John Wilkins

Mathematical Magick (1648)

John Wilkins' Mathematical magick
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  Wadham’s 6th Warden, who held office 1648-59, and whose group of friends, the Oxford “Philosophical [Scientific] Club” from which the Royal Society was largely founded in 1660, was a distinguished pioneer of popular scientific education. He was certainly prominent in the business of taking the latest scientific ideas and presenting them, with illustrations, for English language readers. As a Baconian, he had a deeply progressive useful idea of scientific knowledge which he saw not only as demonstrating the Glory of God, but also of transforming and improving the human condition, by invention and applied ingenuity. John Wilkins’ portrait, by Mary Beale, hangs in Wadham College Hall, and another in the Royal Society. In both, he wears the full lawn sleeves of the Bishop of Chester, to which dignity he was elevated in 1668.

The sciences to which Wilkins was most attracted were astronomy, physics, and mechanics. Two of his very popular English textbooks are on display.

Published in the same year that Wilkins became Warden of Wadham, Mathematical Magick is a book of technological wonders, which explores the ways in which mechanical ingenuity either already was, or could, transform the human condition. The word “mathematical” in the title denotes that the wonders are about predictable, calculable, physical forces, while “Magick” means something inspiring and breath-taking, but not occult or mysterious. For here we have completely rational wonders.

Inspired by the great voyages of geographical discovery, by Columbus, Magellan, Drake, and others, Wilkins, like Sir Francis Bacon, was fascinated by the way in which mechanical ingenuity and inventions had already transformed European culture: with great ocean-going ships, guns, clocks, windmills, printing, engraving, oil painting, automata, the drainage of the Dutch polder, the magnetic compass and the astronomical telescope. And in his treatment of “Mechanical motions” the operational and practical sometimes coalesced with the visionary, as he discussed things as diverse as windmill-drives for a steerable road “car” with a back axel transmission system, an already-operational wind ship on wheels that thundered across the flat lands of Holland at 20 miles an hour, and onto complex futuristic geared devices whereby a man might uproot a great oak tree with a single puff of breath! The “art of flying” exerted a powerful hold on Wilkins’ imagination, as he saw the production of a viable flying machine, or even a “flying chariot” space vehicle in which one might fly to the moon, as not too far in the future.

Wilkins saw mechanical inventions of all sorts as making life safer, more predictable and less back-breaking. What is more, applied science and technology could also be spiritually redemptive, as man’s good curiosity helped alleviate the burden of grinding toil to which humanity had been condemned at the Fall.

Domestic gadgets also appealed to Wilkins – indeed, as did all labour-saving devices – and the copy of Mathematical Magick on display is open to the illustration of a hot-air turbine, used to turn a spit over a kitchen fire. A vane (or to us, a turbine fan) is built into the narrow throat of the chimney, and is connected by pinion gears and pulleys to the spit. As the fire gets hotter, the meat rotates faster, to ensure we have roasting all around.

I would suggest that this is one of the earliest examples of what we would nowadays call a “smart” invention, or something which responded automatically to changing environmental conditions, independent of human interference.

John Wilkins’ ideas had a remarkable impact on his contemporary and later generations. These included inspiring the early Royal Society, being attacked by more conservative thinkers, and even parodied. But Wilkins’ influence in shaping the experimental brilliance and ingenuity of the young Robert Hooke is beyond dispute.
Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Allan Chapman