fact that all things which seemed to be coming together by about 1630, but which by 1660 were obviously recognised to be technologically impossible. But I do think that the Jacobean Space Programme warrants at least some recognition in a wider understanding of the history of science, and all of these men were connected in one way or another with Gresham College in Bishopsgate Street.