The communication of science by popular books 1700-1760

Michael Honeybone

The Open University

In 1705 Queen Anne knighted Isaac Newton, thereby officially acknowledging his work as significant. In the following half-century Newtonian science, the mechanical explanation of universal cosmology based on Newton's mathematical description of the attractive force of gravity, became accepted as valid. I wish to propose that one important explanation of the phenomenon of this acceptance can be derived from a study of popular books of the time. The new science was based on mathematical skills which can be usefully divided into two. Firstly, basic skills in arithmetic and geometry were widely taught in texts such as Cocker's Arithmetick which reached its fifty-sixth edition in 1767. Secondly, Newton's calculus and the new mathematics of probability were spread by popularisers such as Thomas Simpson (1710-1761) in his A New Treatise of Fluxions (five editions 1737- 1823) and A Treatise of Algebra (ten editions 1745-1826).

These texts informed the mathematical teaching of eighteenth-century schoolmasters; even more widespread were the monthly and annual publications which contained quantities of both mathematical and scientific material. The Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions were reprinted and abridged continuously after 1699. There were magazines devoted to mathematics, such as Francis Holliday's Miscellana Curiosa Mathematica (1749-1753) and George Witchell and Thomas Moss's Mathematical Magazine (1761). The most popular of all journals were the monthly Gentleman's Magazine (1731 onwards) and its competitor the London Magazine. These journals had huge circulations, Edward Cave's Gentleman's Magazine selling 15,000 copies by the early 1740s. There were also annual publications, notably the Ladies Diary (1704) onwards), edited by Thomas Sompson between 1752 and 1760, and Gentleman's Diary or the Mathematical Repository edited by the Nottingham writing-master and surveyor Thomas Feat (1708-1780). All of these publications contained complex mathematical queries, problems and explanations or detailed discussions of natural philosophy.

Another widespread publication was the popular almanac. Poor Robin, edited by Thomas Feat, sold 11,000 copies in 1761. All almanacs contained information on astronomy, tide time-tables, chronology and eclipses, and some, such as Andrews' Great News from the Stars (1726) contained accounts of Newtonian science. Some, such as Francis Moore's Vox Stellarum (1726) contained advertisements for that widespread phenomenon of the eighteenth century, the science and mathematical lecture course. These almanacs only survive by chance and their print duality is poor, but they were available at very low prices, ranging from 1d to 6d; Francis Moore's almanac sold the phenomenal figure of 107,000 copies in 1768.

More respectable were the numerous science books published by subscription, again often in large numbers. As a result of the work of Ruth and Peter Wallis, we know that 95 scientific texts were published in this way between 1673 and 1750. Some were very popular. Henry Pemberton's View of Sir Isaac Newton's (1728) had 2,179 subscribers, 2% of whom were women. Thomas Rutherforth's Newtonian book System of Natural (1748) had 1,053 subscribers and in the same year Colin Maclaurin's Account of Sir Isaac Newton Philosophical Discoveries listed 1,227 subscribers who ordered 1,436 copies. Another very successful text re-published by subscription was Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (London 1728) and Dublin(1740), to which 510 people subscribed.

It is difficult to quantify who bought these books and I am studying traces of East Midland gentlemen's libraries to locate copies or references to them. One popular text, surprisingly was the Abbe Pluche's Spectacle de la Nature (published in the 1730s) which is to be found in its English translation as Nature Displayed or Nature Delineated; its science is Newtonian but its chief attraction might have been its engravings. Certainly there were copies in collections as diverse as the library of the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir and in John Heath's Nottingham circulating library in 1751 which drew attention to its 100 "curious copperplates". Lord Tyrconnel at Belton House purchased Nature Displayed in 1740 to sit alongside his other books of natural philosophy, notably Maria Sybella Merian's exquisitely illustrated Insectes de Surinam (1726) an illustrated reprint of Hooke's Micrographia Restaurata (1745) and a fine volume with engravings of Ray's edition of Willoughby's Ornithology (1678) also purchased in 1740. These texts were becoming part of gentlemen's libraries because of their illustrations: Lord Tyrconnel's librarian lists Merian's volume as "avec figures tries bien illuminees". Stephen Hales' text Vegetable Staticks (l727), a seminal work applying Newtonian experimental method to plant physiology, was extensively illustrated, as indeed was Newton's own Opticks.

This art of engraving was developed also to create a new market, popular books of science for children. Thomas Boreman's Description of Three Hundred (1730) went into twelve editions before the original copperplate engravings of beasts, birds, fishes, serpents and insects wore out and had to be replaced for the thirteenth edition in 1786. John Newbery began to publish books in 1746 with The Art of Arithmetic made familiar and easy to every Capacity. In 1761 he published The Newtonian System of Philosophy 'adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies' by Tom Telescope A..M., with pages 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches in size.

A final explanation for the popularity of these books of science and mathematics lies in the burgeoning expansion of new professions, notably that of excise officer. Between 1714 and 1755 there were nine editions of William Edgar's A Complete View of....Customs...The Manner of Computing...demonstrated. As the excise became a major source of government revenue in the eighteenth century, so it required more and more officers who had mastered the complex mathematical skills recluired to gauge the contents of barrels, casks and crates of all shapes and sizes. Charles Leadbetter (1691-1744) dedicated his Royal Gauger: or Gauging made Easy (1739) to officers of excise and brewers. Excise officers were examined in their mathematical skills before they were appointed to rides, as their rounds were called. Ruth and Peter Wallis list 23 excise officers writing mathematical books in the period 1700-1760. It was the impetus to mathematical study which arose from the necessity for the excise and also from the enormous increase in land surveying which partly account for the widespread learning of mathematics, taught across the country , and beginning in the new charity schools which flourished nationally in the first half of the century.

Without this mathematical expertise, understanding of Newtonian science could only be at a surface level. The innumerable popular mathematical publications offer evidence for deeper understanding. Add to this the attractions of prints illustrating observation and experiment, and the essentials of Newtonian science are readily available to the reading public by 1760.

Table of Contents - Joint Meeting between the Textbook Colloquium and The British Society for the History of Science held on January 10th 1998 at Leeds University.


© 1998